Recently, I wrote about New Japan Pro Wrestling’s choice to ignore allegations made about Chase Owens and Will Ospreay during Speaking Out, with a focus on Ospreay’s situation since it’s less straightforward, he just started wrestling for NJPW again after months of pandemic-induced time on the bench, and he seems positioned for one of the top spots in the company. Now I’m following up that article with a look at the ways NJPW fans have responded to all this, and the options they have for responding in the future.
The first tournament match of the first night of NJPW’s G1 Climax 30 was Yujiro Takahashi vs. the returning Will Ospreay, who’d been in the UK and out of the ring apart from some RevPro tapings since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ospreay, sporting new gear, a fresh dye job, and the RevPro British Heavyweight Championship around his waist, was warmly received as he entered Edion Arena Osaka. He unsurprisingly defeated the Tokyo Pimp, displaying in the process that he could still do all his old moves with his newly acquired muscle mass.
After his win, he asked for a microphone to cut a mid-show promo, a rare occurrence in NJPW, especially in a tournament. He said he was home, he was the best wrestler in the world, and, while looking directly into the camera, that he would be the one to win this year’s G1. Everything about Ospreay’s return performance (and that he’s scheduled to face Kazuchika Okada on the last night of A Block competition) signals that his pre-hiatus push will pick up where it left off, a push that, if a report from The Wrestling Observer Newsletter holds true, is meant to position Ospreay as one of the top six wrestlers in the company. It’s a push that many wrestling fans will view differently than they would have before June 2020.
In the months since Speaking Out, neither Chase Owens nor Will Ospreay has faced professional or legal consequences for their alleged actions (detailed for Owens here and for Ospreay in my previous article.) All that NJPW viewers might hope could change the company’s response now is demand from its fans. That prompts the question of whether the demand is there, and of whether there’s any chance that demand is strong enough to send a message that the company would listen to.
To try and answer those questions, I’m going to examine the reactions to Speaking Out by three different communities of NJPW fans: Japanese fans, international fans who don’t care, and international fans who do care, and look at what messages they send to the company and what impacts they could have.
Response from fans in Japan
Among NJPW’s primary audience, its viewers in Japan, knowledge of Speaking Out is much less widespread than among the company’s international fans. As some NJPW fans who speak both English and Japanese have observed online, what the Japanese fanbase knows about the issues with Ospreay and Owens is very limited. Even people in this group who follow international wrestling and may have looked into the movement would have a harder time getting reliable information about it because they would depend on translations. Ospreay’s situation in particular involves a lot of screenshots, which can’t easily be machine-translated— and machine translations can get very garbled and inaccurate anyway.
For these reasons, I’m not going to try and analyze a response that isn’t really there. The fans in Osaka sounded happy to have Ospreay back, but this is without the same knowledge that fans would have in the US, UK, and elsewhere. We can take away from this that unless more knowledge of the situation gets out in Japan or the wrestlers involved have scandals in Japan as well, NJPW can probably get away with never addressing Speaking Out because whether it does so or not will have little impact on its domestic business.
International fans who don’t care
But let’s assume that NJPW is also trying to make money from and make a good impression on the international fanbase it’s made an effort to connect with more than ever over the past few years. Does that mean they need to address Speaking Out?
While knowledge of Speaking Out and the issues with Ospreay and Owens aren’t universally known amongst international or English-speaking NJPW fans, this information is much more widespread and easily accessible. Still, a lot of people don’t seem to care. Some have chosen to believe Ospreay over Pollyanna and IWL. Some believe Ospreay took part in the blacklisting but don’t think what he did was wrong or deserving of any repercussions.
Some go out of their way to respond to concerned comments about Ospreay by saying that he’s the best, or one of the best, wrestlers in the world. It’s implied that subjective status and/or the pleasure they experience watching him perform is more important than someone being punished for coming forward about rape, or the larger effort to curb sexual abuse in the wrestling industry. Though there was a lot of support for Speaking Out and plenty of wrestling fans who believe blacklisting is a significant factor in a culture of abuse being allowed to flourish, I don’t think any woman or most people in general who have spent a lot of time around wrestling would be surprised that some people who watching wrestling having this set of priorities.
Other fans initially showed concern about the widespread sexual harassment and abuse in wrestling that was exposed by Speaking Out, but are now posting or recording podcasts or writing about the G1 going, “Wow, Ospreay vs. Ishii for the first time ever!” Though not as brazen about it, this group seems to have also decided that their enjoyment of one particular guy doing Sasuke Specials is more important than creating a culture in professional wrestling where abuse and assault victims can come forward about their experiences without being punished for it.
There’s a longstanding argument that people should be able to separate the art from the artist, and at what point that principle no longer applies is the constant subject of debate. French comedian Blanche Gardin observed the absurdity in holding artists to different standards than the average person: “One should be able to separate the man from the art! But isn’t it weird that this indulgence only applies to artists? No one says of the baker: ‘Sure, he rapes kids in this oven, but what an extraordinary baguette he makes!'”
There’s nothing that could make a wrestler so objectively good that they must be supported by fans no matter what they do outside of the ring. Wrestling is not a real sport, wins in wrestling are not achieved through legitimate athletic contests, stats are more like the analysis of line distribution for K-pop groups than they are of anything in combat sports, and star ratings show people’s opinions filtered through a metric that they or someone else came up with. It’s all subjective. But supporting wrestlers or wrestling companies who are abusive or enable abuse is not a neutral act, and it’s something with real-life impact.
Though direct hostility can be more harmful to abuse victims on a personal level, fan apathy towards abusers and their enablers is just as harmful on an industry level. It sends a message to those in wrestling who are experiencing abuse that if they speak out about what they’re going through, nothing positive will come of it. All they can expect is more harm, if not physically, then financially through the loss of bookings or even the career they spent years training and bumping and working hard for. They can be blacklisted by promoters and more powerful wrestlers while being unable to rely on the one remaining safety net that might have still held them up: the fans.
Anticipated fan response can be a huge factor in enabling abusers in pro wrestling. The concern that fans would be split between apathy and lashing out was a huge part of why no one spoke out for years about the many cases of sexual assault and harassment involving Joey Ryan. I first heard Ryan was a sexual predator when I was thinking about writing a piece on Bar Wrestling, the Southern California promotion Ryan owned. A friend who had a backstage connection cautioned against reaching out to Ryan, calling him “the Harvey Weinstein of indie wrestling.”
When I started poking around for specific stories about Ryan, I couldn’t get anyone to go on the record with a first-hand account. A well-connected male wrestler in the California indie scene explained why. “There already was a sports journalist working on a story and talking to women,” he told me over DM. “At the end of the day they didn’t want their names on it because they foresee mark promoters not booking them, and an online army of marks doxing them. That’s what I always notice. As much as I think the opposite would eventually happen and it would really crack open a brutal aspect of lower level indie wrestling and everyone would be on the girls’ side, so far they don’t see it that way.”
While this wrestler predicted the reactions of many fans to the stories about Ryan and others that were shared during Speaking Out, the women’s reasoning fundamentally made sense. There are methods of preserving anonymity in media and on social media, but if they provided specifics about their experiences with Ryan, he and other influential figures in wrestling could probably figure out their identities. Ryan was a promoter (Bar Wrestling booked more women than anywhere else on the West Coast), had powerful connections in the industry, and he was incredibly popular for a while in the 2010s. People in wrestling would have a financial and career incentive to take his side, and he had plenty of devoted fans likely to go after them and support him. Fans just continuing to support him would mean he could retain the power than allowed him to get away with this behavior for so long.
The (credibly backed up) allegations against Will Ospreay are very different than those against Joey Ryan, but wrestling fan apathy about an instance of retaliation against an assault victim when she tried to come forward encourages a culture that enables predators like Ryan to thrive.
International fans who care
Getting back to NJPW’s international fanbase, though there’s some ignorance of and apathy about Speaking Out, there are also plenty of people who enjoy watching New Japan Pro Wrestling and have made it clear they care that the company hasn’t addressed the allegations against Chase Owens and Will Ospreay, and they understand it’s significant that these cases are being ignored.
One of the benefits of Speaking Out is that the huge number of stories shared exposed that this is an industry-wide issue. It isn’t just a matter of individuals in the business getting away with predatory behavior, but why and how so many were able to get away with it. Some of these reasons are common in the entertainment industry at large, and some are specific to pro graps, as Colette Arrand recently explored for FanFyte.
Speaking Out created the perfect opportunity for wrestling companies to change their industry for the better, and it says a lot that so many organizations blew the chance to be lauded for this. RevPro could have become a shining light in BritWres, a major company that both had no connection to WWE and appeared to subscribe to some kind of normal human values. New Japan could have tried to cultivate an image outside of Japan that is closer to the one it has domestically, but so far the company has seemed content to appeal to a specific niche of hardcore wrestling fans internationally.
NJPW’s lack of response to sexual abuse scandals is especially disappointing given how much the promotion caters to women in Japan. Not just expanding their audience, but expanding it to include a lot more women (now about forty percent of attendance at the average live show, according to Harold Meij) has been a big part of New Japan’s growth over the past decade. That’s never really crossed over to their international promotion, but you could still feel the effects when watching from outside of Japan. NJPW succeeds at appealing to women in a chill and normal way (plus some photobooks) without any weird Female Demo baggage attached, and that’s something I don’t think any major company in the U.S. comes close to doing right now.
New Japan’s decision to ignore scandals that stem from incidents of sexual violence against women counteracts that image to those aware of Speaking Out. Even if you’re very aware that wrestling is a scummy business, that this TV show isn’t really your friend, investing a lot of time and emotions in a wrestling promotion and then having it spit in your face like this is disappointing.
Options and alternatives
For fans who are concerned, disappointed, or upset with how NJPW has chosen to handle these incidents, what options are available? I know some people completely stopped watching wrestling after Speaking Out (and months of how the industry responded to COVID-19), and that’s a valid choice.
Others seem to have decided to treat Ospreay like they did Michael Elgin: continuing to watch NJPW on NJPW World and react to everything about the company in the same way except for ignoring and/or insulting Ospreay when he’s on-screen. As I mentioned in my previous NJPW-and-Speaking-Out article, I think this will be much more difficult with Ospreay than it was with Elgin unless NJPW stops promoting him overseas or in English. That still might not be enough; it’s a lot easier to ignore someone who just occasionally gets a NEVER title shot without his presence heavily impacting your enjoyment of NJPW than it is to ignore someone with a five-year contract who’s getting pushed to the role of top foreign babyface.
Another thing that made it easier to compartmentalize what was going on with Elgin was that NJPW wrestlers would regularly insult him in promos or elsewhere. This helped create the impression that even if maybe the company kind of sucked and/or didn’t know what’s going on, at least your faves probably didn’t like him. It seems like this could happen with Ospreay too, but in a more limited capacity.
Fans on Twitter really latched on to David Finlay and Jay White insulting Ospreay in the past few days. But it’s hard to imagine guys like Okada, Ibushi, and Ishii talking about Ospreay like that after their G1 matches, and how they talk or post about him in the future could impact their images with international fans as well. And again, we’ll see how far a few insults or ignoring someone goes when that person is regularly in tournament finals, heavyweight title matches, and at the top of cards for major shows.
The other issue with the ignore/insult strategy is that it doesn’t seem to do much. It could protect people’s personal ability to enjoy New Japan Pro Wrestling, and optimistically, enough fan backlash might send a message to smaller promotions that wrestling fans care about these issues and how they’re handled. But as much as non-Japanese fans hated on Elgin in NJPW, Impact hired him right after he left and it took Speaking Out and additional allegations about his behavior for him to finally disappear from the wrestling world (at least, for now). It doesn’t seem like this approach sends any kind of effective message to NJPW that people care about them failing to respond to serious allegations and scandals involving their international talent. Whether it makes a difference that some fans have started sending NJPW literal messages about the situations with Owens and Ospreay, something I don’t think ever happened re: Elgin, remains to be seen.
However, it’s also easy for people to continue to watch the wrestlers they enjoy in NJPW without supporting the company financially. They can unsubscribe from NJPW World and look up the G1 matches they want to watch elsewhere on the internet. It’s even easier for them to stop buying NJPW merch. This isn’t a great time economically for just about everyone who isn’t a billionaire, and I don’t think I’ve seen NJPW yell “Steal from us!” louder than when they put Chase Owens in the main event of NJPW Strong and when they announced Ospreay for the G1 without dealing with or acknowledging Speaking Out at all.
New Japan also chose to ignore the biggest real-life international wrestling story of 2020 (apart from the pandemic) at a moment when alternatives to NJPW are more easily accessible than ever, legally and otherwise. Two other well-established Japanese men’s promotions with wrestling that’s as good or better than NJPW’s even have round-robin heavyweight singles tournaments going on simultaneously with this year’s G1. All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Champion Carnival was postponed this spring and recently started airing on AJPW TV. Pro Wrestling NOAH’s N-1 Victory tournament started even more recently and can be watched on Fite TV or Wrestle Universe. Dragon Gate also has an extremely fun-looking PPV coming up on September 21, featuring a wild-looking cage match. There are also plenty of other options on top of those, which are just the other Japanese men’s companies that have major events going on in September, similar production value to NJPW, and are just as easy to watch internationally.
I’m not saying these other wrestling companies don’t have their own sketchy stuff going on, because most wrestling (and entertainment in general) is sketchy, but not everyone is currently blatantly ignoring that their wrestlers were implicated by an industry-wide exposing of sexual abuse (If they are and we missed it, please let us know in the comments!) There’s so much variety and talent out there in the wrestling world, and New Japan Pro Wrestling is not so good that you can’t probably replace it in your life if NJPW makes you feel gross or you want to send a message that you don’t like what the company is doing. How NJPW and its fans respond to Speaking Out is just a matter of priorities and choices.