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A Brief History of Japanese Professional Wrestling
[2014.12.03] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

Starting in the 1950s, professional wrestling, or puroresu, enjoyed popularity on a par with Japan’s other top sports of baseball and sumō. Fans would gather around televisions to watch bouts featuring heroic wrestlers like Rikidōzan, Giant Baba, and Antonio Inoki. Wrestling has evolved and changed much since this golden age. This article looks at the past and present of puroresu.

Japan’s First Professional Wrestler

Matsuda Sorakichi (1859?–91) is generally recognized as Japan’s first professional wrestler. The former rikishi, or sumō wrestler, made his ring debut in the United States in 1883. Matsuda did not remain the only Japanese grappler, however, with other countrymen, as well as Japanese-Americans, following in his footsteps during the latter nineteenth century to show their strength in the squared circle. One of these was Matsuda’s friend and former rikishi Mikuniyama, who also went by his given name, Hamada Shōkichi. He and Matsuda staged an exhibition of Western-style professional wrestling in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1887. Although the event failed to pique the interest of Japanese at the time, it has historical significance as being the first professional wrestling event in the country. 

The Era of Rikidōzan

Japanese professional wrestling, or puroresu, as it came to be called for short, began in earnest in 1951 with the debut of star wrestler Rikidōzan. Anti-American sentiment remained strong following Japan’s defeat in World War II, and fans would crowd around televisions to cheer on their hero as he felled Western opponents with his trademark karate chop. Rikidōzan established the promotional organization Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953, helping lift the popularity of the sport to the same level as the other national obsessions of professional baseball and sumō.

Fans crowd around a television to watch a live broadcast of a match in Tokyo 1954. The start of commercial broadcasts the same year helped spread the popularity of professional wrestling. (© Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo)

Rival Organizations

The JWA continued to operate following the death of Rikidōzan in December 1963, but its dominance was challenged by the appearance of two rival organizations, Tokyo Pro Wrestling and International Wrestling Enterprise.The JWA eventually folded after star wrestlers Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba left to form their own promotions, New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling, respectively.

Puroresu continued to change and develop into the 1970s. Inoki, who touted a “strong style” that included aspects of martial arts, raised his image by participating in mixed-skill bouts with such opponents as boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Olympic jūdōka Willem Ruska. Baba also continued to build his popularity as a grappler, using connections with US-based National Wrestling Alliance to stage matches featuring big-name foreign wrestlers. The IWE took a different tack in building its fan base, distinguishing itself from other organizations through such unique strategies as bringing over European wrestlers employing new and different styles and staging fan-rousing “deathmatches.”   

The 1980s saw the rise to prominence of Inoki and Baba protégés Jumbo Tsuruta, Tenryū Gen’ichiro, Fujinami Tatsumi, and Chōshū Riki, along with Sayama Satoru, who debuted as the enigmatic Tiger Mask. The founding of the short-lived Universal Wrestling Federation in 1984 established the prominent hybrid shoot style of wrestling and opened the door to mixed martial arts bouts.

Olympic jūdō champion Anton Geesink (left) is joined by Giant Baba as he explains his decision to move to professional wrestling during a press conference in Japan in 1973. (© Jiji)

Upsurge of New Groups but a Dwindling Fan Base

The 1990s saw many dramatic changes in professional wrestling. The sport’s popularity began to wane, with the legendary Baba and Inoki largely stepping out of the limelight. Broadcasts of matches were moved from prime time to late-night slots, and wrestling genres became increasingly specialized. The establishment of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling in 1989 by Baba apprentice Ōnita Atsushi inspired a throng of new “indie” organizations to throw their hats into the ring. 

While wrestling’s overall popularity was on the decline, promotions were able to draw massive crowds by hosting events at Tokyo Dome and other large-scale venues. US wrestling was moving toward televised events, however, making it increasingly difficult to secure foreign wrestlers for matches in Japan. As a result, puroresu shifted away from its mainstay of pitting Japanese wrestlers against foreign foes to focusing on bouts between Japanese grapplers. 

Leading the NJPW during the 1990s were the “Three Musketeers” (Tōkon Sanjūshi), a trio consisting of Chōno Masahiro, Mutō Keiji, and Hashimoto Shin’ya. The top wrestlers for the AJP were the quartet known as the “Four Heavenly Kings” (Shitennō): Misawa Mitsuharu, Kawada Toshiaki, Kobashi Kenta, and Taue Akira. But mixed fighting series like K-1 and Pride emerged, grabbing the limelight from puroresu as “alternative” combat sports. Many professional wrestlers took inspiration from Inoki’s strong style to try their hand at the new mixed-style bouts. Few, however, enjoyed success, and their poor showing only hastened the decline in the popularity of puroresu.

In 1997, Japanese pro wrestling suffered its first ring fatality when Plum Mariko of the women’s promotion group JWP Joshi Puroresu died from head trauma during a tag team bout.

Regional Groups and Wrestling as Entertainment

In the early 2000s, the old guard AJP and NJPW were joined by two new promotions as the dominant forces of pro wrestling. Misawa took over the helm of the AJP after the death of Baba in 1999, but he left the AJP over management disagreements with Baba’s widow, Baba Motoko, taking most of the wrestlers with him when he formed a new promotion, Pro Wrestling Noah. The AJP sought to stay alive by staging bouts with grapplers from the NJPW. It was helped along in its fight for survival by Mutō, who transferred to the group in 2002 and took over as president later the same year. Hashimoto established Pro Wrestling Zero-One after being let go by the NJPW following a failed attempt to form an affiliate organization. Spurred along in part by AJP-NJPW mixed matches, the practice of holding bouts between wrestlers from major and independent groups became standard practice throughout the puroresu world.

Over the last decade, Japan has seen the popularity of major US promotion World Wrestling Entertainment steadily grow. This has prompted a similar domestic trend toward promoting professional wrestling as sports entertainment. Independent groups like Fantasy Fight Wrestle-1 and Hustle Entertainment have led the way in this movement. In 2006, Misawa established the Global Professional Wrestling Alliance with the goal of unifying the diverse wrestling organizations in Japan. The coalition failed to get a foothold, however, and ceased most of its activities after only one year. While the early 2000s saw the emergence of a third generation of professional wrestlers, they were unable to match the popularity of wrestlers from the previous generation, notably the Three Musketeers and the Four Heavenly Kings, and bouts featuring these older stars continued to be the mainstay of the sport through the first half of the decade

In 2005, however, Hashimoto died suddenly, followed by Misawa in 2009. Meanwhile, other members of the star trio and quartet left their organizations or suffered injuries. So since the latter part of the 2000s, as the Three Musketeers and Four Heavenly Kings became unavailable for regular bouts, what might be called a fourth generation of wrestlers rose to prominence. And as a result of these developments, the power structures of the various promotions have been shifting.

Major Professional Wrestling Organizations

The Old Guard
Following in the footsteps of Rikidōzan’s Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance are Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling and Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling. Misawa broke away from the AJP in 2000 to form Pro Wrestling Noah.
All Japan Pro Wrestling Mutō took over as president following the death of Baba and the departure of Misawa. He separated from the group in 2013.
New Japan Pro Wrestling Formed by Inoki in 1972, it is Japan’s oldest organization. From the era of the “Three Musketeers” to the present, the group has featured distinctive wrestlers applying a quintessential wrestling style.
Pro Wrestling Noah Formed by wrestlers who left the AJP with Misawa. The name is in reference to the wrestlers coming over en masse in an “ark” to form a more ideal organization.
Legend Groups
Independent organizations formed by star wrestlers from the early years of Japanese pro wrestling.
IGF The Inoki Genome Federation brings together wrestlers epitomizing the martial art “strong style” of the group’s namesake.
Real Japan Pro Wrestling Presided over by original Tiger Mask Sayama Satoru. Bouts largely feature well-known and legendary wrestlers
Tenryū Project Established in 2010 by legendary wrestler Tenryū Gen’ichirō. Known for high-intensity matches.
Deathmatch Groups
Big Japan Pro Wrestling is the only solely deathmatch promotion, with Freedoms and other organizations loaning out wrestlers to the group.
Big Japan Pro Wrestling The king of deathmatch. Bouts feature such items as fluorescent lights, barbed wire, thumbtacks, and glass.
Pro Wrestling Freedoms Established in 2009 when Apache Pro Wrestling Army ceased operations. Features wrestlers employing a wide variety of styles.
Main New Groups
These promotions have grown out of their early indies labels and now feature many of the top wrestlers in the sport.
DDT Pro Wrestling Started by three bottom-rank wrestlers, it has grown into one of the top new promotions. Hosts different annual events at major venues.
K-Dojo Originally established as a promotion and wrestling school in Puerto Rico in 2000. The Japanese branch opened in 2002. Runs own events and loans out wrestlers to other organizations.
Dragon Gate Formed in 2004 after wrestler Último Dragón left promotion Tōryūmon Mexico. Flamboyant style with abundant annual cards. Hosts some events overseas.
Diamond Ring Established in 2007 by legendary wrestler Sasaki Kensuke. Changed to current name in 2012. Run by Sasaki’s wife, well-known female wrestler Hokuto Akira.
Indie Groups
Small, independent promotions appealing to niche audiences.
IWA Japan Outlandish bouts featuring the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Mongolian death worms, and other mysterious creatures.
Fūten Promotion High-paced and intense bouts billed as bachibachi (crackling) style.
Tokyo Gurentai Formed by several well-known independent wrestlers. Promotes events independently as well as with major groups.
Local Franchises
Small promotions outside of Tokyo with connections to the mainstream wrestling scene. Groups feature highly skilled wrestlers.
Michinoku Pro Wrestling Established by famous masked wrestler The Great Sasuke. Currently working to help rebuild the earthquake-hit Tōhoku region. 
Osaka Pro Wrestling Osaka-based promotion specializing in comedy matches.
Sportiva Entertainment Small, Nagoya-based promotion holding matches in group-owned venue.
Local Groups
Locally active groups, often making appearances at regional events and festivals.
Hokuto Pro Wrestling Stages small events in small towns, island communities, and other remote areas in Hokkaidō. Features single bouts, deathmatch, and battle royal.
Dove Pro Wrestling Hiroshima-based group established in 2005 by puroresu-loving community members.
Kyūshū Pro Wrestling Established in Fukuoka by locally born wrestler Chikuzen Ryōta. The group’s activities include wrestling events, public appearances by wrestlers, and a wrestling school.
FTO Freelance Team Ōita stages volunteer events at public facilities, schools, retirement homes, and other sites around Ōita Prefecture. The manager of the group recently made news by being elected to the Ōita city council.

Table produced by Nippon.com using information from the magazine Nikkan Spa.

(Banner photo: Rikidōzan [left] applies a hold to an opponent. © Jiji.)

  • [2014.12.03]
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