Professional wrestling in Japan is commonly referred to as puroresu in Japanese, short for "professional wrestling" ("purofesshonaru resuringu"). The word puroresu was made popular by Hisaharu Tanabe among the English speaking fans in the early 1990s through Usenet and online services. Quite different from professional wrestling in the United States, Puroresu is treated as a combat sport as it mixes full contact martial arts strikes with complex and dangerous submission moves and other types of wrestling like amateur and submission wrestling. While it uses very few storylines or gimmicks, match outcomes are predetermined.
The first Japanese to become a professional wrestler in the Western style was former sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda, who went to the United States in the 1880s and was somewhat successful. Attempts by him to popularize the sport in his native land, however, fell short and he ended back in America, where he died young.
Subsequent attempts before and after World War II failed to get off the ground initially, until Japan saw the advent of its first big star, Rikidozan, who made the sport popular beginning in 1951.
A match can be won by fōru (fall; equivalent to pin fall), nokkauto (knockout; failing to answer a ten count), ringu auto (ring out; equivalent to count out), or gibappu (give up; equivalent to submission). Fōru occurs when the wrestler holds both of his opponent's shoulders against the mat for a count of three. Unlike wrestling in North America, a 20 count is used in Japan when a wrestler leaves the ring instead of a 10 count. Additional rules govern how the outcome of the match is to take place, for example the Japanese UWF and its derived Submission Arts Wrestling promotions do not allow pinfalls, just submissions or knockouts.
Styles and gimmicks
Throughout the 1990s, three individual styles -- shoot style, lucha libre, and "garbage"—were the main divisions of independent promotions, but as a result of the "borderless" trend of the 2000s to have interpromotional matches, the line between rules among major-league promotions and independents has for the most part been blurred to standardization.
A match is fought in a square ringu (ring) surrounded by three ropes, very similar to a boxing ring. Turnbuckles holding the ropes in the corners can be covered either individually (each turnbuckle has its own padding) or collectively (a single padding covering all turnbuckles). Wrestlers often run into the ropes by themselves or throw the opponents against them, employing the ropes' elasticity for his next attack. Additionally, there are attacks that utilize the squareness of the ring, including climbing onto a corner and jumping off onto the opponent, or pushing the opponent out of the ring from the corner.
Other kinds of rings may be specified by individual rules. A ring may have barbed wires instead of ropes, have six sides of ropes instead of four, or may have explosives set on the boundaries, just to name a few. Some small, obscure independent promotions which rarely draw above 100 fans to its cards on average are so devoid of resources that they have to use amateur mats in place of an actual ring. Examples of these are Koki Kitahara's Capture International (shoot style) and Mr. Pogo's WWS.
Puroresu done by female wrestlers is called joshi puroresu (女子プロレス). Female wrestling in Japan is usually handled by promotions that specialize in joshi puroresu, rather than divisions of otherwise male-dominated promotions as is the case in the United States (the only exception was FMW, a men's promotion which had a small women's division, but even then depended on talent from women's federations to provide competition). However, joshi puroresu promotions usually have agreements with male puroresu promotions such that they recognize each other's titles as legitimate, and may share cards.
All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling was the dominant joshi organization from the 1970s to the 1990s. AJW's first major star was Mach Fumiake in 1974, followed in 1975 by Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda, known as the Beauty Pair. The early 1980s saw the fame of Jaguar Yokota and Devil Masami. That decade would later see the rise of Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, known as The Crush Gals, who as a tag team achieved a level of unprecedented mainstream success in Japan, unheard of by any female wrestler in the history of professional wrestling all over the world. Their long running feud with Dump Matsumoto and her Gokuaku Domei stable would become extremely popular in Japan during the 1980s, with their televised matches resulting in some of the highest rated in Japanese television as well as the promotion regularly selling out arenas.
Notable joshi wrestlers of the 1990s include Manami Toyota, Kyoko Inoue, Bull Nakano, Dynamite Kansai, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Cuty Suzuki, Mayumi Ozaki, Mariko Yoshida and Takako Inoue. It is during the 1990s that joshi puroresu has attracted much critical acclaim internationally, and several classic matches during these era competed by select joshi wrestlers were awarded 5-stars by the American wrestling publication Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Primary differences between joshi and American women's wrestling is the depiction of women in a non-sexualised way and that often the audience at women's promotions will have a large proportion of female fans. Female wrestlers with natural beauty, such as Takako Inoue or Cuty Suzuki may show off their beauty in non-wrestling related media, such as photobooks, where they are treated no different from tarento and gravure idols.
Puroresu on television
Since its beginning, Japanese professional wrestling depended on television to reach a wide audience. Rikidozan's matches in the 1950s, televised by Nippon TV, often attracted huge crowds to Tokyo giant screens. Eventually TV Asahi also gained the right to broadcast JWA, but eventually the two major broadcasters agreed to split the talent, centering about Rikidozan's top two students: NTV for Giant Baba and his group, and Asahi for Antonio Inoki and his group. This arrangement continued after the JWA split into today's major promotions, New Japan and All Japan, led by Inoki and Baba respectively. In 2000, following the Pro Wrestling NOAH split, NTV decided to follow the new venture rather than staying with All Japan. Nowadays, however, mirroring the decline that professional wrestling in the U.S. had in the 1970s and early 1980s, NOAH's Power Hour and New Japan's World Pro Wrestling have been largely relegated to the midnight hours by their broadcasters.
The advent of cable television and pay per view also enabled independents such as RINGS to rise. WOWOW had a working agreement with Akira Maeda that paid millions to RINGS when he was featured, but eventually was scrapped with Maeda's retirement and the subsequent RINGS collapse.
Foreign wrestlers in Japan
Since its establishment professional wrestling in Japan has depended on foreigners, particularly North Americans, to get its own stars over. They are referred to as gaijin. Rikidozan's JWA and its successor promotions All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling were members of the American-based National Wrestling Alliance at various points, and used these connections to bring North American stars. International Pro Wrestling was the first Japanese promotion to link in to European circuits. It was through IWE that Frenchman André the Giant got his international reputation for the first time.
Several popular North American professional wrestlers in recent years, including Americans Hulk Hogan, Big Van Vader, and Mick Foley, Canadian Chris Jericho, and others have wrestled in Japan. Even in joshi puroresu, a few notable foreigns have found success wrestling for joshi promotions, such as Monster Ripper, Madusa, and Amazing Kong. The now defunct World Championship Wrestling had a strong talent exchange deal with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ken Shamrock was among the first Americans to compete in shoot style competition in Japan, starting out in the UWF and later opened Pancrase with some other Japanese shootfighters.
As a result of the introduction of lucha libre into Japan, major Mexican stars also compete in Japan. The most popular Mexican wrestler to compete in Japan is Mil Máscaras, who is credited with introducing the high-flying moves of lucha libre to Japanese audiences, which then led to the style called lucha-resu.
Puroresu stars in foreign companies
AJPW and NJPW as well as others, have also sent wrestlers to compete in America. Usually, these talent exchanges are chances at puroresu stars to learn other style to add to their own strengths. Some of the more famous examples of Japaneses exchanges are Masahiro Chono, The Great Muta, Jushin Liger in WCW. Other stars like Satoshi Kojima, Kenta Kobashi, and DoFIXER with MLW for the former, and Ring of Honor for the latter two.