Joshi: a Love Letter to Japanese Women’s Wrestling and Its Stars
Design by Shannon Boland
Image description: Pink background with blue-toned collage of joshi wrestlers. From left to right: Majyumi Ozaki, Jungle Kyona, Manami Toyota, Io Shirai, Tsukasa Fujimoto, Chihiro Hashimoto, Meiko Satomura.
When most people think of wrestling, they think of sweaty white men rolling around in a ring for an arena full of people. In some ways that is an accurate depiction of wrestling. Wrestling, especially for Western fans, has centered men as the golden standard of wrestling; they were the stars and they were the ones to hold convenient titles. In contrast, women in American wrestling were seen as secondary, they were the sideshow for the main event. Although women like Torrie Wilson and Stacy Keibler are pioneers and legends in their own right, the male-dominant audience and industry saw them as eye candy, incapable of being the center of the show.
Every woman who has come into wrestling has laid a foundation for today’s women wrestlers. Pro-wrestlers like Chyna, Jacqueline, Jazz, Lita, Molly Holly, and so much more are incredible athletes. Some of them were even treated as main eventers, but America has always had a glass ceiling for women in professional wrestling, a glass ceiling that Japanese women wrestlers have helped demolish.
Japanese women’s wrestling is a niche within a niche, but the women who performed in Joshi Puroresu, or Joshi for short, have had a long impact on professional wrestling as a whole. Joshi is Puroresu specifically performed by women. Puroresu is a distinct form of wrestling that has stayed very close to martial arts. It is considered more of a real fighting style, compared to the soap opera-esque wrestling done in America. Joshi is often even more brutal than its male counterparts. Joshi is unique because there are entire promotions dedicated to Japanese women’s wrestling, instead of a smaller division within the male promotions.
Joshi has been around since the 50s and the wrestling has always been generations ahead of its time. The following videos are two very impressive matches from some of the greatest Joshi stars to come out of the 80s and of all time. Both matches feature Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, known in the 80s as The Crush Gals, two of the most popular Japanese wrestlers of the 80s. Their mainstream appeal brought a lot of attention to All Japan Women’s Wrestling, inspiring many of the future stars of the 90s. The Jumping Bomb Angels are also an impressive tag team, wrestling both in Japan and in America for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). They are one of the premier women tag teams ever. Tag team wrestling is beautiful when you have two teams with exceptional chemistry, making their tag matches ones you can’t look away from. The second match is Lioness Asuka vs Chigusa Nagayo, tag partners in The Crush Gals, it’s exciting to watch them work so well together, whether that’s on the same team or against each other. These two matches exemplify how ahead of it’s time Joshi has always been and also lays the groundwork for what Joshi would become in the upcoming decades.
The 90s was an interesting time for Joshi, not only because there were so many influential wrestlers in that era, but because we would see Joshi bleed into mainstream wrestling for just a millisecond. Two big American wrestling promotions of that era, the WWE and the World Championship Wrestling (WCW), would try to use Joshi wrestlers in their promotions, but these crossovers didn’t last long. Bull Nakano, a very influential Joshi wrestler and easily the most recognizable Joshi star to an American audience, had a short but sweet career in the WWE that would even see her as their women’s champion. Akira Hokuto would become the first and only WCW women’s champion. These companies would also see various Joshi wrestlers become a part of their promotion, but a lot of them had little impact. While these companies made an effort to integrate Joshi talent into their promotions, that effort just wasn’t enough because a lot of the commentary, as seen in the following matches, were racist and sexist, often referring to their looks and race instead of their ring work. Their time in America in the 90s was short. America just wasn’t ready for the talent of these stars, but these stars were already making history in Japan.
In Japan all-women wrestling promotions were commonplace: All Japan Women’s Wrestling and GAEA Japan being the largest promotions out of the bunch. Women in this era were superstars in their own right and were able to have shows in the famous Tokyo Dome. The 90s was one of its key eras, when some of the most influential wrestlers became stars. This era would see the pillars of Joshi form, pillars that would not only influence the next era of Joshi but wrestling as a whole. A lot of the big matches of this era would go on for over 20 minutes and were filled with action-packed moves. They were like nothing you’ve ever seen before! Every match was filled with passion, making it hard to look away from the beautiful brutality. The following match took place in the Tokyo Dome, showcasing the ferocity of this wrestling and the extravagance and art of wrestling as a whole.
Spotlighting some of the Joshi stars from the past and present is the best way to showcase their influence and careers. Along with providing a brief summary of who the wrestler is, I’ll also provide a match of theirs so you can check them out yourselves!
Manami Toyota is hailed as one of the best wrestlers of all time. A woman who put not only her heart and soul into wrestling, but her body as well. Toyota’s career spanned decades as she began wrestling in 1987 and officially retired in 2017. Toyota is a wrestler that truly knew no fear, in some instances catapulting herself onto opponents and through tables. She was innovative, creating brand new moves and offensives the world of wrestling had never seen before. You can put her in a match with just about anyone, male or female, and she would deliver a match that you would have never seen before. Manami is also easily one of the best babyfaces, or good guys, of all time.
Akira Hokuto, also known as the Dangerous Queen, is a wrestler that fears nothing, not even death itself. Having wrestled a match while holding her broken neck in place, she literally gave her body to the art of professional wrestling. Like I mentioned before, Americans might recognize her from her days in WCW and as the inaugural WCW women’s champion. Her career is an interesting one and a lot of her matches are hard-hitting and bloody. While her matches are impressive by themselves, her entrance gear was a thing of beauty, having various outfits to come to the ring in, one of them is pictured below. She caught your eye even before she got into the ring.
Her legacy goes far beyond her work in the ring. In the midst of the pandemic, Akira Hokuto helped create Assemble, a promotion dedicated to uniting the Joshi promotions of today. Hokuto’s legacy is one of a woman who genuinely loves Joshi and wants to see it succeed. She’s put her life on the line for Joshi, and today she still fights for its existence.
Aja Kong is one of the best wrestlers to come out of the golden era of Joshi, a wrestler still putting on great matches decades into her career. A competitor to be both feared and loved,her offense is filled with brutal strikes. Aja Kong is one of the greatest big wrestlers of all time, able to go toe to toe with a fast-paced wrestler like Manami Toyota. While she has spent a long time as a heel (or bad guy) and is often merciless in the ring, we can see that Aja has put a lot of care into her wrestling, she is considered an icon and nowadays it’s really hard to boo her. Aja Kong mostly spends her time in the Joshi promotions Oz Academy and Sendai Girls. As she adds more mileage to her career, it’s hard not to think that some things just get better with time.
Mayumi Ozaki is also a wrestler coming out of the golden period of Joshi, but her impact in wrestling doesn’t end there. While she can do your more traditional style of wrestling, she’s also known for her hardcore style of wrestling. Known as the “Queen of the Street Fight”, if you see her in a pair of jeans and a band t-shirt, run! She’s one of the greatest heels of all time, she’s a wrestler you love to hate. Today, 30 years into her career, she is still going strong, even starting her own Joshi promotion, Oz Academy.
Meiko Satomura is considered a living legend in the realm of Joshi. You can ask just about anyone in wrestling or who likes wrestling and they can tell you who Meiko Satomura is. A wrestler who’s been wrestling for more than half her life, Satomura is easily one of the most influential wrestlers of her generation. Her kicks and hard-hitting style has influenced the latest generation of young, up and coming professional wrestlers. Satomura is someone that is always striving to show what women can do as athletes. She’s a woman who fears no man, even saying, “Women in society, the years of holding back is over. You don’t have to cower from confronting men anymore. I will prove to you what women can do!” Satomura is also known as the Final Boss. If you want to really show how tough you are, prove that you can get in the ring with one of the greatest of all time.
Chihiro Hashimoto, under the tutelage of Meiko Satomra, is one of the premier athletes of this era of Joshi. A rookie with only five years of experience under her belt, she has already had momentous title reigns, five in total in her home promotion of Sendai Girls. She is often called “Big Hash” amongst fans because, as the nickname suggests, she’s big and strong. Her brand of wrestling is hard-hitting, with a lot of suplexes and lariats, she’s a true powerhouse. Hashimoto throws her opponents around the ring like they weigh nothing. With only five years of in-ring experience, she wrestles like she’s been wrestling her whole life. As she gets more years under her belt she’s bound to only get better.
Is it not an understatement to say that THE wrestler of this generation is Io Shirai. Shirai is a wrestler that knows she’s better than you, and when you watch her matches, it’s hard to disagree. Io Shirai currently works for WWE under the NXT brand where she is the NXT women’s champion. Shirai is an incredible wrestler that can easily out-wrestle whoever you put in front of her. Before she began her journey in WWE, she was a staple in the Joshi promotion Stardom and Joshi as a whole. Her career is still young, but so far it feels like an endless list of the best wrestling matches of all time.
Sareee is currently a new WWE signee under the brand NXT. However, the current pandemic has stopped her from debuting on the show. Beyond WWE, Sareee is most known for her time as the ace of the Joshi promotion Diana and her time in the promotions Seadlinnng and Sendai girls. Sareee is one of the brightest stars of her generation, known literally as the Sun God. Sareee has gone back to the Joshi scene and is one-half of the Seadlinnng tag champs. Sareee’s star is shining bright, the Sun God indeed.
These women are only the tip of the iceberg! Joshi runs deep and there are so many talented women who truly deserve more spotlight. Joshi as a whole is a genre of wrestling that often gets overlooked and overshadowed, and its importance needs to be talked about a lot more. Fortunately, Joshi has once again bled into the mainstream with stars of Joshi making a big impact in American professional wrestling. Women like Asuka, Io Shirai, Hikaru Shida, Riho, and Kairi Sane, have all had title reigns in major American promotions. This is a huge first step for the broader wrestling audience to truly appreciate the long and important history of Joshi. In today’s wrestling climate there are still people who don’t understand the importance of Joshi, but you can’t tune into any American promotion without seeing its stars or seeing its influence.
Beyond America, Joshi is going strong with a plethora of all women promotions showcasing some of the best wrestling in the world. Promotions such as Oz Academy, Ice Ribbon, Pro Wrestling Wave, Sendai Girls, Stardom, and so much more. I also want to add that even though women wrestling men is frowned upon in many promotions, Joshi women regularly wrestle against men. Intergender wrestling is not a phenomenon exclusive to Joshi, or something new, but it show hows tough and passionate the women in Joshi are. They want to compete with the best, male or female. The following match is an example of this, showing the relentlessness of both wrestlers. Just watching those kicks make my backache!
Joshi is important to me and to a lot of wrestling out there in the world. Joshi is a place where women, especially women of color and non-American women, can showcase their athleticism and their love for professional wrestling. Joshi is something that I desperately wished I had growing up, to see women of various body shapes being athletic and being treated like important athletes. Their impact on modern wrestling as a whole is one that is often forgotten by the general wrestling audience. But these women are stars whose impact on wrestling can never truly be forgotten because Joshi is still going strong today. Today, women are in a much better place in wrestling, and Joshi deserves its flowers for getting women to this point. You can turn on any wrestling program and see the influence Joshi has had on wrestling. I love Joshi, and wrestling, although it’s reluctant to show it, does too.