A decade of Dontaku! Naoki Sugabayashi shares the backstage details behind reviving one of NJPW’s tentpole events!



A decade of Dontaku! Naoki Sugabayashi shares the backstage details behind reviving one of NJPW’s tentpole events!

This May 3rd and 4th, NJPW will thrill audiences for two nights in the Fukuoka International Center as the Wrestling Dontaku 2018.

This is the tenth consecutive year Dontaku has been a fixture on the New Japan calendar, but the history of the event actually stretches back to 1993. NJPW Chairman Naoki Sugabyashi has seen them all, and in this exclusive interview recalls some of the most memorable moments of the Kyushu region’s biggest events.

■ May 03 – WRESTLING DONTAKU 2018 Night01 Full lineup & Ticket sales info

■ May 03 – WRESTLING DONTAKU 2018 Night02 Full lineup & Ticket sales info

■ Both events will be live streamed on NJPW World. Sign up to watch the entire show

— We’re actually coming up to the fifteenth Dontaku event, and the tenth in consecutive years. You’ve been connected to Dontaku since the first show in 1993. It must mean a lot to reach this milestone, especially as we run two nights for the first time.

Sugabayashi: Right. Honestly, part of me is thinking ‘wow, it’s already been ten years since we brought Dontaku back’. As far as this double header goes, it is something we’ve done before in the Fukuoka International Center.

— That was during the 2011 G1 Climax. This was as New Japan’s revival was ongoing, and business was fairly tough at the time. Now this double header is proof of just how popular NJPW has become.

Sugabayashi: Well actually, we had plans to run two nights in the International Center before, but the timing for booking the building never worked out, which was why we ended up running the Fukuoka Dome.

— Before Dontaku returned to the calendar in 2009, it ran from 1993 to 1995, and then 2000 and 2001 in the Fukuoka Dome, so maybe you’re referring to the 2000 show. Then in 2009, it was reintroduced as NJPW seeing a revival in Fukuoka as well as the rest of the country.

Sugabayashi: Right, and since then, wrestling’s really surged in popularity in Fukuoka. For us, Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka are the three biggest markets. If you can draw people there, you’re the real deal. Now in terms of drawing power and earning potential, we’re rivalling the Three Musketeers (Masahiro Chono, Shinya Hashimoto, Keiji Muto) era, perhaps even beating it.

— So now that the International Center is being run for two nights, perhaps expectations are gathering to return to Dontaku’s birthplace in the Fukuoka Dome (now named the Yahoo Auction Dome)?

Sugabayashi: Yes. What would really make me happy would be a pair of sellouts this year, and then it would come down to a real discussion of whether or not to do it.

— Wow! When Tetsuya Naito won the Tokyo Sports 2017 MVP award, he said he wanted NJPW to run in all six of Japan’s dome stadiums in a year. In 1997 (Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Tokyo) and 2001 (Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo), NJPW ran four Dome tours.

Sugabayashi: A Six Dome tour would be Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Sapporo and Seibu, right? That’s certainly something to work toward. For now I think you can tell him that we could really run in the Fukuoka Dome or Osaka Dome any time.

— So your connection to Fukuoka extends to before joining New Japan full time. When you were working part time you were in charge of business operations in Fukuoka, correct?

Sugabayashi: Right. Fukuoka was always a place worth running. It’s a big city with big venues, and you get out what you put in. That’s all connected to the nature of the area I think, it’s very populated and the people are very friendly. I think now as then, there’ll be fans finding the Fukuoka rep just to tell him they had a good time at the show.

— That first step into the area in ‘93, it was a really big decision for the company; at that point, the Tokyo Dome was the only big stadium show that New Japan ran.

Sugabayashi: Right. That decision got passed down, and it was really unsettling for me, because I was the only rep for the company in Fukuoka at the time. I formed a team with two other people underneath me. It was my first time being in charge of a team, and we started working really early; usually we’d start preparing for a show about six weeks out, this time it was six months before and I rented out an office, standing by.

— It was a real trial by fire, you needed to prepare for it.

Sugabayashi: The booking was made before the Dome was actually open. When I went to see the plans, the seating chart wasn’t even done yet. Then when we did get the seating plans and got ready to put tickets to press, it was orders of magnitude more in terms of volume than we’d done before.

— You were going from a few thousand to a few dozen thousand!

Sugabyashi: But what was really heartening was Seiji Sakaguchi, who was the president at the time, was willing to come down and help. Sakaguchi was from Kurume (a city in the Fukuoka prefecture), and had a lot of clout in his hometown. He knew every single important businessman in the area by name, even if they weren’t familiar with or connected to NJPW.

— From his time as a top judoka on, Sakaguchi was a real local hero.

Sugabyashi: Yeah. As part of production, he’d have to visit the fire station and police beforehand, and it would be the chief of police that would come to greet him. And KBC (the local Asahi TV affiliate) was very familiar with him, so we were able to get a lot of promotion.

— Sakaguchi was the secret of the show’s success?

Sugabayashi: I’m so grateful to him. And to bring it back to me, to have so many of my seniors from the sales department around made me feel that if I screwed up I wouldn’t get a second chance. So I really had to show my own fighting spirit.

— So how did one day of business look for you then, schedule wise?

Sugabayashi: I had to wear so many hats. I didn’t just have to think about Fukuoka city, but the whole prefecture. Plus, back then if we were running a show in Fukuoka, there’d be a whole tour around the Kyushu region leading up to it. But here it was just the one shot in the Dome. So my work actually had to extend beyond Fukuoka into the neighbouring prefectures.

— This was the first time in the Fukuoka Dome, and you also really wanted to capture the fans’ interest.

Sugabayashi: NJPW was only the second non baseball attraction in the Fukuoka Dome. Before us was a concert with Yosui Inoue and Tetsuya Takeda, who are from Fukuoka. So the building was still kind of an attraction in itself, people wanted to visit and check it out.

— Even the ‘Wrestling Dontaku’ name leaves a big impression. The Tokyo Dome shows have had a number of names over the years, but Dontaku has stayed a constant, like the G1 Climax.

Sugabayashi: That came from the head of sales at the time. He was from western Japan, and mentioned that at the same time there was a festival called the Hakata Dontaku. That sparked a discussion over whether we could even use the word Dontaku.

—There was worry over if it was trademarked?

Sugabayashi: Right. But we did our homework, and it all checked out. Dontaku actually comes from a French word, meaning festival or holiday.

— The root’s in the (Dutch) word Zondag it seems. The company really put their booking muscle behind that first show. The main event was Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami versus Riki Choshu and Genichiro Tenryu. (The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

That was the first time Inoki and Tenryu touched in ring. That was a huge deal, and then you had Yoshiaki Fujiwara returning, and the third Tiger Mask’s debut. Plus Hulk Hogan making his first appearance in New Japan in 8 years, wrestling Great Muta while still WWF Champion. Champion versus champion as Muta had the IWGP title. A dream match. (The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

Sugabayashi: First impressions are everything. We had a press conference announcing the full card a month out, and hosted a festival in a hotel the night before. I remember Eric Bischoff and a bunch of the WCW reps getting Tonkotsu ramen from a food stand on the river bank!

—The walk-up business was huge. It became legendary almost. 4000 tickets sold on the day of the event.

Sugabayashi: That kind of thing might have happened at the Tokyo Dome, but it was a real record for somewhere further afield. I wasn’t happy at the time though, just burned out. As soon as the show started, I was just praying the show would end without any injuries or incidents.

— Before the show you met with Inoki and tasted one of his legendary slaps..

Sugabayashi: Yes! Right before show time, I’m at my busiest, and the head of sales tells me to go and greet Inoki. So three of us from the sales division are in the locker room saying ‘thanks to you Mr. Inoki, it’s a sellout’. But he was already in fighting mode.

— Getting ready for war!

Sugabayashi: He tells us all to clench our teeth and then whacks us one by one. Back then the Inoki Slap wasn’t really a famous thing, so we didn’t know what was going on. One of the staff actually thanked Inoki, said it fixed his sore neck!

— Hahaha! How did you feel?

Sugabayashi: I just thought ‘I have so much to do, why me?’ Just question marks! (laughs)

— What Dontaku events from the past do you have particular memories of?

Sugabayashi: Well, this is very much a personal thing, but the 1995 Dontaku tickets went on sale the day after my wedding.

— Oh, really?

Sugabayashi: So I remember getting married in Tokyo and flying to Fukuoka the next day to take ticket orders (laughs)

— Hectic! How about any specific matches that stand out?

Sugabayashi: 1994, Inoki versus Muta for me. During that match the lights went down in one section of the building. Muta swung from one of the tech’s ladders to hit Inoki and it messed with the wiring of the building somehow. ( The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

— Right after Muta used that ladder the building went dark.

Sugabayashi: Yeah, but the production guys were super sharp and immediately used a spot light instead. It meant that you had this cool lighting effect in the ring, like it was all an illusion, part of the show. Just about gave us a heart attack for a second though.

— Opportunity out of crisis, perhaps. After 2001, there wasn’t a Dontaku until 2009. Between 2002 and 2005, the big spring stadium show was in the Tokyo Dome instead of Fukuoka Dome. After that, the company went through its struggles and then Dontaku came back in ‘09.

Sugabayashi: All through that dark period there wasn’t enough time to think about how to revive Dontaku. We really were consumed with weathering the storm and trying to get business going in Tokyo.

— It might be hard for our newer fans to believe, but that’s what the company was going through just over ten years ago. You became president during that period; I hear you had to deal with over 30 resignations from talent and staff.

Sugabayashi: 37, I counted! Back then we couldn’t get people in the Fukuoka International Center, so we settled for Hakata Starlane, and then ACROS Fukuoka, just smaller and smaller scale. But then we finally turned a corner and there was more talk about getting Dontaku going again.

— How was that first show back in the venue?

Sugabyashi: I really got this sense of excitement, anticipation. When we were running the smaller venues, there weren’t any IWGP title matches, but with Dontaku back we were able to have those big matches again.

— Hiroshi Tanahashi was the champion then, and defended against Hirooki Goto. Because of that success in 2009, Dontaku became an annual fixture.

(The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

Sugabayashi: Yes, it became this hot event. And by running the same venue at the same time of year it became all the more important to the local fans.

— Like the G1 is to summer, Dontaku is to this time of year.

Sugabayashi: Right. To go back to before Dontaku though, remembering the International Center, Muta and Choshu set the attendance record there in 1992.

— August of 1992, Muta reclaimed the IWGP title from Choshu and after the match shot off a fire extinguisher in the middle of the ring.

Sugabayashi: The people at the building were really mad at that, and the ringside fans complained too. It was a rough day at the office for the rep. After we brought Dontaku back, we broke that old International Center record. That’s a really happy memory, but not so much for that rep..

—.. It’s complicated!

Sugabayashi: Well I guess I’m the only one who knows about all these records and when they were broken (laughs). The other thing I associate with Dontaku is a lot of rain. I think 80% of the time it’s either pouring down or at least showering.

— That’s right. But if you’re able to break attendance records while it’s pouring down outside, you’re really making it rain, in the Okada sense!

Sugabayashi: What kind of rain are we going to bring this year, I wonder.. (Laughs)

— So what matches come to mind in the post 2009 era of Dontaku? When it comes to main events, Okada is the record holder with five after this year. Then Tanahashi will have had three. And it’s traditionally been a place that’s seen Jushin Thunder Liger have title matches in his hometown.

Sugabayashi: Liger had that great match with Aoyagi in the International Center, right?

— June 12 1990. This was before Dontaku, but Liger has an epic encounter against Aoyagi, who was a karate master.

(The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

Sugabayashi: Every wrestler really gives their all for their home crowd. Did you know Liger actually had a TV show on (local TV Asahi affiliate) KBC with the actor Daikichi Hakata?

— It was called “Jushin Daikichi Talk Wrestling: One Fall!”

Sugabayashi: Talking of KBC, the current mayor of Fukuoka, Soichiro Takashima used to be an announcer there. He had a show with Liger, too- “Jushin Dojo”. The popularity of that show really helped Dontaku.

— Jushin Dojo aired from 1998 to 2002. Now Mr. Takashima is a special presenter at Dontaku.

Sugabayashi: When he was working as an announcer I think we had him do commentary at Dontaku, so he has very close ties with the show. (Looking over old promotional materials) Oh wow, Bullet Club formed at Dontaku.

— In 2013. Prince Devitt leading Karl Anderson, Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale. (The match is available to watch on NJPW World )

Sugabayashi: And one year later, AJ Styles entered the company and immediately took the IWGP title from Okada at Dontaku. That definitely made an impact.

— And this year at Dontaku, it’s civil war with Bullet Club members against one another.

Sugabayashi: For me personally, I’m really excited to see Ibushi and Cody. They had a really good match at Wrestle Kingdom. And in the main event, Kenny Omega and Hangman Page; I think Page has really arrived these last few months, and I think the fans feel the same way.

—He really showed his potential in the IWGP US Championship match in LA in March.

Sugabayashi: It’s going to be a hell of a fight with Kenny. It’s his first time in that big show headlining spot, the question is whether he produces or not from there.

— What grabs your interest from the second night?

Sugabayashi: It can only be the main event! Whether Tanahashi can be at the top of the mountain one more time, or whether Okada can break that record number of defenses.

— Tanahashi headlined that comeback Dontaku in 2009, but this is his first main event at this show since 2011.

Sugabayashi: I have so many memories of Tanahashi, of him being at the top back then. But then we’ve never had a champion like Okada, and he’s been pulling this wagon. To be honest, I personally could watch these two fight forever.

— This is Tanahashi’s first IWGP title match since January 4, 2016, when he lost to Okada.

Sugabayashi: And that’s just another reason why it’s a match I want every fan to really take in. I’m excited to see who comes out on top of the semi main as well, Ospreay or KUSHIDA. KUSHIDA is very popular in America, you saw that in LA in March. And you just never know what Ospreay is going to do next.

— You’re a big lucha fan, you must enjoy Ospreay’s aerial offense..

Sugabayashi: But Ospreay has such heart, such spirit as well. And with him nominating KUSHIDA to challenge, I think it’s a match he’s really motivated for.

— We talked about how significant this two day event is, but finally, what’s your message to the fans looking forward to Dontaku?

Sugabayashi: When you look at Dontaku coming back, and being bigger and bigger every year, it’s really become the symbol of our achievements as a company. I think the wrestlers are going to be doubly motivated to give their all for these two nights, and you won’t be disappointed.