How NJPW Plans to Move Forward as Japan Eases Coronavirus Lockdown

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As Japan moves forward with an evolving set of COVID-19 guidelines, it will soon be possible for New Japan Pro Wrestling to make its return.

Japan lifted its COVID state of emergency last week and the nation is beginning to resume aspects of normal life, including sports—the Nippon Professional Baseball league is set to open its season in empty stadiums beginning on June 19. Sports Illustrated connected with Takaaki Kidani for more information on the future of Japan’s most powerful pro wrestling entity.

Kidani is the founder of Bushiroad, which owns New Japan and Stardom, and is a member of its board of directors. Unlike WWE and AEW, New Japan chose to suspend live operations, opting not to proceed with empty arena shows. Kidani addressed the immediate future when he was asked what it will take for wrestling to return to New Japan.

“Put simply, either an end to the pandemic, or alternatively establishing a strict and proper set of procedures for dealing with the virus,” said Kidani, whose interview was translated from Japanese. “Which we will ensure is implemented for the safety of our staff, performers and fans.

“When it comes to decisions that have to be made regarding empty arena matches, or bringing fans back to buildings, it’s absolutely New Japan Pro Wrestling’s responsibility to assume a position of leadership. I think that events with fans in attendance in the near future is challenging, [but] New Japan Pro Wrestling is considering empty arena matches at present.”

As one of the most prominent wrestling organizations in the world, much focus will be directed upon New Japan’s plan to resume operations. So far, NJPW has set a positive example, avoiding mass layoffs and continuing to pay talent despite show cancellations.

“It’s only right that New Japan Pro Wrestling should protect their fans and wrestlers as best they can, so cancellations were the natural decision to make,” said Kidani. “As for wrestler pay, we want every wrestler to be in the absolute best shape that they can be when matches return, and wrestlers should be able to focus on their training without worrying about how they’re making a living.”

For wrestling fans unfamiliar with Kidani, he founded a trading card game company, Bushiroad, in May 2007, which acquired New Japan five years later. He resigned from his position as president in October 2017, and now oversees the digital content and promotion division in his position on the board.

Kidani was among those that met with Hiroshi Hase, a former New Japan wrestler who is now Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, in April to discuss the future of pro wrestling in Japan. That meeting also included New Japan star Hiroshi Tanahashi, as well as representatives from all of the top promotions in Japan, and the wrestlers used that opportunity to request testing kits and compensation for lost pay.

“I felt that this could be an opportunity for the Japanese professional wrestling industry to be able to organize together and present a united front,” said Kidani. “In times of crisis such as these, that solidarity is very important.”

Wrestling is not an industry known for its solidarity, but in the spirit of multiple promotions sending representatives to meet with Hase, the next question presented to Kidani was whether an all-star event with wrestlers from promotions across Japan will take place once wrestling returns.

“The possibility is certainly there,” he answered.

New Japan creative is at a standstill until wrestling resumes. That includes Tetsuya Naito’s trendsetting run as both IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, AEW champ Jon Moxley’s future with the United States belt, and whether viewers will see an altered or modified G1 Climax.

New Japan President Harold Meij previously stated that shows will eventually resume in Japan and at the company’s dojo in Los Angeles, as worldwide expansion remains a major goal. Kidani touched on the modern framework needed to expand in the current climate.

“I think that New Japan Pro Wrestling’s approach overseas will be centered around reaching an audience remotely,” said Kidani. “Delivering content online rather than direct means in the short-term.”

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