Japanese wrestling offers an alternative to not only the WWE, but North American wrestling in general. Whereas American, Canadian, and even Mexican companies emphasize out-of-ring storytelling, storytelling in Japan pretty much occurs only in the ring. Likewise, while the WWE, Ring of Honor, TNA, and other companies like to give their wrestlers a complicated reason to feud, in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH, feuds usually only start when one wrestler challenges another over a title belt. That’s it; there is no Japanese equivalent to “Katie Vick.”
Because of all of this, Japanese wrestling tends to attract North American fans who are more interested in the sporting aspect of pro wrestling, not its drama. Indie marks and the IWC often privilege Japanese wrestling and Japanese wrestlers because they consider puroresu more pure and less cartoon-y than Vince McMahon‘s product. Undoubtably, Japan has produced some of the finest wrestling matches in history. This trend continues thanks to both excellent gaijin grapplers like Adam Cole, Ricochet, and Kenny Omega, as well as native-born sons and daughters. The following fifteen wrestlers are the best Japan has to offer today. Some wrestle almost exclusively in the Land of the Rising Sun, while others have transitioned to North America on a full-time basis.
Hiromu Takahashi, better known as Kamaitachi, first made a name for himself in Mexico under the umbrella of CMLL, the world’s oldest professional wrestling organization. A diminutive wrestler, Kamaitachi is mostly an aerial artist who can do all those high spots that indie fans love. However, Kamiatachi, who trained at the legendary New Japan Dojo, is also a capable chain wrestler and technician. While the flashy and dangerous-looking Canadian Destroyer is his finishing maneuver, his suplexes and holds are tight and crisp.
North American fans might know Kamaitachi best from his recent work in ROH. During various ROH pay-per-views, Kamaitachi has battled the likes of Kyle O’Reilly and Dragon Lee, while also maintaining a storyline friendship with The Addiction. Kamaitachi also wowed audiences during PWG’s 2016 Battle of Los Angeles tournament. Although he lost to Trevor Lee in the first round, it’s likely that Kamaitachi will appear at the 2017 version of BOLA.
14. Akira Tozawa
Unlike many others on this list, Akira Tozawa’s main employer in Japan is not considered a major federation. Although Dragon Gate and Dragon Gate USA veterans include the likes of Dean Ambrose, Daniel Bryan, and Luke Harper, the company is not considered on the same level as NJPW, Pro Wrestling NOAH, or even All Japan Pro Wrestling. However, this does not mean that Dragon Gate isn’t a quality promotion. Indeed, the company’s style, which combines Japanese “strong style” with Mexican lucha libre and American independent wrestling, is highly entertaining.
As one of the kings of this hybrid style, Tozawa had been hailed as one of the best wrestlers in the world by many people, including other pro wrestlers. During the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic, Daniel Bryan even claimed that Tozawa’s German suplex is superior to Brock Lesnar‘s. That comment, plus Tozawa’s fine showing in the tournament itself, is indicative of the man’s talents. Because he got the crowd to shout along with him, the WWE offered Tozawa a contract. He currently trains at the Performance Center and will likely debut on RAW or SmackDown soon.
When he was just Takaaki Watanabe, EVIL wasn’t considered anything but a “strong style” specialist. Nowadays, as one of the more popular members of the heel stable Los Ingobernables de Japon, EVIL regularly gets huge pops from the NJPW faithful. ROH fans give EVIL a similar greeting, who, even though his name may be a little corny, has one of the coolest entrances in all of wrestling.
During the 2016 G1 Climax tournament, EVIL scored wins over two champions – IWGP Intercontinental Champion Michael Elgin and NEVER Openweight Champion Katsuyori Shibata. EVIL’s match with Elgin was an instant classic. More recently, on November 5, 2016, EVIL defeated Shibata for the NEVER Openweight title. This win earned EVIL his first title in NJPW, and although he lost the belt on November 15th, his career is still on a major upswing.
The current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion is making a case for why he should be considered one of the greatest wrestlers to ever hold that particular belt. Currently seventh in terms of most combined days as champion, Kushida is doing an excellent job of carrying the torch for NJPW’s premiere division.
Besides being an exceptional singles competitor, Kushida has also been a part of great and successful tag teams. His best team, The Time Splitters with Alex Shelley, captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag titles twice. While his gimmick, which essentially paints him as a nerd obsessed with the movie Back to the Future, is a little strange, Kushida always delivers in the ring. If you haven’t seen it yet, you owe yourself a few minutes to watch Kushida deliver his trademark corkscrew moonsault.
11. Satoshi Kojima
The only reason that Satoshi Kojima is so far down on this list is because the man’s best days are behind him. Earlier, during the first years of the 2000s, Kojima was arguably the best wrestler in the entire world. His accomplishments speak for themselves: he’s held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Also, alongside teammate Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Kojima has held the IWGP Tag Team titles and the NWA World Tag Team titles. In 2010, Kojima won the prestigious G1 Climax tournament.
The fact that Kojima is the current co-holder of the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team titles speaks to his relevancy at the age of 46. The man is a machine who continues to crank out good matches. His match against Jay Lethal for the ROH World Heavyweight Championship is an underrated and under-appreciated classic. Basically, whenever his career ends, Satoshi Kojima has be listed among the very best to every lace up a pair of boots.
10. Katsuhiko Nakajima
Don’t let his boyish good lucks fool you – Katsuhiko Nakajima is a killer. Known for his ultra stiff kicks, Nakajima as been on top of the wrestling game ever since he won Tokyo Sports‘ “Rookie of the Year” award in 2004. Today, Nakajima is the reigning and defending GHC Heavyweight Champion. This means that Nakajima is the man for the Pro Wrestling NOAH, the second largest promotion in all of Japan.
Prior to becoming the heavyweight champion, Nakajima primarily wrestled in the junior heavyweight division. There he captured the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship on three different occasions, beating men like Kenta (better known as Hideo Itami), Kotaro Suzuki, and Ricky Marvin. If you need further proof that Nakajima is one of the best all-around wrestlers in the world, watch his matches in New Japan and see how both the wrestlers and the crowd react to his presence.
9. Naomichi Marufuji
The three-time GHC Heavyweight Champion is considered the “ace” of Pro Wrestling NOAH. This means that whenever NJPW and Pro Wrestling NOAH go head-to-head, Marufuji is called upon to represent his company. There’s good reason for this – besides being a former GHC Heavyweight Champion, Marufuji has held the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, and the GHC Openweight Hardcore Championship. Marufuji has also found quite a bit of tag team success, and over the years he’s held the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles and the GHC Tag Team titles. Currently, Marufuji is the co-holder of the GHC Tag Team Championship alongside Toru Yano.
Must-see matches featuring Naomichi Marufuji include his recent showdown with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada, his 2006 match against Nigel McGuinness, and the title match between champions Marufuji and Takashi Sugiura and challengers The Briscoe Brothers.
8. Hideo Itami
Frankly speaking, Hideo Itami’s work seems like it’s on the decline. This is not meant to disparage Itami. Rather, it’s much more likely that Itami’s style has been a tough fit for NXT. The fact that Itami has been dealing with multiple injuries hasn’t helped matters either. For North American fans, if you want to see Itami at his best, go back and watch his matches against Daniel Bryan (then called Bryan Danielson) and Austin Aries in ROH.
All that aside, Itami was once the king of the mountain in Pro Wrestling NOAH. Back when he was known as Kenta (or KENTA), Itami captured the GHC Heavyweight Championship, the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship three times, and the GHC Tag Team Championship once. In Japan, Itami was known for his incredibly stiff kicks and his willingness to “shoot” with wrestlers like Yuji Nagata. Itami also deserves credit for creating one of the coolest finishing maneuvers in history – the GTS, or Go to Sleep.
7. Kota Ibushi
The “Golden Star” proved his mettle during the Cruiserweight Classic. Before his loss in the semi-finals to T.J. Perkins, Ibushi was considered one of the favorites to win the whole tournament. Only the fact that he has yet to sign a contract with the WWE kept him from winning. If it had been up to the fans, Ibushi would’ve won the entire thing. Even though he and T.J. Perkins failed to advance in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, things are looking brighter for the “Golden Star” in the WWE.
Prior to the CWC, Ibushi made a name for himself in Japan as an athletic and entertaining wrestler. In NJPW, Ibushi has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship once. During the latter run, Ibushi and his partner Kenny Omega had some of the best tag matches of 2010-2011.
Like Akira Tozawa, Ibushi has done some of his best work in second-tier organizations, most notably DDT Pro-Wrestling. It’s only a matter of time before Ibushi either signs with the WWE or becomes a full-time member of the NJPW roster. A man of his talents deserves nothing less.
6. Tetsuya Naito
Tetsuya Naito has been the breakout star of NJPW in 2016. As the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon, Naito went from being a bland babyface to a charismatic heel who routinely gets louder pops then men like Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. In many ways, Naito has become the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin of Japan. Despite disrespecting the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on the very same night he won it from Okada, Naito grew even more popular. Now, as the IWGP Intercontinental Champion, Naito is poised to fill the vacancy left behind by Shinsuke Nakamura and become NJPW’s premiere upper mid-card talent.
A former winner of the G1 Climax and the New Japan Cup, Naito is widely recognized as a stellar in-ring performer. His match with Okada at Invasion Attack 2016 is a five-star quality contest, while his victory over Michael Elgin was the perfect way to close out Destruction in Kobe. Mark my words: Naito will win the “Wrestler of the Year” award very soon.
5. Katsuyori Shibata
The current and three-time NEVER Openweight Champion is a legit badass. While other wrestlers give themselves gimmicks that are supposed to put them over as serious technicians or hard-as-nails “shooters,” Shibata is no frills violence packaged in plain black tights and kickpads. Although not a particularly big man (about six feet tall and a little over two hundred pounds), Shibata owns the ring like a giant. A former mixed martial arts fighter, Shibata’s kicks, strikes, and submission holds look like the real deal (and they probably are). Shibata’s nasty headbutting of Nakajima was certainly real.
In a business dominated by acts like The New Day, Shibata provides a much needed injection of raw aggression. Don’t ever expect him to cut charismatic promos or lead the business in merchandise sales. Like Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock before him, Shibata serves as a reminder to people that most pro wrestlers aren’t wimps.
The current holder of the NXT Women’s Championship looks to be unstoppable. Since the departures of Nia Jax, Bayley, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch, NXT has failed to provide viable competition for the still undefeated Asuka. The fact that the “Empress of Tomorrow” is set to clash with Mickie James, a former five-time WWE Women’s champion and one-time Divas champion, is proof enough that Asuka is in a class of her own.
If the WWE had smarter writers, they’d see the money in Asuka. If I had the book, I have Asuka go undefeated in NXT until WrestleMania, then have her debut on RAW the following night. An Asuka versus Charlotte program, which would pit an undefeated champion against a wrestler who has never lost on pay-per-view, would draw big money.
Although she gets underplayed by the WWE, Asuka is the best female wrestler in their company. Not only is she stiff and strong in the ring, but her pre-match theatrics help to make her appealing to all sorts of fans. Again, insofar as joshi puroresu goes, WWE couldn’t have picked a better ambassador.
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
The “King of Strong Style” is one of the most over men in the world right now. The NXT crowd took to him immediately, and as such, Nakamura’s rise to the NXT Championship was deservedly quick. Like Asuka, few other wrestlers in NXT look like credible challengers to Nakamura’s throne, although there is money to be made in match-ups with Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, Samoa Joe, and Hideo Itami.
Prior to joining the WWE, Nakamura dominated NJPW, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, and the IWGP Tag Team Championship on multiple occasions. Indeed, Nakamura is still the longest reigning IWGP Intercontinental champion of all time.
Because of his mixed martial arts background, Nakamura makes all of his matches feel like real fights. Recently, this has gotten him into trouble, for Nakamura has hurt both Samoa Joe and Austin Aries. These incidents are unlikely to hurt Nakamura’s career within the WWE however, for smart marks would riot if Nakamura and A.J. Styles didn’t wrestle for a second time.
2. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Hiroshi Tanahashi is one of the greatest wrestlers ever in the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Not only does Tanahashi hold the record for most IWGP Heavyweight Championship title reigns at seven, but his combined days as champion (1,358) put him well ahead of the man in second place, The Great Muta. Better yet, besides capturing other titles in NJPW (most notably the IWGP Intercontinental Championship), Tanahashi is one of the few wrestlers who has also won gold in Pro Wrestling NOAH (one-time GHC Tag Team champion) and CMLL (CMLL World Tag Team champion, CMLL World Trios champion, and 2013’s Universal champion).
Tanahashi has been New Japan’s “ace” for almost a decade now. He’s had stellar matches against Yuji Nagata, Nakamura, The Great Muta, Kojima, and A.J. Styles. However, Tanahashi’s feud with Okada over the IWGP Heavyweight Championship trumps everything else he’s ever done. If you haven’t watched any one of these matches, stop what you’re doing and watch them. An argument could be made that Okada versus Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 10 is the greatest wrestling match of all time.
1. Kazuchika Okada
Okada, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, is among the best in the world right now. His only competition outside of NJPW are A.J. Styles and Adam Cole. “Rainmaker” has it all: a great gimmick, a great look, and incredible in-ring talent. The guy has tons of go, too. Like Ric Flair before him, Okada is the type of wrestler who could do thirty minute and hour-long matches on a weekly basis. Also, no matter what you say, Okada has the best dropkick in the business.
When Okada first debuted in North America, it was clear that TNA did not know what to do with him. It was not the same case with ROH. Okada’s matches against the Bullet Club and Roderick Strong are pro wrestling gems, while his tag match with Nakamura against the Briscoe Brothers is downright fun.
Again, it was his feud against Tanahashi that made Okada great.