Over the years there has been a varied history of Japanese Superstars who have crossed the seas to try their luck with the WWE.With the impending arrival of Shinsuke Nakamura in WWE, join Matthew Roberts as he looks at some of the guys and girls from the Land of the Rising Sun who have graced the Sports Entertainment world…and a few who weren’t all they seemed!
Although he would go on to work with both New Japan and All Japan, Akebono’s first taste of Professional Wrestling was at WrestleMania 21, where he took on (and defeated) the Big Show in a Sumo match. Presumably sending Big Show out on the biggest show of the year looking like he was dressed in a nappy was some sort of punishment. Akebono would go on to lift the AJPW Triple Crown on two occasions.
The 2010 Hall of Fame member is more famous for being the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling than anything he did in / with the WWE, but he remains one of the biggest names in Japanese Wresting history…and he has more of a history in the WWE than you might think.
In November 1979 he actually defeated then WWF Champion Bob Backlund to “win” the title, with a rematch a week later seeing Backlund win after interference by Tiger Jeet Singh. This led to the match being declared a no-contest, but the valiant Inoki refused to accept the title leaving it, in the eyes of the Japanese fans and press, vacant. Of course the WWE ignored this “back home” and the title change was never officially recognised.
Inoki was, however, officially recognised as the WWF Martial Arts Champion. Yes, that title really did exist. He also made a number of appearances in the WWE’s spiritual home Madison Square Gardens.
Sato holds the honour of being the only member of the WWE’s Orient Express team to actually be Japanese. Coming to prominence in AJPW, Sato moved to the United States working the Memphis territories and also the AWA before signing with the WWE. Although the Express were never serious contenders to the World Tag Team Titles there were a reasonably good team, who had an epic feud with the Rockers. Once Sato left the WWE he was replaced by Paul Diamond, who had to wear a mask to disguise the fact he wasn’t Japanese.
Sato was ringside as a flagbearer for Yokozuna at SummerSlam 1993 and later returned to the WWE as Hakushi’s manager Shinja.
ALL JAPAN WOMEN – SURVIVOR SERIES 1995
With Alundra Blayze and Bertha Faye the only workers under full contracts, the WWE needed something to fill the gap at Survivor Series 1995. They called up six representatives from the greatest Joshi promotion of all time, All Japan Women, to book a Survivor Series Elimination match. Aja Kong, Tomoko Watanabe, Lioness Asuka, Kyoko Inoue, Sakie Hasegawa and Chaparita Asari were the names, although they were not allowed to tear it up like they could undoubtedly have done. They weren’t helped by a referee who called a pin that clearly hadn’t happened. Kong turned up on the subsequent War and appeared to be being positioned to challenge then Women’s Champion Blayze, but no sooner had she arrived in the WWE, she’d left. Never to be seen again.
Current star of NXT, the artist formerly known as Kana has made quite an impression since debuting last year. If anything her success proves that fans (in NXT at least) will readily accept “serious” Japanese characters and wrestlers and that limited vocal skills need not spell the death knell for a person’s career in the modern day WWE. It would remain to be seen whether or not Asuka could, or will be allowed, to transfer her NXT success to the main stage, but it seems inevitable that the NXT Women’s Title is in her future at the very least.
Although her stint in the WWE lasted less than a year, it made a lasting impression on your writer. To the extent that I am still in love with her to this day. But what she represented for your humble, and at the time young, columnist was the realisation that women could actually wrestle as well as the men if given the opportunity. From here it was a short trip to the Tape Traders (this was in the days before everything was available on the Internet at the click of a button) and discovering the world of “Joshi”.
Although Nakano’s stint was short in the WWE it was a memorable one, talking in one Women’s’ Title reign and a number of PPV appearances. Whilst by no means being a highlight of her career, her WWE run was certainly one not to be forgotten by fans who watched during that era.
Nakano also made brief appearances in the WWF in 1986, with her infamous tag team partner Dump Matsumoto.
The Three Time Triple Crown Champion and the first native Japanese wrestler to win that belt and the IWGP Title, Tenryu’s appearances in the WWE were largely due to the company’s business relationship with Super World of Sports, a company Tenryu left AJPW to form. With a mega budget behind them, SWS struck a deal with WWE to trade talent on big shows, and the two held three “co-promotional” shows in Japan.
Without the advantages of today’s’ Internet world, many American fans would have been unaware of these talent trading deals and would have been bemused by his appearance alongside Koji Kitao to take on Demolition at WrestleMania VII. After SWS folder, Tenryu went on to form the WAR (Wrestle and Romance…no, really) promotion. An informal working relationship continued with the WWE which saw him work the 1993 and 1994 Royal Rumble matches. In the latter he was even in the final five in the match. Tenryu’s brief WWE appearances are a mere footnote in a legendary career.
In an era when the “Monday Night Wars” were really heating up, there was a feeling from both sides of the divide that you had to be doing everything the competition did, but better, in order to ultimately prevail. That might be why, with WCW’s Cruiserweight Division on such a tear, the WWE saw fit to resurrect the Light Heavyweight Division in 1997. At the legendary Canadian Stampede PPV, two of Michinoku Pro Wrestling’s finest in Great Sasuke and TAKA Michinoku (more on him in a bit) were brought in for a match, which was sort of an unofficial try out for Sasuke to become the face of the new Light Heavyweight division.
The two had a great match, with enthused a crowd who had little prior knowledge of either man, and they repeated the trick the following night on Raw. Alas, that was to be the last we saw of Sasuke in the WWE as contractual terms could not be agreed and, arguably, the WWE realised his opponent would be cheaper and was probably just as over after those two matches.
Which was a shame, as Sasuke was one of the most graceful high flyers of the era and a genuine talent. It was definitely a case of what might have been with Sasuke and the WWE.
There was nothing else quite like Jinsei Shinzaki on WWE TV in 1995. Although there were some stereotypical overtones to the character of Hakushi, the packaging of him with the lighting, the haunting music and the facial “tattoos” set him apart from everything else. Once he stepped into the ring and unveiled moves that you simply didn’t see in mid 1990’s WWE there was even more to admire. Of course this being the mid 1990’s WWE he wasn’t really used to his full potential. A stellar feud with Bret Hart aside there was little to remember, and he left the WWE after being “branded” by Justin Hawk Bradshaw after a loss.
The former Pro Wrestling Noah star KENTA was the first major Japanese star to tread the path to an NXT contract. Unfortunately for him it hasn’t exactly gone to plan. A serious injury has left him on the shelf and although he had participated in his fair share of good matches prior to that, his only glimpse of the main roster came at last year’s WrestleMania when he won a tournament to become the NXT representative in the Andre The Giant Battle Royale…and promptly was allowed to make very little impression in that match. Fans from his NOAH days and his RoH appearances will still have high hopes that upon his return, Itami can rise up the ranks. The more cynical amongst us won’t fancy his chances given the fate of the similarly sized Tyler Breeze on the main roster.
JUMPING BOMB ANGELS
Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki were, and remain, one of the most well known tag teams in the history of Joshi wrestling. They were sole survivors of the women’s match at the inaugural Survivor Series in 1987 and captured the Women’s Tag Team Championship by defeating The Glamour Girls (Leilani Kai and Judy Martin) in a two-out-of-three falls match at Royal Rumble 1988. They would drop the belts five months later.
To date “Thunder”, who came to prominence in North American circles with his early 1990’s trips to WCW to battle opposite “Flyin” Brian Pillman, has made only the one WWE appearance, defeating Tyler Breeze at the NXT TakeOver Brooklyn event. Prior to this he had wrestled all over the world, wowing fans with his high-impact style and winning Championships in Japan, Mexico and America. His one off appearance, sanctioned by New Japan Pro Wrestling, could have been an attempt to forge a relationship with the Japanese promotions, although that has seemingly been overtaken by the old Vince McMahon philosophy of talent raiding. Alternatively, with Liger’s previous “special attraction” appearances with the likes of Ring of Honor, it could be a further sign that NXT is the WWE’s attempt to commercialise the Indies. Either way, fans would love to see him return.
Initially Dick Togo, Mens Teioh and Shiryu made their WWE debuts by attacking fellow countryman Taka Michinoku in 1998. Initially they were also known as “Club Kamikaze”. Thankfully that name was dropped fairly sharpish with their manager Yamaguchi-San proclaiming their new identity. Not so thankfully they feuded with Van Venis and after Val slept with Mrs Yamaguchi-San Kai-En-Tai, now joined by Taka, attempted to “choppy choppy your pee pee”. Thankfully John Wayne Bobbitt saved the day. And if you don’t know who he was, I’m not telling you.
After a number of the squad left, Taka and Funaki began using the name and became a comedy team, complete with dubbed (by Shane McMahon) entrance interviews where intentionally bad lip-synching always ended with the “Evil! Indeed…” crowd chant-a-long.
The 2000 NJPW Rookie Of The Year also worked for MLW and TNA before signing a developmental deal with the WWE in 2004. Originally he was set to debut as “Hirohito”, an Anti-American heel, on Raw but instead he kept his real name, added his real life wife Hiroko as a valet and was sent to Smackdown. His only title win came as one half of the tag team champions with Rene Dupree and he had a brief feud with John Cena over the United States Title. Although the stereotypical Anti-American gimmick was scrapped he was saddled with a gimmick that saw him badly sing popular American songs. After an injury he was drafted to Raw in June 2005 but was fired just a few weeks later without ever having debuted for that brand. He continues to wrestle to this day and has had a successful career in AJPW.
You may not remember Akio (Jimmy Wang Yang – born in California) and Sakoda (Ryan Sakoda, who took part in MTV’s Wrestling Society X shows) forming the Kyo Dai duo and helping Tajiri to hold onto his Cruiserweight Title in 2003. That’s largely because once the WWE bookers proposed turning the trio into something approximating Japanese “gangsters”, Tajiri was quick to suggest that the real life Yakuza might have been angered by such a portrayal.
MR FUJI & TORU TANAKA
Fuji would remain in prominence as a manager in the WWE for many years after retiring from in-ring competition but his tag team with “Professor” Toru Tanaka was one of the hottest selling acts of the early 1970’s. Neither of the “Japanese” heels was born in Japan though, both hailing from Hawaii. Tanaka even served in the US Army for a decade! As you’d expect from this era, it was all about the salt throwing into their opponents eyes, but you cannot underestimate the heat that they provoked (as evidenced by headlining shows against the team of Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales). Toru had an earlier run with the WWE in the 1960’s, including a main event feud with Sammartino, and in later years carved out a career as an actor with roles in TV series and such films as The Running Man and Last Action Hero (the latter of which saw him cast as “Tough Asian Man”).
Joining from the ashes of Extreme Championship Wrestling, Tajiri was able to carve out quite a niche for himself in the WWE. However this was not simply another occasion where Paul Heyman’s eye for talent brought a talented foreigner to the big leagues. Tajiri had made a number of appearances for the WWE in 1998, losing to the likes of The Godwinn’s, Taka Michinoku and Brian Christopher. His most memorable feud in ECW was the long-running one with Super Crazy, which eventually went world wide, and in the WWE he was a Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight Champion as well as holding the tag team titles with Eddie Guerrero. Most may remember his introduction to WWE television though, as William Regal’s Servant.
One of the legendary characters of Japanese wrestling (and played by at least five different men) it was Satoru Sayama who would bring him to life in the WWE. In 1982 he won the WWE Junior Heavyweight Title, which had been taken to Japan by Tatsumi Fujinami, by defeating arguably his greatest rival the Dynamite Kid for the belt. He would venture to North America later that year where he battled the likes of Eddie Gilbert and Curt Hennig, as well as defending the title against Dynamite Kid in Madison Square Gardens. It’s also worth noting that for a period 1982, Tiger Mask held the WWF and NWA Junior Heavyweight titles at the same time, the only man ever to do so.
Out of this entire list , there may not have been a more disappointing WWE career than the one Ultimo Dragon had. The guy was a bona-fide superstar in Mexico and Japan, had a WCW stint packed with great matches and was genuinely one of the best in the world. Sadly a botched operation that caused nerve damage to his arm meant that by the time he turned up in the WWE in 2003 he was in some ways a shadow of his former self.
He was still good, having mastered the art of slowing down his style to suit his condition but the WWE seemed to have little interest in pushing him. Once he had achieved his dreams of having a match at WrestleMania and appearing in Madison Square Gardens, he saw little point in sticking around.
Unfortunately his most “memorable” moment in the WWE might well be his trip at WrestleMania XX as his made his entrance. Which is a real shame for a man who was so good that in 1996 he held TEN championships at once (the J-Crown, which unified 8 titles, the NWA Middleweight Title and the WCW Cruiserweight Championship).
There is just one problem with arguably the most famous “Japanese” wrestler in WWE history. He wasn’t Japanese. He was born in California and was of Samoan heritage. He was generally billed as being from Polynesia, though with the flag waving Mr Fuji in tow, the salt throwing and the Sumo wrestling mannerisms it was clear where he was supposed to be representing.
Another to take the journey from NJPW to the WWE’s development brand, Tatsu signed for the WWE in 2007 and was sent down to Florida Championship Wrestling to learn the “WWE style”. He first surfaced on the main roster as part of the ECW brand and when that was discontinued he went to Raw. His biggest (or only) achievement may have been winning the dark match Battle Royale before WrestleMania XXVI. He became a pro on Season 5 of the original NXT (his rookie was Byron Saxton) and had an entertaining feud with Tyson Kidd on those shows. He meandered until June 2014 when he was released from his contract. Tatsu was another in a long list of names that had talent, but was rarely afforded the opportunity to show it on the main roster. Most recently he helped provide English commentary for the Wrestle Kingdom 10 show.
Who was your favourite Japanese superstar to grace the WWE rings? Join in the debate at TWM.com and on our Twitter and Facebook pages.