Part 6 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 6
The Japanese get it right.
It is called “joshi puroresu,” or “joshi puro” for short. Simply translated, it means “women’s professional wrestling.” Its roots have much in common with the roots of American women’s pro wrestling, though the development differed. Like the Americans, Japanese woman’s pro wrestling developed independently of the men’s game, but unlike the American women, the Japanese remained independent. This was due partly to the chauvinism of Japanese society, but also credit the promoters of women’s wrestling with keeping it separate instead of booking a woman’s match on a men’s card, like in America. Here, the women became an ersatz auxiliary, a casserole in an otherwise steak and potatoes meal. But in Japan the women were allowed to develop in wrestling skill. Even the targeted audience was different: the Japanese discovered in the 70s that their target audience was teenage girls and they promoted accordingly. However, the problem with such marketing was the constant turnover of stars and the realization, come too late, that subsequent generations of teenagers moved on to the next fad. These, and other financial considerations, proved to be the bullet that killed the golden goose.
Whereas in America the roots of women’s wrestling come directly from the carnival with a side trip to burlesque, the roots of joshi puro come from vaudeville. The Igari brothers, Sadako and Seijiro, were renowned vaudevillians in Japan. In 1946 they brought their fourteen year old sister, Sadako, into the act. Teaching her boxing and judo, the Igari brothers started the “Garter Struggle Show,” which played music halls and strip clubs in 1950 through 1952. The show, which was done on floor mats minus the ring and ropes, was a hit with audiences. This led to the founding of the “All Japan Woman’s Wrestling Club” in 1952, located at the Nihon Theater Music Hall in downtown Tokyo. The club, built around Sakado, was filled with other wrestling hopefuls, including: Yumi Kator, a former stripper, thirteen-year old Fumiko Nakada, and Yukiko Tomoe, who would later gain the distinction of being the first Japanese woman to hold the World’s Title. The women were trained by Dr. Elmer Hawkins, a surgeon and amateur wrestling coach stationed with the U. S. Army in Tokyo.
Women’s wrestling was a cult phenomenon, considered too risqué for audiences, while men’s wrestling was making large strides due to the natural chauvinism of Japanese society. But in November, 1954, Mildred Burke led a contingent of six women wrestlers (including Mae Young, Mae Weston, Juanita Coffman and Rose Evans) to Tokyo, where they performed for U.S. Army soldiers. The matches, however, were televised live by Japan’s NTV as a curiosity, and to the surprise of network executives, garnered quite an audience and exposed a large segment of the Japanese population to what had heretofore been a sport exhibited only behind closed doors.
The new found popularity of the women led to the founding of many small promotions in different cities, and as Rikidozan and his Japan Pro Wrestling (JWA) absorbed the other small men’s pro clubs, so the women followed suit. The Igari’s All Japan Woman’s Wrestling Club joined forces with the All Japan Woman’s Pro Wrestling Association (whose top star, Reiko Yoshiba, was the little sister of the later-dominant Matsunaga Brothers), Tokyo Woman’s Pro Wrestling Association, Tokyo Universal Wrestling Association, Hiroshima Woman’s Pro Wrestling Team, and the All Japan Pro Wrestling, out of Osaka, to create the “All Japan Woman’s Pro Wrestling Federation.” The new group held two all-star shows under the title of “All Japan Woman’s Pro Wrestling Championship,” at the Kokusai (International) Stadium in Tokyo September 10 and September 11, 1955, and later on January 4 and January 5, 1956. The shows were a hit: they sold out and were televised live. The stadium was more than a mere venue for the cards: The first woman pro wrestling’s commissioner, Sai-ichi Ueno, was a president of the stadium. Based on the paradigm of U.S. women’s wrestling, they drew good, steady houses for a few years onward, but business began to decline when beauty and sexiness was pushed over talent. This was seen as a backward step to the strip club days and led to serious infighting among the members, with the result being that the Association fell apart. The retirement of Sadako “Lily” Igari in September, 1959, all but killed the market.
The market for “joshi puro” remained stagnant until April, 1967, when the “Japan’s Woman’s Pro Wrestling Association” was formed with the five Matsunaga Brothers leading the way. The Matsunagas had gained a measure of fame for promoting “Ju-Ken shows” (judo versus boxing), a form of mixed marshal arts in which women were featured. The new organization was fronted by Touichi Mannen (President) with Takashi Matsunaga running things as trainer. They held their opening show on April 29 (a holiday – the Emperor’s Birthday) at Taito Ward Gym in Tokyo and drew about 5,000 fans. Needing a shot of gaijin (foreign: in Japanese slang, “round-eyes”) blood to stimulate growth, Mannen sent Morie Nakamura to New York to negotiate with Vince McMahon Sr. and the WWWF. The result was a four-woman tour from March, 1968 to April 1968. The American contingent consisted of The Fabulous Moolah, Pat Sherry (Moolah’s daughter, Mary), Judy Grable and Bette Boucher. The tour, consisting of the four Americans and 18 Japanese women, held 29 shows during the month. The highlight came when Yukiko Tomoe pinned Moolah to win the World Woman’s title in Higashi-osaka City on March 10, 1968. Moolah won the title back in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka on April 2, 1968, which was the last day of the tour. The tour was a success, drawing near-sellouts every night, an amazing feat given the dearth of publicity.
This lack of adequate publicity proved to be the last straw, because after the tour, the Matsunagas left the JWPWA. They took 17 of the wrestlers with them and formed the “All Japan Woman’s Pro Wrestling (Zennihon Joshi Puroresu).” The group debuted in Shinagawa, Tokyo at the Civic Hall on June 4, 1968, and followed that with another big show at Kudan Kaikan (only five minutes from Nippon Budokan Hall) in Tokyo on July 18, 1968. Not wishing to repeat bad history, they gained an influential sponsor to help with the necessary publicity: The Daily Sports Newspaper. Its publisher, Shinji Ueda, sponsored the Matsunaga Brothers and became the group’s commissioner.
American promoters continued to see Japan as a relatively unexplored market for the women’s game. In September 1968, Jack Britton (father of Gino Brito and with Bert Ruby and Harry Light the organizer of a central booking office for midget wrestlers) came to Japan to meet with the Matsunaga Brothers. Britton, working with The Sheik (Ed Farhat), who succeeded Ruby and Light in Detroit, was representing the AGWA (American Girl’s Wrestling Association). Because Moolah and her crew were still obligated to the JWPWA, the Mastunagas needed American wrestlers. Britton arraigned for Kay Noble (who held the group’s U.S. Women’s title, and Mary Jane and Lucille Dupree to tour Japan. The publicity resulting from this infusion brought Fuji Television into the fold. They televised All Japan Woman’s Pro for the first time on December 1, 1968, drawing a superb rating. To counter, JWPWA, whose TV time slot was 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, brought in Fabulous Moolah, Toni Rose, Princess White Cloud, Patty Neilsen, and Donna Christantello. Because Moolah’s group was better known, JWPWA held on to a slim lead in the eyes and pocketbooks of the fans.
The Matsunagas realized they needed a steady flow of name American wrestlers, because the paradigm at the time was Japanese versus foreigner, but Moolah’s group was committed to the opposition. Looking for a new partner, they hooked up with Mildred Burke and her WWWA (World Women’s Wrestling Association). She founded the promotion in Reseda, California in January 1966, and until the Matsunagas contacted her, was restricted to promoting small independent shows with an occasional bout on a men’s card. A business relationship ensued wherein Burke would train the Japanese women in the American style of wrestling. She also sold the rights to the WWWA to the Matsunagas and sent her World Champion, Marie Vagnone, to All Japan Woman’s Pro in September 1970. Vagnone dropped the belt to Aiko Kyo at Adachi Ward Gym in Tokyo on October 15, 1970. Thus originated the WWWA World singles title in Japan. To this day, the title (referred to as the “red belt” by both wrestlers and fans), remains the biggest symbol of woman pro wrestling in Japan. A WWWA tag team title was added in 1971 when Jumbo Miyamoto and Aiko Kyo were made the first champions on June 30 of that year.
The booking strategy for both the singles and tag titles was to alternate the belts between Japanese and gaijin (usually from North America) heels. The tag title was traded an incredible 56 times in this fashion between 1971 and 1975. What broke the pattern was the coming superstardom of Mach Fumiake in the singles division and the Beauty Pair (Naoko “Jackie” Sato and Maki Ueda) in the tag division. March 19, 1975, represented a milestone in the promotion’s history as Mach Fumiake (Fumiake Watanabe) won the WWWA Championship from Jumbo Miyamoto. She was 16 years of age, the youngest to ever win a world title.(Afterwards only three foreigners were ever to hold the title: Monster Ripper (Peggy Simpson) from Canada, The masked La Galactica from Mexico, and American Amazing Kong on June 4, 2004.) Mach Fumiake came from a acting-singing background, having been in the finals of “Star Tanjoh,” a show in the style of “American Idol.” After winning the title, she released a song that went to number one on the Japanese pop charts. This taught the Matsunagas an important marketing lesson: the audience for their product was young women, and thus the product would be aimed at this audience. Fumiake lost the title on April 2 to Miyamoto, but then won the WWWA tag title with partner Mariko Akagi on April 15, 1975 (Akagi would defeat Miyamoto for the singles title on March 15, 1976.). They vacated the title on July 31, 1975, when Fumiake is injured, but regained it on September 18 with a victory over Irma Gonzales and Cheryl Day.
Fumiake’s pro-wrestling career lasted less than three years as she retired for a movie career in January 1976. She is best known for the “A Taxing Woman” series and a Gammera movie. (I’m surprised, and a little disappointed, that given the amount of Gammera movies that have shown up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, her film was not among them.) The WWWA Tag Team Title, would soon be claimed by a new team that proved even more popular than Fumiake.
Known as “The Beauty Pair,” the team consisted of 16-year old Maki Ueda and 18-year old Naoko “Jackie” Sato. Sato, from Yokohama, played basketball in high school. After graduation, she auditioned for the AJW and debuted against future tag partner Ueda on April 27, 1975. Both women were pushed slowly, as the promoters concentrated in developing the product. Noticing the chemistry between the two, it was decided to team them up. The new team was dubbed “The Beauty Pair,” and on February 24, 1976, they won their debut match, defeating Fumiake and Akagi to become new WWWA Tag champs. The Beauty Pair broke the existing rule of major feuds with gaijin. Their enemies were the Black Pair (Mami Kumao and Yumi Ikesita). Their feud boosted the Beauty Pair to new heights, outstripping their predecessors in popularity and becoming pop icons in the process. They appeared on television and released records on the pop charts. 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. AJW rode Fumiake and the Beauty Pair to new heights. In November 1975, Fuji Television began airing AJW cards twice a month to strong ratings.
The Beauty Pair held the tag belts twice before splitting up. On June 8, 1976, Maki Ueda won the WWWA Title from Miyamoto. She lost it back on November 30, 1976, and recaptured it on July 29, 1977. She then dropped it to former partner Sato on November 1, 1977. The era of Beauty Pair finally ended when Ueda lost a blow-off loser-must-retire match against Sato in February 1979. This was in keeping with AJW’s new policy of mandatory retirement by the age of 26. This was in order to keep the stars within the age range of the fans. There were few exceptions granted, and it worked as long as there was charismatic talent to fill the gaps. AJW suffered the loss in popularity until a new era began in 1981, centered around three new stars: Toshimi Rimi “Jaguar” Yokota, Taemi “Mimi” Hagiwara, and Yoshida “Devil” Masami. Their ascendancy coincided with the retirement of Jackie Sato on May 21, 1981
Mimi Hagiwara was perhaps the most beautiful woman ever (along with Lorraine Johnson) to put on a pair of tights. Of Japanese-French extraction, she was born on February 6, 1956 in Tokyo. After high school she became a model, recruited for AJW, she was trained by Jackie Sato and made her debut in 1979. As her popularity grew, so did her ring stature. A good worker, her good looks and side modeling career drew crossover fans from among the young male population. Mimi’s stock in trade was as the schoolgirl type who suffered in the ring at the hands of the heel (seen as bullies) until she reversed things and came out on top. She was famous for her high-pitched screams as the heel put on the pressure. Outside the ring she became a star on television and in the recording industry, issuing several number one pop hits on the Japanese Top 40. Her only movie appearance was as “Geisha # 1” in the Peter Falk opus, All the Marbles. (Geisha # 2 was played by Ayumi Hori.) She also posed for several cheesecake photo books aimed at the young male market.
Prepping her for bigger things, she went over for the All Pacific Women’s Championship (Known as the “White Belt, it originally began as the Hawaiian Pacific Championship in 1977 before being renamed in 1978”), the Number Two singles title on February 25, 1981 by defeating Yumi Ikeshita. She won for a second time, shortly before her retirement, defeating Judy Martin on October 5, 1982. Mimi retired a month later, on November 26, 1983. She stayed retired and out of the wrestling limelight, returning only for Jaguar Yakota’s 30th anniversary show (March 11, 2007), where she sang and participated in a legends battle royal. It’s interesting that, despite her popularity, one title she was denied was the WWWA Singles Championship. Speculation about the politics of the denial center on the fact she was slight even for a young woman wrestler; a back injury suffered in the ring severely limited her mobility; that her outside modeling career hurt her with both fans and AJW, especially since she posed partially nude in several photo books; and that Jaguar Yokota was better positioned to carry the company.
Perhaps the second greatest woman wrestler ever to grace a ring was Toshimi Rimi Yakota. Standing 5’3” and weighing about 135 lbs., she was born on July 25, 1961 in Tokyo, Japan. Yakota has said that her decision to become a wrestler was because of the influence of the Beauty Pair; she was not an athlete in school. She passed her audition (in a class well over 600) and was given the moniker “Jaguar” not only because of her sleek appearance and speed, but also after Jet Jaguar, a popular automaton in Sci-fi films (notably Godzilla vs. Megalon) and thus a memorable name. Yokota made her debut on June 28, 1977 against Mayumi Takahashi and climbed the ladder rapidly, winning the first AJW Junior Champion (a belt created to test the championship waters for young hopefuls) on January 4, 1980, defeating Chino Sato. On December 15, she became the first AJW Champion (A belt that may well have created just for her, a bump up from being a mere Junior Champion.), defeating Nancy Kumi (Kumiko Kaneko). Two days later she again defeated Kumi, this time with partner Ayumi “Jumbo” Hori to win the WWWA World Tag Team Championship from Kumi and Lucy Kayama. On April 23, 1981, Yokota and Hitomi Okumura teamed to win the new AJW NWA International Tag Team championship, defeating Judy Martin and Joyce Grable, who had been awarded the title.
On February 25, 1981, at the age of 19, she achieved her greatest success to that point when she defeated her original inspiration (and trainer), Jackie Sato, for the WWWA World Heavyweight Championship. Yakota was the right choice to anchor the promotion. She ratcheted up the volume with her high flying lucha-type moves and stiff style. Until this, women’s wrestling had been a paced imitation of the men’s game, which itself was beginning to change in Japan with the debut of Tiger Mask. But now the men’s game would begin to imitate the women. The high flying game featured spectacular moves as well as unbelievable bumps. The down side of this was the injuries suffered by the women; many would have to retire early because of their injuries, including Yakota.
She had a good run with the belt, working programs with Wendi Richter and Monster Ripper (Rhonda Singh/Peggy Simpson) before losing it to the masked Mexican La Galactica (due to the interference of Monster Ripper) on May 7, 1983 in a hair vs. mask match. However, with her long sleek hair now cut short, she prevailed over Galactica a month later and won the belt back. Her second world title run was punctuated by notable feuds with Galactica, Devil Masami and Lioness Asuka of the Crush Gals, the highlight of which was capturing the UWA World Title from Galactica, marking the first time any wrestler held these two titles simultaneously. However, a shoulder injury suffered in a match with Asuka (regarded by many as one of the greatest matches in wrestling history) forced Yakota to vacate the belt and retire in early December 1985 at the age of 24, two years before mandatory retirement in AJW. She than became a trainer for AJW; her more famous protégés being Kyoko Inoue, Manami Toyota, and Toshiyo Yamada.
In 1995, with the collapse of AJW, she formed the Yoshimoto Pro (known as J’d) promotion, and worked as its main attraction until 1998, when she left the foundering promotion after losing a retirement match to Devil Masami on. December 26 1998. In 2002 Jaguar opened “Yokota Kichi,” a nightclub with a female professional wrestling theme, in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment strip.
Always a trouper, however, she returned to the men’s DDT promotion in wearing a mask. In August 2004 it looked as if she would finally hang up the tights for good when she married a physician and moved to Hawaii, where at the age of 45 she gave birth to a baby boy. But despite this, she was not able to stay retired. She returned for her 30th anniversary in the sport on March 11, 2007 and currently wrestles as Jaguar Y, a member of the Monster faction in HUSTLE.
When the Black Pair retired, AJW was without a leading heel, but not for long. A young woman by the name of Yoshida Masami would soon fill that important niche. Nicknamed “Devil” because of her ring temperament, fans soon discovered that here was someone who would do almost anything to win, and what made her even more dangerous was that her brawling skills were complimented by extraordinary wrestling skills, making her “The Queen of Heels” in the early 80s.
Devil Masami stood 5’6” and weighed anywhere from 150 lbs. to 175 lbs. Because of this, it was decided early on that she would become a heel, as the pattern in AJW was to make the bigger women the heels and the schoolgirl types the faces. She was born January 7, 1962 in Kita Kyushu. Her athletic background was in volleyball, where she displayed great leaping skills. After passing her audition, she trained at the AJW dojo and made her ring debut on August 21, 1978. It didn’t take her long to establish herself; her signature moves featured head-butts, two-handed throat chops and military presses applied even after the opponent submitted or was pinned. She defeated Tomoko Kitamura (Lioness Asuka) for the AJW Singles Championship on May 9, 1981. She vacated the belt on April 7, 1982 due to injury. On December 12, 1985, Devil was a crowd favorite for once as she defeated Dump Matsumoto for the WWWA title left vacant by Jaguar Yakota’s retirement. She defended this successfully until August 12, 1986, when she dropped the belt to Yukari Omori. She left AJW for Jackie Sato’s group, JWP, in 1992. She and Dynamite Kansai (Chieko Suzuki) defeated Mayumi Ozaki and Cutie Suzuki for the JWP Tag title before a falling out with Kansai led to her victory over the champion for the JWP Singles title on September 18, 1994. She held the belt for a little over a month before vacating the title on October 20, 1994. She left JWP for GAEA on 2001 and is still working today, though only a shell of her former greatness.
NEXT: The Crush Gals rule, but AJW’s management policies come back to haunt them and the future of joshi puroresu.
— The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher