Professional wrestling in Japan

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Professional wrestling in Japan is commonly referred to as puroresu (?????) in Japanese, short for “professional wrestling” (“purofesshonaru resuringu”). The word puroresu was made popular by Hisaharu Tanabe among the English-speaking fans in the early 1990s through Usenet and online services[1][2][3]. Quite different from professional wrestling in the United States, Puroresu is treated as a combat sport as it mixes full contact martial arts strikes with complex and dangerous submission moves and other types of wrestling like amateur and submission wrestling. While it uses very few storylines or gimmicks, match outcomes are predetermined.

The first Japanese to become a professional wrestler in the Western style was former sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda, who went to the United States in the 1880s and was somewhat successful. Attempts by him to popularize the sport in his native land, however, fell short and he ended back in America, where he died young.

Subsequent attempts before and after World War II failed to get off the ground initially, until Japan saw the advent of its first big star, Rikidozan, who made the sport popular beginning in 1951.

A match can be won by foru (fall; equivalent to pin fall), nokkauto (knockout; failing to answer a ten count), ringu auto (ring out; equivalent to count out), or gibappu (give up; equivalent to submission). Foru occurs when the wrestler holds both of his opponent’s shoulders against the mat for a count of three. Unlike wrestling in North America, a 20 count is used in Japan when a wrestler leaves the ring instead of a 10 count. Additional rules govern how the outcome of the match is to take place, for example the Japanese UWF and its derived Submission Arts Wrestling promotions do not allow pinfalls, just submissions or knockouts.

The dominant styles of Japanese professional wrestling were set in place by the two dominant promotions in Japan. New Japan Pro Wrestling, headed by Antonio Inoki, used Inoki’s “strong style” approach of wrestling as a simulated combat sport. Wrestlers incorporated kicks and strikes from martial arts disciplines, and a strong emphasis was placed on submission wrestling. All Japan Pro Wrestling, under the direction of Shohei Baba, used a style referred to as “King’s Road.” The “King’s Road” style was in large part derived from American wrestling, particularly the style of top wrestlers in the National Wrestling Alliance, such as Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk, and Harley Race, all of whom wrestled for Baba in Japan. As such, “King’s Road” placed a heavy emphasis on working of holds, brawling, and the storytelling elements of professional wrestling.

Throughout the 1990s, three individual styles — shoot style, lucha libre, and “garbage” — were the main divisions of independent promotions, but as a result of the “borderless” trend of the 2000s to have interpromotional matches, the line between rules among major-league promotions and independents has for the most part been blurred to standardization.

A match is fought in a square ringu (ring) surrounded by three ropes, very similar to a boxing ring. Turnbuckles holding the ropes in the corners can be covered either individually (each turnbuckle has its own padding) or collectively (a single padding covering all turnbuckles). Wrestlers often run into the ropes by themselves or throw the opponents against them, employing the ropes’ elasticity for his next attack. Additionally, there are attacks that utilize the squareness of the ring, including climbing onto a corner and jumping off onto the opponent, or pushing the opponent out of the ring from the corner.

Other kinds of rings may be specified by individual rules. A ring may have barbed wires instead of ropes, have six sides of ropes instead of four, or may have explosives set on the boundaries, just to name a few. Some small, obscure independent promotions which rarely draw above 100 fans to its cards on average are so devoid of resources that they have to use amateur mats in place of an actual ring. Examples of these are Koki Kitahara’s Capture International (shoot style) and Mr. Pogo’s WWS.

Puroresu done by female wrestlers is called joshi puroresu (??????). Female wrestling in Japan is usually handled by promotions that specialize in joshi puroresu, rather than divisions of otherwise male-dominated promotions as is the case in the United States (the only exception was FMW, a men’s promotion which had a small women’s division, but even then depended on talent from women’s federations to provide competition). However, joshi puroresu promotions usually have agreements with male puroresu promotions such that they recognize each others’ titles as legitimate, and may share cards.

All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling was the dominant joshi organization from the 1970s to the 1990s. AJW’s first major star was Mach Fumiake in 1974, followed in 1975 by Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda, known as the The Beauty Pair. The early 1980s saw the fame of Jaguar Yokota and Devil Masami, major stars of the second wave of excellent workers who took the place of the glamour-based Beauty Pair generation. That decade would later see the rise of Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, known as The Crush Gals, who as a tag team achieved a level of unprecedented mainstream success in Japan, unheard of by any female wrestler in the history of professional wrestling all over the world. Their long running feud with Dump Matsumoto and her Gokuaku Domei (loose translation: “Atrocious Alliance”) stable would become extremely popular in Japan during the 1980s, with their televised matches resulting in some of the highest rated in Japanese television as well as the promotion regularly selling out arenas. [4]

It is during the 1990s that joshi puroresu has attracted much critical acclaim internationally, and several classic matches during these era competed by select joshi wrestlers were awarded 5-stars by the American wrestling publication Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Notable joshi wrestlers of the 1990s include Manami Toyota, Bull Nakano, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Megumi Kudo, Shinobu Kandori, Kyoko Inoue, Dynamite Kansai, and Mayumi Ozaki.

Primary differences between joshi and American women’s wrestling is the depiction of women in a non-sexualised way and that often the audience at women’s promotions will have a large proportion of female fans. Female wrestlers with natural beauty, such as Mimi Hagiwara or Takako Inoue may show off their beauty in non-wrestling related media, such as photobooks, where they are treated no different from tarento and gravure idols.