In Conversation With New Japan Pro Wrestling President And CEO Harold Meij

Emily Pratt

Many New Japan Pro Wrestling fans were surprised when Harold Meij was announced as the promotion’s new President and CEO in May 2018. He had been a successful Senior Vice President of Coca-Cola Japan and later President and CEO of toy company Takara Tomy, but the businessman had no experience in the pro wrestling industry. In addition, though Meij had moved to Japan from the Netherlands with his family as a child and worked there for decades, much was made of the fact that he was New Japan’s first non-Japanese president.

In his first interview with an English-language publication, Meij opens up about what he loves about pro wrestling, what he thinks makes NJPW unique, concerns that the promotion is Westernizing as an attempt to increase their international audience, and more. This conversation is below and has been edited for length and clarity.

With Spandex: When we talk to wrestlers we usually ask them, “Who was your favorite wrestler as a kid?” As a wrestling fan, who were your favorite wrestlers?

Harold Meij: First of all, you talked about when I was a fan as a kid, so I’ll have to talk a little bit about that… Because I am from Holland, but I moved to Japan because of my father had a job there when I was eight years old. He actually joined a Japanese company at that time, which, in the early seventies, was very rare. I mean, you didn’t work for Japanese companies, let alone work for a Japanese company in Japan. And at that time, the only foreigners living in Japan were either U.S. military people or diplomats… For civilians, it was quite rare.

One of the things that really got me to pro wrestling was at the time, I only spoke Dutch, so I didn’t speak any English, obviously no Japanese, and I went to international school, and everything was in English, of course. But I didn’t even know how to say “yes” or “no” or “hello,” nothing. But one step outside of school, everything was in Japanese. I mean, you think people don’t speak English in Japan now, forty years ago nobody spoke English in Japan. So I had to be totally immersed in both languages all at once, which was quite difficult because, you know, there weren’t many Dutch people around… My father worked for a Japanese company, so he was working Saturdays, a lot on the Sundays, so I didn’t have a lot of time with my parents either.

And so the only TV that I could understand, and my father as well, was wrestling. Because you don’t really need any language to understand what’s going on. I mean, you know, just by seeing it on TV you get the story, you know what’s going on. You know what they’re trying to do, so you don’t need to have the rules explained to you. And I’m sure there were announcers and color commentators at that time as well, but even though I didn’t understand a hundred percent of that, I still got what’s going on. It was one of the few programs that me and my father could also enjoy, so not just the language, but even the age difference between me and my father at the time wasn’t an issue. He could enjoy just as much as I could as a little kid. So that was one of the reasons why I really got into wrestling from that age.

And at that time there weren’t as many wrestlers, of course, as there are today, but the two that really stood out to me, in my mind – one was the Destroyer and the other was Abdullah the Butcher… And I remember those two guys, you know, are almost in every match, and they really stood out, so as a kid I vividly remember those two. So I’d have to say, you know, from my childhood, those would be my favorite wrestlers.

Would that be All Japan?

I think so. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know the factions or the companies, of course, but those two really stood out as a kid.

And what did you like about those wrestlers?

Well, first of all, I mean, like the Destroyer was a masked wrestler, so he had a white mask on with just the eyes and the mouth coming out, and so you never knew. He was kind of mysterious, and I’d never seen that. I mean, any kind of sports that I’d seen as a little kid, you know, soccer or whatever, baseball, they were just, you know, you’re in a uniform, but you don’t have a mask on. It’s kind of mysterious, and “Who is this guy?” and “What would he be in real life, as a person?”, that kind of thing, and it gets a whole layer of mystique to it. And, of course, he was also – you could tell that he was a foreigner. So was Abdullah the Butcher, of course, but – So, as a little kid, you sort of see up to them as well, like “Wow… these kinds of people can be strong as well,” you know, so, as a foreigner living in a foreign country, as a Dutchman living in Japan, you kind of see them as a hero as well. So those two things really helped me solidify a good image of those two wrestlers in my mind.

Okay, and then you said in the little intro video we got for you, that you got into New Japan about ten years ago?

Yeah, that’s right. So that was when I was a kid, obviously, but then, of course, I went overseas again, and obviously, there’s no internet at that time, so wrestling – or Japanese wrestling, kind of faded away from my life. But around ten years ago I started seeing pro wrestling again and I saw how much they had advanced from that time, so from forty years ago. Now we have factions, you know, the costumes are so much more vivid, the moves are so much more sophisticated. I mean, back then they didn’t have like high flyers, or they didn’t really have technical- well, they did have technical wrestling, but I guess it was more power wrestling than it was technical as we have it today, or high flying wasn’t really around at that time… like comical wasn’t around at that time as well. So I think, and then you have the factions these days as well, and so it’s much more sophisticated, and when I saw that about ten years ago, I thought, “Wow, how much wrestling has advanced and become more sophisticated…” That’s how I really got back into it.

And do you have a favorite New Japan match?

So before we get into which favorite match it is, I do want to mention this – why people like wrestling matches to begin with, and then we can talk about the favorite one… And in my case, I think this has to do – this is a little bit philosophical, but I get it from a lot of the fans in Japan, who basically say the same thing – and that is that as an individual, there are times in your life when you have to fight. And I don’t mean literally fight, but, you know, you have to fight for a cause or fight to protect your family, or yourself, or your opinions, or for your job or your work or whatever you’re doing, but you have to fight. That’s not physical, but more mental… But, when you really come to it, you often don’t have the courage or the guts to actually go through with it.

But when I see people physically fighting and overcoming struggles, like a lot of the wrestlers have, they put a lot of time in it, they overcome a lot of injuries or personal sacrifices or personal, how do you say, struggles, within the wrestling world, and when you see them give it their everything in their match, it actually gives you as a spectator strength and courage to do more than what you might not have done in the past. And I get that from a lot of the fans, that they say the same thing. They say that’s one of the reasons why wrestling is so attractive to them.

So based on that, when you say, “Well, what is your favorite match?” You know, I have to say when I see something like that in the ring that gives me the energy, gives me the strength that I need in whatever I need to do, that would be a very good match. And the one that comes to mind quite recently is the November 3 one, Suzuki vs. Ishii.

Yeah, that was so good! That was a really good one.

I mean, if you look at it, that was not even a match. That was like a battle. That was literally a battle… I remember the concentrated look on the two guys. I mean, they were laser beam focused on each other, separate from the fans who were there. It was like they were in their own world at that particular time. It was really clashes of two titans. It really was. You could see it in everything they did, the power they had. There was no holding back… It was really a clash between two spirits. You know, a spirit vs. a spirit. And they both didn’t want to lose, obviously, and that for me was very, very awe-inspiring. I remember that quite vividly. So that would be, on the recent ones, would be one of my favorites.

Okay, and what Wrestle Kingdom match are you most looking forward to, maybe with that in mind, maybe not?

Exactly. So we talked a little bit about the philosophy, and I think that’s one of the things that sets New Japan apart from a lot of other promotions, or other sports for that matter, is we emphasize more the philosophical part… Keeping that in mind, I have to say that the Tanahashi vs. Kenny is going to be something special. Because they’re almost – I almost want to say they’re almost opposites, they’re almost two extremes to each other. And if you’ve seen any of the comments that both have given, I mean, Tanahashi, for example, on the one hand, he is the essence of New Japan. He’s almost Mr. New Japan. I mean, he started with New Japan, he was brought up as Young Lion, he was there during the bad times, he was there during the good times. I mean, he’s been taking a lot of initiatives to help the company as well. Not just inside the ring, of course, as a wrestler, but also outside the ring he did a lot of PR. He went to personally sell tickets during our darker times… he is the epitome, really, of the tradition of New Japan. It’s in his DNA… That’s who he is.

Now, Kenny on the other hand – incredibly high-quality moves, incredible stamina and agility, but he’s almost self-taught. Almost. He didn’t go to the dojo, obviously, so he doesn’t have that part of him. He came from other experiences from the world. He’s wrestled and fought the world, really. So it’s almost, you know, two polar opposites. And yeah, I almost have to say that I almost don’t want to see the outcome of that.

Yeah, it’s definitely a tense build to that match.

It’s a tense build. It’s the extremes of both, the New Japan philosophy or if you want to say tradition or whatever, versus someone who’s from a totally different way of thinking, very creative. Like I said, I just don’t want to see the outcome, to be honest. I don’t want to see how that ends… I want that tension, if you will, to be there forever. I want to see – we need both. We need both, but, so, I’m not going to say one is better than the other, but that’s why I just don’t want to see the outcome. (Laughs)

That kind of connects to, there’s been kind of people talking about, if New Japan is trying to Westernize the product, or make it more, you could say quote-unquote mainstream, but not mainstream in Japan – really just Westernize the product to increase the international expansion. How do you respond to things like that, or is there any truth to that?

Well, first of all, I mean, what is the definition of Westernization?

Yeah, that’s a great question.

I mean, nobody’s – everybody says, “Oh, you’re trying to do this or trying to do that,” but what is that? What is the Westernization of wrestling? I don’t know. It’s for the fans to decide what that is. But I can tell you, if it’s the definition that I have, which might be very much different from yours or anyone else’s out there – it’s their own definition, I think – but if it’s my definition of what I think Westernization of wrestling is, then we’re trying to do the exact opposite.

I am trying to bring the – I believe that our difference, our uniqueness, is actually the Japanese part of wrestling, the Japanese way of wrestling. Now, it’s very difficult to define what that is too… and again, it’s up to the fans to decide, well, what is the Japanese-ness, then?… But I believe that it’s in our name. We are New Japan Pro Wrestling, so I’m trying to bring the Japanese way, the Japanese way of wrestling, to the global audience. And this has to do much more with the philosophy that we talked about earlier, but also our traditions. It has to do with the way we bring and educate, if you will, our wrestlers… We have great talent. We have great matches.

But yes, if you’re saying, “Oh, you’re trying to Westernize it by bringing more English content,” then yes, we are, because I believe that most of our interviews for example, or most of our videos that explain the match or explain the emotions of the wrestlers before a match, or even post-match comments, yes, most of that is in Japanese. So I am trying to bring more of that content in English, and together with the history, for example the history of the Bullet Club, for example, the history of Chaos, for example, the faction, is something that we will bring out in English, because I want to explain the richness of that history to an audience that may not have been exposed to it as much as Japanese fans. So yes, I’m trying to bring more English content, but I’m not trying to change anything within the ring. I’m actually trying to bring exactly that essence to the Western audience.

And incidentally, you know, we do talk about American-type wrestling, Japanese-type wrestling we’ve been discussing, Mexican, maybe even British – those four might be the big four, but as talent gets exchanged, or as talent moves between promotions and as we, of course, start wrestling overseas and some other promotions are wrestling in Japan, I think the differences between those will start to merge a little bit more so it will be less pointed, in that sense. More like a global standardization, if you will. But no, I’m trying to do the exact opposite, so, I’m trying to bring Japan as is.

Okay, and talking about the uniqueness of New Japan, what do you think makes New Japan unique as a promotion?

So, first of all, again, we’re trying to deliver a Japanese wrestling experience. So, what is that? And again, your definition will be different from my definition. But I believe the Japanese wrestling experience centers around our philosophy of how we see wrestling. So what is that? Well, first of all, we see it as a sport. The wins and the losses matter. It matters very much to the wrestlers. It matters very much to the fans. So it’s a serious sport…

The other thing that we constantly expect, but also the wrestlers always deliver, is they’re trying to constantly improve themselves by making new moves, by going back to the drawing board, by reinventing themselves. I think that’s very important for them to expand as a wrestler. So that’s another thing.

The other big one is that we emphasize a lot about mental training. When you go through our dojo system, you don’t just learn the physical aspects, like the moves and that kind of thing, ad the bodybuilding and all that. That’s part of it, but that’s probably half of it. The other half is the mental part, and this stems from the traditions of martial arts in Japan, which has a very rich history, as you probably know. So as you know, our Young Lions, it takes years for them to train in the dojo, go through that kind of not just physical, but the mental training as well, you know, it takes up to like three years, sometimes five years, for them to debut in our ring as their own independent wrestler. So we’re actually turning, I hate to say boys, but people straight out of, you know, school, into men, and that’s what the dojo does…

The other one is that because we emphasize wrestling as a sport and we take it that seriously, we don’t rely on many other things like mic performances. We do do it, of course, but nowhere near as what you might have seen at other promotions. We don’t rely on mic performance because we don’t think we need to. And the other thing that is very important is our wrestlers’ ring personas aren’t artificially created. A lot of them is that’s what they want to do, or that’s what they want to be…

Because I always say, you know, the wrestlers don’t work for us. We work with them. So it’s not a, how do you say, top-down relationship. It’s a symbiotic one, and I think that’s very important. So we like to work with them creatively, we get input from them. Of course, we make input too, but it’s much more of a balance… a discussion between equals.

And I believe that if fans give us a chance by watching one of our matches, be it live or on video, like on World, New Japan Pro Wrestling World, they will see and experience that kind of uniqueness, and I think that will make them fall in love with New Japan Pro Wrestling just like I did when I was eight years old.

I’ve heard that the Young Lions here at the [LA] Dojo have like the same rules as in Japan, so they’re also bringing that same mental training to this dojo.

I think the only exception we didn’t do here is that they don’t have to cut their hair.

Oh yeah, nobody had the buzz cut at the [Fighting Spirit Unleashed] dark match.

No, they didn’t. But we do that in Japan. But I think that’s the only difference.

Let’s talk about why you chose to get into the pro wrestling industry from other, more normal industries.

Well, obviously, I love wrestling, so that’s one of the key things. If you can do a job with something that you love already, you just get some kind of a magic power from it, I think. I really do believe that. But besides that, New Japan has always, for the last forty-six years, always delivered wrestling, incredible matches, but I think they can use some help with the business side of it. Not the wrestling, not in the ring part, but outside the ring, as a business operation.

And this is because – and this is what a lot of Japanese companies are facing right now – is that to globalize a company, you need to have global thinking. You need to have global experience. You need to have the ability, not just language, but the ability to think like your counterparts overseas, so with your partners or your business partners, the negotiation process is totally different between how Japanese companies negotiate together as it is with a Western company. The rules are different… the skills are different. So I believe as we grow we need to have these types of global skills and experience.

So things like branding. Branding is completely different in Japan than it would be overseas, not just for wrestling, but I’m talking in general for companies and brands. But the protection of those brands also, the negotiation processes… the legal compliances you have to go through or adhere to are different in Japan than they would be on a global standard, and the other way around. But those are all different things that as you scale up the business, you need to have those kinds of people, like myself, who have that kind of an experience. So I thought that’s how I could help this industry really, or this company, but especially the whole industry, because that’s really what we are, so grow overseas.

So you’re bringing things from the business world to wrestling, but have you noticed any big differences besides just they need help with branding between wrestling and other industries?

Well, it’s a completely different thing that I’m doing now. I mean, up to now I’ve worked for companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever… and every time in marketing and sales, but every time what I’ve been doing is selling a product and selling a brand. In this case, that’s not what I’m doing. We are creating and delivering an emotion, an experience, and that is completely different than just delivering a product to someone. Because a product, as long as it’s good, it’s safe, and it’s affordable, so it has a good price point, then your promise, if you will, to the consumer is fulfilled. So they’re happy. But wrestling is much more fluid, I believe. It’s changing conditions. You’re talking with emotions, the situations change all the time, so these are all things that you cannot see or you cannot predict.

I can change this design of this bottle of water right now. I can make it any color. I cannot do that to a wrestler; I cannot say, “From now on, you will do this, that, and the other thing.” I’m talking to a human being here, a creative human being who is trying to express himself in the ring. So it doesn’t quite work like a product. I think that’s one thing that’s so special. But, because it is so special, that’s why that experience and the memory that you get can last a lifetime, as it did for me. That’s how it was for me. So it’s more of a personal thing that we’re doing than just selling a product. So yeah, that’s the big difference, I think, between what I’ve been doing so far in business and wrestling.

Okay, and connecting with dealing with creative human beings and kind of a unique thing – at least, I’ve only been working connected to wrestling for like a year, and this is different for me than just, like, normal jobs – is backstage rumor reports… Recently you responded to one, and I’m wondering how do you deal with those, and what’s your opinion on those reports?

Well, first of all, there’s going to be rumors in any industry, of course. Now, of course, this industry happens to have more than the fair share, if you will, of rumors. But the way I see it is, like, look, people by nature don’t like to change. They don’t like it. They like to have the same thing over and over, so when someone comes in and tries to change things, even though I’m trying to change things for the better, of course, people just don’t like that. Now, I’m hired and I am here to bring New Japan to the next level. I said that in my first debut, if you will, in the ring, as well, to the fans… That means there are going to be some changes, and we’ll have to adapt to global standards as well. So that is why I’ve been banning things like the f-word, like the middle finger, or shooting water out of your mouth onto the fans. These are things that may have been okay in Japan, but on a global standard are just not acceptable. But when I do that, you know, there are people who don’t like those kind of changes. And I think that is why you start getting rumors. But as far as morale is concerned, I mean, last year we generated our highest sales ever in the forty-six-year history of the company. We’re attracting a lot of global talent to our ring and to our promotion. And I think having talked to our wrestlers, the morale is actually extremely high.

The other thing is though, that you have to remember is that as we are growing and as we are bringing our presence more overseas, it is true that therefore we do become a target. Up to now, we were probably small or maybe, you might want to say too small… that we were not a particular target. But we are now, which is another thing that, it just comes with the territory.

The other thing is, of course, is that our English abilities have greatly improved. I think in the past that there probably were rumors and things being said about our promotion or our wrestlers, but because of our lack of English abilities that we probably never noticed it, or at least not as much as we do now. So that when we hear things now we can respond to them because we’re hearing them…

Have you have any challenges related to [being the first non-Japanese president of New Japan?]

I mean, if you look at me, I am a foreigner. I look like a foreigner. I mean, I do have a Dutch nationality, so I am a foreigner in that sense. So I think at first the fans were obviously taken aback, that wait, now there’s this foreigner running our wrestling promotion, right? He’s going to be the boss of our wrestlers. I mean, that’s really how people would have seen me back then. But as soon as they see that I’ve been in Japan so long, I’ve been here thirty-five years, that I, you know, read, write, and speak fluent Japanese, but I also have the Japanese mentality as much as I need to have. I can be as Western as I need to be, or when I need to be, or I can be just as Japanese as I need to be. And over the telephone, you cannot tell that I’m a foreigner. Many people see me in person, they go, “Wait, you’re not the person I talked to – oh, what? But you’re a foreigner?”

… But I also have been communicating to the fans directly through my columns, what you would call a blog here, but through my columns. I do a lot of fan service – so “fan service” means when the fans come to our matches, when I’m there I go meet and greet them and I talk to and take a picture with them, and give them a little sticker – oh, by the way, I still have to give you one. So every time I meet someone and take a picture with them, I give them one of these – (He gives me a sticker.)

Emily Pratt

Oh, thank you!

So I thank you for being a great New Japan Pro Wrestling supporter… And people actually collect these things now. I respond to fan letters that I get from fans. I read constantly a lot of the tweets that are written about the company and our wrestlers so that I can respond to them as well. So I think the Japanese fans are now seeing that I am almost Japanese. So I think I’m being accepted as such as well, so I don’t think there’s any issue of that right now, but at first, of course, there was the “Wait, what’s going on?”

And did you start the columns, or the blog, with the purpose of letting them get to know you?

No, actually the trigger was because I’d heard that because I’m a foreigner and the president, the CEO, that I was trying to Westernize, well, Americanize or Westernize, depends which word you use, wrestling, and I said, “Well, that’s just exactly the opposite.” That was the trigger to start my column, to say, “No, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to keep our traditions. Just build on them, but yes, adapt to global standards, that might be true…”

And this is pretty unrelated, but especially, I think, American fans, or at least fans that I interact with on the English-speaking internet, notice that there’s a higher percentage of women at New Japan shows – and there’s a wide variety of ages – but people are always like, “Wow, there’s a lot more women at these than at American shows,” and as, like, a woman who goes to shows in America, I’m like, “Wow, there are so many more here! That’s cool!” But why do you think New Japan has so many female fans?

Well, normally we have forty to fifty percent are women, so almost half, which is quite incredible indeed. Ten percent are kids under twelve, and then, you know, depending on the match, but forty to fifty are men. That’s how it breaks down. But the reason is… that we have that much of a variety of wrestlers. We have good-looking ones, we have funny ones, we have Young Lions, we have strong, power ones, we have hero types, so there’s different wrestlers that you can fall in love with. That, I think, is one key one.

The other one is that we take incredible care and look at the details of our environment, environment meaning the venue, so that it becomes friendly for not just men, but for women as well. For example, we go out of our way to take care of any claims – claims means like, if someone has a problem, an issue, or if something happened – with our fans… Just recently, for example, it was totally natural to me, but I was photographed doing it, so it’s out there, so I can tell you…

So what happened was, we had an outside of the ring brawl, so the wrestlers came outside the ring and smashed into the seats where the fans were sitting. And one of the seats hit a lady in the knee. And she was okay, it wasn’t broken or anything, it just kind of bumped into her, but obviously it had hurt, so when she sat down I could see her from the monitor, how do you say, rubbing her knee. Like to get rid of the pain I guess. So I walked… in the arena while the match was still going on, and I sat next to her and said, “Oh, are you okay? What can we do for you?”… that kind of thing. And this picture was shot of me taking care of this one fan. And we put some ice on it; it was not an issue. But what I’m saying is, even the president goes out there and takes care of any potential issue with a fan, so I think… when people see that, they think it’s a safe and good environment for women as well to come to.

And, of course, the third one is, and I think it’s… a good opportunity to make new friends based on a common interest or hobby, if you want to call it that. Fans in Japan are very, and I’ve experienced this myself, as a fan, are very welcoming to people who even don’t know much about wrestling, so there’s not like, “Oh, you don’t know anything about wrestling. Why are you here?” It’s exactly the opposite. “Oh, is this your first time? Well, let me tell you about…” and then they give you all kinds of information. “That guy is this. Okay, he’s Tanahashi, and he was here from whatever” and they give you the whole nine yards. And it’s wonderful because suddenly you get friends that you never thought were there in a couple of hours. And I see that a lot with the women too, they go, “Oh, hello, so-and-so…” they weren’t probably friends before outside of our venues. It’s not like they were high school friends or anything; they became friends watching pro wrestling. And I think that’s another great way for women to come to make new friends.

And I think I have just one more question, what do you think the future holds for New Japan? I guess you already talked about this.

We did, but look, I mean, again, I believe wrestling is one of the few sports that can be truly global. Because I’ve experienced it myself, there is no language barrier. I mean, yes, it’s good to have the commentary and the color commentary and all that, but even if you didn’t have that, you would still get it. And, I mean, the rules are quite, you know, simple, if you want to put it that way, so it’s easy to understand. Fighting is a global phenomenon. Everybody, no matter what culture or religion or whether you’re a man or a woman or a kid, you have that in you as a human being. So… being able to see that is something that anyone in the whole world can enjoy. So that makes it, for me, very universal.

So I think that’s why globalization is such a natural step for us as well. But it’s not just that, I also believe there’s huge opportunities within Japan as well, on the local scene. So not just in Tokyo or Osaka or the biggest cities, but more to the outside of the big cities. There’s still plenty of people that haven’t been exposed to this form of sport, and I still believe there’s a lot of potential there as well. But again, like I said, if the fans just give us a chance by watching one match, in person or on our World or whatever, I think they will fall in love with it. I keep saying it, but that’s the truth. That’s what I believe.