Advent of the Angels: Japanese Professional Wrestling in the 1980s

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Rikidōzan, seen as the pioneer of Japanese wrestling.

Professional wrestling has existed in Japan at least since the late 1880s when sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda travelled to the United States and competed alongside the Greco-Roman and catch wrestlers of the day. However, the sport didn't become firmly established in the country until 1951 when the great Rikidōzan became a breakout celebrity and national icon. Rikidōzan was an emigrant from Korea who came to Japan to train as a sumo wrestler, but eventually quit and picked up professional wrestling instead.

Rikidōzan quickly established himself as a hero to the Japanese when he consistently defeated a string of opponents from the United States (who helped hum out by always playing heel), giving Japan someone to root for and cheer on in the aftermath of World War II and the invasive Western sanctions and presence that came in its wake. In fact, it was Rikidōzan who gave us the ubiquitous “karate chop” which, despite its name, has nothing to do with actual karate and is in fact a wrestling move descended from the sumo practice of harite and is more properly called a knifehand strike. With Rikidōzan's rise to celebrity status, professional wrestling became a staple of Japanese culture and social life.

Rikidōzan's legacy is felt elsewhere in Japanese professional wrestling as well, namely in its unique blend of different fighting styles. Though pro wrestling remains by and large choreographed in Japan just as it does in other regions, there's less of an emphasis on the scripted drama aspect and it's portrayed as far more of an actual competitive sport than it is in, say, the United States. What story there is has less to do with the grudges and angles that define wrestling outside of Japan, and more to do with each individual wrestler's fighting spirit, honour and strength of will. Furthermore, the additions of holds and techniques from other combat sports mean the Japanese professional wrestling is far more of a contact-oriented experience, and resembles in some ways what we might think of today as mixed martial arts, with which pro wrestling outfits in Japan have a very close relationship with to this day.

So, much like in the United States, Japanese wrestlers, especially of this period, were celebrity entertainers. However, because of the fierce loyalty and local fervor that characterizes wrestling in Japan, as well as the fact this kind of professional wrestling is viewed far more as a kind of sport, there's a sense of communal eventfulness that accompanies wrestling in Japan that wrestling in the United States lacks. While Vince McMahon was busy turning the WWF into a national brand and a form of mass consumerist entertainment, Japanese wrestling fans continued to view their local performers as a source of cultural pride and would attend matches to socialize. This all culminated in the early part of the 1980s, when Japan experienced its own kind of pro wrestling boom, albeit one that was manifestly different than the one Vince McMahon ushered in.

One of the major aspects that differentiates the pro wrestling scene in Japan from the one in the West, at least during this period, is the overt focus on the women's division. In the United States, especially among the Big National promotions that sprung up in the wake of the WWF, women's wrestling tends to be depicted as a novelty diversionary attraction and a subset of the men's division. In Japan, however, women's professional wrestling is treated as its own unique sport on equal standing with men's wrestling (much as is the case with mixed martial arts) and has its own distinct promotions. One of the most storied women's wrestling promotions was All-Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling, also known as AJW. AJW formed in 1968 out of the pre-existing All-Japan Women's Pro Wrestling Club after a whirlwind rise in interest in the sport in the wake of a popular tour circuit in November 1954, but it's defining moment didn't come until 1970.
The Beauty Pair were beloved Japanese cultural heroes.

In the fall of that year, AJW picked up the World Women's Wrestling Association World Tag Team Championship title. This title is actually one of a number of distinct World Women's Wrestling Association titles, collectively known by the acronym WWWA, or simply 3WA. These include the World Martial Arts Championship, the World All-Pacific Title, or “White Belt”, and the World Championship itself (the “Red Belt”), which is further divided into heavyweight, lightweight and super lightweight divisions. But of all the different 3WA titles, none is more storied in the history of Japanese women's wrestling than the Tag Team Championship, and it was this tournament that really cemented the fortunes of AJW, catapulting the promotion to the forefront of popular consciousness.

The turning point came when the 1976 3WA tag team title was won by Jackie Satou and Maki Ueda, better known as the Beauty Pair. Satou and Ueda became breakout pop culture icons almost immediately and were seen by an entire generation of Japanese teenage girls as powerful and admirable role models, inspiring hundreds of young women to take up wrestling and audition for AJW in 1976 alone. The Pair even recorded their own novelty pop single, which reached as far as the top ten on the Japanese pop charts (a tradition which has continued for subsequent women's tag team partnerships). During their reign as title-holders, they would use their single to announce their entrance to the ring, where they were frequently met by throngs of loyal fans who would shower them with confetti. Before the Beauty Pair, the 3WA title would swap hands between Japanese and western wrestlers every year. After the Beauty Pair, only three non-Japanese wrestlers would ever be declared 3WA champions again.

The Beauty Pair even released a Top 10 single.


The wild popularity of the Beauty Pair singlehandedly changed the fortunes of women's professional wrestling in Japan, and throughout the 1980s it actually eclipsed the popularity of men's wrestling. The Crush Gals, a tag team partnership between Lioness Asuka and Chigusa Nagayo, became even more popular than the Beauty Pair and hold the record as the most successful women's tag team of all time. Their feud with heel faction Gokuaku Domei was the most-watched and most-talked about angle of the decade in women's or men's wrestling. The singles division was no less successful, featuring likewise beloved fixtures Bull Nakano, Devil Masami, Jaguar Yokota and Dump Matsumoto. Finally, in 1986, the AJW at last ceased to be ubiquitous with women's professional wrestling in Japan when rival promotion Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling was started by former AJW performer Nancy Kumi and Jackie Satou herself.
Lioness Asuka, one half of the legendary Crush Gals.


With the incredible success of women's professional wrestling in the 1980s and its status as a beloved cultural institution, it would only make sense that it would be a major signifier of the cultural landscape in Japan at this time. And it would further make sense that this would inform and inspire at least some of the era's creative figures. Which finally brings us to the topic at hand...

Comments

Jacob Nanfito 2 years, 11 months ago

Great stuff. Japanese women's wrestling is something to behold -- it's on a completely different level from the US version of "lady wrestling."

A couple of times, Japanese women broke through in the WWF and made an impact -- although it was usually short-lived. I always loved it whenever it happened because not only were the performers great, but it raised the stakes of women's wrestling, and always caused the division to be treated seriously (for a minute). Most notable in my memory are The Jumping Bomb Angels (Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki) whom, after a famous rivalry with the Crush Gals in Japan, made a splash in the WWF in 1987. Never mind the other women wrestlers, the Angels did stuff that most of the male tag teams couldn't do -- some very innovative high-flying, hard hitting stuff.

In 1994, Bull Nakano was brought into the WWF to be a monster heel for Women's Champ Alundra Blayze -- and the two had an incredible rivalry with some amazing matches. Their bout at Summerslam 1994 stole the show, and caused a resurgence in women's wrestling.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 11 months ago

Thanks as always for your fantastic insight!

I'm pleasantly surprised to hear there was some crossover with the US wrestling scene, and intrigued that the key dates here are 1987 and 1994 (dates which will soon reveal themselves to be meaningful for many other reasons). That might be something I'll have to return to when we get there.

Hope you get a kick out of Friday's post: It's the entry all of this has been building to ;-)

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