Englishman, Lee Burbridge has been visiting Japan on and off for years now. A few years ago he took the plunge and moved their full time. Were he now works; makes toys under his ‘Big Man Toys’ brand; and also wrestles under the name “Jumbo Lee Burbridge” for a variety of companies such as the legendary Triple Six.
We sent him some questions to see how he’s going & learn all about it.
Check it out below…
Name & date of birth?
Lee Burbridge, 1980.
City, State, and Country you currently call home?
City, State, and Country you’re from?
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England.
For those at home who may be unaware – Please sum up who you are, what you do, & why people should be interested in reading this interview with you?
I’m a working class middle aged guy from a hippy family that makes toys and wrestles professionally in Japan.
When and why did you first become interested in the two seemingly disparate, yet oddly connected worlds of wrestling & toy making?
… and any pivotal moments and / or influences to share, regarding each of them?
I always wanted to make toys.
I remember being eight years old and talking about how I’d like to somehow make copies of my M.U.S.C.L.E. figures in different colours. I think the first custom figures I saw were at Mondo Comics in 1991 which was run by Dan who now runs Unbox Industries.
As you could only see wrestling on satellite TV in the UK, I only saw British wrestling until catching WCW on (I think) Irish TV when I lived in Cork as a kid.
I watched as much as I could until 1999 or so when I could finally watch WWF regularly and discovered ECW on VHS.
As I’ve always worked out and more or less looked like a wrestler, it wasn’t hard to find an “in” to Japanese wrestling when I studied here in 2004.
If people wanted to check out your toys & wrestling; work with you; or buy some of your wares – Where should they visit and how should they get in touch?
My Instagram and bigmantoys.bigcartel.com
I used to have a dot com website but nothing really came through there.
We know you moved to Japan to have fun wrestling and making toys…
How is that all working out for you man?
I’m a bit busier than I’d like to be but it’s objectively the best life I’ve ever lived.
Financially secure, opportunities everywhere, and very likable people involved in everything I do 🙂
Can you please outline your current wrestling activities in Japan?
* Your wrestling name?
Jumbo Lee Burbridge.
* Who you currently wrestle with & for?
I’m a member of Triple Six, and also wrestle for COMBO and a few other companies from time to time.
* Some other Japanese wrestlers you have worked with and admired?
I admire them all, really.
The standard is so high in 666 now.
* How and where people can watch you wrestle!
Keep an eye on triplesix.jp or hashtag #pr666.
You can follow my Instagram for my other wrestling too.
* What’s the wrestling scene like in Japan?
All I ever wanted was some taste of the late 90s/early 2000s indie wrestling experience. Heavy metal entrances, rough guys scaring the audience.
It’s like I got a golden ticket to go back and do it all.
What is your current process for producing, making, & selling your toys?
Aside from a recent sofubi that I did with Grody Shogun, everything I do now is 3D printed.
I discovered a wonderful app called Nomad Sculpt for smartphones and it means that I can sculpt the entire time I’m sat on trains or waiting in queues.
I still use Z-brush to finish off my models, and still use clay and putty to finish off physical pieces sometimes.
Since last year, Japan Post stopped offering cheap airmail for small packets overseas. Until then I was happily shovelling out micro-figures and playsets twice a week to the States.
Right now, I sell way more toys in a little glass box I rent out at the famous toy mecca Nakano Broadway. It works well for me as I can just swing by, put more stuff in, and I don’t have to chew my nails about if stuff will arrive with the customer.
I make a lot of large one-off 3D printed pieces that sell out fast.
That said, as of recently, I can now offer $10 airmail worldwide again which will make a big difference to bigmantoys.bigartel.com!
Second to that, I almost always have a M.U.S.C.L.E. style commission that I’m working on for someone else.
I still keep up my horror-related minifigures line on the web-store.
How do you stay in tip-top wrestling shape in Japan – psychically, mentally, and skill wise?
When all the gyms closed due to COVID, I decided to just run around and do lots of sit-ups so that my 105kg frame didn’t all melt to fat. That departure from weight-training left me with visible abs and not much less muscle at all.
Since then, my training is a lot more holistic. I have to train based on the fact I’m not young, my body is often beat-up, and I might have only had four hours of sleep. So some days I will just do Hindu squats or push-ups.
Above all else I try to be kind of my nervous system. If I feel like I’m going to get ill, I’ll spend a night sleeping and watching old Twilight Zones with a bag of snacks.
When training in the ring, I have a tendency to over-think. So the same as working out, I just treat it like a process.
Everything has some value, even if it feels monotonous or trivial.
Can you please share with us your usual day to day life as an expat in Japan?
Such as work, shopping, politics, interacting with the local people and culture… etc.
Wake up, tasty breakfast, fast bike ride to station on my little e-bike, packed Tokyo train to work at an international kindergarten. Manage lots of different things while acting goofy for the kids, nap on a couch in a shopping precinct after lunch, bang out rest of work, then onto a gym or wrestling ring somewhere to train.
After that, I’ve usually got time for a bath, dinner, and episode of something.
Almost all my social media, comms etc is done on the train.
So not only do you wrestle & make toys, you also work with; & teach children!
You are a veritable superhero!
Which makes us wonder…
* How did you originally get into teaching & working with children?
I was an English teacher here 15 years ago and specialised in kid’s classes. I’m goofy and can match their energy while also stopping them going crazy in class.
My old boss got in touch when I said I was aiming to come back to Japan and that was it! My original plan was to get an artist or entertainment visa but that’s very hard unless you’ve been here a while already.
* What’s it like working as a teacher in Japan as a foreigner?
I actually retired 4 days ago so I can spend more time with toys and get into the fitness industry here, but I loved it. The chain English conversation schools are easy but quite unrewarding, but working in a kindergarten I got to see kids through 3 years of their life, spending as much with them as their own parents.
Not wanting to sound like cheeser but you see a kid’s outlook on the world. The fears, the gratitude, the excitement – you realise so much about how you turned out the way you did.
It’s like a caricature of an adult for demonstration purposes.
Better than any therapy I could have had. I walked away liking the human race about three times as much as I did when I started.
* Can you please share with us the boring bureaucratic details regarding working in Japan as a foreigner?
(I.E: Do you need a specific visa? Are you taxed higher? Etc.)
I just remember that there’s a lot of paperwork and that the immigration office is a swarming mass of depression and the unfriendliest faces in Japan. Saying that, I’ve got that southern smoothness, dear.
I go in super polite with everything prepped and get out pretty fast.
There are a few different types of visa but basically, unless you come in with $50k as a business, get married to a Japanese person, or have a company that can sponsor an entertainment visa, you will be working full time.
Artist visas are like a lottery of how they perceive your status.
I think we get taxed the same and are eligible to all the benefits of a Japanese person – I got $1000 straight into my account when COVID closed everything down.
Are you currently dating or seeing anyone in Japan?
… if so, how is that working out for you?
If you do anything public in Japan, you’re supposed to keep quiet about that stuff…
But if I were dating anyone, I’d have to tell you that she’s a pleasure to live with, also makes toys, and enjoys all the little things we do together like cheap excursions out of the city, and urban exploring.
… and what is it like pursuing love, romance, and even just plain sex as a foreigner in Japan?
You can basically choose what you’re after.
Tokyo is a cosmopolitan city with millions of people, and they’re almost all working and out there in society.
I think most people go the traditional route of getting to know people from work or weekend activities but there is an infinite revolving door of shagging on the dating apps and in clubs for people that like that lifestyle, and given the necessity to be highly functioning just to get by here, people are generally quite attractive.
I think overall, it’s nice though.
There’s no real battle of the sexes to think about as a foreigner – people take you at face value rather than project onto you.
What advice and tips would you give to anyone about moving to Japan to live and work as a foreigner?
You will work very hard and be tired. So you have to be ready to handle that while making other plans.
For me, the commutes, the level of pressure and being forever busy is worth it for now. I’ve been here four years and built up a happy life with money in the bank and more chances to do what I want than ever.
How do you currently survive in Japan financially?
… do you have a day job? Savings? Live off your wrestling & toy making?
Compared to how I was in England, I’m pretty comfortable.
Most of my money comes from the day-job but on a good weekend of toy-making and wrestling I can equal what I make during the week.
What changes have you seen in Japan during the few years you have been living in the country?
Maybe it’s because I’m older but compared to when I was here in 2010, it’s become quite lovely.
I used to get a good bit of xenophobia, to be honest, and even foreigners here were gate-keeping Japan to each other.
Now, being foreign is no big deal. You can live like a normal citizen, and expect to be treated very kindly.
… and where do you see Japan heading over the next 5, 10, and 20 years?
More worldly. And without losing what makes Japan great, too.
Most of us expats want Japan to stay the same and I think Japanese people know that now.
What are some Japanese things (food, media, philosophies, people, sports, culture etc) that you never knew about before, that you have discovered since moving to Japan; & now love?
Please also tell us a little bit about each of them.
To be honest, Japan matched up to my expectations. People are generally really lovely. A bit awkward with foreigners still but you learn to meet them halfway.
I’d have to say the driven creativity – everywhere.
I was cycling under a train bridge where people park their bikes yesterday and in the middle of no-where, in a weird concrete room with no doors, was a private exhibition. It was really good too.
Do you plan on spending the rest of your life in Japan?
Why? / Why not?
I eat delicious food every day, like toys, and like the people.
Germany is my plan B, depending on how things go here and there.
What are some of your most loved & most disliked parts about living in Japan?
… please also explain each of them; and provide 1 or more specific example(s).
I love the ease of living here. You can get whatever you want to eat, easily. There’s always something to do – a new little town to visit, urbex spot, toy show or whatever.
People are at the very least civil and often embarrassingly kind. I don’t know how to handle it.
Needing a visa can be a pain. I can’t just go off the radar and live off of toys like I could in the UK. I can never really stop working.
As far as general annoyances, if I had to complain… gun at my head scenario… I’d say the slow walking. People in Tokyo dilly-dally while looking at their phones, get on the train and just stand in the doorway.
Drives me mad.
One thing we find interesting about Japan is how much of its culture has stayed so unique, due to the political realities in Japan.
Such things as, but not limited to:
– How virtually impossible it is for foreigners to get Japanese citizenship (and associated voting rights in Japan).
– The very traditional social rules & norms
– Nationalism & often associated xenophobia
What are your thoughts on all of this?
Citizenship – I should probably care but I don’t.
I’m not very political.
I go with whoever isn’t letting old people freeze to death in their homes and helps people find careers and good mental health. Japan seems to do a good job of half of that and I doubt I can convince them to jump two decades forwards with their progress and do things like help autistic kids just yet.
Japan has changed so much in the time I was away. I used to get really angry at people constantly staring and talking about me, assuming I couldn’t understand.
People used to freak out on which direction to walk or how to serve me in a shop just for the fact I’m foreign.
I don’t know what happened but now there are two big differences.
One – Foreigners here now speak Japanese and aren’t all alcoholics or weirdos.
Two – There are lots of foreigners, and we don’t stand out like we used to. I rarely get treated like a space mutant except for by the pricks at my local gym, haha. Most of them are nice, too.
I haven’t knowingly encountered a nationalist here since 2009.
Japan does indeed have a very structured society.
One thing I realised about 10 years ago is that I’m a bit weird wherever I go. My little neighbourhood in England was very conservative. They liked the fact I was an animal lover and took care of my garden, but talking about politics or immigration was always something I avoided. English people often like beer, football, and Coldplay.
None of those things feel like my culture.
In Japan, there are expectations of you as a member of society. You’ll get looked at if you talk loud on the train for example. During COVID they were very pro-mask and many people are still a bit coy to take them off. But that’s alright by me.
The thing is people here don’t HAVE to subscribe to societal norms. You can be an old guy wearing a Sailor Moon costume here and no one will beat you up, you can go to a sex dungeon if you want, you just have to wear a tie at work, be there at 8:30, and accept that’s what the company wants.
You might be expected to do overtime every day, but it’s up to you to accept that or not – lots of younger people are breaking off and starting their own businesses and bringing people in to work on very fair terms.
Being “syakaijin” (a society person) is a choice. It depends how much you care about status.
Financially, it’s really easy to get by here without being part of the rat race.
What are your thoughts on Sumo?
… and have you ever given it a try yourself?
Ah it’s alright. I like the spectacle of it.
Nah, still haven’t been to see it, even.
I always find tokusatsu a little tough to watch as I don’t like seeing kaiju – basically animals – hurting each other.
I’d like to think that Tanuki could convince Godzilla it’s all ok.
Poor Godzilla getting blown up and shot at his whole life.
What are the top 3 items you currently own in Japan?
… and what is it about each of them that you so love?
Just 3?? Anything someone makes for me, I keep forever.
A minifigure my significant other made based on the games “Worms” painted to look like me in my wrestling gear. She designed it just a few weeks after I showed her how to sculpt on a phone.
Another minifigure of me that a fan painted to look like an oil painting.
I’m not narcissistic, but it makes sense to have my own toy merch as a wrestler that makes toys. Even though I have a degree in Japanese, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent and it’s nice to have that connection with people.
Different languages and cultures but you collaborate on stuff you love.
Another fan made the brilliant holographic sticker in the background.
The Grody’s Paw from Grody Shogun guy, Luke. It was sculpted by my friend Ralph Niese who passed a couple of years ago. It hit me very hard – he was one of the first people to give me the time of day when I got into toy-making and art.
It meant a lot that I get something he sculpted from a mutual friend, and just a few miles from where I live now.
Odds & Ends
If you could each live in any place, during any historical era – Where and when would that be?
…and why would you choose that time and place?
Any American city with a toy design company in the 80s.
Just to be old enough to get involved in that era of pitching yourself to an action figure or prop/SFX company and getting an on the job education in sculpting, casting, prototyping, etc.
The comics and toys from that era were the things that made me get into art at all in the first place.
What does God mean to you?
I think it’s about a decade since our last interview, and I wasn’t always the happiest of people back then. For me it was the missing ingredient. It’s the key that unlocked the world to me.
Does sex change everything?
It’s like money to rich people.
You need it but you don’t realise how great it is until you’re lacking.
Stolen, but I like it.
Please describe your last dream in detail…
It was a bit too personal but I used to have a recurring nightmare about this dying rabbit covered in blood and gore that followed me relentlessly just wanting to be held before it died.
Of everything you have done so far, what would you most like to be remembered for?
My heroes are the working class gut-busting artists like Dave Brockie who just pounded out their vision, their way. That’s the type of person I model myself on and try to be like:
Able to grind out production, stay inspired, loving art, always creating, always learning, handling business, and spreading as far as I can. Whether it’s a 12 hour shift in a stinky t-shirt of casting and sanding, or putting together a pitch for a product, to a nice full weekend with coffee and Z-brush designing stuff.
- Jumbo Lee Burbridge / Big Man Toys – Instagram
- Jumbo Lee Burbridge / Big Man Toys – twitter
- Jumbo Lee Burbridge – Facebook (Personal)
- Jumbo Lee Burbridge – Cagematch Entry
- Jumbo Lee Burbridge – Triple Six aka 666 Wrestling Page
- Big Man Toys – Online Store
All images supplied by Lee or sourced online.