Professional wrestling is known as “puroresu” in Japan.  Puroresu is not actually a Japanese word; rather it is derived from “purofesshonaru resuringu”, the Japanese bastardization of the pronunciation of “professional wrestling”.

Puroresu was originally imported from AmericaSorakishi Matsuda, the first Japanese pro wrestler, traveled to the United States in 1883.  He trained under pro wrestlers there, and had a long career working mostly in the US.  The first pro wrestling show on Japanese soil occurred in 1887, although all American wrestlers worked the card.

Wrestling was not initially successful in Japan, and several promotions in the early 1900s failed quickly.  The first successful promotion was started in 1953 by a wrestler named Rikidozan, called the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA).  This promotion lasted for twenty years, until 1973.

On the death throes of that organization, two more formed: both the All Japan Pro-Wrestling and New Japan Pro-Wrestling organizations were founded in 1972 by Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki respectively.  Those two organizations, AJPW and NJPW, are even today the biggest promotions in Japan.  Other, smaller puroresu promotions include FMW (Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling), NOAH, Michinoku Pro, Toryumon, Pancrase, and IWA Japan.

In the US, the WWF and WCW (the two dominant promotions) are able to attract 30,000+ people to their shows on a regular basis, while the independent leagues have trouble drawing even 500.  In Japan, AJPW and NJPW can draw five to ten thousand, while the smaller leagues can still draw 500-5000.  The independent leagues in Japan are much better known in Japan and have a much healthier chance of surviving.

The Japanese mafia has a lot of influence in the puroresu organizations, either by direct ownership or strong influence over those who do own the companies.  Those wrestlers who don’t come to some kind of “understanding” with the yakuza may find their careers held back in favor of more “agreeable” wrestlers.

Much like US wrestling was 30 years ago, puroresu is presented as totally real—good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) will never be seen out in public together, since it would expose the business.  Moreover, referees are not allowed to associate with wrestlers at all for fear that someone would think that the matches were fixed.  The matches are, of course, fixed (and the public knows this), but it is more convenient for everyone to pretend that they are not.

In the US, wrestlers are 25% brawler, 25% wrestler, and 50% entertainer.  Japanese wrestlers, on the other hand, are 50% wrestler and 50% acrobat.  This leads to a much more high-flying, risky style.  Much more emphasis is placed on the artistic elements of the action—in the US, fans will cheer for their favorite wrestlers no matter what they’re doing.  In Japan, the fans will cheer for great moves, no matter who does them.  It could be the most hated guy in the federation, but if he pulls off something spectacular the fans will acknowledge this and give appreciation.

Puroresu may have its roots in the United States, but their interpretations of the sport (and perhaps art would be the better word here) are entirely different.