Why you should be watching Japanese wrestling

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Updated: August 22, 2014
Japanese wrestling

Please welcome John Carroll to Last Word On Sports, who is an avid watcher of Puroresu (Japanese wrestling). Like anyone who experiences a sub-culture outside of ours, sometimes there will be words or terms you don’t understand. We promise that everything will become much clearer as John writes more for us. Until then, let’s dive right into why you should be watching Japanese pro wrestling.

I’ve been watching Japanese professional wrestling for over a decade now. My first real exposure to it came during 2003, mostly through the Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion. At the time NOAH was having what most would agree were the glory years of the promotion, and the combination of Kenta Kobashi as GHC Heavyweight Champion and Naomichi Marufuji & KENTA as GHC Junior Tag Team Champions virtually guaranteed two fantastic matches on every major event. With my interest in American pro wrestling, especially WWE, rapidly waning, I dove into Japanese wrestling and never really looked back.

Over the years, I’ve watched a metric ton of Japanese wrestling, keeping up with the “current” stuff while also going back and reliving much of what I missed: revolutionary early 90s New Japan juniors, 90s All Japan (the precursor to NOAH and still likely the greatest prolonged run of match quality in any promotion’s history, worldwide), early 00s Toryumon with their wacky characters and lucharesu (combining Mexico and Japan) flavor, and much more (that’s not even including joshi­- Japanese women’s wrestling, which has its own incredible history with their own wide array of promotions). I’ve seen so much amazing professional wrestling come from this tiny island that I can’t even really describe it to you in a snappy paragraph, and I’ve never even really tried to watch much from earlier than 1990. Quite frankly, there is more high quality Japanese wrestling out there than 99.9% of human beings will ever have the time to watch.

Then. Now. Forever.

The best of Japan isn’t just in the past. Despite several prolonged down periods caused by numerous different factors (and what, exactly, almost drove Japanese wrestling to extinction despite its undeniable quality is something we’ll definitely have to cover in a future column), Japanese wrestling continues to produce amazing, high-quality cards. New Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion that has been an undisputed number one in national popularity from virtually the moment it first existed in 1972, is in the midst of what is easily its greatest period for match quality in its entire history. Well-respected pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer newsletter declared 2013’s G1 Climax (a yearly round-robin tournament, or league if you prefer, featuring all of New Japan’s top heavyweight stars) the greatest professional wrestling tournament he had ever seen. Considering there is likely no one on earth who has seen more pro wrestling from around the world than Dave that is quite the compliment. But then this year’s G1 Climax, a tournament that only came to a close very recently, actually managed to exceed last year’s in the eyes of Dave and many others. Think about that for a moment: New Japan put on three straight weeks of pro wrestling of a higher quality than many have ever seen in their lives, and then went out the very next year and topped it. That, my friends, is a pro wrestling company on a roll.

So if I’ve established anything to you so far, hopefully it’s that Japan has a long and rich history of putting out fantastic professional wrestling, one that has continued well into the present day. You can pick out almost any year you can think of and find several different promotions that were churning out high quality shows in a wide variety of different wrestling styles, which if this first column whets your appetite I’ll show you how to find much of it online. But now we reach the source of my immense frustration as a professional wrestling fan, and it is quite simply this: watching my fellow American pro wrestling fans complain about the same things with the North American (usually WWE) product and yet show little-to-no interest in seeking out an incredibly viable alternative. Since I assume I am talking to mostly North American pro wrestling fans on this website, a goal of mine through these columns will be to educate and inform you on why Japanese wrestling deserves your time and attention.

Virtually all of the same complaints I’ve seen lobbied by your average member of the Internet wrestling community for well over a decade now is something that Japan offers some sort of antidote for. Here are just a few brief examples:

“WWE ‘s overall atmosphere and attitude treats wrestling like a joke!”

This complaint is in fact so overdone that the IWC has turned “pure sports build” (referencing the few times that North American wrestling treated a match like a serious sporting event in the buildup, such as Brock Lesnar vs. The Rock at SummerSlam ’02 or Samoa Joe vs. Kurt Angle at TNA Lockdown ’08) into something of a running joke. In Japan, on the other hand, the atmosphere by default is to treat Japanese wrestling like a legitimate athletic event. New Japan’s tagline is “King of Sport”, which isn’t meant to be taken ironically. This doesn’t mean Japanese wrestling fans are unaware that wrestling is fake. On the contrary, they’re very aware of that fact. But that doesn’t stop New Japan and historically the vast majority of Japanese wrestling promotions from treating their events like legitimate athletic competitions. Japan is where wins and losses matter far more than jokes or catchphrases. If you constantly find yourself annoyed by the general sophomoric tone and inconsequential feel to much of WWE’s programming, you will probably love Japanese wrestling.

“All of these distraction finishes are stupid!”

This isn’t really a thing at all in Japanese wrestling, even in promotions that have more of a “sports entertainment” element to them like Toryumon/Dragon Gate or DDT. You will still see occasional interference; although I will stress again that it is much, much rarer than North American wrestling as a general rule, yet it will almost always involve actual physical interaction between the interferer and the interferee. No Japanese wrestler spends several embarrassingly long moments staring at a random passerby, apparently forgetting that they’re in a fight against another human being. And as an aside, both count out and disqualification finishes are extraordinarily rare in Japanese wrestling as well;  prior to the mid-80s both did exist quite a bit in Japan, but they were virtually expelled due to concerns that upstart “shootstyle” (wrestling meant to look as realistic as possible) promotions like the original Universal Wrestling Federation were taking fans away in part due to their exclusive use of clean finishes. New Japan and All Japan, at the time the two dominant male heavyweight promotions, both decided to do away with “cheap finishes” at virtually the same time, and they’ve never really returned as anything but a rarity.

“I hate how WWE makes all wrestlers conform to their style! There’s not nearly enough variety here!”

Personally this is probably the complaint that drives home with me the most. The pro wrestling that I originally fell in love with was mid-90s WCW, and while you could say a lot of negative things about that promotion, you could never say it lacked for a variety of styles. With the Mexican lucha libre stars and Japanese juniors and heavyweights sharing screen time with more traditional American wrestlers, WCW had plenty of variety to go around. But WWE has, for the most part in the post-Attitude era, often suffered from an extremely homogenized style of pro wrestling. That’s just not the case in Japan. First of all, there are simply more high quality Japanese promotions than there are in America (both in terms of match quality and especially in production values, as what we refer to as Japanese “indie” promotions often have programs on Japanese satellite TV and look far closer to the bigger Japanese companies than American indie promotions do to WWE), and they cover an incredibly wide range of styles. Do you want to watch smaller guys with lucha-influenced high-flying? There’s been a ton of promotions historically that have specialized in just that- Universal Pro Wrestling, Michinoku Pro, Osaka Pro, and of course Toryumon/Dragon Gate  just to name a few. Do you want to see pro wrestling that’s meant to be as close to a real fight as possible? Shootstyle promotions like UWFi, Battlarts, and Fujiwara-Gumi are right up your ally! Maybe you’re really into blood and guts and high explosives? You’ll love deathmatch promotions like Big Japan Pro Wrestling, IWA Japan, and FMW. Maybe you really just want to laugh after all. Well, Japan has comedy promotions like DDT, HUSTLE, and the aforementioned Osaka Pro, and unlike about 90% of the “jokes” told in WWE these comedy promotions are actually pretty funny. You get the idea, I think.

But that’s only taking the wide variety of Japanese promotions into account; even when you’re just looking at an individual promotion itself, like say New Japan, you’re still likely to find more variety in the roster’s pro wrestling styles and less of a uniform, homogenized style like WWE’s. Consider that New Japan has regularly run shows in the past few years with Mexican lucha promotion CMLL. Instead of forcing the Mexican stars to conform to their own Japanese style (the way WWE treated luchadores Mistico and Rey Mysterio Jr.), the Japanese wrestlers went out there and adapted their own styles to better work with their Mexican guests, resulting in unique, high quality shows. Simply put, you will find more variety even from match-to-match on many individual Japanese wrestling shows than you will on almost any WWE card.

Bottom line: There is an alternative

I’m not trying to say Japanese wrestling is perfect, that all fans of American wrestling will like it, or that there’s anything wrong with liking and preferring American pro wrestling. But what I am saying is that if you’re a longtime or even former fan of WWE and other promotions with frustrations similar to those I’ve outlined in this column, you’re doing yourself an immense disservice by not at least giving Japanese wrestling a try. Given how little WWE programming I’ve consumed over the past five years or so, I have almost no doubt in my mind that, were it not for Japan, I would no longer be able to call myself a pro wrestling fan at all. If you can get past the language barrier (and by no means do you need to be fluent in Japanese to understand Japanese professional wrestling, because god knows I’m not) and the general sense of unfamiliarity with the culture (both in the traditional sense and in the sense of Japanese pro wrestling culture), I am confident you’ll find something in Japanese wrestling that you’ll really enjoy. There’s simply too much of it out there, of both such an immensely high quality and incredible variety in style, feel, and presentation, for you not to.

My goal in these columns moving forward will be to hopefully help explain and educate you on that Japanese wrestling culture (and maybe even a little bit on general Japanese culture as well, which will also enrich your understanding). Of course, I will also tackle current Japanese wrestling news and results, but given that the internet at large is such a treasure trove of information on that subject today, this will not be my primary focus. Instead, I hope to take you on a journey through Japanese wrestling culture and point you to some amazing periods historically for various promotions that you should be watching. If you have any questions, comments, or (especially) concepts about Japanese wrestling that you’d like me to cover in future editions of this column, I welcome the feedback; my e-mail address is [email protected], and I would love to hear from you. Thanks for reading and looking forward to bringing you more!

Photo via Harry Li of Flickr

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