After more than a year with no cases linked to the company, New Japan Pro Wrestling experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in its roster this weekend, with nine wrestlers testing positive for the coronavirus. These cases come while Japan is under a state of emergency because of a nationwide surge in COVID-19 diagnoses, and at a time when NJPW was supposed to be gearing up for a series of major events.
While details about which members of the New Japan roster contracted the coronavirus and how they did so are currently unknown to the public, this article should give you all the non-invasive details about this current rash of cases, the evolving measures NJPW has taken since February 2020 against COVID-19, and what this outbreak and the conditions in which it took place could mean for New Japan’s near future.
The first wave: emergency, cancelations, and responsibility
Japan reported its first COVID-19 case in mid-January 2020 and became one of the first countries besides China to grapple with the spread of the novel coronavirus, with early controversy surrounding its handling of a large outbreak on a Diamond Princess cruise ship. The Japanese government’s response to the first wave of outbreaks eventually escalated to the point of declaring a state of emergency. The state of emergency (now more accurately, the first state of emergency) began on April 7, 2020, and was initially put in place for a month, then extended on April 16 for an indefinite period of time. It began to be lifted in some areas in May, and by May 25, it was lifted nationwide.
By this time, the narrative about Japan was that the country was a coronavirus success story. It hadn’t dealt with the virus as thoroughly as some other countries, but it had one of the lowest death rates per capita in the “developed” world. If you read an analysis piece written more recently about the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan, this period is now presented more like a “rise” in a “rise and fall” story.
In the Japanese pro wrestling scene, New Japan Pro Wrestling was one of the earliest and strongest responders to the virus. While most companies spent the spring of 2020 running no-fans or restricted-fans events, the nation’s largest wrestling promotion started outright canceling events.
On February 26, in response to “recommendations… by the Japanese Ministry of Health,” NJPW canceled its events for the first half of March, including its anniversary show (with the highly anticipated, champion vs. champion main event of Tetsuya Naito vs. Hiromu Takahashi) and the first half of the annual New Japan Cup. A few weeks later, “acting under the recommendations laid out by a specialist government task force meeting on Tuesday, March 10,” NJPW canceled events through March 21, the remainder of the New Japan Cup. Meanwhile, rather than broadcast no-fans shows, New Japan started airing a series of no-audience and/or Zoom talk shows on its streaming service, NJPW World, called the NJPW Together Project.
After the state of emergency was declared in April, New Japan officially canceled events through Wrestling Dontaku on May 4. Soon after that, they canceled the entire Best of the Super Juniors (BOSJ) tour—shows between May 12 and June 6—but started hinting that a comeback was in the cards. The postponement of the planned Wrestle Dynasty event at Madison Square Garden on August 22, was soon to follow – and the event still hasn’t been rescheduled, for obvious reasons.
“Corporate social responsibility”
When they canceled BOSJ, NJPW referenced that they were considering running no-fans shows in the future, a statement on their website including: “We will make announcements about events scheduled after June 6 upon careful monitoring of this developing situation. We will soon announce refund procedures for the affected events. NJPW is continuing to explore the possibility of presenting matches without fans in attendance if staff and wrestler health and safety can be protected to the highest possible standard.”
In a video released on May 13, then-company president Harold Meij explained why NJPW had foregone running empty-venue shows despite most of the industry—in Japan and elsewhere—doing otherwise. His three main reasons were:
- to protect the health and safety of wrestlers and staff
- restricted ability to use venues
- “NJPW’s corporate social responsibility”
Also contributing to NJPW’s responsible image at this time were comments in an interview with Tama Tonga and a report in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that NJPW had committed to continuing to pay staff as usual and to not laying people off during the pandemic—a statement that still holds true today, to public knowledge.
NJPW returns—with precautions and PDFs
On June 9, after the end of the state of emergency, New Japan held a press conference to announce their return. Their new schedule would begin on June 15, over three months since their last show, with an altered version of the previously postponed New Japan Cup. Junior heavyweights and trainees took the spots of talent who couldn’t enter the country because of travel restrictions, and most of the tournament would take place with no live audience. The July 11 New Japan Cup final (now remembered for Bullet Club Evil?! Bullet Club Dick Togo????) would be NJPW’s first event since February with fans in attendance, with the venue filled to one-third normal capacity.
Before New Japan restarted shows, they also released a comprehensive summary of their COVID-19 safety protocols, available on their website as a six-page PDF called “Policies & Countermeasures regarding COVID-19 for wrestling events (first edition.)” It contains the company’s coronavirus safety protocols for wrestlers, other staff, and fans. To date, this is still probably the most comprehensively a wrestling company has shared their pandemic health guidelines.
Protocols for wrestlers described in the document range from the general statement “wrestlers will stay mindful of reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 through actions at an event, in training, and in everyday life” to requirements that they take their temperatures and log them after waking up and before going to bed and record who they come in physical contact with “when taking unavoidable actions which could be a risk of infection.” Company precautions for wrestler safety include having dressing rooms “zoned to keep a certain distance between wrestlers, or if this is not possible, entry time will be scheduled and restricted” and catering provided “in individually packed containers (NJPW will not use ‘buffet’ style catering.)”
Restrictions for fans, much more noticeable to people watching these shows from home, include wearing a mask, sanitizing hands at the venue, not lingering in the venue after shows, keeping a distance between filled seats, “no loud cheers,” and “no intentional physical contact with wrestlers” (both of those last rules have been noticeably broken a few times). When the U.S.-based program NJPW Strong began later that summer, pandemic safety protocols were mentioned by NJPW workers in interviews but weren’t released as clearly as those for events in Japan.
Close calls and card changes
Of course, all the well-thought-out PDF bullet points in the world mean nothing if they aren’t abided by. It looked like fans were largely abiding by the rules at shows, but the general public doesn’t know how NJPW wrestlers and staff have been living their lives in private and couldn’t see into the backstage area or onto the tour bus. And it remained to be seen whether or not New Japan would actually test and quarantine wrestlers as fast as they said they would when that could hurt them financially (at least, in the short term).
Relatively soon after New Japan’s hiatus ended, the company showed that they were willing to make last-minute changes to events because of COVID risks. On July 11, they announced they were pulling Minoru Suzuki from an event because he had developed a fever, and on July 25, Yota Tsuji and Tomoaki Honma were taken off a card because someone they had filmed a TV show with recently had tested positive for COVID-19. NJPW’s most drastic coronavirus-induced change until May 2021 came on August 13, when the company canceled a house show on short notice because a wrestler (whose name wasn’t shared) had a fever. These moves didn’t impact major shows or title matches, but they showed a certain amount of dedication to safety standards.
Despite a few close calls, when NJPW started promoting Wrestle Kingdom 15 (January 4-5, 2021), they could celebrate a year with no coronavirus cases traced to their events, an accomplishment not shared by most other wrestling companies, in Japan and elsewhere. However, NJPW (and Japan, and the world) wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Wrestle Kingdom 15 was always going to have pandemic-induced restrictions, but a surge in cases in Japan in the fall and winter of 2020 led to more restrictions on event capacity, which led to Wrestle Kingdom ticket sales ending early. With some leaders in Japan pushing for a second state of emergency at the time, there was some speculation about whether NJPW would be able to hold their annual Tokyo Dome show at all (or hold it while trying to maintain that corporately responsible image), but the state of emergency wasn’t declared until a few days after the event that crowned Kota Ibushi double champion.
Wrestling during the second and third states of emergency
As Japan’s 2021 kicked off with another state of emergency (initially declared for a month starting January 8, then extended in most prefectures through March 7) and restrictions on events, but unlike during state of emergency #1, New Japan didn’t go on hiatus. Neither NJPW nor other wrestling promotions stopped selling tickets to shows, and New Japan continued to tour heavily, with a schedule you’d expect from them during a regular year. The abnormalities in their schedule for the first half of 2021 were actually going bigger than usual, with the new Wrestle Grand Slam tour scheduled for May including two stadium shows, one in Yokohama and the other NJPW’s first Tokyo Dome show outside of January in over a decade. However, before NJPW had the chance to try and knock it out of the park with these events, the company’s pandemic luck ran out.
By May 2021, Japan was no longer being framed as a coronavirus success story. The spring saw another surge in cases, this one paired with a slow start to vaccinating the country, lockdown fatigue, passing 10,000 deaths from the virus, and the looming specter of the Olympics. There are currently fears about the Olympics becoming a superspreader event, and recent polls found the majority of Japanese people think the Games should be canceled. Meanwhile, Japan kicked off a third state of emergency in late April and recently extended it to the end of May.
These developments and restrictions have led wrestling companies like those under the CyberFight umbrella to once again put on events without in-venue spectators, while NJPW, even before its COVID-19 outbreak, again started canceling events. The first to go were the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam shows in Tokyo, scheduled for May 8-11. However, the month’s big shows were initially going to remain, along with a travel-intensive schedule.
The escalation of an outbreak
As the coronavirus situation worsened throughout Japan, NJPW spent most of April on the road. After April 4’s Sakura Genesis event in Tokyo, NJPW began the three-week (April 10-May 4) Wrestling Dontaku tour, with 18 shows in different cities around the country. The last night of this tour was when things fell apart.
The first night of Wrestling Dontaku on May 3 went off without a hitch, but the following night faced last-minute, major card changes. Ahead of the show, the company said that two wrestlers had developed fevers, and as a result, six wrestlers who had wrestled a trios match together the night before (Sho, Yoh, Kazuchika Okada, Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru) were removed from the card. This meant the show lost its semi-main event, a match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship between Yoh and Desperado. (Looking back at how the show played out, it also probably lost a post-main-event confrontation between Okada and Will Ospreay, who were set to headline the Tokyo Dome at the end of May.)
Unlike with previous pandemic card changes, the wrestlers didn’t turn out to just have high temperatures. The day after the event, NJPW revealed that two wrestlers had tested positive for COVID-19, in the first publicly-known positive cases linked to the company. On May 7, NJPW announced that both Wrestle Grand Slam events were postponed, stating “On Friday, May 7, the Japanese government announced an extension to the state of emergency currently in place in Tokyo and other prefectures. In light of this announcement, as well as current COVID-19 infection status, and in order to prevent any potential further spread of the virus, New Japan Pro-Wrestling has arrived at the decision to postpone the Wrestle Grand Slam events in Yokohama Stadium and the Tokyo Dome previously scheduled for May 15 and 29 respectively.” This meant that NJPW wouldn’t have another show until at least June.
That wasn’t the end of the bad news. On May 9, New Japan revealed that after the two wrestlers contracted coronavirus, “all those who had close contact with the infected parties, in addition to every wrestler on the roster, received PCR tests, with a further seven wrestlers testing positive.” According to NJPW, “all those who tested positive are experiencing mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.” But no matter the severity of the symptoms, this is still one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in a pro wrestling roster.
What next? Does anyone know?
When announcing the additional seven COVID cases, NJPW reiterated the safety measures they were taking, but this outbreak was a reminder of how inherently unsafe it is to run wrestling shows—or anything with sports, dance, or a lot of physical contact—during this pandemic with unvaccinated participants. The risk was almost certainly raised by NJPW touring and touring for so long, with so many shows in quick succession around the country, with wrestlers far from living in a bubble. Additionally, there’s the personal responsibility factor; the general public doesn’t know what members of the NJPW roster may have been doing in their downtime that could have put themselves and those they come in contact with at risk of infection.
This outbreak makes what was already an uncertain near-future for NJPW more volatile. Nine infected wrestlers makes a big dent in the roster that New Japan currently has access to in Japan, which is between 40-45 people. Even in a best-case scenario in which all the infected wrestlers recover in about two weeks without any long-term health complications, they’ll still have to get back into ring shape. It also remains to be seen what the conditions and restrictions in Japan will be like the next time New Japan’s pro wrestlers get back in the ring, apart from NJPW Strong and Yuji Nagata in AEW. Their next Japan shows are currently scheduled to be the Road to Dominion events on June 1-2 and 4 in Tokyo followed by Dominion on June 6 in Osaka, but instead, there could be more cancelations or no-fans shows on the horizon.