Part 15 of an in depth look at the growth of women’s wrestling, from noted ring historian The Phantom of the Ring.
The Phantom of the Ring
Lipstick, Dynamite and Glowworms Part 15
The GAEA Girls and the End of Zenjo
It all began in 1994 when Chigusa Nagayo, fed up with her treatment at the hands of AJW, surveyed the joshi scene, recruited a couple of financial backers (not too difficult, considering her star value was still high), and embarked on a promotion she hoped would reunite the fragmented joshi scene.
Nagayo named it GAEA, after the Greek goddess of the Earth (the promotion would use a lot of goddess imagery in their production and publicity). GAEA’s formation was first announced at a press conference held on August 24, 1994. Present were charter members Nagayo, KAORU, and Bomber Hikaru. Quickly realizing that the promotion could not rely on the veterans alone, Nagayo also began recruiting and training a solid core of talent to insure the promotion’s growth. GAEA’s first rookie auditions were also held on this occasion. That first class included: Meiko Satomura, Sugar Sato, & Toshie Uematsu.
She had big plans for the new promotion, taking it worldwide. To that end, she had her wrestlers learn English in order to compete overseas. She also invited male wrestlers from America, Canada and France to help in the training. Her wrestlers were to learn English in order to be able to compete overseas.
But her biggest plan was to reduce the amount of blood spilled in the ring, concentrating instead on technique. “An injury scar used to be regarded as a gold medal but now I think that’s nonsense. What’s most important are a wrestler’s health and techniques, not the blood.” She said in a 2003 interview with Japan Today (www.japantoday.com.) In addition, Nagayo followed other breakaway promotions and rescinded the mandatory retirement age, which used to be 26, an age, Nagayo said, “when most female wrestlers were at their peak.”
On April 15, 1995, the new promotion held its first show at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall. It was called Memorial First Gong and was a sellout. From this point on, GAEA held monthly shows at Korakuen and also occasionally went on the road to other Japanese cities.
Soon after their debut, they signed working agreements with FMW in 1995 and reached out to America to WCW in 1996. (The highlight of the WCW relationship was that two GAEA wrestlers, Akira Hokuto and Toshie Uematsu, became, respectively, the first WCW Women’s Champion and WCW Women’s Cruiserweight Champion. (Nagayo wrestled in WCW as a face painted wrestler called “Zero,” complete with Sonny Ono as her manager. She later took the gimmick back to Japan for a short while, where it died.)
Uematsu continued to defend the WCW Women’s Cruiserweight Title in GAEA. She lost the belt to Yoshiko Tamura on July 19, 1997, and the belt was abandoned soon afterwards when GAEA and WCW legally ceased their relationship.
On November 2nd 1996, GAEA established the AAAW title (All Asia Athlete Women). Chigusa Nagayo was the first AAAW Champion. The official story was that she defeated Devil Masami in Singapore for the title. No matter, for Masami took the title from her on November 20, 1997, in Kawasaki. A tag title was also established, though at the time the singles belt was called the “Heavyweight Title,” while the tag team belts were called “The Junior Heavyweight Titles”, but the nomenclatures were eliminated on May 31, 1998. GAEA’s first tag champs were Meiko Satomura and Sonoko Kato, who were said to have defeated Sugar Sato and Chikayo Nagashima on November 2nd, also in Singapore.
Despite the training of new talent, it was the regular inflow of established talent that allowed GAEA to become the first promotion to to push AJW from the top spot. They signed such stars as Akira Hokuto, Dynamite Kansai, Aja Kong, Devil Masami, Mayumi Ozaki, Manami Toyota, and Toshiyo Yamada.
While GAEA was to become one of the leading forces in women’s wrestling in the late 1990′s, however, the glory days had seemed long past and none of the women’s promotions were drawing crowds to the extent that they were in the Crush Gals era of the 1980′s.
So, it was time for a little nostalgia: In December, 1998, the big news was the debut of Lioness Asuka as a heel, feuding against old partner Nagayo. On April 4, 1999, Chigusa & Asuka battled against each other (to a sellout crowd) for the first time in ten years. But on December 27, 1999, the Crush Gals decided to bury the hatchet and reunite. They made their first appearance at GAEA’s fifth anniversary show on May 14, 2000, drawing the attention of almost all of the Japanese press.
They showed the fans that they lost little of their old magic, supplying the attraction the promotion needed at the time, but, unfortunately, it turned out to be too little, too late. Not that GAEA was alone in this: Japanese pro-wrestling was on the decline as a whole and GAEA wasn’t helped by the continued fragmentation and inconsistent nature of joshi puroresu. As times got tougher and crowds got smaller GAEA began to hemorrhage talent. Asuka, reading the handwriting on the wall, called it quits on April 3, 2005. It would be the last time the two were in the ring together. Chigusa hung on until April 10, fighting on GAEA’s last show. GAEA closed its doors after 10 years of business.
On that last show, titled Eternal Last Gong, and held at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall: Dynamite Kansai defeated Ayane Mizumura in 7:20; Aja Kong defeated Reiko “Carlos” Amano in 11:02 to retire with the AAAW Singles Championship; Sugar Sato and Chikayo Nagashima defeated AAAW Tag Champions Toshie Uematsu and Ran Yu-Yu in 18:31 (non-title match); Sakura Hirota defeated Mayumi Ozaki in 17:29; and Meiko Satomura defeated Chigusa Nagayo in 12:33.
I think GAEA’s run, as well as that of the Crush Gals, is best summed up by Maki Nibayashi and Jamie Shea in a short 2005 article in Metropolis Tokyo magazine:
Soon after the girls leave the ring, GAEA Japan, the sport’s top promotion company that Chigusa co-founded, will pack up for good. The golden years of female wrestling are long gone, as fans migrate to PRIDE, K-1, and other sports that rely less blatantly on theatrics, even if the hype remains the same. “We always talk about what we can do to make women’s wrestling in Japan better,” says Asuka, “but recently we feel that time is not on our side anymore. We have had our share of injuries, so that’s why we decided to leave the mat for good.”
The pair split once before, in the early ‘90s, only to reform years later as the Crush Gals 2000. “I think we were destined to meet again,” says Asuka. At the time, Chigusa was the figurehead fighter at GAEA, while Asuka was freelancing as a baddie, known as the “heel” in wrestling lingo. As a marketing gimmick, GAEA enlisted Asuka to make a surprise appearance at a 1998 match in which Chigusa, always the heroine, was being attacked by two famous heels, Aja Kong and Ozaki Mayumi. “I’m sure the crowd was really surprised and thinking, ‘There’s Asuka coming to save Chigusa!’ But, I didn’t come to save her — I teamed up with the bad girls!”
That encounter convinced the girls to pair up again. “It’s hard to put into words,” recalls Asuka. “I felt that there could be no other partner for me but her. I’m sure we both felt that way.” This time, though, there will be no third round.
“In Japanese there is a saying, Sandome no shojiki, which means that the truth comes the third time around,” says Chigusa, 41. “I think that’s fitting for us. The third time is when we call it quits.”
For Asuka, that means saying goodbye to wrestling for good: “We’ve spent all our lives in this world, and we are getting ready to put a lid on that forever. We don’t know who our last opponents are going to be yet, but we want to show the fans the best fight ever. Our early fans are now already in their thirties, with their own families and kids. I’m sure there will be a lot of memories flowing through their minds.”
Parents may squirm at the idea of their daughters aspiring to be wrestlers, but Asuka challenges that view. “If you want fans to look up to you and dream of you winning a title, you have to become the kind of person who can provide that dream. No matter how strong you are or how technically good your wrestling is, unless you have a good heart and a good outlook, the fans just won’t follow. To become a first-class wrestler you must also become a first-class human being.”
Asuka will retire on April 3, the last time the girls will be in the ring together. But Chigusa will fight one last time, on April 10, for GAEA’s closing match. “Sometimes, at night, I think about it and try and imagine what Chigusa is going to look like up on the mat,” Asuka says. “I see myself crying. Last time we split I think I was smiling. This time I want it to end in tears.”
Nagayo never was to realize her dream of breathing new life into women’s wrestling, but by the time the company closed in 2005, she at least left a solid legacy.
For a look at Nagayo and the world of GAEA, check out GAEA Girls, a 2002 award-winning documentary by British filmmakers Kim Longittio and Jano Williams on DVD, if you can find it. The documentary is unique in that it doesn’t recount the history or politics of the promotion, but simply follows the trials and tribulations of life at the promotion’s rural camp, and the punishment, both physical and spiritual, that is inflicted on the wrestlers themselves. This daily routine is punishing, as much on the spirit and psyche of these young women as on their bodies.
If you can’t find it on DVD, simply look it up on “You Tube” while it’s still there, or visit http://www.gaea-inc.com
And what of AJW, one asks? They closed their doors the same year as GAEA, only with not nearly as much pride. They responded to the competition in the early 90s by co-promoting what were advertised as “Dreamcards.” But infighting among the competing promotions ended all cooperation and things went back to normal: with everyone at each other’s throats. The opening of GAEA in 1994 and ARSION in 1997 drained AJW of much of its talent base. It also ended their tradition of guaranteed payments, driving more wrestlers away. To try to stave off the competition, AJW took in freelancers and did away with the silly retirement policy that in retrospect had really caused much of AJW’s trouble. Still the financial problems grew worse; a combination of poor gates and financial mismanagement caused by bad business investments.
Finally in 2005, AJWPW closed its door after 37 years, with the last card being promoted by a third party while Chairman Takashi Matsunaga was in hospital due to diabetes. Soon after the last card, President Kunimatsu Matsunaga committed suicide.
A rather miserable ending, but AJW had a fantastic 37-year run, doing everything right at the beginning, but laying the seeds for destruction in their misreading of their audience. If AJW had never instituted the retirement policy and instead established Senior (over 30) and Junior (under 30) divisions, with the best wrestler getting the Red Belt, the best Senior getting the White Belt and the best Junior getting the AJW Singles Belt – who knows? – the promotion might have well weathered the storm. Lord knows, they had enough applicants knocking at the dojo’s doors. A little more judicious handling of their personnel might well have kept the promotion going. But that’s for the Wrestling Debating Society to decide.
(born February 15, 1970 in Onomichi, Hiroshima) is a professional wrestler best known for her work with the ARSION wrestling promotion, where she was also head trainer.
Yoshida debuted for All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (AJW or Zenjo) on October 10, 1988, at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall in a match against Keiko Waki. Before her neck injury in late 1992 – which would cause her to miss two years of ring time – Yoshida was easily one of the best young stars in AJW, often showcasing beautiful Lucha Libre inspired aerial maneuvers to go along with her very good mat work skills.
In 1997, she left AJW to join Aja Kong’s ARSION promotion, becoming their head trainer. There she was repackaged as a technical wrestling master, and was pushed as a major star. She has been nicknamed ARSION no Shinjutsu, or “ARSION True Heart”. Forgoing the high-flying techniques of her run in Zenjo, her style in ARSION was centered around mat wrestling and submission holds derived from shoot wrestling, along with more elaborate lucha-inspired submissions.
In June, 2005, she launched Ibuki, a bimonthly event series, with her intention to provide opportunities for young, up and coming wrestlers from different promotions to compete with each other and to challenge senior wrestlers like Yoshida herself. Ibuki has now gained a high reputation among joshi puroresu fans in Japan.
In 2006, Yoshida was presented with the Cauliflower Alley Club’s Future Legend Award, becoming only the second female after Cheerleader Melissa, to win this award.
As I was compiling this report on the current state of the Joshi world news came of one of my current favorite wrestlers announcing her retirement after just 10 years in the grap game. While to many this is just another on the list of retirees this year has brought, it illustrated to me how deep the problems run with the world of Japanese woman’s wrestling.
The Bloody has quite a coterie of fans. Here’s what one web blogger said about her:
At her anniversary show celebrating 10 years in the business The Bloody announced that she would retire early next year, possibly just after the retirement of her mentor Lioness Asuka. On the card Bloody wrestled against Asuka in a tag match. In what has become par for the course as far as her career goes, the result saw Bloody get pinned by the veteran. That has been the problem not just for Naomi Kato (Bloody’s real name), but for many rookies who entered the wrestling world in the early to mid 90’s. With the old Zenjo rule of wrestlers over the age of 26 having a mandatory retirement being revoked, the cycle of fresh faces replacing old with the fast track elevation required to keep the wheels turning was left by the wayside. The veterans of course wanted to stay at the top of the card and thought it was beneath them to do the job to the up and comers.
Bloody was a member of the last of the classes taught at All Japan Women by Jaguar Yokota and followed her trainer to Jd’ Yoshimoto Pro. Lioness Asuka was the other big name star to feature in the promotion, and the big feuds centered around her and Yokota. While Bloody was mixed into the proceedings in tag matches, neither she nor any other wrestler was given the push above Yokota or Asuka. When the veterans left, Bloody was the one who had to carry the promotion without the legitimacy of big wins or passing of the torch.
Like most other wrestling promotions across the globe Joshi feds have seen a drop in popularity in the last few years. The booming fad years of the Crush Girls in the 80’s and astonishing work and cross promotional events of the early 90’s have given way to unmotivated aging stars clogging up cards and un-elevated younger workers toiling away thanklessly.
The mass exodus from Zenjo after ’95 when it seemed like every worker wanted to set up their own promotion has lead to a dearth of promotions of which some only put on infrequent and low drawing shows. This has lead to the majority of promotions being referred to as Zombie feds, literally feds that should really call it quits but keep on going regardless. None of these feds draw even remotely near the extent of the past and don’t match up with the top men’s promotions but they can still pull in a reasonable gate. Reasonable enough to keep going and going to the chagrin of Joshi followers who hope that some of these feds can consolidate and start to turn the tide.
So what is the future for Joshi? As with the men’s promotions, staying the current course and trying to draw interest back to shows through promoting the veterans that draw while pushing the younger stars seems to be the best option. Trying to get some good publicity would help too, although the Japanese press largely ignores Joshi these days other than printing lurid claims of how some workers might supplement their income. Every promotion hopes for the return of the fad era and who knows, the fickle nature of Japanese youth may once again launch these ladies back into the public’s eye.
– The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher