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5 Yrs Ago: Zavisa - Women's scene in Japan overhauled

Sep 29, 2002 - 3:41:00 PM
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The following is a reprint of Chris Zavisa's Torch Newsletter column on the changes in the Japanese women's wrestling scene from five years ago this week.

-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor

* * *

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Chris Zavisa, Torch columnist
Column: Women's scene in Japan overhauled
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #460
Cover dated: October 4, 1997


I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for the lack of better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit."
- Michael Douglas's character in the 1987 film "Wallstreet."

"Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king. and a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything."
- Bruce Springsteen from the 1978 song "Badlands."

June 29, 1968 four brothers officially kicked off their new enterprise hoping for fame and fortune. The Matsunaga Brothers - Takashi, Kenji, Kunimatsu, and Toshikuni - had been through several years of attempting to push women's wrestling in Japan through several organizations, all of which eventually failed. They had a younger sister, Reiko Yoshiba, who was a star with the defunct groups so they decided the time who ripe to go off on their own and build around their own family members.

They named the fledgling start-up All Japan Women's Professional Wrestling and set up business in Kamiosake district of Tokyo. Over the next three decades they would become the preeminent women's group in the world and reap significant financial rewards. They would become famous and rich and their business acumen would be hailed across the land. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of the entertainment business cycle, they would rebuild several times and almost always end up stronger and richer than before. Their success made them Japan's longest running wrestling promotion even predating the much more famous All Japan Professional Wrestling and New Japan Professional Wrestling groups.

In 1993 the Matsunaga Brothers celebrated 25 successful years of business with a one year long anniversary celebration that was in the midst of their best run yet. Over the following three years the group may have presented the best wrestling found anywhere in the world. The pinnacle of this success was achieved Nov. 20, 1994 when 42,500 people purchased high-priced tickets for their now famous Tokyo Dome show. Next year, 1998, would be their 30th year in business, with another celebration expected to come. That party, though, may never be held.

Ten years ago Japan was the envy of the financial world. They went from losing World War II to becoming the number two economic nation in the world in just four decades. And that was despite their relatively tiny size and small population. For much of the 1980s Japan rode a wave of financial prosperity that seemed to promise fortune for anyone with the capital and good sense to invest in the money machine. Real estate sometimes doubled and tripled in value in a single year. Land in Tokyo became the most valuable in the world. Japan was producing millionaires like Mitsubishi made electronics.

Much of the capital that underwrote the expansion of Japanese productive capacity in the late 1980s was made possible through a process of asset inflation in the securities, banking, and property markets that the Japanese have labeled "the bubble economy." This bubble was created through a combination of extremely low interest rates, a weakened government role in financial regulation, a rising Tokyo stock market, and rapid increases in property values. This bubble allowed Japanese businesses to raise capital for expansion on the most favorable of terms. It encourages investment and borrowing almost to the extreme. The value of the yen was among the strongest currencies found anywhere in the world. The Nikkei stock market average rose to a record high of 40,000 in late 1989.

Much has changed for the worse in the Japanese economic climate over the past five years. By 1992 the Japanese economy was in full blown recession. The Nikkei average fell to 16,000 by 1992, a loss of over 150 percent of its value. The yen no longer outpaces the U.S. dollar and lost its universal appeal as the preferred currency. Many of the businessmen who became speculators during the bubble period now were left with a mountain of debt that they found difficult, sometimes impossible, to pay off. Among this group were our friends for AJW, the Matsunaga Brothers.

That Matsunaga's main business was AJW. With profits at record levels in the early 1990s, they attempted to get in on the bubble. Unknown to them at the time, the bubble had expanded to its widest point and was about to burst. Much of the Japanese entertainment business operates in an underground or secondary economy that does not have access to the main banks with their generous terms and favorable interest rates. A lien on a women's wrestling company is not considered much collateral in most premier banking institutions.

When the Matsunaga's wanted to raise money to invest in a string of ramen noodle shops and karioke bars, they had to go to secondary markets and pay higher than normal interest rates. The only restaurant they had ever operated was the small one in their headquarters near the Meguro train station in Tokyo. While they may be pure geniuses at running a wrestling promotion, they proved a good deal less than that in the food business, which soon went bust. The venture proved to be a double loss as the money from what should have been a very profitable AJW stint from 1991-1995 was poured into funding the ramen business.

By early 1997 the Matsunaga brothers faced a situation unique to their business experience. Their main business - AJW - was beginning to slide for reasons well documented here and in other places for some time now. Basically, many of their top stars were leaving either for retirement or employment elsewhere. The stars who remained were aging well beyond their usual retirement age. And they had failed to rebuild the promotion by producing a new generation of future stars. Their other investments had failed miserably, leaving them with a mountain of debt at high interest rates. As winter turned to spring in Japan, the Matsunaga's stopped issuing paychecks to their employees. After four months of payless paydays, the first of the AJW regulars - Toshiyo Yamada - left on July 13. At the time it was thought she was leaving to work for her childhood idol, Chigusa Nagayo and her GAEA promotion. Now we know there were other reasons as well. Yamada proved to be only the first of fourteen wrestler defections. The others who joined her since Aug. 20 are Aja Kong, Kyoko Inoue, Yoshiko Tamura, Genki Misae (Watanbe), Tanny Mouse (Taniyama), Yumi Fukawa, Rie Tamada, Mariko Yoshida, Etsuko Mita, Mima Shimoda, Saya Endo, Chaparita Asari, and Yuka Shina.

When Kyoko announcered her intentions to leave, she held their WWWA singles world title. When Mita and Shimoda announced their departure, they held the WWWA Tag Titles.

If all that were not enough, they have also lost referee Daichi Murayama and ring announcer Yoshitada Okita. The front office genius who created the highly profitable interpromotional feuds of the last six years, Rosi Ogawa, is rumored to be attempting to get Perfect TV to finance a new women's group with him at the helm.

The only name wrestlers who remain are Manami Toyota, Yumiko Hotta, Takako Inoue, Kauro Ito, Tomoko Watanabe, and Kumiko Maekawa. Four youngsters also remain - Miyuki Fujii, Miho Wakizawa, Nanae Takahashi, and Momoe Nakanishi. It is believed that the defections have stopped and that core group will be staying. Yumiko Hotta, current holder of the WWWA World Title said, "I don't want to quit the promotion." Toyota went even further. "I am proud of having grown in this promotion and so I'll stay here until AJW goes bankrupt," she said.

According to reports, the Matsunaga Brothers planned to sell the building that houses the AJW offices and dojo and use the money from the sale as operating capital to stay in business. The four story building is a combination office, training facility, restaurant, and dorm. It would fetch a significant price for its location. Unfortunately, it now appears that even if the building were to sell for millions, it would not help the AJW promotion with so much as a single yen. Rosi Ogawa recently revealed the building is owned by someone close to the Matsunaga Brothers, but not the brothers themselves.

One source estimates their debt to be in excess of $20 million. Others say it is only half of that. Even if it is "only" ten million, the monthly interest on such a sum is significant in and of itself. Their one major asset, Manami Toyota, is one that cannot be sold. Their network deal with Fuji TV appears to be in jeopardy and many speculate openly that it will soon be impossible to stage shows with their skeleton crew.

It is now reasonable to debate which is the number one women's group in Japan. Excluding AJW there are four others - JWP, LLPW, GAEA, and JD Yoshimoto. GAEA seems to have the best young talent and has some of the veterans who are willing to work for them until they are ready for stardom. They also have Chigusa Nagao, perhaps the biggest name women's wrestler in Japan. On the other hand, JWP has a ten year track record, with some big names and hot young talent of its own. LLPW and JD aren't at the level of the others.

The JD promotion run by Jaguar Yokota never really caught fire and can stage only the smallest of shows at tiny venues which generate minuscule gates. But those who write off JD are making a serious mistake. Each of the four groups are basically owned by an individual or small family group. They are akin to the neighborhood mom and pop party store. As such, they are subject to fall apart when serious financial calamity strikes as it has done with AJW.

JD is owned by a group out of Osaka which is a giant in the field of comedy and nightclubs. If, and that is the biggest word in any language, the Yoshimoto company were to decide to challenge for the top spot, they are the only women's group that has outside financial resources to do it. There is a tremendous amount of talent currently available to any group who can afford to make the deals. While JWP, GAEA, and LLPW may be able to book former AJW talent on special shows, none has shown any ability or inclination to sign them as regulars. If any of these promotions could sign a core group, say Kyoko Inoue, Asari, Mita, and Shimoda, they would instantly have doubled their marketable talent pool. JD is the only group with ties to the money to make it possible.

And then there is what remains of AJW. As long as they have Manami Toyota, still the unchallenged best woman wrestler in the world, and a network deal with FUJI TV, they cannot be counted out. Although they have never been reduced to such a lowly position in the last 20 years, they have rebuilt before and struggled to the top time and time again. Were they to lose either of those two components, the promotion's survival would be highly doubtful.

Over the years, George Miller's "Road Warrior" films have inspired more than enough wrestlers, costumes, and gimmicks. The latest of the Mel Gibson series also produced a line which could become the epitaph for the Matsunaga Brothers and AJW. In 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," sultry Tina Turner brags about the fall from power of Mel Gibson: "One day cock of the walk, next day a feather duster."


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