Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

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When you hear the words Japan and wrestling, do you immediately think about sumo? This sport is, after all, a very traditional icon of Japanese culture. But did you know that Japan has another wrestling sport? It’s called puroresu.

Puroresu is Japan’s pro-wrestling scene, having been around since the late 1800s and becoming mainstream by the 1960s with the rise of Rikidozan. Since then, Puroresu has gone through dramatic changes with a history as colorful and full of drama as some of the bouts.

The Japanese pronounce professional wrestling as “puro reshingu” (プロフェッショナル·レスリング) but have fondly shortened it to “puroresu.” It’s a full combat sport that is as popular as sumo and baseball. Let me briefly discuss the past and present of puroresu, with emphasis on major promotions and famous fighters.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene
Torakichi Matsuda
Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

Pioneer Wrestlers

Torakichi Matsuda

We start with the late 1880s. Torakichi Matsuda (aka Sorakichi Matsuda) began his career as a sumo wrestler. He transitioned from sumo to pro wrestling when he went to the United States in 1883. His first wrestling match was on January 14, 1884, in New York against an English wrestler named Edwin Bibby. He went on to become a featured fighter in wrestling tournaments.

Some historians state that Matsuda went to the USA with Shokichi Hamada (aka Sangokuyama, his sumo name in Japan). He also trained to become a pro wrestler. In 1887, Matsuda held an American pro wrestling exhibition at Ginza. The event was a flop but it still retains the distinction of being the first puroresu bout in Japan.

Rikidozan, Father of Puroresu

Puroresu became popular when Rikidozan came to the sport.

Rikidozan was a Korean immigrant named Kim Sin-rak. Like his predecessors, he was originally a sumo wrestler going by the Japanese name Mitsuhiro Momota. He quit the sport partly because of social discrimination against non-Japanese fighters. He made his wrestling debut in 1951 as Rikidozan. His opponents were mostly American fighters. Since this was after World War II when Japan was under American occupation, seeing a “Japanese” fighter beat Westerner made the Japanese root for him.

Rikidozan became so popular that he helped lift puroresu’s popularity to the level of sumo and baseball. In 1953, he established the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA). Through the JWA, Rikidozan competed in other countries and invited foreign pro-wrestlers to Japan to promote matches.

Although the JWA was based on an American pro wrestling model, Rikidozan continued to use his trademark karate chop and sumo moves to defeat his opponents. Thus, he established puroresu’s distinct style of incorporating martial arts into wrestling matches. Unlike American wrestling, Rikidozan’s puroresu was less about the theatrics and more about the hits, warrior spirit, perseverance, and clean finishes. No wonder the Japanese populace loved him.

Unfortunately, Rikidozan died at the age of 39 in December 1963. He was stabbed by a Yakuza member named Katsuji Murata. There is no historical record of whether the stabbing was over a personal disagreement between the two men or if it was an ordered hit from a Yakuza group.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

Expansion of Puroresu

Rikidozan died with many projects left unfinished. For a while, the JWA continued to be the foremost Japanese wrestling promotion but soon it began to break up. It faced heavy competition from the newly-formed International Wrestling Enterprise (IWE), which organized matches with European wrestlers and staging “death matches.” But it further went into decline when two of its top students had a falling out.

Kanji Inoki, Shohei Baba, And Michiharu Toyonobori

The second generation of superstar wrestlers were Rikidozan’s students: Kanji “Antonio” Inoki, Shohei “Giant” Baba, and Michiharu Toyonobori (aka Michiharu Sadano).

Inoki was innately athletic while Baba had his humongous build going for him (he stood at 6’10” quite big for a Japanese guy at that time). The two began as a tag team. They even won the NWA International Tag Team Championship in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, Toyonobori was also a sumo wrestler who turned to puroresu. He was more senior than Inoki and Baba. So when Rikidozan died Toyonobori became JWA’s President.

But when Toyonobori was defeated in several bouts and JWA failed to get titles, JWA promoted Baba as its new ace. Eventually, Toyonobori was forced to resign from his presidency and was evicted by JWA in 1966. In retaliation, he formed the Tokyo Pro Wrestling promotion.

JWA Split Up

Inoki made a failed attempt to follow Toyonobori’s footsteps but he floundered and went back to JWA. Upon his return, he tried to stage a coup to get control of JWA. The coup failed and he was fired from JWA in 1971. Baba saw that the JWA was struggling to stay afloat so he decided not to renew his contract with the promotion.

In 1972, Inoki went on to form the New Japan Pro Wrestling (aka NJPW or New Japan) while Baba and Rikidozan’s two sons formed the All Japan Pro Wrestling (aka AJW or All Japan)—two of the most popular and influential promotions throughout puroresu’s history.

JWA officially closed in 1973, but New Japan and All Japan thrived under the distinct styles of their founders.

The Rise Of NJPW And AJW

New Japan reflected Inoki’s athleticism. It conducted mixed-skill competitions with aspects of wrestling, martial arts, and even boxing. Matches favored technique and the credibility of the performance. It helped that New Japan managed to get great wrestlers from JWA like Tatsumi Fujinami who popularized the dragon sleeper and the dragon suplex moves. The promotion also established relationships with mixed martial arts organizations all over the world. Inoki and Karl Gotch (aka Charles Istaz), a Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestler, established the strong style of puroresu. This involved full-contact strikes using martial arts, kicks, and submission holds.

Inoki also favored flashy matches. He once organized a match on a deserted island and one against judoka Olympian Willem Ruska. But one of the most popular matches he ever had been against the legendary Muhammad Ali at the Nippon Budokan in 1976. The match was promoted very heavily, but the fight itself lacked intensity since the fighters had to follow a lot of rules and restrictions. Fans did not like it at all. But the match established mixed martial arts (MMA) in Japan.

Meanwhile, All Japan focused more on brawling and holds. It also perpetuated drama and storytelling elements into wrestling which usually focus on a fighter’s perseverance and fighting spirit. Unlike Inoki, Baba did not want his wrestlers to fight outside of Japan. Instead, American wrestlers were invited to perform in Japan. Since Baba fought with their wrestlers, All Japan had strong relations with the American National Wrestling Alliance.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

The 80’s Generation

All Japan struck gold with the third generation of wrestlers. Some of them were Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta, who was the first wrestler to win the All Japan Triple Crown championship, and Genichiro Tenryu. These wrestlers honed their moves with legendary American wrestlers Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk. The Funks themselves became fan favorites despite being foreigners.

Promotion Of Foreign Wrestlers

As a side note, foreigners were allowed to join puroresu promotions to drum up more interest in the sport. Traditionally, they were separated from Japanese wrestlers. They even had their own lockers. Terry Funk was one of the few who was allowed to share a dressing room with Japanese fighters. Some of the other who managed to break this social barrier were Big Van Vader, Bruiser Brody, Terry Gordy, Stan Hansen, The Dynamite Kid, and The Road Warriors.

Over at New Japan, one of its most famous young wrestlers in the 1980s was Satoru Sayama who took on the character Tiger Mask. Sayama was so good that Tiger Mask became popular among children as well as adult fans.

The Formation Of UWF

Sayama became so popular that he quit from New Japan and, together with other wrestlers, formed the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). This promotion conducted matches that were scripted MMA competitions. But the company did not last long mainly because Sayama and fellow founder Akira Maeda disagreed on fighting styles. When UWF folded, most of its fighters went back to New Japan.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

Declining Years

In 1990, Tenryu left All Japan when he accepted the invitation of Megane Super to be the company’s spokesperson. At that time, Megane Super was the biggest eye-glass making company. With Tenryu in their company, Megane Super decided to form the Super World of Sports (SWS). This promotion was famous for its agreement with the US World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The cross-promotional events brought in WWF superstars like Hulk Hogan to Japan. But in 1992, Japan’s economic bubble popped, which led to SWS folding.

Other events led to the general decline of puroresu’s popularity.

The Economies Affect On Wrestling

Baba and Inoki’s generation of wrestlers began retiring. Fans lessened when familiar faces began disappearing. Broadcasts of puroresu matches were moved from primetime to late-night slots. Puroresu mixed with other sports, which led to new hybrids and watered-down the purity of the sport. Specifically, MMA entered the Japanese mainstream and pulled in the fans through Pancrase, K-1, and Pride Fighting Championships. Since WWF became a television sensation, it became harder to invite foreign wrestlers to Japan so matches focused on Japanese wrestlers. Large scale events were held in Tokyo Dome and other big venues. Although fans flocked to these events, they did not garner as many attendees as previous generations did.

During this era, the most popular wrestlers were not surprisingly from New Japan or All Japan. Masahiro Chono, Keiji “The Great Muta” Mutohh, and Shinya Hashimoto from New Japan were collectively known as Tokon Sanjushi (Three Musketeers). Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue from All Japan were known as Shitennoh (Four Heavenly Kings).

The Four Heavenly Kings

Because MMA was popular, Inoki pressured his wrestlers to adopt this style. He even brought in martial artists to teach his wrestlers.

In 1991, the annual G1 (Grade 1) Climax tournament began. Those who enter the event are mostly in the heavyweight category although it officially does not have a weight limit. It follows a round-robin format. It’s become one of the biggest tournaments until today.

In 1992, New Japan began the annual tradition of the Tokyo Dome Show held every January 4th under the Wrestle Kingdom banner.

In 1999, Baba died and left the presidency of All Japan to one of the Heavenly Kings, Misawa. But Misawa had a huge disagreement with Baba’s widow, Motoko Baba, who became the default owner of the promotion. Misawa wanted to guide the All Japan into a more modern path while Motoko wanted it to remain the same.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene
Pro-Wrestling Noah 2018 Navigation for the Future Poster

Drama in the 2000s

Misawa left All Japan in 2000 and established Pro Wrestling Noah. He managed to entice the majority of All Japan wrestlers to move to his promotion. This made his company the premier promotion for most of the 2000s.

Misawa’s move crippled All Japan and nearly killed off the promotion. It adapted by holding matches with wrestlers from New Japan. A big help came from an unexpected source. One of New Japan’s Three Musketeers, Mutoh, transferred to All Japan. He became the president in 2002. His Puroresu Love campaign tried to drum up more interest in the sport during the 2000s.

A New Movement For Puroresu

After the All Japan-New Japan collaboration, inter-promotion matches became a standard practice among other major and independent promotions. Promoting puroresu as sports-entertainment also began to be done. Independent organizations like Fantasy Fight Wrestle-1 and Hustle Entertainment were proponents of this movement.

On the other side, New Japan fired Hashimoto. Some stories say that this was because Inoki was unhappy with Hashimoto’s performance. Others say that this was because New Japan threw out Hashimoto’s proposal to create an affiliate promotion. There was also an incident where judo Olympian Naoya Ogawa made a shoot move (some say based on instructions from Inoki) that incensed New Japan wrestlers and fans alike. The match was stopped and the other wrestlers attacked Ogawa. Some say this fight was staged, others say it was a real attack against Hashimoto’s career.

Pro Wrestling Zero1

Hashimoto formed Pro Wrestling Zero1 in 2000. This promotion became an affiliate of New Japan from 2001-2004 and briefly in 2014. But Hashimoto resigned from Zero1 in 2004 and fellow founder, Shinjiro Otani, became the president. Hashimoto died the following year. In 2001, Inoki sold New Japan to video game company Yuke’s to continue the Tokyo Dome events.

In 2006, Misawa tried to unify Japan’s puroresu by establishing the Global Professional Wrestling Alliance, but the Alliance did not achieve its target and it folded one year after its establishment. Misawa died in 2009, which led to serious problems within Noah.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

A New Decade

In 2012, Yuke’s sold New Japan to card game company Bushiroad. The promotion began offering pay-per-view broadcasts to attract a wide audience outside Japan. Meanwhile, the All Japan had a steady history under Mutoh until 2012 when two of its major wrestlers were involved in a controversy. Yoshikazu Taru argued with Nobukazu “Super Hate” Hirai backstage before a match. The argument escalated and Taru beat Hirai almost to a pulp. Before this incident, Hirai suffered a chair shot to the head in a previous match. Despite Hirai’s injuries, Mutoh still allowed Hirai to go to his match. Hirai collapsed during the match. He was rushed to the hospital where he had brain surgery but he eventually went into a coma. The press had a field day. Mutoh was forced to resign from his position. Taru was fired from All Japan and later arrested for his crime. People who witnessed the backstage fight but did not stop it were suspended. The Baba family completely pulled out of the franchise.

Global Promotions

With the mess going on in All Japan and with a new sponsor, New Japan bounced back by conducting tours and cross-promotions across North America and Europe. The promotion also adopted a style that focused more on sports entertainment and drama than Inoki’s strong style. In 2018, it appointed its first non-Japanese president, Dutch businessman Harold Meij.

No other attempt was made after Misawa tried to create one governing authority for puroresu. But, despite this, various promotions follow general standards and specific rules within their organizations.

A Look At Standardized Rules

For example, each match must have at least two “corners” although there are team matches that follow tag team rules. These rules were as followed:

  • A “fall” follows standards of professional wrestling.
  • “Pinning” is when one wrestler pins the shoulders of another until the referee counts to three.
  • “Submission” is considered final when one wrestler taps out or verbally submits to his/her opponent.
  • “Knockout” follows universal rules of a fighter being unable to regain composure upon the referee’s command.
  • “Countout” is when a fighter does not get back into the ring after a count of 20 (Western wrestling uses a count of 10).
  • “Disqualification” is when a fighter breaks any of the rules.

An example of a specific rule is the Japanese Universal Wrestling Federation’s policy on victories. Only submissions and knockouts are allowed and pinning is not considered a valid victory. Other organizations do not allow fighters to punch each other in the ring.

They instead use sumo-like open-palm strikes and stiff forearms. Over-all, puroresu continues to be primarily a full-contact sport. Chair shots (which many believe was one of the reasons Hirai suffered a head trauma) and headbutts are still allowed.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

Joshi Puroresu

In 1948, a tiny promotion called All Japan Women’s Wrestling Club was formed. It tried to promote women’s wrestling but this never really took off. In 1954, Mildred Burke’s World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) toured Japan. As a result, the Japanese became more interested in female wrestling.

In 1955, the All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling Association was formed to organize official matches for joshi puroresu (women professional wrestling) or joshi puro. But due to infighting, the Association collapsed.

Joshi Puro Finally Takes Off

Joshi puro officially became popular in 1967 when the All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Corporation (aka Zenjo) was established, mainly because it had an agreement with Fuji TV to air its matches. In 1970, Zenjo’s Aiko Kyo won the WWWA World Single Championship. The following year, Kyo and fellow Zenjo member Jumbo Miyamoto took home the WWWA World Tag Team Championship.

But the promotion’s first true stars were Mach Fumiake and the “Beauty Pair” Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda who dominated their matches.

Mariko Umeda

Generally, the history of Joshi Puroresu has been solid and consistent, except for one major issue in the late 90s. Zenjo continued to feature extraordinarily talented women wrestlers. In 1985, Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling was established. Puroresu and joshi puro sometimes shared cards. Both sides recognized the legitimacy of the titles of the other. Joshi puro was as physical as and sometimes even more athletic than its male counterpart. 

But in 1997, joshi puro suffered a hit it did not need when Zenjo’s Mariko Umeda (aka Plum Mariko) died from head trauma that she had during a tag-team fight. She was only 29 at that time.

The Future Of Joshi Puro

In recent years, Joshi Puro has really taken off in popularity, especially in the west. America’s WWE is partly responsible for this as they’ve been signing a lot of female Japanese wrestlers who’ve become fan favorites such as Kairi Sane (Kaori Housako), Asuka (Kanako Urai), and Io Shirai (Masami Odate).

Toward the end of 2019-mid 2020, the global popularity of joshi puro continued to rise as Stardom’s Hana Kimura was featured on the famous Netflix Japan series, Terrace House. Her promotion of joshi puro led to an increase of international fans. Tragically, COVID-19 had led to the cancellation of most matches, and the suicide of Hana after facing harsh criticism and harassment on social media from the show.

Despite a rough start into the new decade, joshi puro has a very promising future ahead. After all, everyone is eager to return to some normalcy in life, and companies are definitely planning huge events to get their fans back to the ring.

Is Pro Wrestling Popular In Japan? — The History Behind Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Scene

See You In The Ring…

Although the sport does not attract as big a crowd as it did during its golden age, puroresu is still popular in Japan today and even has a huge following worldwide. It’s also continuing to evolve rapidly as the years go on. Where do you think it’s headed next? Do you plan to get some tickets and show up to an event in Japan?

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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