When it comes to providing an alternative for WWE’s oft-criticized product, there’s nothing better than Japanese wrestling. In many ways it’s a carbon-copy of WWE; modern Japanese wrestling features wacky characters, personal storylines, wrestlers playing personas that aren’t based in reality, and there’s a heavy emphasis on production values and entrances.
In other ways, Japanese wrestling is very different from WWE; the country never experienced a ‘Vince McMahon moment’ whereby a high-profile promoter revealed the business to be choreographed and worked. To that end, the Japanese audience treats it very differently, with matches being centered on real (or at least, highly realistic) athletic contest between two equal forces.
Of course, Japanese pro wrestling has adopted elements from multiple sports and entertainment mediums, which has led to a multi-faceted wrestling industry that satisfies everyone’s interests. Do you want to see simple-yet-deep storylines told through athletic contests that build onto one another in a very complex way? Watch AJPW. Are you interested in seeing borderline shoot-fighting and a more ‘realistic’ approach to the sport? NJPW is for you. Want to see extremely wacky and outlandish characters perform staged sexual assault and make ridiculous mockeries of one another? DDT and HUSTLE will satisfy your desires. Want to see high-flying action? Dragon Gate’s your promotion.
Given how Japanese wrestling has evolved over the decades, it still retains some specific rules and standards that are, well, crazy. So the next time that you watch a Japanese wrestling match (which, hopefully, will be soon), you’ll have a much greater appreciation for what the wrestlers do after learning about these ten crazy facts about Japanese wrestling.
10. They Strike Each Other For Real
Unlike in WWE, where the strikes are mostly open fists and not always so stiff, Japanese wrestlers are known for their vicious strikes. It’s fairly common to see wrestlers chop, kick, knee, and elbow each other as hard as possible because it amplifies the notion of ‘fighting spirit’ and ‘strong style’ that have long dominated the sport. This is why Japan is considered a haven for tough guys in wrestling: they hit each other for real with almost every part of their bodies.
At the same time, punching with closed fists is frowned upon, with referees admonishing wrestlers who make closed fists during a match. This stems from traditional wrestling and MMA-oriented rules, where an open fist can lead to serious damage if used. It’s also because many ‘fake’ punches don’t look real enough, and so they were banned in many promotions, especially in Japan.
9. Japanese Wrestling Combines Multiple Martial Arts Disciplines
The majority of Japanese pro wrestlers aren’t just trained in wrestling itself; it’s commonplace to see wrestlers with experience in multiple martial arts disciplines. From karate, to judo, to kung-fu and amateur wrestling, these Japanese wrestlers bring a lot more to the ring than their American counterparts. It’s because of this emphasis on natural athletic ability that Japanese wrestlers are taken far more seriously by their audiences.
Given these attributes, it’s normal in Japan to see wrestlers using full-contact strikes on a regular basis, coupled with real amateur wrestling holds and techniques, all of which really amplifies the athletic side of wrestling. That isn’t to say that theatricality isn’t considered in Japan; it’s just that theatrics and gimmicks take a backseat to real athleticism, and storylines are progressed by athleticism-centric matches.
8. It’s Treated As A Legitimate Sport, With Many ‘Tough Guy’ Aspects To It
Unlike WWE, which is branded more as ‘entertainment’ with wrestling infused into it, Japan treats wrestling as a real sport. While most fans know that outcomes are predetermined, the actual execution of matches has a ‘real fight’ aspect to it, presenting the matches as true athletic contests. Because of that presentation, Japanese wrestling remains one of the closest things to traditional wrestling outside of MMA, making it a far more demanding version of the sport.
To that end, Japanese wrestlers have long been branded as some of the toughest men in the entire industry. When a Japanese wrestler no-sells something, it isn’t harmful to the other wrestler’s presentation. Instead, that no-selling wrestler looks much more powerful than normal, because they’re showing how much fighting spirit and determination they have to completely disregard the stiff offense being dealt to them.
7. Ratings War Going On In Japan For Decades
Most people think that the biggest ratings war was between WWE and WCW. But that’s nothing compared to the war that has been raging on between All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Wrestling.
These two promotions were at odds with one another more or less from the very moment both of them were founded in 1972. Inoki’s NJPW and Baba’s AJPW used different booking philosophies to defeat one another in a back-and-forth rating’s war that’s still technically ongoing. Inoki’s ‘strong style’ focused on real wrestling, submissions, and high-flying wrestling that told simple, yet believable storylines; while Baba’s AJPW emphasized dramatic, multi-layered stories with increasingly-risky bumps.
Both AJPW and NJPW would gain dominance at one point or another, but recently NJPW has become the number 1 promotion in Japan, while AJPW has fallen into irrelevance following multiple scandals and wrestler departures.
6. There’s A Graduation System For Rookies
With Japan having such an emphasis on athleticism, most promoters have a system in place that allows a wrestler to showcase multiple different styles in order for them to get over with the audience. Thus, the graduation system was born.
It works like this: a wrestler begins their career as a junior heavyweight/cruiserweight, performing more high-flying moves and risky spots. This way, the audience is convinced that those wrestlers can take risks and can withstand the punishment that style takes on a human body. Then, once the promoter deems them worthy, the wrestler starts wrestling like a heavyweight, with more power and versatility in their repertoires.
This system has already worked for many wrestlers: Misawa, Kobashi, Okada, Mutoh/Muta, Tanahashi, and now Ibushi, are all former junior heavyweights who graduated to heavyweight wrestling and were just as skillful in the new weight class as in the old one.
5. Fan Interaction With Wrestlers Is Different In Japan
The dynamic between wrestlers and their fans is very different in Japan. It’s not uncommon for Japanese wrestling fans to treat their favorite wrestlers to dinner, drive them around, and ask them to get chopped so that they can try and understand what those wrestlers go through on a regular basis.
Because of that, Japanese wrestling fans have a greater understanding and appreciation for what the wrestlers do on a regular basis, and understand perfectly that everything they’re seeing is scripted. But that knowledge doesn’t take away from their appreciation and respect for the hard work and pain the wrestlers in the ring are putting themselves through. Because of that, Japanese fans are far less likely to boo someone (even when they’re supposed to), or start obnoxious chants that take away from the match.
4. Japanese Wrestlers Perform Insane Regularly
Given the established trend of Japanese wrestlers being among the toughest in the world, that approach is best exemplified by the crazy bumps and moves performed by the wrestlers. Japanese wrestlers tend to use some of the most creative and unique moves in the world, ones that are rarely seen in a WWE ring, if ever.
Dangerous Suplex variations, high-risk maneuvers that require perfect timing, and a plethora of head-drops can all be found in Japanese wrestling. Because of this, many fans turn to Japanese wrestling as a sort of replacement for WWE.
The Japanese can always be relied on to show off some of the craziest and most high-risk moves ever created: The Burning Hammer, The Tiger Driver ’91, The Ganso Bomb, The Vertebreaker, The Backdrop Driver, and many other ultra-dangerous moves can only be seen in Japan, making Japanese wrestling a haven for those who want to see limits in wrestling be broken.
3. There Isn’t A Proper Medical System In Place
You’d think that the Japanese would have a highly sophisticated medical system in place to take care of their wrestlers, given the crazy bumps they take and how hard they hit. Sadly, you’d be wrong, as no such system exists in Japan.
As with the rest of Japanese culture, one’s expected to keep working even when hurt or sick, so there’s a lot of Japanese wrestlers who work even when they wouldn’t be medically cleared to do so. The saddest example of this issue in action was when Mitsuharu Misawa, owner and promoter of Pro Wrestling NOAH, kept wrestling despite an undiagnosed neck injury.
This, along with a lack of a ringside doctor, eventually played a critical role in his in-ring death, leading to many calls for medical reform in the wrestling industry. But for Misawa, it was too little, too late.
2. There’s Regular Inter-Promotional Cooperation
In stark contrast to WWE, which tends to portray itself as the only source of wrestling programming in the U.S., Japanese promotions cooperate with one another on a regular basis, even with their most bitter rivals. It was thanks to this mentality that people in North America were exposed to Japanese wrestling in the first place.
AJPW cooperated with various NWA affiliates until Baba became fully isolationist; NOAH worked with ROH for many years and still affiliates with NJPW; and NJPW has worked with virtually every top promotion in the world, including WWE, WCW, and CMLL.
Moreover, during the post-2000 wrestling slump, all three of Japan’s top promotions worked together to help each other for mutual benefit, and NJPW recently started cooperating with NOAH to help their promotion survive. This degree of cooperation benefits the fans more than anyone else, leading to some truly fantastic wrestling.
1. Some Of The Best Matches Ever Have Taken Place In Japan
When you put all of these positive traits together, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the best matches in wrestling history have taken place inside a Japanese wrestling ring. The Wrestling Observer, arguably the most objective wrestling publication in the entire industry, has rated more Japanese matches 5-Stars than any other part of the world. In particular, the matches put on by All Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling throughout the 1990s stand out as some of the greatest matches of all time.
These matches were built upon one another with masterful psychology and storytelling, and were so well-structured that any storylines around them didn’t require explanation. If you go on YouTube/Dailymotion and search for wrestlers like Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada, Taue, Stan Hansen, Jumbo Tsuruta, Akiyama, Steve Williams, Manami Toyota and Johnny Ace (yes, that Johnny Ace), you’ll see exactly what’s being referenced.