|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.…