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KinchStalker

Naoki Otsuka on NJPW business, how tours were booked, and more, circa 1976-78 (2020 interview recap)

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Quarterly puroresu magazine G Spirits (a spiritual successor to Gong, involving ex-Gong editors Kagehiro Osano and Tsutomu Shimizu) serialized an interview with Naoki Otsuka. I only have the third part of it in issue 58, which mostly covers the span from after the Ali-Inoki match through early 1978 (stopping right as Fujinami returns). I transcribed this because it was on hand and I wanted material on the company's financial situation for a planned blog series on the 1983 coup and what led to it.

If I really want to do that series right, I’ll need to put it on hold until I can transcribe later parts of the interview. I have already transcribed a 1984 Weekly Pro article by Otsuka which convinces me that he will be able to discuss Anton Hi-Cel and sister business Anton Trading in more detail.1 It was still going as of the latest issue, for a total of at least eight parts. I have placed an order for the issues with parts 4-7, as they were in stock at Toudoukan, although I do not know whether I will give those this same treatment or save them for the coup series.

But even just these ten pages contain the most detailed insight I’ve ever read on what it was like to run a puroresu promotion at the ground level.

First, I should give some background. Naoki Otsuka was originally NJPW’s ring announcer, but he transferred into sales as Inoki’s brother-in-law, Tetsuo Baisho, took that job. The interview indicates that Otsuka had been the deputy manager of the sales department, and that he had been charge of sales in Osaka, Okinawa, and Sapporo, but this part of the interview begins as he was transferred to the general manager (or simply “sales manager”). In 1983, Otsuka was the one who discovered that Inoki had misappropriated company funds to cover his losses in Anton Hi-Cel. He would later become famous as the president of Japan Pro Wrestling. (See the JPW posts elsewhere on this subforum for a rundown on what happened there, although keep in mind that I intend to expand that substantially with the coup series…whenever I can make that happen.)

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POST-ALI RESTRUCTURING

The Ali-Inoki match worsened a deficit NJPW already had. On top of Ali’s steep fee, it had been expected that NJPW would receive $1 million in revenue from closed-circuit broadcasts, but the real payoff was much lower. Inoki was demoted from president to chairman for a time, while Hisashi Shinma was demoted from general manager of the sales department to a regular employee. New Japan would demand compensation from Ali, claiming that the revenue had been damaged by the rule change his camp had enforced, and Ali would sue for breach of contract. Inoki promoted Otsuka to sales manager, choosing him over fellow employee Takeji Fukunaga because of his stronger backbone. Shinma was still considered an informal boss by the sales department, who continued to refer to him by his old title.

Network executives, referred to by a begrudging Inoki as “occupying forces”, took positions in NJPW. The interview identifies one of them as Kohei Nagasato, who had been the head of NET TV’s sports department. This interview does not specify when the network executives were no longer assigned to the company, implying that it lasted past the range of time this part covers. Just know that Nagasato would return to an executive position in NJPW after the network takeover of 1983.

It was around this time that Inoki discreetly registered a company. New Japan Pro-Wrestling Kogyo Co. was registered in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward with a capital of three million yen. The locale was because he could not register the company in Shibuya, and his in-laws lived in Nerima. Inoki had the idea that, if he could register this company in a different ward, he could transfer all the wrestlers to this side company in the event of a full network takeover or other major dispute. Interestingly, this was not the same New Japan Pro-Wrestling Entertainment company that Otsuka was put in charge of in 1983. That company’s capital was insufficient, so a new company of the same name was formed. Otsuka states that he did not know about the original Entertainment company until “well after the fact”.

SALES SHOW WOES

When Otsuka was promoted, he discovered the extent to which “uncollected money” had been weighing their ledgers down. Inoki told him that he would be able to collect “about 30 million yen a year”, but then Otsuka got into the books and found that New Japan had been losing 100 million per year.

The puroresu touring model was mostly based on two kinds of shows: the company-run “independent shows”, and locally purchased “sales shows”. One always wanted to get as many sales shows as possible, because independent shows required you to cover the operating costs, as well as send company people to facilitate them. Sales shows were the majority of the problem. The contract for a sales show stated that half of the fee was to be paid at the time the contract was signed, but this advance pay had rarely been honored unless it was a first-time client. Some promoters did not even pay this fee on the day of the show, or they would do so with dishonored bills. Furthermore, Otsuka states that some promoters pocketed the second half when they made a loss.

One of Otsuka’s measures to combat this was to make a small change on the contract. Originally it had read “Representative Director Kanji Inoki”, and it would have named Otsuka as a representative director as well, but Otsuka changed the title to his position of NJPW sales manager. This allowed him to be strict in collecting money, as he was now the direct contractor. If, for example, Inoki had to miss a show, this meant that Otsuka could stand firm and insist to the terms of the contract, instead of being given the runaround to ask Inoki for a discount. Otsuka never cancelled a show, but he had to threaten to do so. He even recalls one incident where a sales employee had to be assigned to the ticket booth to make sure New Japan got their cut. Over time, though, these issues decreased. Otsuka also encouraged promoters to have good relations with the company by beginning a “national promoters conference”. He would select “around ten” promoters from across the country to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo and attend Nooj’s year-end Kuramae Kokugikan show, and then receive a commemorative gift from Inoki at a Keio Plaza Hotel conference the following day.

There were some problems with independent shows as well. These came down to ticket sellers who would receive two-to-three hundred tickets, sell them, and never give New Japan their cut. Otsuka says it was very difficult to get that money back.

DAFUYA

This actually comes later in the interview, but I think it fits better around here. Shimizu brings up the topic of scalpers, and Otsuka takes the chance to clarify the “taboo” relationship between dafuya and promoters, while getting into the nitty-gritty of selling tickets.

Otsuka claims that he didn’t get involved with dafuya when he was working sales in Osaka. However, the person who asked them for advance tickets had an understanding with scalpers. The scalpers would buy advance tickets, which normally cost ¥7000, at ¥3500, and then sell the tickets at fixed prices.  As sales manager, Otsuka would become more directly involved with them when overseeing shows in the Kanto/Tokyo area.

When ticket sales were sluggish, Otsuka would sell one to two hundred tickets for the most expensive seats (¥7000) to dafuya at half price. The scalpers were good enough at their trade to sell those tickets at full price, but the company didn’t concern itself about losing those sales. In those cases, there were many more customers who would buy cheap tickets directly from the ticket booth.

Another way that the box office would do business with scalpers hinged around standing-room-only tickets, which were regularly priced at ¥1500. There were days when the standing room was sold out but there were still empty seats, and this was not a profitable arrangement for the box office. So, they would only print around 500 SRO tickets to start with and get those sold, so that that people would be forced to buy seats despite there still being standing room. The dafuya were smart enough to ask how sales were going on a given show, and waited like hyenas for when the SRO tickets were really about to run out. Then, the scalpers would buy 50 or 100 SRO tickets. Now that the standing room tickets were sold out, the ticket booth would not offer any discount, and a seat would cost ¥3000. Meanwhile, the scalpers could mark up all those SROs to ¥2000.

If a dafuya couldn’t get tickets directly, they plied their trade using “invitation tickets”, which they bought for cheap from people who couldn’t come to shows. Then, they would actually go to the venue to check where the invitation tickets would go. These always depended on what seats were available, meaning it could range from a premium ringside seat to a row on the second floor. Naturally, they would price the tickets accordingly.

Both Otsuka and Shimizu recall a particular scalper, Kuro-chan. He was a tekiya (itinerant merchant) who traveled around the country. He could be seen at New Japan and All Japan shows, and Shimizu remembers that Kuro would always shoot the shit with him before shows, likely to try to get information from the press. Kuro would later become a frequent fixture at AJW shows (Otsuka did some sales work for them later on), which sold discount tickets (I’m guessing these were age-based). Kuro would buy ringside tickets, and scalp them to the girls standing in the long ticket booth line.

In recent years, nuisance prevention ordinances ended the traditional dafuya – who, to be clear, could be found scalping tickets to all sorts of entertainment and sporting events – and Otsuka has heard that they now deliver tickets through the mail.

BOOKING TOURS

It was the sales manager’s responsibility to arrange tours. Otsuka would not begin doing so until 1977 because the company had to plan their tours by the year, due to the requirements of major venues. Otsuka gives the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium as an example; it required New Japan to submit their requested dates by the end of February. Requests for big-market shows were generally on Thursdays, which I will explain later on. “In those days, Osaka was scheduled five times a year, Sapporo two or three times, Kagoshima twice, Takamatsu twice, and so on.” The basic pattern of a NJPW tour was already in place; it would last either four or six weeks, and it would travel the Japanese archipelago in a figure-eight centered on Tokyo. Tours would begin in Korakuen Hall, and end at the Kuramae Kokugikan or Nippon Budokan. For Kuramae, sumo was the greatest priority, but venue director Akio Nakane was very friendly with the sumo association person in charge, and he would tell Otsuka the sumo schedule. Otsuka would then submit the ideal choice and one backup, and depending on the decision, the entire tour would sometimes be shifted back one week.

Once the big venues were secured, it was Otsuka’s job to apply for the small and medium venues that made up each tour’s connective tissue. As gaikokujin were paid flat weekly fees, one wanted to stretch those dollars as much as one could.2 The goal was to have at least six shows booked per week, and ideally seven. The record was 1975’s 210 shows, and they aimed to reach 200 per year, although the two “martial arts shows” per year made that hard to achieve. The department would determine where they wanted to book shows, and at what price. The department would call local promoters to ask them if they wanted to do business with them at x venue on y date, or if they wanted to do a show in a market which New Japan would be passing through: for example, “Can you do Fukuyama on the day between Okayama and Hiroshima?” In order to encourage promoters to accept a show contract, a column featured which foreign wrestlers were to participate on that tour. (Osaka-based taboid Weekly Fight Magazine, which started the katsuji puroresu style of coverage that Weekly Pro would bring into the mainstream in the 1980s, appealed to hardcore fans for its willingness to leak foreign bookings multiple tours in advance. This was one way that such information would have reached them.) Otsuka states that this was a decisive factor in whether promoters would accept a contract, and that NJPW’s dearth of top gaikokujin in 1977 really bit them here. “If it was [Tiger Jeet] Singh or Andre the Giant, you could be sure that [the promoter would buy the event],” but if you didn’t have those marquee names for that tour, things could get dicey. Sometimes, the best you could get was the third type of show, the “branch show”. These represented a middle ground between the independent and sales show. The company partnered with promoters, so no one from New Japan had to go to the site. However, NJPW would take on the venue booking fee, printing costs, and other expenses, and split the rest with the promoters.

Otsuka claims that, later on, he was the one who asked Masa Saito to track down Stan Hansen as a potential new foreign “ace in the hole”. Saito eventually found him “in North Carolina or Georgia”, and Hansen returned in 1979 for the second MSG Series. Promoters eventually said “if not Singh or Andre, then Hansen is fine”. (Otsuka also cites Sean Regan as a specific gaikokujin who he had wished to see return, but he had become a schoolteacher by then. Regan eventually called him in 1979 and worked a single tour.)

TELEVISION

Otsuka was also required to be present at all television tapings. The presence of a television crew required some seats to be stripped from a venue for the cameras, and this sometimes caused problems with the promoter. The network could not deal with on-site disputes like that, so they needed Otsuka there to set things straight.

Otsuka’s central role in putting tours together and dealing with television tapings even extended to some booking influence. When Seiji Sakaguchi became vice president, he was able to “talk with him more familiarly” concerning the matches that Inoki and Kotetsu Yamamoto were booking. Otsuka would give input to them while submitting show cards to the network, suggesting that this was how TV taping dates were decided on. I mentioned earlier that big-market shows were generally booked on Thursdays, and this was why. World Pro Wrestling was broadcast live at the start of each tour and on subsequent b-show tapings, but major events were taped. Inoki was concerned about the “flow” of World Pro Wrestling, so as Tatsumi Fujinami corroborated in a recent Weekly Pro interview, he supervised the production of these ‘major’ episodes, directing camera cuts. (This was years before Vince McMahon took a similarly hands-on approach.) Despite competing with the “monster program” Taiyo no Hoero!, a police procedural which had taken Nippon Television’s Friday 8:00PM timeslot since they had dropped the JWA (AJPW aired on Saturday), Otsuka states that World Pro Wrestling was consistently getting ratings above 10%, sometimes close to 20%.

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For me, all that is the meat of the article. Here are noteworthy bits from the rest.

  1. On March 31 and April 1, 1977, NJPW became the first promotion in twenty years to book Kuramae on back-to-back nights. On the first day, Seiji Sakaguchi defeated the Masked Superstar in the 4th World League, while Inoki successfully defended the NWF Heavyweight title against Johnny Powers. On the second day, which coincided with NET TV’s name change to TV Asahi, Inoki and Sakaguchi reformed their Golden Tag Team to challenge Tiger Jeet Singh & Umanosuke Ueda for the NWA North American Tag Team titles, which Singh & Ueda had won from Sakaguchi & Kobayashi through dishonorable means two months before. Otsuka seems to regret his ambition. The interest in the World League tournament had waned due to Inoki’s decision to stop entering it the previous year, which hurt the first show’s business. Also, that show was on a Thursday, so those who went to see the second show missed the first day’s episode of World Pro Wrestling. Inoki gave him a slight scolding, but Otsuka thinks he paved the way for the G1 Climax’s multi-night stints at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
  2. In May, Shinma and Nagasato traveled to the United States. Shinma’s lawyer had recommended they go to trial against Ali, since the yen had appreciated from 310 to 200 to the dollar, but they decided to settle. They also secured a contract with “Monster Man” Everett Eddy to bring the different styles fights back into full swing. This was when these special “fights” began to be broadcast on the Wednesday Special sports timeslot instead of as part of World Pro Wrestling. The return of the DSF would go a long way towards rehabilitating Inoki’s reputation after the Ali debacle, and the television situation functionally gave NJPW an extra episode’s worth of TV money whenever they booked a DSF. They would take advantage of that in the coming years, and at one point, they even considered expanding into a full “martial arts” wing. Inoki’s valet Satoru Sayama, who was his sparring partner and had even conceived of open-finger gloves for Inoki’s DSF against Chuck Wepner, would have been a major part of the division.
  3. The nail death match between Inoki and Ueda on February 8, 1978 could have been even wilder. While brainstorming a gimmick match that would prevent Ueda from escaping the ring, Otsuka pitched scattering the ring mats with broken beer bottles or surrounding the ring with a water tank, but the Budokan never would’ve approved. The nail idea then came up, and after Otsuka explained the idea to commentator Ichiro Furutachi, who would promote it during the Sapporo shows the previous week, the tickets sold at an unprecedented, “explosive” rate.
  4. Two days after that show, Otsuka also got NJPW a variety show-esque gig to broadcast on the aforementioned Wednesday Special timeslot. Among other things, Kengo Kimura sang a Pink Lady cover with Chieko Matsumoto, Yoshiaki Fujiwara cooked, and Inoki & Sakaguchi wrestled the Hollywood Blonds.
  5. This part ends with some words on the Dragon Boom, the popularity spike after Tatsumi Fujinami returned from his three-year expedition. Otsuka states that, prior to this, he had planted young women in the front row at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium shows for about two years (“It was an image strategy to improve the TV ratings”), but Fujinami made any such deliberate effort unnecessary. Otsuka recalls that he used to hold autograph sessions at supermarkets by promoters’ request, and that these had been inconvenient to coordinate because they had happened on the day of the show, and the clients had always requested that Inoki be there. By about the third tour of Fujinami’s return, though, New Japan began receiving requests for Fujinami autograph sessions, and Fujinami was “easy to ask”. Fujinami even motivated younger fans to go out of their way to see him wrestle. Otsuka gives the example of people from Okayama who would come to shows in Himeji or Osaka, or even plan an overnight trip to Tokyo.

 

Spoiler

1. In this article, Otsuka revealed the extent to which NJPW salesmen had been burdened with Hisashi Shinma’s fundraising for Hi-Cel in the early 80s. Forced to buy bonds in the doomed startup, which were sarcastically considered “registration fees” by the salesmen, the company’s sales bureau was pressured to sell tickets to IWE shows and exhibitions at Kenji Kurosaki’s full-contact karate dojo (as well as tickets to some sort of “political party”), and shill vacation home memberships. This was on top of the pressure Shinma imposed on the locker room to pitch in, which led some wrestlers to borrow money from their families. I am certain that Otsuka goes into greater detail in the G Spirits interview, and I need all of it to do justice to the subject of the 1983 coup, its leadup and its fallout.

2. Andre was the highest paid foreigner, at $5000 a week. This was generally the limit for a gaikokujin. By the time Otsuka became sales manager, Tiger Jeet Singh was approaching that limit, as his fee had started at $1500 but had increased by $500 for each subsequent tour. The highest fee he ever saw, though, was for Dusty Rhodes, who got $10,000 a week on one occasion.

 

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