It’s that magical time of year in Japanese wrestling when the Tokyo Sports Pro Wrestling Awards are announced. In my wrestling circle it’s never a real topic of conversation because we all know the drill, these awards are more about narratives being told instead of actual wrestling merit. Yes, great matches and wrestlers do get recognized, but more often guys that have been the voting committees favorites since the 80s can enter the ring to lay an egg and still receive an award for their efforts. Muto after his latest knee surgery shouldn’t be wrestling anymore, but people love to crank it to his pro wrestling love pose and a shit Shining Wizard. I was reading through the award winners after work and came across this tidbit.
The Tokyo Sports Pro Wrestling Awards started in 1974. They were just in time for the debut of Star Tanjo runner-up Mach Fumiake and AJW grabbing its landmark television deal with Fuji TV, and only a couple years removed from Beauty Pair taking Fumiake’s fame to unknown heights and becoming nationally known celebrities. Critically, the early 1970s didn’t make AJW a work-rate promotion, but with the first Mexican excursion of Queen Angels and a young Rimi Yokota and Devil Masami debuting in the late 1970s, the house style of the AJW roster started to develop beyond the basic grappling from the first half of the decade.
The first national stars of joshi wrestling being pop singers had an unintended effect. It made the greater public think that becoming a successful joshi wrestler meant you would become a successful entertainer, and that athletic ability wasn’t their primary skill. Many junior high school students started to apply to AJW, not to become skilled wrestlers, but because they saw wrestling as the fastest path to stardom thanks to the massive popularity of Mach Fumiake, who became an actress after her retirement in 1976, and the cultural phenomenon of Beauty Pair. As a part of their broadcast deal with Fuji TV, members of the AJW roster would have to have original songs to sing and promote during shows and wore fanciful costumes to the ring. This was meant to create a wholesome and family-friendly image to attract the young children and female demographics that Fuji TV were trying to bring to their network shows. The costumes and singing made fans and the casual audience see joshi wrestlers as another type of entertainer, as opposed to the athletes that participated in men’s wrestling. Male wrestlers, who were also popular during this time in the late Showa Era, were famed for their physique and in-ring ability.
In Japan, through the heterosexual gender order, girls are taught from an early age to not value physical strength, as it’s a masculine trait. Women should be physically weaker than men and rely on them for protection from violence that is often at the hands of male aggression. A lack of support for female athletics in favor of traditionally feminine activities teaches girls, and the public, that they are not physically capable of becoming strong and are naturally weak. This, combined with the prioritization of masculinity, has a multitude of effects on joshi wrestling. The public perception that famous joshi wrestlers were like idols lead to some wrestling press and “hardcore” fans dismissing joshi wrestling until the audience became majority male in the early 1990s, and is why even now joshi wrestlers struggle to gain popularity outside of the dedicated fanbase. Despite Beauty Pair and Crush Gals being cultural icons, Tokyo Sports didn’t create a joshi wrestling category until 1995. Sports Graphic Number hadn’t featured a female wrestler on the cover until Akira Hokuto in January 1994 with the subtitle “Welcome to the Women’s Pro Wrestling World”, assuming their normal readership of sports fans hadn’t considered women’s wrestling before in a serious capacity. The heterosexual gender order determines physical strength, aggression, and competitive drive as masculine traits. These traits are seen as beneficial in most sports, so with sports requiring traits and characteristics that many see as naturally masculine, they begin to see most sports as something for men. Women have teams and organizing bodies for their competitions, but those are often underfunded and ignored in favor of the men’s equivalents. The exception is cases when a sport is so unpopular among men that most players are women and thus gains the reputation as a girls’ sport, like fast-pitch softball and field hockey in the US. When women involve themselves in contact sports, they’re now going against what physical socialization teaches Japanese girls. Depending on how muscular she becomes and how she presents herself, she’ll become thought of as mannish and make herself undesirable to men. Until Dump Matsumoto and the Atrocious Alliance, both heels and faces didn’t have their appearance venture beyond androgyny. Dump, Crane, and Bull Nakano brought in extreme hair and make-up and costumes that would be welcome at a glam rock concert, but faces would rarely venture into extreme looks. Bookers and talent felt that the audience wouldn’t be able to sympathize with a wrestler that looked ugly or fat, a result of the gender habitus making people have bias against those who are overweight or deemed unattractive. Heterosexual gender order also brings us one of the most known items of merchandise in joshi wrestling: the gravure book. The increased male audience in the early 1990s made promoters determine that sex appeal was a profitable way to market their wrestlers and make them popular to this new audience, a complete 180 to what joshi wrestling had to fight against during the decades after WWII.
In the early 1990s, joshi wrestlers started to be recognized for their athleticism as opposed to being entertainers that wrestled. They started to get press from mainstream wrestling and sports outlets, as the teenage girls were replaced with wrestling fans that were young adult men. This isn’t a coincidence, as male opinion carries more weight in the arena of public discourse than female voices. Things that are thought to be popular among girls and young women are often dismissed and aren’t seen with a critical eye. For its entire history, joshi wrestling has had amazing athletes and innovators of the sport, but many only paid attention to those who could entertain audiences through more traditional means, like singing and dancing, and not through a career as unusual as pro wrestling. There are fans that don’t like the idea of music idols coming to joshi wrestling and competing with the “real” wrestlers. To the general public, music idols are a natural part of joshi wrestling because these women aren’t athletes like the men. If a male music idol tried to become a wrestler it would be thought of as ludicrous, because many would think he lacked the necessary qualities to be a real athlete, or that it would be an insult to the business. Some wrestling fans in Japan also have a bias against Dragon Gate because of its reputation of having pretty boy wrestlers with a large female audience. These ‘pujoshi’ fans can be derided as only being interested in wrestling for the attractive men or only watching wrestling as a phase, as if the same couldn’t be said for some men that go to joshi wrestling shows. Many people in and out of the business of joshi wrestling wonder and try to make the sport more popular, and while there are many internal and external factors that affect its popularity, the biggest hurdle for joshi wrestling’s popularity is the rampant sexism that lives in sports. From management all the way down to casual fans, women’s sports have to fight to receive attention. The attention it receives usually makes reference to the athletes’ femininity, or lack thereof, before it acknowledges the accomplishments of the women they’re discussing. Brandi Chastain removing her shirt in celebration during the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, after a third place finish in the 2015 Women’s World Cup the FA said of England’s women’s team, “Our Lionesses return to being mothers, partners, and daughters today, but they have taken on another title— heroes”, and tired jokes about female basketball players’ sexuality and manly looks. Female athletes across the world have to reach extraordinary heights to receive attention for their athletic ability. Even success on the biggest stages of all still doesn’t let them escape that they’re being seen as women doing something that’s outside their traditional roles, and joshi wrestling is no different.
In regards to the Tokyo Sports Awards voting committee finally taking a serious look at women’s matches is centered after the Bushiroad purchase, Stardom’s house style has been purposely changed to emulate more the “epic matches” that have been a staple of NJPW main events and the last year of NOAH especially. Matches that are consciously built around the opinion of tastemakers and influencers that these bookers respect and use as a way to create buzz around their product. Jokes are made about the time-limit draws in Stardom but, on the twitter Anglosphere at least, having matches go to time limit draws creates the idea that a match is automatically good. Now for the first time in its nearly 50 year history some members of the voting committee decided to vote a women’s match as a MOTYC. Over the last two years, talk about Stardom has increased with popular wrestling critics and wrestlers, and it has quickly become seen as one of the top promotions in the world. But did Stardom suddenly become a top-tier promotion, or did Bushiroad create a Pick Me Girl that has successfully pandered to groups of adult men that think so highly of this singular “epic match” style that it’s the only way they view wrestling as being great? The elephant in the room is the fact that no one in Japan can actually draw a crowd due to restrictions set by the government. Stardom has buzz online and is grabbing looks from people that are already fans of wrestling, but are they actually changing perceptions in Japan about joshi wrestling? Are there people who had never considered joshi wrestling, or wrestling at all, thinking about possibly going to Stardom shows, or is it fans of NJPW that are making the decision to check out another wrestling promotion? The problem that faced joshi wrestling during the 90s was that new fans weren’t being attracted to the sport, they were just grabbing the attention of people who were already wrestling fans and felt interested enough to start following multiple promotions. You can watch any joshi promotion from 2015-2019 and see at least one person in LIJ or Bullet Club merch, but you can’t say the same for people showing up to NJPW, DG, or AJPW in a Queen’s Quest or Oz Academy shirt. Joshi wrestling became popular in spite of the big names in Japanese wrestling media — besides Daily Sports — ignoring it. Western wrestlers and writers were faster to embrace the sport than the domestic press; Tokyo Sports didn’t create the Joshi Grand Prize until 1995, when it was won by Shinobu Kandori. In the Tokyo Sports canon, no woman was a good enough wrestler to receive recognition until Kandori, years after her famed Dream Slam match with Akira Hokuto. The award wouldn’t be given out between the years of 2004-2008.
If TJPW were to suddenly change its style and presentation to become a carbon copy of brother promotion, NOAH, would the Japanese wrestling press suddenly decide that it’s a promotion worth discussing and watching?
If you change your company’s house style into something that appeals to the tastes of a small group of people that have historically ignored your sport, are you actually changing perceptions or are you just pandering?