Professional wrestling in Japan is commonly known as Purofesshonaru Resuringu, usually abbreviated to Puroresu. 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 game 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.

Many Japanese wrestling groups have seen a significant downturn in popularity in the past decade due to a failure to introduce new talent and copying many unpopular ideas from the U.S.

The few women’s groups that remain are struggling to survive while the men have seen a big drop in their drawing power as Japanese fans are increasingly turning to mixed martial arts competitions such as K-1 or the PRIDE Fighting Championships, which had pro wrestlers as its early exponents.

WWE is also trying to make inroads in Japan by promoting cards on its own instead of through co-promotion as in the past with New Japan and SWS, mostly by featuring some of its wrestlers who once competed for Japanese promotions in the main events.

Basic rules: 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. Disqualifications (due to outside interference or violence on the official), unlike in the U. S., are rarely used in Japan nowadays since the fans are reputed to dislike seeing no clear-cut winners and losers. If there are any multiple beatings of a wrestler by others, they are usually done after the referee has counted a fall/KO/give up and the bell has rung.

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.

Characteristics of Puroresu: What makes puroresu different from the lucha libre style in Mexico and the American style is the fact that it is performed in more realistic manner. The Japanese portray it as a legitimate sports struggle. There is no outside interference, run-ins, or referees conveniently looking the other way. Blatant cheating draws boos from the audience, no matter how popular the wrestler. Almost every match ends clean, with no cheating and no disqualification.

Puroresu also uses very complex submission maneuvers as well as high-flying aerial attacks. Pro-wrestlers in Japan are also famous for “working stiff,” i.e. not pulling their punches and kicks. Puroresu also differs from American pro wrestling in that the wrestlers are treated more like legitimate athletes than sports entertainers. During interviews, puroresu stars tend to speak normally rather than use catchphrases and other mannerisms associated with their gimmicks, much like interviews conducted with boxers, baseball and soccer players.

Even the wrestlers with the most fanciful in-ring personalities carry out their interviews in a solemn, calm tone; the only “catchphrases” that they may allow themselves is saying an English word here and there, such as “thank you”, “champion”, or “I am” (before their surname). Promos are thus rarely used; the major promotions often interview wrestlers after the matches rather than before, where they can be seen (realistically) sweating and tired, as testimony to the match they have been in.

Most of the Japanese organizations do not follow the faces and heels style of their Western counterparts. There is no good guy/bad guy structure, it’s strictly competition between the wrestlers. This allows every wrestler on the roster to face each other; in America, for instance, two faces or two heels would very rarely be booked to square off in a match, as it generally has to be good guy vs. bad guy. Japan doesn’t limit itself like this; for example, it’s not uncommon for regular tag team partners to face each other in a singles match, particularly during annual tournaments, where the format is usually round robin and thus it’s every man for himself.

During the nWo angle in Japan, it was not uncommon to see Keiji Mutoh facing off against allies Masahiro Chono, Marcus Bagwell and Scott Norton during the G-1 Climax tournament, and holding nothing back during the matches. Secondary singles championships, such as the WWE Intercontinental Championship and WWE United States Championship, are unheard of, as promotion of a wrestler to the major singles championships also takes into account tag team victories and championship reigns.

Often, if a wrestler is to be pushed as a singles championship contender, a “secondary” championship used is one from an independent promotion or from a promotion from abroad. This pushes the wrestler as a championship contender in his home ring. New Japan allows for a few gimmick wrestlers, though. In the 1990s, one of its top stars was Mutoh, who would do double duty, either wrestling under his own name without a gimmick, or would don different tights and face paint and work as the heelish Great Muta. Most Japanese wrestlers can be considered tweeners because, they rely on the fans’ admiration, this admiration comes from how much they are realistically into the match. One of the best known tweeners in New Japan is Yuji Nagata.

None of the major promotions have their own publications (in contrast to WWE in the U. S.), all major promotions are covered by the mainstream media and have dedicated independent publications that are on par with publications dedicated to baseball, soccer, sumo wrestling, and other specialized sports.

The top pro wrestling magazines in Japan are Shukan (Weekly) Puroresu, a division of Baseball Magazine Sha, and Shukan Gong. Both present results up to the week before publication (in contrast to the U. S., where both Pro Wrestling Illustrated and WWE publications publish results and happenings at least two months old), and several mainstream newspapers include wrestling match results alongside boxing and MMA, which are grouped together under the general category Kakutogi (Fighting Sports).

Ring: 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. This full use of the ropes is a unique characteristic of puroresu among other sports which also use boxing rings. 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.

Female wrestling: 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 others’ titles as legitimate, and may share cards.

All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling was the dominant joshi organization from the 1970s to the 1990s but the company suffered due to mismanagement by the four brothers who ran the company. AJW’s first major star was Mach Fumiake in 1974, followed in 1975 by the Beauty Pair. The early 1980s saw the fame of Jaguar Yokota, who was as good if not better than most men.

That decade would later see the rise of Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, the Crush Gals, who became huge idols to millions of Japanese girls, many of whom followed their lead into pro wrestling. AJW also employed several American wrestlers, who had found little work and no respect in the U.S. Like their male counterparts, the women of Japanese wrestling were treated with great respect as athletes, not as eye candy like in the U.S.

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. 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 Benoit, and others have wrestled in Japan. The now defunct World Championship Wrestling had a strong talent exchange deal with New Japan Pro Wrestling, that saw (amongst other things) a Japanese version of its popular nWo angle used by that federation. 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 in the early 1990s, major Mexican stars also compete in Japan, although they are less popular than American wrestlers and depend on their masked personas to gain recognition. The most popular Mexican wrestler to compete in Japan is Mil Máscaras.