There are things you need to know to understand the K-1 Dynamite television situation in Japan. But before I explain them I should state that most things don’t just have one cause and that Japan, despite it flirting with its own desire to be, is not a monolith. What is true of how some things work in Japan is not a truism about Japan itself, necessarily.
With that out of the way let me start at the basest level of social commentary; Japan only stopped being a feudal society about 150 years ago. That may or may not mean anything. Just like America having experienced legal slavery may or may not reflect on society now. I’ll leave that judgment up to you. How does this past structure effect TV, and more specifically, how does it effect the K-1/Dream situation? Japanese businesses in general, and media in this conversation, are top down enterprises. This is the crux of the misinterpretation of the situation in the Western press: Whether kakutogi is in boom or in bust is the product of an arbitrary cycling of the ever changing taste of the masses. While, on the whole, that is true, the force behind that swirling fickleness does not rise up from the citizenry, rather it is generated by the bosses and the decision makers who decide what they are going to put into the popularity cycle.
Let me relay an anecdote. When I was a college exchange student in Osaka, I stayed up one night with my host mother watching the Major League team of all-stars led by Sammy Sosa play the exciting final game of their Japan tour. As the game entered the 9th inning and one of the teams, it is hard to remember which now, began threatening a thrilling comeback, NHK cut away to the nightly news. I thought something major had occurred. An earthquake or a tidal wave; something very Japanese. An accident maybe or a missing child; an incident that demanded immediate attention. However, I would be disappointed. The game was preempted, the dramatic conclusion avoided for what? Footage of a traffic jam and an eyewitness to someone yelling at a shopkeeper at best. Some stock quotes maybe. As I slowly exploded, visualizing the game that I was not actually seeing, I began to harangue my host mother. “Why is this happening? Surely someone made a mistake! Heads will roll.” She laughed tolerantly and gave me some sage wisdom, “When it is 10 o’clock, NHK shows the news. No matter what.”
Why do they take this approach? It can’t be due to viewer demand. I hardly believe there was an outcry for news over baseball. And if there had been who would have listened to that outcry and addressed it in the middle of the broadcast? No, Japanese companies are old trains running on even older tracks. To stop them or, heaven forbid, adjust their course, would take Herculean effort, bordering on revolution.
So, when the subject of why kakutogi is on the downturn in Japan is broached, I can assure you that while one of the effects is that interest is down among the public, that is not the real cause.
Allow me to explain a little further. While there is cable television in Japan it is not as popular or nearly as widespread as in the US. There isn’t a ton of programming on it. Almost the entire population of Japan is watching TV every night and they are choosing from about four or five channels. Most evenings on these channels the same group of people pop up on various variety shows. This group of people are the people that are famous in Japan right now. Some of them have been on for decades, some will only be around for a few months. The flavor of this season is oddball war photographer Yuichi Watanabe. He is omnipresent at the moment, but no one is making bets on his fame going deep into the new year. Who gets to appear on these shows is fairly tightly controlled by management systems and television producers. Someone may gain some notoriety outside of the system that compels producers to seek them out, but no one organically just shows up on the chat circuit.
How does this apply to our conversation? In the Pride days, there was a large overlap between the kakutogi world and the chat show world. Takada was, and still is, a regular on the circuit. Inoki was huge in that world, which helped him hype his own promotions and fighters. Genki Sudo comes and goes, as do Masato and Kid Yamamoto. Lately, boxer Daisuke Naito has been fairly regular. It would be hard for me to overemphasize that the conversation happening on these, to me asinine, talk shows is THE national conversation. What happens on a Wednesday night show is what is talked about all day Thursday. The opinions expressed are the opinions adopted. If you begin to hear a truism echoed from all corners, it was surely said on a TV program earlier in the week.
It is hard to understand how thoroughly ubiquitous television personalities become in Japan if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Imagine turning on Sports Center and Clay Guida is giving his opinion on the NFL playoff picture. After this you switch over to Top Chef and Clay Guida is judging the contestant’s soufflés. As you take a bath, you can hear Clay Guida talking about how sad the violence in Korea is. As you brush your teeth and get ready for bed, Clay Guida is on a quiz show team made up of pro-fighters vs. weathermen. The next day, going through your normal life, inexplicably, the thought pops into your head, “I wonder what Clay Guida thinks about my lunch?” Obviously you will have to watch his next fight.
This is not an exaggeration. Beat Takeshi gives the nightly news here. Sunday morning a news program commissioned a failed model to give her interpretation of Yakuza entanglements.
After the fall of Pride, this traveling circus moved on and its spotlight shifted away. There has never been a spot for Shinya Aoki or Akio Nishiura on national television. No one wonders, “What does Aoki think about the economy?” No one looks forward to Wicky’s jokes. No one wonders, “When is their next fight.” There is no faint echo of the push behind kakutogi that drove millions to K-1 Dynamite in the past. No one from this family of stars has a real stake in it. If you are wondering why Inoki is being suddenly shoved out as the face of Dynamite this year, I would wager that that is why. The public needs some known interest in it. Kakutogi fans are already curious. They wonder where the fight world went. Why it seemed to dry up overnight. Not a week goes by that I am not told with all sincerity, “Yes, but it isn’t on TV.” Or, “You say Aoki is one of the best in Japan, but I haven’t ever seen him. He can’t be that good.”
I wouldn’t argue that the ratings are in decline. I wouldn’t argue that those statistics indicate a public indifference. However this is not an indifference that sprung from itself; it is the indifference of neglect. A direct neglect by the old men in suits who make the decisions at the networks and don’t ever deign to put an ear to the ground and listen to what is actually going on.