Part 13 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 13
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
How did they do it? How, in the space of a few years, did women’s wrestling in Japan go from the penthouse to the poorhouse? From this viewpoint, it looks like a combination of poor planning, financial mismanagement, and that old standby, greed.
Take the case of AJW. They began from scratch, from the restricted clubs. The flush of popularity that resulted from the visits of American wrestlers gave them hope that joshi could prosper in Japan. Things were sailing along at a leisurely pace, with title changes from Japanese to foreigner. The partnership with Mildred Burke provided AJW with a steady stream of American talent; talent they could ultimately control. And then she happened.
She, of course, being Fumiake Watanabe.
They really didn’t know what they had. How could they? She was just 15 and her background was as an actor/singer, having made the finals of a star search show titled “Star Tanjoh.” They taught her the moves and she caught on quickly. She was surprisingly fast, which led to an idea. While “Fumiake Watanabe” just didn’t excite anyone, “Mach” Fumiake sounded better; “mach,” of course, being the speed of sound. And she caught on with the fans at the speed of sound. Not only that, she brought younger fans into the game; young female teenagers. Mach Fumiake won the WWWA title at age 15 when she pinned Jumbo Miyamoto with a double arm suplex. This was the first time a Japanese woman had beaten another Japanese woman for the title. It also told AJW that Joshi was able to stand on its own, with only limited foreign participation. After this only three foreigners would ever hold the WWWA Title (the Red Belt): The Canadian Monster Ripper (Rhonda Sing) and Mexicans La Galactica (Lidia Hortencia Rangel Ávalos) and Ayako Hamada (Ayako Valentina Hamada Villareal). Just as important was that shortly after Fumiake won the title, she released a song that went to number one on the Japanese pop charts, bought by her adoring fans, mostly teenage girls.
Fumiake didn’t stick around long; she had other ambitions. But the mold was established: AJW now had a fan base, and began to cater to that base. The next breakout stars were 16-year old Maki Ueda and 18-year old Naoko “Jackie” Sato. They debuted against each other and AJW noticed the chemistry between the two. They were teamed and dubbed “The Beauty Pair.” On February 24, 1976, they won their debut match, defeating Fumiake and Mariko Akagi to become WWWA Tag champs. But they, too, crossed the line from being merely wrestling stars to being pop stars. Their 1976 single, “Kakemeguru Seishun,” sold over 400,000 copies, and the following year they won the “new singer of the year” category in various music awards. And who was buying their single? It was, they discovered, their new fan base of mostly teenage girls.
It was here the first mistake was made: The Beauty Pair was broken up in February, 1979 when Maki Ueda loses a “loser-must-retire” match to Sato. AJW suffers a downturn in popularity that lasted until 1981 with the arrival of Jaguar Yokota, Mimi Hagiwara, and Devil Masami. (Masami actually made her debut in 1978, but with the arrival of the fresh new faces, she caught on as their antagonist.) All were young and all were trained chiefly by Sato. Each also bore a nickname.
Taemi Hagiwara was a top model in Japan when she applied for the AJW dojo. Mimi may be a diminutive of Taemi, but whoever called her Mimi may have had the “screaming meemies” in mind, because in her matches, Mimi was quite the little screamer. Her gimmick was the schoolgirl who gets abused throughout most of the match until she finds a way to win in the end. Hagiwara also used her wrestling fame to launch a pop music career and had several top 40 hits. She was also, in this writer’s opinion, the most beautiful woman to set foot in a ring. Three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter French (which is possibly why she never got the Red Belt), Mimi was a knockout in any language. She also released a couple of photo books, which got her into trouble with the AJW Brain trust, as several of the photos were quite risqué. By the way, if you rent or buy the Peter Falk wrestling movie, “All the Marbles,” look for Mimi in a small role. She played Geisha #1 (Geisha #2 was Jumbo Hori of the Dynamite Girls).
Devil Masami was clearly ticketed for heeldom, given that nickname, while Rimi Yokota was nicknamed “Jaguar.” Cats are special in Japanese culture and “Jaguar” denotes speed, strength and tenacity. The same was applied later with “Lioness” Asuka.
Now that AJW was back on the popularity track, it established a retirement policy that came back to bite it in the ass. It was decided somewhere down the line (I don’t know quite when), that wrestlers must retire at age 26. As to the whys of the decision, I can only surmise that it was mainly due to the fan base, which the AJW Brain trust did not feel would support an older champion, and the eternal problem of a veteran wrestler gaining influence and not abiding by the promotion’s decisions (as in jobbing to an up and comer). Whatever, it was a bad decision and one that could have been easily avoided simply by creating a Junior and Senior Division. The Red Belt would go to the brightest star, regardless, while a secondary title could have been created for each division.
Now, let’s play pretend: Pretend that you are a top star in AJW. You helped the promotion reach its peak during the 70s; in fact, you were one of the major reasons. Come 1981 and you are 26, hardly an old grizzled veteran. The younger stars are coming along and you are being put out to pasture as a trainer. You feel you have many good years left as a headliner and feel stifled by the retirement rule.
Feel that way, also? Congratulations, you are Jackie Sato. Sato broke the monopoly of AJWPW in 1986 when she formed Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (JWP) with herself, Nancy Kumi, and Shinobu Kandori as the top stars. On August 17, 1986, JWP held its first card, featuring Nancy Kumi, Jackie Sato, Rumi Kazama, Shinobu Kandori, Harley Saito, Mayumi Ozaki and Dynamite Kansai.
Unlike AJW, which had gotten more show biz in the 80s, Sato’s strategy was to use a combination of legitimate fighters along with the charismatic entertainers. Sato’s JWP also eschewed two AJP policies: the mandatory retirement age, and the strict rules of behavior. This philosophy gave JWP a fighting chance to overtake AJW by signing AJW’s retired stars and building off their fan base. Things began to look up when JWP signed a working agreement with Mexico’s UWA, which would supply them not only with foreign talent, but that talent came with a “lucha” style that was rapidly catching on with Japanese fans.
In its fledging days, JWP’s raison d’etre was to give work to former AJW stars that were forced into early retirement. The fact that it was extremely difficult to get into AJW at the time paid off for JPW in recruiting young talent. They were able to debut several promising youngsters in their first year, a virtual who’s who of non-AJW workers: Reiko “Carlos” Amano, Shinobu Kandori, Dynamite Kansai (Chieko Suzuki), Rumi Kazama, Plum Mariko, Mayumi Ozaki, and Sayori “Harley” Saito. Later in the year, Tomoko “Eagle” Sawai and Yumi “Cutie” Suzuki made their debut.
However promising the beginning seemed, the promotion would be plagued by a factor that AJW had largely eliminated: internal politics. Though JWP boasted a deep roster that mixed former AJW superstar Devil Masami with homegrown talent, and marketed stars like Suzuki and Hikari Fukuoka as sex symbols (displaying them in revealing photo shoots and photo books), JWP was doomed almost from the start.
The internal politics pitted the “shooters,” led by former Judo champion Shinobu Kandori and kick boxer Rumi Kazama against what they termed “the entertainers.” It surfaced publicly when a July 1987 match between Jackie Sato and Kandori turned into a shoot. Kandori, who was said not to care too much for Sato’s ego, totally humiliated Jackie to the point where, after the match, she went into retirement again, not appearing in a wrestling ring for several years.
Once exposed, the rift became permanent. It was Jackie Sato on one side and Rumi Kazama and Shinobu Kandori on the other. The only outcome was to split, and in 1992, JWP split apart into two promotions: JWP Project, which numbered the faction loyal to Jackie Sato, and Ladies’ Legend Pro Wrestling (LLPW), which encompassed the rebels.
JWP reorganized around Sato and financial backer (and President) Masatoshi Yamamoto. They held their first card on April 3, 1992, at Tokyo Korakuen Hall. Featured wrestlers include Mayumi Ozaki, Cutie Suzuki, Dynamite Kansai, Devil Masami, Plum Mariko and Hikari Fukuoka.
But the company never really took off financially. It suffered a setback, when, on August 16, 1997, Plum Mariko died from brain damage suffered in a tag team match on the day before. Plum was the first wrestler to ever die due to injuries suffered in a wrestling match. When founder Jackie Sato succumbed to stomach cancer on August 9, 1999, at the young age of 41, much of the momentum left the company. On January 10, 2000, JWP announced that they would co-promote a series of inter-promotional shows with AJW, but the first show in February was a bust, drawing only 1,700 people. At the end of 2000, JWP closed its doors for good.
LLPW organized under Kazama and Kandori, with Kazama heading the company. Their selling point was tough women with legit backgrounds. LLPW held its first card on August 29, 1992, at Tokyo Korakuen Hall, to a sellout crowd of 2,018. On the card, Leo Kitamura defeated Mizuki Endo; Rumi Yasuda and Saito defeated Mikiko Futagami and Yukari Osawa ; Eagle Sawai beat Michiko Nagashima; Noriyo Tateno and Harley Saito over Utako Hozumi and Miki Handa, and the main event saw Shinobu Kandori defeat Rumi Kazama.
A 14-woman singles final was organized in 1993. The finals, held on August 29, 1993, saw Shinobu Kandori take the measure of Eagle Sawai for the title.
A key addition was former Jumping Bomb Angel Noriyo Tateno, who had been chafing as an announcer for AJW since her retirement in 1991. She doubled as a wrestler and trainer, attracting young talent for the new promotion. Despite all this, they never became a top company. Shinobu Kandori took over as President from Kazama in 2002, and as of 2007 the company was still solvent, though the number of cards has decreased. On August 31, 2007, LLPW veteran Mizuki Endo took over the presidency from Kandori, who had more pressing business as a member of the National Diet (Assembly). Endo stated that LLPW needs to start recruiting and training new wrestlers and Harley Saito will be in charge of training. Recruiting has been a problem for LLPW in the last few years, as virtually no new talent has been trained.
Following are some profiles of the major players:
Rumi Kazama was born Rumie Saito on November 28, 1965 in Taito – ku, Tokyo, Japan. Coming from a marshal arts background she was trained for JWP in 1986 and made her debut on August 17, 1986, vs. Rossy Moreno. She stood only 5’1”, but weighed a compact 132 lbs. In 1987 she defeated Esther Moreno to become the first JWP Junior Champion. She lost it on October 24, 1987, to Mayumi Ozaki, but regained it from Ozaki on January 10, 1988, before vacating the title in 1988. On January 10, 1990, she defeated Plum Mariko to win the JWP Junior & UWA Junior titles. She later vacated both titles on January 23, 1990. Her last moment in JPW came on July 26, 1990, when she and Shinobu Kandori won the JWP Pacific Coast tag team titles from Miss A (Dynamite Kansai) & Harley Saito. They dropped the titles back to Miss A & Saito on October 10. Rumi left JWP shortly thereafter following a dispute with Jackie Sato.
In 1992 she and Shinobu Kandori founded LLPW. A “feud” with Akira Hokuto led to a hair vs. hair match on November 9, 1993, which Kazama lost. In 1997 Rumi won the LLPW six women tag team titles when she teamed with Noriyo Tateno, & Yasha Kurenai to defeat Eagle Sawai, Shark Tsuchiya, & Lioness Asuka on December 12, 1997, in Tokyo. They lost the belts back to the former champions on September 15, 1997, in Yokohama. On January 4, 2000, she teamed with Eagle Sawai, & Carol Midori to defeat Noriyo Tateno, Harley Saito & Keiko Aono in Tokyo. When Midori left the team, Takako Inoue joined and the three defeated Noriyo Tateno, Harley Saito & Keiko Aono on September 2, 2000, in Yokohama. They lost the belts for good when the team of Mizuki Endo, Keiko Aono, & Reiko Amano defeated them on June 15, 2002, in Saitama.
Rumi won the AJW Singles Title on May 26th 2001, from Miho Wakizawa in Tokyo but immediately vacated the title. In 2001 she celebrated the 15th anniversary of her pro debut in a LLPW card at Korakuen Hall. On March 21, 2002, Rumi won the LLPW title from Carol Midori in Tokyo. She lost it on March, 3, 2003, to Eagle Sawai in Kumamoto. Her last victory came in a most bizarre manner. Rumi announced her retirement and stated that the August 8, 2003, LLPW card in Tokyo would be her last. On that night, LLPW president Shinobu Kandori stripped the title from Ogawa and awarded it to Kazama, who was then declared “the eternal champion,” and the belt retired with her.
Kazama (along with Noriyo Tateno and Shinobu Kandori, who starred) was featured in the movie Silver – shirubaa (1999) which about a pro wrestler named Jun (Kandori) who takes her job very seriously, taking out her boredom on her opponents. Her family was murdered by an underworld mob and now she only lives for revenge. She conspires with the government’s secret organization, and sneaks into a women’s professional wrestling group to extract her revenge. The movie rapidly descends into a story of organ trafficking, yakuza turf wars, multiple personality disorder, and illegal octopus lobotomies; a combination of Quentin Tartantino with an El Santo picture.
Since her retirement, Rumi has been working in the LLPW front office, working on a series of shows called “Woman Pro Collection: Future Constructing Bridge.” The idea behind it is to bridge the old and new generation of joshi.
Once called ‘the strongest man in joshi puroresu’ by a Japanese talk show host, she of the spiked, golden hair, Shinobu Kandori, was born November 3, 1964, in Yokohama). She has a strong background in judo, having won three national championships and a bronze medal in the open weight class at the 1984 World Cup Judo in Vienna. But she was considered as having an uncooperative attitude and soon left Japan’s national judo team for the world of pro wrestling. She was recruited by Jackie Sato for her JWP in 1986, and made her debut on JWP’s debut card in Tokyo on August 17, 1986, against Sato. It was decided to give her a major push and on December 23, 1986, she won the UWA Women’s title from Lola Gonzales.
But Kandori did not mellow with age. She deeply resented doing jobs to those she considered “entertainers,” and a growing hostility with Sato led to a match in July of 1987 that quickly turned into a shoot. Kandori humiliated Sato in the match to the point where Sato went back into retirement. Kandori left the promotion soon thereafter and became a freelancer before founding LLPW with Kazama. During her free agency, she was forced to work for JWP in order to pay the bills. Teaming with Kazama (one of the few she felt she could trust), she won the JWP Pacific Coast Tag Title on July 26, 1990, from Harley Saito and Miss A (Dynamite Kansai).
She was not a narcissist, however, when it came to her promotion. She held the LLPW Singles title only twice, being the first titleholder on August 29, 1993, when she beat Eagle Sawai in the finals of a 14-woman tournament. Her reign lasted only until September 23, when she dropped the title to Noriyo Tateno. Her last reign began on October 7, 1997, when she defeated Eagle Sawai in Kumamoto. This time she held the belt until August 22, 1999, when she lost it to Harley Saito in Tokyo.
Kandori has also competed in shoot fight matches, such as LLPW’s L-1 Tournaments in 1995 and 1998, and even stepped into the ring (which few joshi were willing to do) with Megumi Kudo of FMW in a No Rope Barbed Wire Death Match on March 14, 1997. She also had several classic confrontations with Akira Hokuto that were on the level of shoots. Kandori also broke other barriers: On December 9, 1999, in the first ever nixed singles match in Japan, she defeated male wrestler Mach Junji of Battlarts in 10:40.
Her reputation with the fans as a shooter led to AJW signing her and placing her in a WWWA title match against champion Yumiko Hotta (also noted for her stiff style) on March 21, 1998, in Tokyo. Kandori won the belt that night and held the belt for almost a year before returning the favor to Hotta in a rematch on March 10, 1999 (also in Tokyo). On May 26, 2001, she lost a shoot match to Russian Svetlana Novikova when Novilova knocked her out in only 2:33.
She took over the Presidency of LLPW from Kazama and kept the promotion afloat during tough financial times. She has also turned to politics in real life. In 2004 she ran unsuccessfully on the Liberal Democratic ticket for the House of Councilors in the Diet (national legislature), but in 2006 was allowed to join the House when House member Heizo Takenaka resigned. She will fill the remainder of Takenaka’s six-year term through 2010.
One of the saddest stories in the history of joshi is that of Plum Mariko, who was the first female pro wrestler to die from injuries suffered in a match.
She was born Mariko Umeda on November 1, 1967. We don’t know much about her early life, but she was an original member of the JWP. She was trained by Kotetsu Yamamoto, Atsushi Onita, & Gran Hamada, and made her debut on JWP’s first card (August 17, 1986) against Yu Yamazaki.
The promotion definitely recognized her talents at an early stage. Her athleticism was one of the main things that impressed the JWP Brain trust. It also separated her from other submission wrestlers. She worked a style not unlike that of Jushin Liger, and her style allowed her to work well in any match and any pace, whether fast, slow, or varied. Plum was most famous for being one of the best women at the submission style. This gave her a shooter gimmick even though her style was more lucha and she was not a strong mat wrestler, instead using her athleticism to counter and go into one of her submissions.
Her unselfishness resulted in inferior wrestlers, such as Cutie Suzuki, being pushed ahead of her. She was also teamed with Cutie and it was said the two hated each other, even to the point of being forced to tag. But Plum’s talents were rewarded when on September 15, 1989, she won the UWA & JWP Junior titles by beating Mayumi Ozaki and Cutie Suzuki in a tournament. She lost the belts to Rumi Kazama on January 10, 1990. Kazama, as previously noted, vacated the titles, so a new tournament was held, and on June 16, 1990, Mariko won the UWA & JWP Junior titles when she defeated Cutie Suzuki in the tournament final. (The titles were later vacated.)
When JWP went through its break up in early 1992, Plum (who was against the split) joined the new JWP Project. But since her relations with those in LLPW (especially Kandori, who thought highly of her as a worker) remained strong, she was the only JWP wrestler to participate on LLPW’s debut card. If anything, the split helped Plum in JWP Project, because with Kandori, Kazama, Eagle, Harley Saito, & Noriyo Tateno all in LLPW, Plum, though never considered a drawing card, was elevated from mid-card to semifinal and main event on many JWP cards. Because of her versatility Plum was double-booked on many an occasion, doing an under card match, then participating in a main event 6 or 8 woman tag match. The increased work load and her natural tendency to never give less than her all led to many injuries, especially concussions. Just when it seemed that she was going to get a monster push, Plum would be sidelined by an injury.
Her first injury occurred on April 10, 1994, in a match against Hikari Fukuoka at Korakuen Hall. Though it was written off as merely a broken nose, she also suffered a slight concussion that seemingly went undetected. No one thought, however, that it was going to have any long-term effect.
After returning to the ring, she then broke her left collarbone after missing a high risk move on a card in June, 1994. This placed her on the sideline and she began to panic as she contemplated that she was missing out on what should have been reaching her prime. She tried a comeback at JWP’s Yokohama show on December 9, 1995, but during her match she once again suffered an injury, this time ironically breaking her right collarbone. She was now sidelined for almost a year. Most would have retired, but not Plum. She still thought she could make a comeback and revitalize her career.
She returned on October 13, 1996, teaming with Cutie Suzuki & Kanako Motoya against The Oz Academy on JWP’s Ryokaku Big Challenge show, their biggest show of the year. Her rust was showing, but during a spot where she was to do her Frankensteiner off the top rope, both she and opponent Reiko Amano lost their balance and fell to the arena floor. Plum landed hard, taking the fall right on her head and suffered a concussion.
The effect of the concussions built over time, causing frequent headaches and double vision. This was only discovered later because she never told anyone about it; given her history of injuries, she was afraid she would be forcibly retired. But even her bosses and coworkers sensed that something was amiss. She seemed unusually tired and had been having problems in the ring, such as forgetting sequences of moves as well as the finish, and missing moves she ordinarily never missed.
Things continued along until the night of August 15, 1997, when she teamed with Commando Boirshoi to face Mayumi Ozaki & Rieko Amano at Hiroshima Sun Plaza. Ozaki used one of her regular finishers, the Ligerbomb, to pin Plum. There was nothing unusual or out of sorts wit the move. Since it was a common tradition to sell the finish in a match, no one caught on immediately that there was something wrong. But Ozaki and the other wrestlers saw Plum, who still hadn’t budged, snoring, and called for the doctor.
It turned out that Plum went into a coma after the move. She was rushed to a local hospital where brain surgery was performed, but Plum never came out of the coma. She was pronounced dead on August 16, 1997. Her father requested that a postmortem not be performed on her, so doctors were simply left to speculate on what caused her death. They believed that she went into the ring that night with an abscess on her brain, a cumulative condition caused, they said by the frequent bumps and blows to the head during her matches.
JWP president Masatoshi Yamamoto announced the sad news during the promotion’s August 17th afternoon and evening shows at Tokyo Korakuen Hall, with a 10-count memorial being conducted. Ironically, the plan for the afternoon and evening shows that day had been a celebration of Plum, Ozaki, & Kansai’s 11th anniversaries in the game.
Over 500 people, including wrestlers from the other women’s promotions, attended Plum’s funeral on the 19th. Reportedly, Plum received 50,000 bouquets of flowers.
JWP was investigated by the Hiroshima Police for negligence, but there was no evidence of complicity on the promotion’s part. Because her father refused to have a postmortem, the case was dropped.
— The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher