The History of Joshi Part 3: Schism
By James Truepenny
Posted On 18-03-2014 10:22 GMT
Tags: Womens Wrestling, Awesome Kong, Alpha Female, Chikara, Akira Hokuto

In parts one and two of this series we looked at the growth of Joshi from the Music Hall of the 1930s to the arena swelling miracle cards of the 1990’s.This portion of the series looks more closely at the development of the current Joshi scene and the influence the 90’s and early 00’s had on the wider women’s scene all over the world. Manami Toyota’s reign as WWWA champion was artistically and financially successful. AJW was still on a roll. It still had Aja Kong, Akira Hokuto, Toshiyo Yamada, Kyoko Innoue, Etsuko Mita, Mima Shimoda and Takako Inoue and the variations that could set in place between those grapplers, but Joshi was changing. AJW no longer had a monopoly, and a new company was being set up that would be another working partner for AJW, but would create more new stars and revitalise some older ones. That company was GAEA and its founder was Chigusa Nagayo.

Originally conceived after Nagayo’s return to AJW, the company was set up along similar lines to Nagayo’s home promotion. Their titles, the AAAW championships, were obviously derived from her AJW heritage. The company began with monthly shows at Korukean Hall, the home of pro wrestling in Japan, and were financially very successful. They worked hard to develop younger talent with a strong Dojo and brought in more established stars to enable blow off dream matches in much the same way AJW had been doing in the preceding years. What really grabbed people’s attention though was the remarkable return of Nagayo. She had apparently not lost a step in her retirement. In those first three years of the company, Nagayo was the top draw and was AAAW champion. She also went into other promotions to garner interest in her own work. She wrestled on the AJW’s Big Egg Universe card and the Kawasaki Baseball Stadium FMW show in 1996 in a street fight with Shark Tsuchiya. She clearly relished the hardcore environment. Cutting her promo whilst wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a bull rope, a tribute to Stan Hansen, she went on to have a lively skin shredding battle with the axe wielding Shark. GAEA thrived by trying to keep to the realistic shoot style of Nagayo’s matches while layering it over with some interesting story telling. It really got rolling though when the major talents from AJW were released.

AJW had reached a zenith point with its top line crew, widely seen as its best ever. However they were all fast approaching 26 and so they had a problem. AJW had kept the mandatory retirement age in place assuming that the wrestlers would, for want of their own safety, want to retire and start families. It was now looking like a lot of them had no intention of giving up so easily. Bull Nakano surpassed the age of retirement and went around the rule by signing on with the WWF. Still a huge draw and still producing quality matches in Japan, she was used occasionally, but when Aja Kong, Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto reached that position, they were kept on because of their shear drawing power with the company. They themselves soon realised that the situation may have a detrimental effect on their long term careers. Eventually those talents who had felt they had gone as far as they could in AJW began to float out to other promotions on a more permanent basis and the fracturing of the Joshi scene began to take place. AJW was still the top promotion with the prime TV slot, but there were now many more options for work between FMW, LLPW, JWP and GAEA.

What really kicked off GAEA’s growth was the arrival of Lioness Asuka in 1998. She turned up at the end of a Korukean show and aligned herself with the top heel faction immediately. This drew considerable interest from casual and serious fans of Joshi and suddenly GAEA was the place to be. Akira Hokuto had already been there as a guest but now made it her permanent home. Aja Kong who had played out her cards in AJW followed suit. Manami Toyota was soon to follow as was her tag team partner Toshyio Yamada. Mayumi Ozaki and Dynamite Kansai also joined them from JWP. GAEA was now the home of the stars while AJW set about making new ones. Not that GAEA slacked in that department. They would grow even bigger when The Crush Girls reconciled and became Crush Girls 2000 chasing down the AAAW tag team titles. It was a chase that filled arenas once more.

The main reason why GAEA has become so important to the western wrestling world has actually little to do with The Crush Girls, or wrestling as we know it. In the year 2000 with GAEA at its height artistically and financially, a young English film maker called Kim Longinotto set about making a documentary to show Dojo life and to portray an alternate vision of Japanese femininity. Having explored other feminist themes such as Tehran divorce courts, Longinotto and co director Jano Williams initially believed that the film would be a showcase of show business style athletic talent. What they found shocked them. Speaking to The Independent at the time of the film’s release Longinitto recalled; "It is a disturbing film, very stark and bare. I love it, but I'm also frightened of it." The film follows the story of a young dojo recruit Saika Takeuchi as she struggles to make her debut. She is being trained by the rising star of GAEA Meiko Satomura and company president Chigusa Nagayo.

Longinitto’s anthropological style, meant that she tried to disturb as little of what she saw as she could, and in the process produced a heart breaking film. As she explained in her Independent interview "I believed that wrestling was all show, and that we were going to make a film about wonderfully dedicated women athletes. In a way, the more disturbing it got, the more hooked we became." There is no doubt that Takeuchi is treated brutally from start to finish of the film, but then so are all the recruits to Joshi dojos, three women quit the dojo during the shooting of the movie. It has been compared to Full Metal Jacket in its treatment of human will, and much like a Marine Corps recruit, the new girls are psychologically broken down to be remoulded into professional wrestlers.

As Meiko Satomura explains in the film, being soft on a student can only hurt the student, “she has to represent professional wrestling in the best way”. As an educational theorist I can understand her point of view, this is clinical behaviourism that most military training programmes use, because they have to disabuse the notion that life is fair, because often in the military and wrestling life isn’t fair. As a wrestling fan you begin to understand why those three decades of matches that AJW produced were of such consistent high quality and why the Joshi product is so artistically rewarding. The people involved are completely and wholly dedicated to their work; this is not a passing fancy to be taken lightly. This is their life and they are rightly proud of what they have achieved. The methods of getting there are institutionalised into tradition, and maybe to outsiders considered unfair, but they work.

The film is fascinating largely because it is not shot from a wrestling business perspective. It is an outsider bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the ways of this world. The dojo environment is laid bare for all to see. It was recently re-shown on the BBC, its initial investor. One of my non wrestling fan friends watched it with his wife. He reported to me that they were both nearly in tears by the end. He asked me questions as to what happened to Takeuchi, how did she do in her debut? Did Satomura get further in her career? It’s that kind of film that can fascinate the non-wrestling fan and bring them into our world for the first time. Nagayo portrays herself as a hard but fair task master, who wants the best for her girls, her family as she calls them. Believing she has to give them the knowledge, poise and respect of tradition for them to succeed. It is tough love incarnate. She has a bigger bark than any Marine Drill Sergeant, but she does genuinely care about their development, and their long term safety and job prospects. It’s built into the psychology of Japanese wrestling, without the fire, without the anger in the heart to drive you forward you will not be a success. You will also not be able to defend yourself should things not go your way. Nagayo was building a stable of controlled rebels. The crowd need to feel and experience that vicarious emotion through your actions. The films appeal to women, specifically women who want to go into this world, and has been far reaching.

A wrestler who has had a massive impact on the Joshi scene in the last two years, and also one of the latest recruits to the Impact Wrestling roster is The Alpha Female. Making her debut in 2012 in a challenge to Nanae Takahashi’s World of Stardom title, she proceeded to take the belt in early 2013, in my personal match of the year. She has been a power house becoming World Wonder Ring Stardom’s first Triple Crown Winner. Her look and her attitude has been unlike anything seen in Japan since the early days of Aja Kong and Bull Nakano, her tattooed arms, blonde hair and aggressive attitude has made her stand out as a monster’s monster. I asked her about the effect that Joshi had had on her career and about wrestling in Japan;

Was it always a goal of yours to work for a Japanese company?

“I always knew there was female Japanese wrestling. I watched the famous "GAEA Girls" documentary and my trainers from the GWF had been really into the Japanese style of wrestling, but it was never a goal of mine to wrestle there or even move and make history like I did.”  

Are there any Japanese women you see as an influence on you? 

“I was always aware that Japanese women train very hard and that was something I looked up too.” 

Are there any specific matches or events from Joshi history that really made you take notice of the style? 

“I used to love Manami Toyota and was familiar with Bull Nakano back in WCW’s time, but back in the day there was not such a thing like youtube where I could find out all about it.”

Do you have any favourite wrestlers from Japan you like to watch and why?

“Now as there is the possibility to research all the girls from back in the days I try to look them all up as they are the reason why I can stand in the ring and be so respected. Before I worked with Nanae Takahashi I was unfamiliar with her and didn’t know how long she was already in the business and what amazing matches she had. I have so much respect for her and I am amazed how much passion she has for the business.

But my all-time favourite joshi wrestler is Meiko Satomura! She was also featured in the GAEA Girls documentary and she is now the owner of Sendai Girls, with her long time activity she has so much experience and is still so humble, she fascinates me in and outside of the ring.”

Is there anyone specific you would like to wrestle in Japan? 

“I like to take challenges and I love to fight. I’m very blessed to be with Stardom where the best female wrestlers in Japan work. I´m able to work with all the great workers and yet I would love to fight with Meiko Satomura, Kana, Emi Sakura and many others.” 

As Alpha explained, The GAEA Girls documentary did not put women off competing in this tough environment. In fact it had the opposite effect. Western women like Alpha and other Pro Wrestling:Eve stand outs Jenny Sjödin and April Davids have been influenced to emulate the style of Joshi shown in this film. It had the unintended effect of growing Joshi to potential wrestlers in Europe who did not connect with the WWE/TNA paradigm of the Diva/Knockout style of wrestling. They have found showcases for their cross over style in companies such as Pro Wrestling: EVE and Bellatrix as young British talents like Kay Lee Ray have moved to Japan to gain more experience and develop their talents. They have also come back the other way with Japanese company Ice Ribbon touring the UK. However we have jumped a time line, I should explain where all these new talents have come from and where the old talents went to.

By the mid 2000’s Joshi was starting to enter a decline. Despite continued success for AJW, they suffered from a diversifying market, the loss of its big stars and a general down turn in business due to the ongoing financial situation in Japan. They were not the only ones; New Japan Pro Wrestling suffered a decline in this period as well and is only recently getting back to its arena filling ways. They still had enough star making power to produce some great wrestlers, the brightest of which was Alpha’s opponent in that 2013 match Nanae Takahashi. She debuted in 1995, winning the AJW title twice in ’97 and ’98. Her tag team work became prominent gaining her two AJW tag team titles with her dojo classmate Momoe Nakanishi. They then moved up to taking the WWWA tag team titles in 2000 and 2002. She stamped her authority on AJW in 2002 as a singles wrestler, taking the Grand Prix Tournament and her first of two WWWA titles. Her energy and commitment make her a born leader, and she shone as champion. Sadly for her, the company became unmanageable when they lost their historic Fuji TV time slot and began its final throes. She was the very last WWWA Champion, returning the belt to the Matsunaga Brothers upon their retirement from wrestling promotion and the closure of All Japan Women’s Wrestling in 2005.

The growth of women’s wrestling in the United States was also reflected in Joshi circles. One American woman was able to parlay her exposure into a long and successful run in Japan, now most widely known as Kharma. Kia Stevens joined the AJW dojo in 2002 after a tryout that showed her potential. Taking Aja Kong as her inspiration she was able to replace her as AJW’s lead monster as Aja decided to move on to her other pursuits. She actually replaced her literally, as the matches already announced with Aja were listed as A. Kong. As AJW pulled a little bait and switch and replaced her with Awesome Kong. This actually led Stevens to believe that she could be in physical harm if she ever ran into Aja. Fluent in Japanese, Stevens knew all too well that she would be finished in Joshi if she ever showed disrespect to a veteran and was ready to take her beating if it should come to it.

They actually did run into each other in a restaurant, as Stevens recalled in her Art of Wrestling interview. Thankfully for her, Aja paid for her and her friend’s lunch and stopped for a chat. That level of mutual respect asserted itself in the working environment as they would become the tag team Double Kong, taking WWWA and AAAW tag team titles and a brief comedy stop off in HUSTLE were they also held the tag team titles. They went un-pinned in HUSTLE, Team 3D took their belts in a three way match pinning the other team and leaving them undefeated. 

Though these were great victories in the waning days of AJW, the company could not hold on past 2005 and closed its doors. GAEA also shut up shop in 2005 with the retirement of Chigusau Nagayo. The company had scaled new heights, giving Nagayo, Hokuto and Satomura, among others, their debuts in US in a working agreement with WCW in 1996. By that point WCW were producing 9 hours of wrestling a week and needed depth and variety in their roster. Initially they experimented by bringing in Madusa Micelli and Bull Nakano fresh off of their WWF Women’s title run. Eventually they brought in the GAEA crew. Nagayo especially seemed to be revived in her new character Zero, playing a full heel for the first time in her career. Satomura became the youngest Monday Night wrestler ever by making her Nitro debut at the age of seventeen. They had begun to build a legacy just as AJW had. That legacy would go on to mould the coming years of Joshi and begin to lead to a world wide appeal that others would develop.

The current Joshi scene is complex and layered. Though there is no one lead company anymore, all the companies work in harmony with each other, sharing talents and storylines in what has essentially become a model of cooperation and wrestling development. The major companies are Ice Ribbon, JWP, Oz Academy, Pro Wrestling Wave, Sendai Girls' Pro Wrestling and World Wonder Ring Stardom. There are also smaller companies like Union Pro, Diane and REINA, as well as other small companies that may produce one off shows focused around one or a group of wrestlers such as Triple Tails. What the larger companies have in common is that they are all presided over by a matriarchal figure, usually from Joshi’s glory days. Ice Ribbon for a long time had the lead worker of Emi Sakura who began her wrestling life in the waning days of the FMW promotion. JWP’s president is Commander Bolshoi, the small but aggressive comedy Lucha specialist who can pull out a shoot style match when the time is right. Oz Academy is the brainchild of JWP and GAEA legend Mauymi Ozaki which grew out of her heel stable in GAEA and has become the home of a lot of the older stars of Joshi, and a style in line with the GAEA legacy of bloody brawls and high quality technical matches. Pro Wrestling Wave is headed up by the now retired GAMI and features a lot of intense pure wrestling action as well as some comedy.

The two companies that can be seen as pertinent to the legacy of Joshi and two companies that have had heated storyline rivalries are Meiko Satomura’s Sendai Girls and Nannae Takahashi’s World Wonder Ring Stardom. Both companies have had their respective mentor’s attitudes, look and style imprinted on them from the beginning. They also inherit, either explicitly or tacitly, the legacy of GAEA and AJW respectively. Sendai Girls has an interesting take on wrestling promotion within the Joshi paradigm. The company was founded in 2005 by Satomura and Michinoku Pro President Jinsei Shinzaki (who WWE fans will remember as Hakushi). It is based in the city of Sendai and features Satomura, The Sendai Sisters Dash Chisako & Sendai Sachiko and Kagetsu. The rivalries within the company up until recently had centred on this small talent roster (Sendai Girls keeps things small, its roster never exceeds four or five) taking on brought in talent in the manner of old school Memphis wrestling.

The locals-take-on-the-world-element creates automatically interesting and intriguing scenarios. Through national television exposure, they have been able to make trips to GAEA’s old hunting ground of Korukean Hall in Tokyo and have brought some unique booking ideas to the building. 2011’s Flash Eight Team Tournament that featured every roster in Joshi in Five aside tag matches for the opening round, Trio’s matches in the semi-finals, and straight tag matches in the final. It was a beautiful thing to watch and it brought in star power from across the Joshi World. As did last year’s 10 x 10 Veterans vs. Rookies “winner stays on” match that featured every major star in Joshi’s new school and the established veterans, including a rare outing for Dump Matsumoto. Because the Sendai roster is small, they can also work as freelancers across the Joshi world and have been highly successful in World Wonder Ring Stardom, JWP and Oz Academy and the intriguing cross promotional feud with Ice Ribbon.

World Wonder Ring Stardom also echoes its mentor’s home promotion; AJW. They even go so far as to have their world title belt (World of Stardom champion) in Red, and secondary title belt (Wonder of Stardom) in white to channel the spirit of Nanae Takahashi’s lost starting point. The company is also backed by retired wrestler, model and MMA practitioner Fuka Kakimoto as well as veteran wrestling promoter Rossy Ogawa. The house style has become reliant on a strong MMA base with lots of lucha elements. The company’s popularity was helped in part by the debut of former gravure idol Yuzuki Aikawa. The kick heavy style has become popular being a call back to the days of Yoshiro Yamada, and Dynamite Kansai (not that Kansai has retired she is still going strong in Oz Academy). Though the company suffered the loss of Aikawa to retirement last year, the introduction of Alpha Female and “Dark Angel” Sarah Stock and other gaijin talents such as Kellie Skater and Hayley Hatred as well as veterans such as Miho Wakizawa, Kyoko Kimura and Natsuki☆Taiyo has developed its appeal and grown the company alongside its home grown grapplers. Its current Wonder of Stardom Champion, Io Shirai has had an outstanding year in defences against Takahashi, JWP Openweight Champion Arisa Nakajima and High Speed Champion Natsuki☆Taiyo. She was named MVP for 2013 at the Stardom Award ceremony on December 29th of last year.      

Alongside those companies has developed a list of freelancers who have staid long enough to have a lasting effect, and come from the annals of Joshi’s past and present. Jaguar Yokota and Manami Toyota still work cards on a regular basis, for all companies big and small, and are still producing great bouts in their later years. Being freelance means they can name their price and place and this has led to them being in demand for the big cards and to help develop younger talent with the promotions. Aja Kong is still a major headline player in both Oz Academy and Sendai Girls. She has also made her strong presence felt for JWP. Her work for all three companies has maintained her status as the top draw of Joshi wrestlers and she still produces high quality, breath taking matches for all of those companies.  Perhaps her greatest contribution to Joshi was founding her own company, Hyper Visual Fighting Arsion, in the late nineties.

Basing it on her own booking philosophies of realism and a strong shoot presence, the women in the company had to train with the male Battle Arts and Pancrase shoot fighters on a weekly basis. It sent Joshi further into a more realistic style and had its own breakout stars in Ayako Hamada, the daughter of Grand Hamada and AKINO, the current Oz Academy champion. Younger talents like Kana have made their name outside of the umbrella of a home promotion. Moving from company to company like a hired gun of the old West, Kana, with her realistic style and rebel attitude has grown to be beloved and a much anticipated highlight of any card she has been involved in during the last two years. A graphic designer by trade with a good sense of her own worth she has had some knock down drag out matches with Sakura for SMASH Wrestling, run her own shows with her Triple Tails partners Io and Mia Shirai, and become a regular for JWP where she has won the Openweight title, JWP’s and all of Joshi’s oldest and most prestigious belts.

What we have been left with is a rich tapestry of promotions with overlapping and interpolating their story lines and rivalries. While watching an Oz Academy show from last November it struck me how much I had to remember to understand why two wrestlers were having such a heated match. It was because it went back about 14 years. This is the kind of story telling that rewards the patient and dedicated fan. Under that level is the high standard of athleticism involved that still draws young women to want to break out from their situation and be something different.

Joshi has become an influential marker in the world of wrestling. Were as once Joshi workers would have a cradle to grave career in one company, now thanks to the growth of women’s wrestling companies in the UK and the US, like Pro Wrestling:EVE, Bellatrix, Shimmer and Shine, they can travel the world like their male counter parts often do. One company that has been instrumental in developing that kind of talent importation has been Chikara. Always having had a strong female presence on its roster in Sara Del Ray, Daizee Haze and occasional visits from Awesome Kong, Chikara began brokering deals with joshi promotion Ice Ribbon in 2011. Featured alongside the return of Johnny Saint to American shores, Freelancer Mima Shimoda and Ice Ribbon’s Tsukasa Fujimoto and Makoto featured in the Chikarasauras Rex; King of Sequel Night 1. Tsukasa Fujimoto and Makoto had a singles match the following evening in the old ECW arena. This testing of the waters for Chikara led them to believe something on a grander scale was achievable. Meanwhile former Jumping Bomb Angel Itzuki Yamazaki had moved to New York City. She had a long held dream of showcasing Joshi talent the way it was meant to be promoted in the United States, but wanted the right vehicle that would be respectful to Joshi. Whilst still looking for the right vehicle, her son started to show her some Chikara DVDs and she realised she had found the answer to her problem. Chikara’s immense respect for the past of pro wrestling gave Yamazaki the security to know that any guests she could bring into the promotion would be treated and received well.

Certain that Chikara’s knowledgeable crowd would react to the workers in the right way, she contacted Chikara and Joshimania was born; a three night touring festival of all things Joshi that included some of the biggest names of the day as well as the classic names of the past. The roster included; Tsubasa Kuragaki, Kaori Yoneyama, Hanako Nakamori, GAMI, Sawako Shimono, Cherry, Ayako Hamada, Mayumi Ozaki, Mio Shirai, Toshie Uematsu¸ Aja Kong and Manami Toyota. Opening at the world’s most famous Bingo Hall in South Philadelphia, the main event featured Sara Del Ray vs. Aja Kong, and it set the tone for the tour. Wrestling each other or wrestling the local female and male talents in Chikara (Chikara has no gender divisions, though they do respect requests not to work inter-gender matches) they produced a popular and startling once in a life time event that was loved by the fans and workers alike.

Though they have promised not to do it again, Chikara has folded Joshi wrestlers into its regular cycle of events. JWP and Sendai Girls both sent teams to the 2012 King of Trios where they had the chance to prove themselves against the very, very best. One of the reasons for this cross pollination success is that the female wrestlers from the Japanese companies love that they are billed equally to the men. As Mike Quakenbush stated in his 2012 Women of Wrestling podcast interview for Ringbelles, “. . .  once the door was open for her, the first thing that Manami Toyota said was “I’m going to be able to wrestle the men right?” that was very appealing.”  Toyota has indeed wrestled the men, and in fact tagged with Quackenbush and Jigsaw twice in the King of Trios tournament, taking Johnny Saint’s spot in Quack’s team and establishing herself as a semi regular member of the roster who enjoys the progressive environment that enables her to work angles and matches that she would not be able to do at home.

So that really brings a close to my story of Joshi, a 40 year history that is growing by the day, both home and abroad. Like a great Joshi match itself, it is a story of incredible highs and meteoric rises to prominence. While the lows have been heart breaking, the loss of GAEA and AJW for instance, Joshi stands as resilient as Akira Hokuto, bent but not broken, a glint in her eye and Northern Lights Bomb away from shocking the world once again.          

Tags: Womens Wrestling, Awesome Kong, Alpha Female, Chikara, Akira Hokuto

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