A culture of contrasts, modern-day Japan is a place where one can find ancient tradition rubbing shoulders with the march of technological progress, seemingly at every turn. On the streets of its cities, Shinto shrines sit quite happily not a stones throw from towering office blocks. As with most aspects of Japanese culture, the nation's taste in sport also reflects this unique mixture of both the ancient and the modern.
While traditional athletic pursuits such as Sumo, Kendo and Karate remain popular, imported games also enjoy much popularity as well. Baseball, golf and football (or 'soccer' as the Americans have it) are sports with a large following in Japan and boast strong and competitive native leagues. However, perhaps the most popular 'sport' imported from the West and championed in Japan is professional wrestling, or 'puroresu'1.
To the uninitiated it may come as something of a shock to learn that professional wrestling is arguably more a part of mainstream culture in Japan than it is in the US. For example, a twenty-four hour TV channel devoted to pro-wrestling broadcasts on Japanese TV. While American promotions such as the WWE can boast of wrestlers who have made the transition from sports-entertainer to movie star, none can claim to have nurtured a name who went on to be elected to the US congress as has happened with the Japanese equivalent - no less than three times to date.
In Japan, the stigma which has clung to pro-wrestling in other parts of the world, the tendency to brand it a 'fake sport', appears simply not to stick.
Puroresu vs Pro-Wrestling 'US-style'
As always, different cultures can have a different take on the finer points of a common form of art or expression and pro-wrestling is no exception. As a result there are a few differences between puroresu and the US style of pro-wrestling (which is arguably the most commonly recognised form of pro-wrestling in the world today) which are worthy of mention.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the fact that puroresu tends to rely far less on the gimmickry that characterises the US sport. Most wrestlers work under their own names or simple variations thereof, and outlandish costumes are few and far between (though not unheard of as in the cases of the masked stars Jushin 'Thunder' Liger and the legendary Tiger Mask).
Another notable difference is that in puroresu (as opposed to US-style pro-wrestling) the grapplers are less likely to pull their blows. While this means that there is a greater chance of a wrestler being injured during the match, it also tends to generate a more seemingly 'real' performance to the eyes of the casual observer.
The intense physical competition and no-nonsense style of puroresu are perhaps a result of the fact that Japanese fans expect their wrestling icons to pour their hearts and souls into their performances. Many observers note that as long as a wrestler shows that they have some degree of skill and the undaunted spirit to win, then the fans will appreciate them for it and to hell with gimmicks and plots that just get in the way.
Great Names and the History of Puroresu
The First Japanese Wrestlers
The first mention of a one-on-one combat resembling anything like wrestling occurs in a Japanese text from the early-8th Century known as the 'Kojiki' (or 'Record of Ancient Matters'). The account describes a grappling match which supposedly took place around 500 BC on the shores of Izumo (the modern Shimane Prefecture) for control of the region. The first record of an actual Japanese pro-wrestler appears more than 2,000 years later, when Sorakichi Matsuda arrived in the US in 1883 to train and compete. But it was his contemporary Shokichi Hamada who first brought pro-wrestling to Japanese shores, when he and a troupe of 20 American wrestlers promoted a show in Tokyo in 1887. Though the first show sold out, the novelty soon wore off and it would not be until after World War II that pro-wrestling truly gained a following in Japan.
Rikidozan and the Rise of Professional Wrestling
As Japan struggled to rebuild after the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first truly great name in the history of puroresu was coming to prominence.
The man who would be known as 'Rikidozan' was actually born Kim Sin-Nak in North Korea, in 1924. Raised by adopted Japanese parents in Nagasaki, even for years after his death it was maintained that his name was in fact Mitsuhiro Momota, and that Nagasaki was his place of birth.
This secrecy surrounding Rikidozan's true identity stemmed from the fact that a certain degree of discrimination against the Korean nation and its people has always existed in Japan (and still does to this day). This, coupled with the fact that Rikidozan's efforts to legitimise pro-wrestling in Japan and his shining performances in the ring (notably often against larger American opponents, whom he felled with his deadly karate chop) went a long way to revitalise the downtrodden Japanese people, probably explains the effort to disguise his nationality. In a time when Japan needed patriotic heroes, Rikidozan's Korean origins would have undermined his iconic status in the eyes of the Japanese people.
Rikidozan also used his influence to form the Japanese Wrestling Alliance (JWA), the first native Japanese promotion. He trained many wrestlers who would go on to shape the destiny of puroresu as he had himself. Perhaps the most notable were Antonio Inoki and Shohei 'Giant' Baba.
Tragically, Rikidozan died in 1963 at the age of 39, after he was stabbed in a Tokyo nightclub in what was described as a Yakuza revenge killing. In the vacuum left by the great Rikidozan, it fell to his two most prominent pupils to lead the way for puroresu.
The Era of Inoki & Baba
In the absence of Rikidozan, the JWA did not fare well in the early 1970s. In 1972, both Inoki and Baba left the promotion to set up their own rival organisations. Baba formed All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW), while Inoki formed New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), the two promotions which arguably still dominate puroresu to this day. Just one year later the JWA folded, after 20 years as the top promotion in Japan.
Of Baba and Inoki, it is the latter that perhaps led the most interesting career over the space of the past three decades. A dedicated champion of puroresu, Inoki has, and still does, go to great lengths to elevate the status of pro-wrestling, and legitimise it as a martial art rather than a novelty looked down upon by 'real' fighters in other disciplines.
To this end, Inoki has fought many fighters from other sports such as judo, karate and boxing in mixed matches and with varying degrees of success. The most famous of his exploits is, without doubt, the match he fought against Muhammad Ali in 1976. Billed as a battle that would decide the superior fighting art, by the time the rules had been thrashed out the whole thing degenerated into a long and drawn-out farce. Ali's camp insisted on a contract which prohibited Inoki from utilising most of the moves in a pro-wrestler's repertoire, such as suplexes and submission holds. In the end, Inoki was reduced to spending the fifteen round draw on his back, kicking desperately at Ali's legs. The only thing that the match achieved (apart from making both parties look very foolish) was hospitalisation for Ali as a result of Inoki's repeated kicks to his legs.
Apart from this, Inoki still managed to be elected to the Japanese Diet (parliament), promote wrestling shows with record attendances of 190,000, promote shows in the Soviet Union, China and Taiwan as well as being the first official of a democratic nation to have a political meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Puroresu in the 21st Century
Though AJPW and NJPW dominated the world of Japanese pro-wrestling in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, by the last years of the 20th Century things were beginning to change. Shohei Baba passed away in 1999 and left a controlling interest in AJPW to his widow, Mokoto. In 2000 the then president of the company, Misuharu Misawa (himself a legendary wrestler of the 1980s and 1990s) soon found that differences between himself and Mokoto Baba over the direction that the company was taking were irreconcilable, and was removed from the board of executives by a majority vote. While this in itself was not a disaster, the fact that a large number of the promotions most valued talent left soon after to join Misawa's new Pro-Wrestling NOAH promotion was.
Meanwhile at NJPW, it was announced that prominent wrestler Shin'ya Hashimoto was to be released from his contract to pursue the promotion of ZERO-ONE, yet another new pro-wrestling company. Though Hashimoto's split with NJPW was not acrimonious, it never-the-less underlined the fact that in the space of a year two, well-known wrestlers had left what were supposedly the two most powerful promotions in Japan to strike out on their own.
Back at AJPW, the power vacuum left by Misawa was filled by one Keiji Muto, better known in the west as 'The Great Muta'. Having earned the friendship of Mokoto Baba, Muto stepped in to take over the day-to-day running of the company. A veteran of pro-wrestling both in his homeland and in the West, Muto's time at the top of the company has thus far been one of mixed fortunes. On the one hand Muto had an intimate understanding of the workings of the industry, but on the other he was greatly influenced by his time in the West. To his credit, Muto forged close relations between AJPW and a number of the dynamic fledgling promotions that were nipping at the giants heels. This allowed the smaller promotions to associate with the prestige of AJPW and reach their hardcore of fans, but also assured those same fans that the older promotion was still important enough to merit the attention of the new blood in the industry. But aside from this, many traditionally minded Japanese fans felt that Muto was steering AJPW towards a more Western style of product, in their eyes a serious betrayal of the promotion's roots. But as he owns more than a fifty percent share of the company at the time of writing, it seems that Muto will remain at the helm of AJPW for a long time to come.
So, at the turn of the century the two great Japanese promotions NJPW and AJPW find themselves in a position very similar to that of the JWA almost thirty years ago. Whether they suffer the same fate and are in turn supplanted by the newer promotions, or find the strength to endure these troubled times, will decide the shape and course of the next era in the history of puroresu.