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Coronavirus Highlights Differences Between American and Japanese Wrestling Culture for Tama Tonga

More than distance distinguishes the wrestling scene in Japan from its America counterpart.

Stateside, WWE and All Elite Wrestling are still performing amid the pandemic. Conversely, New Japan Pro Wrestling has shut down all live shows but is continuing to pay its talent and staff. Tama Tonga, a founding member of Bullet Club and one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s top stars, expanded upon the difference in culture apparent in New Japan’s approach during the coronavirus compared to that of WWE and AEW.

“There is a different sense of unity in Japan,” explained Tonga, who grew up in America and is a veteran of the United States Air Force, but has spent the majority of his pro wrestling career in Japan. “Here in America, the show must go on. Money needs to come in, so the wrestlers are still wrestling. New Japan stopped holding shows. That’s not just for the safety of the fans, but it’s also for the health of the wrestlers.”

Realism and the fighting spirit are the ethos of Japanese wrestling, while North American wrestling is synonymous with the pageantry of WrestleMania. The business models also differ. WWE cut a significant portion of its talent and staff in April, despite turning a profit in the quarter of its fiscal year. While both are profitable, Tonga explained that the New Japan structure is also designed to protect its talent.

“It’s a different culture in Japan, a lot different from ‘the show must go on’ mindset,” said Tonga. “The majority of our income comes from live shows, which has been cut out, but the company has held onto the staff and reassured us that no one will be let go. The company is more of a family in Japan.”

New Japan star Hiroshi Tanahashi met with the Japanese Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hiroshi Hase, who is a former NJPW talent, to discuss the best procedures for pro wrestling during the pandemic. In a display of unity not typically seen in the American pro wrestling landscape, the meeting also included representatives from Japanese wrestling promotions STARDOM, Pro Wrestling NOAH, All Japan Pro Wrestling, DDT Pro Wrestling, World Woman Pro Wrestling Diana and Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling, and presented an opportunity for the wrestlers to request coronavirus testing kits as well as compensation for lost pay.

“New Japan does its best to look out for the entire wrestling scene in Japan,” said Tonga. “Even Tanahashi going in front of government, that may surprise people in wrestling, but it doesn’t surprise us. He really is our leader. You can see that unity in our roster, too. Our guys go from young to old. This isn’t a factory of young guys that get chopped up and spit out. The mindset around wrestling is different in Japan.”

Known for his athleticism and compelling matches, in addition to some of the most intense, biting promos in all of wrestling, Tonga is one of the industry’s most passionate voices. But he is also one of its most intelligent, and he will have a new platform to showcase that knowledge with the creation of the Tama’s Island podcast.

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A new edition of Tama’s Island will drop every Monday, with the premiere on May 4. Tonga will partner with co-host Ross Berman, a New Japan expert intimately familiar with the company’s storylines both past and present. In a crowded field of wrestling podcasts, this has the potential to stand out because it will provide a look behind the New Japan curtain.

Monday’s premiere will take an in-depth look into the creation of Bullet Club in 2013, which will include a special guest in “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson.

“You’re going to hear how it all started from our viewpoint,” said Tonga, who is a Bullet Club original as well as a star of the Guerrillas of Destiny tag team with his brother Tanga Loa. “Behind the scenes, on the bus, in the restaurants—how the name came to be, which names were thrown around, and the ideas we tried that never got to the ring. This is a deep dive into the creation.

“And what better guy to kick it off with than the O.G. Karl Anderson? I was close with Karl before Bullet Club. We were the only foreigners, there were only four of us in Japan—it was Prince Devitt, Fale, Karl Anderson and myself. We all spoke English and hung out together all the time. Our booker saw how tight our bond was, and that’s how Bullet Club really became a thing.”

There is a corresponding Patreon page for Tama’s Island, which includes features like ad-free shows, videos, and a weekly Zoom session every Friday.

“It all started with the Beach Party that was scheduled in April, which was canceled,” said Tonga. “We were doing refunds, and a lot of fans were so generous that they donated their money to us. I was so grateful and thankful, we got everybody on a Zoom call so I could thank them. We got on the call, we chatted for like an hour, an hour and a half, just shooting the s---. That’s how this all started. We want to turn it into a weekly thing.”

“So this is a virtual block party. It will keep you sane during the pandemic, and you’re going to learn a lot about New Japan Pro Wrestling.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.