If there’s one thing the Japanese people are known for, it’s their all or nothing attitude. Every Japanese person I’ve met strives to be the best at what they do. I’m a huge fan of professional wrestling, and of all the companies and promotions out there, nothing is more impressive than the product that comes from Japan because of this mentality.
For those not too savvy with wrestling, I’m sure you all have some sort of distant memory of watching a wrestling match “back in the day”, probably staring Hulk Hogan or The Rock. The flamboyant entrances, the huge stadiums, the roaring crowds and the huge swinging punches. Japanese pro wrestling feels like an entirely different world from what you imagine pro wrestling in America to be like. Let’s take a look at some of those differences…
All too often on televised American wrestling you’ll hear a crowd erupt when the entrance music of their favourite wrestler hits, followed by a chant in unison for that superstar. Throughout the match, there will be chants for the wrestler, or chants for their finishing move. In Japan however, this doesn’t really happen.
The Japanese crowds are infamous for being deathly silent as they get absorbed into the match. The only times they’ll break that silence is during the entrances, and during a chain of moves(Chain wrestling being a sequence of back and forth traditional moves such as chin locks, reversals, take downs e.t.c.) This is usually followed by a sharp round of applause before snapping rapidly back into silence.
Take a look at this amazing compelation of moves by Kota Ibushi
First, take a look at this short clip of KENTA (Now known as Hideo Itami in WWE) going to town on Bobby Fish
Looks painful, right? Well, you’re right. In Japan, this is known as “Strong Style” whereby the kicks and punches are done with force, for that high impact sound, and realism. Yes, they’re really hitting each other. Obviously exchanges like this can’t happen too frequently, otherwise both men would be broken by the end of the match. However throughout the match, in-between the high flying moves and big suplexes, moments like this help make the match ups more believable.
There’s a large focus on traditional Greco-Roman wrestling too, with many bouts between the older wrestlers having a very strong grappling undertone to them. The submission holds are loose enough as to not seriously injure their opponent, yet at the same time done with some force to make it look painful. In America (especially on WWE programming) these traditional holds are held very loosely, and it’s up to the opponent receiving the hold to “sell” the move as best as possible.
This strong style is the reason why Japanese wrestlers are heralded as being some of the toughest men and women in the industry. Mainly because they can take one hell of a beating.
Kobashi and his infamous chops
The open hand chop is synonymous with wrestling legend Ric Flair. Whenever a wrestler lashes an open palm chop across his opponent’s chest, it’s usually met with a unison “Whoooooo!” from the fans (Flair’s signature taunt) However in Japan, the chop has somewhat of an initiation ceremony feel to it. As you saw in the video above, Kobashi and Kojima barely exchange any other wrestling move, than the open hand chop. It’s almost a test of endurance and follows on from the other point I touched on with the strong style. You only have to look at the athletes chest after the match to see there’s nothing “fake” about being blasted across the chest with a tree trunk palm.
Japanese wrestling has slightly different rules to those seen in the west. It’s common on American TV wrestling to see a wrestler thrown to the outside area, and being given to the count of 10 to get back into the ring, or risk being counted out and losing the match. In Japan, these counts last up to 20 as they add more tension, and also give the wrestlers time to perform huge diving moves from the ring to the outside.
Similarly, a lot of wrestling promotions have time limits, with wrestling matches ending in a draw. This is practically unheard of in the west, where there normally has to be a clear winner. In this indie wrestling match from “Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling” (founded by one of my favourite female wrestlers, Emi Sakura) we see the match end in a draw. However things take a comedic twist as the referee decides to pick a winner via a game of Janken (Rock, Paper, Scissors) luckily my other favourite female wrestler Riho comes out on top!
On the flip side of this very cute exchange, there’s the infamous Japanese “Death Match”. These are normally absolutely barbaric and sometimes difficult to watch. They can consist of the ropes being replaced with barbed wire, and weapons are usually legal. Sometimes thumbtacks are used and scattered across the ring, or tables are wrapped in barbed wire and set on fire. It’s almost like watching a “Saw” movie.
Look at this Piranha Death Match from 1996
Or this Japanese Death Match which featured on American TV with Sabu and Terry Funk
Forgetting the extreme matches mentioned previously, the focus here is wrestling. Not sports entertainment, or returning to the ring to promote a new movie. Pure wrestling at it’s finest. The only theatrics you’ll see in Japanese professional wrestling will be the pyrotechnics during some of the big superstar’s entrances. Even then, they are minimal, with some Japanese legends having nothing but their entrance music playing. The wrestlers let their “fighting spirit” tell the story, rather than silly gimmicks, or ridiculous Jerry Springer-esque storylines.
That’s not to say that Japanese wrestling doesn’t have it’s ridiculous moments from time to time. As western wrestlers have slowly started to make more of an impact in Japan, we’re starting to see gimmicks claw their way into the matches, which take away some of the purity of the sport. This makes for the western wrestlers to become the perfect heels (the bad guys) as the Japanese see them “infecting” the sport with their outside interferences and use of weapons when the referee is distracted.
However it does also allow for ridiculous match ups like the following two which feature one of my favourite athletes from Canada who is making waves in the Japanese wrestling world, Kenny Omega. Here we see him take on 9 year-old Haruka (who is luckily saved by the 3 minute time limit before Omega hits his finishing move)
At the heart of these brutal chops, barbed wire matches, strong style kicks, and ridiculous matches with dolls lies the important factor of respect. Being able to take multiple chops to the chest is an initiation, coming out of a barbed wire match gives you battle scars for the rest of your life, taking a strong kick shows your toughness, and wrestling an inanimate object shows that you can carry a match by yourself and STILL look fantastic.
That’s what Japanese wrestling is about. Being the best at what you do, and always trying to better yourself to make it to the grand stage of Japanese wrestling; Wrestle Kingdom…