Professional wrestling in Japan, or "puroresu," is a popular fighting sport. It had its boom years in the 1960's and 70's, but it is still widely enjoyed today.
Rikidozan and the Early Days
Puroresu began in Japan after World War 2. It didn't really take off until Rikidozan came along. Rikidozan was a Korean-born sumo wrestler. In 1951, he began the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, or the JWA. It was modeled after the pro-wrestling associations in the United States.
The first 10 years of proresu are dominated by Rikidozan. He helped set up virtually the whole pro-wrestling industry. He was the first to compete internationally, and he began bringing international pro-wrestlers to Japan to compete. He basically put Japan on the map in the pro-wrestling world.
In 1963, Rikidozan died at the age of 39. Although he'd done much for puroresu in the last ten years, he died leaving many projects unfinished. It was decided that the JWA would continue with all the new talent that had emerged.
In the 1970's, there were lots of famous puroresu stars in Japan, including Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. At this time, the unity of the JWA was starting to break up. Both Baba and Inoki started their own wrestling organizations and went into vicious competition with one another. Giant Baba started All Japan Pro-Wrestling and Antonio Inoki started New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The next year, JWA went under.
Puroresu has always been less gimmicky than American pro-wrestling, and Antonio Inoki has done a lot to try to elevate its status to a real fighting form. Throughout the 1970's, he tried to elevate the sport's legitimacy by fighting karate fighters, judo fighters and boxers. In 1976 he fought Muhammad Ali in a fight that was very heavily promoted, but not well fought. With all the restrictions on what the fighters could and could not do, it became a joke. Still, he tried to legitimize puroresu with his slogan, "civil rights for puroresu."
Women in the Ring
Women have always been active in wrestling in Japan. The All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling Association was started in 1955, but women's wrestling in Japan really began to pick up speed in 1967, with the establishment of the Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling Association. In the early days of the AJW, Japanese wrestlers would fight wrestlers from other countries, in order to try to promote the fights. In 1975, Mach Fumiake won the WWWA Championship, and since that time only 2 non-Japanese women wrestlers have won it.
There were a number of great pro-wrestlers in Japan throughout the 1980's and 90's, including Jushin Luger, Manami Toyota, Lioness Asuka and Akira Hokuto. With the dissolution of the major men's wrestling federations, women wrestlers have taken the main stage. Today, women's wrestling is much more popular in Japan than men's wrestling. While the men's wrestling fighters have generally splintered off into other fighting styles, women fighters tend to stay true to puroresu.
As K-1 and other mixed martial arts gain popularity in Japan, the popularity of puroresu has been on the decline. This is due also to the gradual disintegration of both Baba's AJPW after his death, and the decline of the NJPW.
Although pro-wrestling is not as popular as it once was in Japan, it still draws huge crowds. As it has become mixed with other sports in the new hybrid fighting styles, it has lost some of its purity, but it still remains popular.