A Brief Guide to Today’s New Japan by Jerry Whitworth
While WWE remains the undisputed king of pro wrestling, the world’s second biggest promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling has been gaining a lot of attention of late due in no small part to the Bullet Club. However, New Japan can at times be a bit daunting to get into because, like WWE, it has decades of ongoing storylines composed of dozens of characters today alone. I myself have only followed the promotion for a couple years largely because of watching the weekly show on AXS TV which brought me to Ring of Honor’s weekly television show (which some don’t realize is often available on local stations). Friends of mine have started to follow wrestling recently and kept hearing about the Bullet Club and New Japan as I’ve tried to explain some of the company’s larger storylines without trying to lose them with an information dump. It’s with this in mind I thought to try and make an article that provides the basics so that new fans know what’s going on while tying it a bit to wrestling knowledge they already have.
New Japan Pro Wrestling was founded in 1972 by Antonio Inoki, a student of Rikidozan (the Korean wrestler who popularized the sport in Japan) and Karl Gotch (a Belgian wrestler known in Japan as the “God of Wrestling”) famous for having an exhibition bout with Muhammad Ali in Japan which many believe lead to Ali’s retirement and was a predecessor to mixed martial arts. While wrestling was gaining popularity in America as being something like a live action comic book or cartoon with stars like Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, New Japan was dedicated to maintaining the illusion pro wrestling was as legitimate as amateur wrestling (so far as even today, major publications in Japan report matches as if they were actual contests). Some of its earliest stars included “The Dragon” Tatsumi Fujinami, Osamu Kido, Hiro Matsuda (Hulk Hogan’s teacher), Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask), Akira Maeda (Kwik-kik-Lee on World of Sport), Nobuhiko Takada (co-founder of Pride FC), Yoshiaki Fujiwara (a legend in both pro wrestling and MMA), and Minoru Suzuki (one of the oldest pro wrestlers still competing at the highest level today), all men trained by Gotch who headed up the promotion’s dojo (school). American stars (or gaijin) such as Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan (nicknamed “Ichiban,” or “Number One”), and Vader were also quite popular in New Japan’s earlier years. The history of wrestling in America and Japan closely mirror each other in many ways where both tend to have highs and lows within a few years of each other. While the WWF entered the American consciousness during the Hulk Hogan era, it wouldn’t be until the Monday Night Wars and the so-called “Attitude Era” that pro wrestling became an almost inescapable phenomenon. What is often ignored is the part New Japan had in this period.
My friend Kelly Harrass (who maybe the most frequent guest to appear on the Nerdfect Strangers podcast) went into great detail about how New Japan inspired the New World Order in “Wrestling School: What Feud was the Inspiration for the NWO?” The brief explanation I can provide on this is that Hisashi Shinma was one of the most important figureheads during the early years of New Japan, having worked out a talent exchange with WWF that saw the aforementioned Fujinami compete in the Federation while WWF champion Bob Backlund did a tour in Japan that saw Inoki gain the title for a time (though, WWE doesn’t recognize his title reign). Shinma was eventually pushed out of New Japan leading to his formation of the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), one of the first MMA promotions in the modern world. With him, Shinma brought aforementioned stars like Maeda, Takada, and Fujiwara (with Sayama coming shortly thereafter). Sadly, the company failed to find its footing and closed less than two years after being founded but Takada within a few years later established the Union of Wrestling Forces International, or UWFi, as a continuation of the brand. Competitors for this new company were the students of UWF’s founding roster and included Kazuo Yamazaki, Yoji Anjo, and Kiyoshi Tamura. However, UWFi ran into similar issues as its predecessor but as means to gain recognition, they negotiated a series of events with New Japan that saw their young stars lead by Takada to take on Japan’s greatest wrestlers of that era.
When you talk about American wrestling, it would be difficult not to bring up the Kliq. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel (Kevin Nash), Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), 1-2-3 Kid (Sean Waltman/X-Pac), and Hunter Hearst Helmsley (Triple H) were some of the WWF’s biggest stars and behind the scenes they started to use their combined star power to improve their financial situation. Over in Japan, a group of athletes graduated from the New Japan Dojo in 1984 who developed similar degrees of stardom in their home country as the Kliq enjoyed in the United States. Keiji Mutoh (Great Muta), Masahiro Chono, Shinya Hashimoto, Akira Nogami, and Jyushin Thunder Liger (Keiichi Yamada) became huge stars in Japan, the former three becoming referred to as the Toukon Sanjushi (Three Musketeers) as Liger became something of a folk hero and until recently were viewed as the cornerstones of the greatest roster in New Japan’s history. In 1996, three events materialized that saw the UWFi compete against this roster in what were some of the biggest, most popular events in New Japan’s entire history. At the time, New Japan had a talent exchange in place with WCW who were aware of these crossover events and how popular they were. Over the years, it came out that the UWFi “invasion” of NJPW inspired the “WWF invasion” of WCW (where Hall and Nash emerged on the promotion’s TV show) culminating in the formation of the New World Order (nWo) turning the conflict between the WWF and WCW into what is today known as the Monday Night Wars. New Japan even got in on the conflict, as Chono’s Team Wolf stable with Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Hiro Saito formed the basis of nWo Japan. The group soon grew to include the American nWo’s Scott “Flash” Norton, Buff Bagwell, and nWo Sting as well as Muta and Satoshi Kojima and just as the nWo split into two factions in WCW with nWo Hollywood and nWo Wolfpac, nWo Japan split with the emerging faction Team 2000.
Noted earlier, pro wrestling has seen itself rise and fall. WCW and ECW collapsed leaving the WWF (now WWE) to purchase the competition only to itself suffer a slump. While many promotions folded in Japan as well, New Japan didn’t end up as largely the sole survivor as its Western counterpart. However, it too suffered a slump nonetheless. Providence came for both WWE and NJPW. Regarding the former, it came in the OVW (WWE’s developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling) class of 2002 which brought with it John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and Batista who have all become household names in America. In Japan, the New Japan Dojo class of 1999 provided Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata who, with 2002 graduate Shinsuke Nakamura, became the new Three Musketeers (as Ryusuke Taguchi and Hirooki Goto came soon after to bolster this new generation). It’s remarkable the parallels that exist between these two noted rosters as Shibata became a huge star in New Japan only to leave it behind to become an MMA star where Lesnar famously left the WWE to become a football player and then MMA star (both Shibata and Lesnar were even part of the promotion Hero’s around the same time). Shibata and Lesnar both returned to wrestling, the latter even becoming New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Champion for a time and is WWE’s current Universal Champion. Many have come to refer to Tanahashi, the so-called Ace of New Japan, as the East’s John Cena given his charisma and star power where recently, Tanahashi has even started a film career while competing at the highest level in his promotion (having just won the prestigious G1 tournament to challenge NJPW’s IWGP Heavyweight Champion). But it’s Nakamura that became a true dark horse, turning heel (villain) and becoming the most popular performer for New Japan in the modern age (if not of all time). Nakamura is harder to pigeonhole into a Western analogy, though the likes of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan certainly come to mind (interestingly enough, Nakamura and Bryan were roommates when they attended the New Japan Dojo together). Becoming the so-called King of Strong Style, Nakamura founded the stable CHAOS.
If you look at the modern day New Japan, it’s awash in stables (mostly heel). CHAOS, Suzuki-gun (Suzuki-army), Bullet Club (Elite/Golden Elite/Firing Squad), Taguchi Japan, Los Ingobernables de Japon: it can get easy to get lost. The eldest of these factions is CHAOS, formed from the ashes of Togi Makabe’s Great Bash Heel under Nakamura. As the King of Strong Style, Nakamura wanted to return to New Japan’s roots of hard-hitting battles the likes of Antonio Inoki and Shinya Hashimoto championed in their time (Nakamura going so far as to name his finishing move, a knee strike called the Bomaye/Kinshasa, in Inoki’s honor). His faction subscribed to this philosophy and found an early ally in Toru Yano as Gedo, Jado, Giant Bernard, Karl Anderson, Takashi Iizuka, and Tomohiro Ishii abandoned Makabe leaving he and Tomoaki Honma the sole members of G.B.H. (as the pair remained friends and partners moving forward to today). Nakamura’s group was also joined by Black Tiger V (rival to Tiger Mask) for a brief time until he unmasked. CHAOS continued to grow adding Masato Tanaka, Tetsuya Naito, Yujiro Takahashi, Rocky Romero, Davey Richards, Brian Kendrick, Hideo Saito, Yoshi-Hashi, Low Ki, Alex Koslov, Beretta, Kazushi Sakuraba, Will Ospreay, Hirooki Goto, Sho, Yoh, Chuckie T, and “Switchblade” Jay White over the ensuing years. Around 2011, NJPW made a conscious effort to begin the next generation of stars as the likes of Wataru Inoue, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima, Manabu Nakanishi, and Minoru Suzuki were entering the twilight of their careers and they couldn’t rely upon Nakamura and Tanahashi to carry the company forever (both roughly spending a decade performing for the promotion by this point). An early attempt to build another star was pushing Naito as a singles wrestler but he didn’t seem to catch on with fans. While the company knew he had all the tools to be a top draw, something just seemed to be missing. So, the promotion placed their bets on another young performer who became arguably the greatest champion in New Japan history.
A student of the legendary Último Dragón at his school Toryumon, Kazuchika Okada began performing as a wrestler at the age of sixteen. Spending much of his time touring in Mexico, Okada joined the New Japan Dojo and debuted in 2007 in a losing effort against Naito as injury sidelined him for eight months. Considering New Japan’s success with crossover events with UWFi and WCW, the tradition was maintained as they continued such with companies from around the world, including within Japan. Okada became a breakout star returning from injury in a series of shows pitting New Japan against Pro Wrestling Noah. Okada fought some of the company’s biggest stars moving forward, including Goto, Nakamura, and Tanahashi before being chosen as the company’s representative in a US tour with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA). However, he was largely treated on air as a comedy act, a sidekick to Samoa Joe doing an impression of the Green Hornet’s Kato (becoming referred to as Okato). Reportedly, New Japan was furious with TNA and it was a primary reason they ended their relationship with the company (when TNA later tried to re-establish this relationship, top representatives personally apologized to Okada). Still, while there, Okada was consistently asked to create a character to portray leading to his conceptualizing who he would become when he returned to Japan: The Rainmaker. Returning to Japan, Okada joined CHAOS with the nickname of the Rainmaker and Gedo became his manager and spokesman (a relationship that continued until the latest G1). Okada then defeated Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and cemented himself as one of the company’s top stars. In 2016, it was announced Nakamura had signed with WWE which meant Okada not only becoming the leader of CHAOS (then New Japan’s most popular faction), but becoming with little question the company’s top star. That same year, Okada lost and reclaimed the company’s top title and became New Japan’s longest reigning champion (only just losing it a couple of months ago). Arguably, Okada is considered the greatest champion in New Japan history and one of the biggest stars to ever perform for the company. Noted earlier, while many of New Japan’s aging stars were moving to the wayside, one man known as wrestling’s most evil remains near the top of the food chain.
Having just turned fifty years old, Minoru Suzuki is one of the oldest performing wrestlers today who still competes at the highest level. Trained by the likes of Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Suzuki co-founded Pancrase, one of the first MMA organizations on the planet. Suzuki also competed in Pancrase and in the 1990s was considered one of the best fighters on Earth. Regarding his in-ring character, Suzuki is often described as the most evil wrestler in the world, sadistic, sociopathic, deranged, and malicious. In 2011, as noted being a period New Japan was looking to create new stars, Suzuki founded Suzuki-gun, a gallery of fellow madmen formed from Kojima-gun, Satoshi Kojima’s stable until losing the heavyweight title and Suzuki staged a mutiny. Founded alongside Taichi Ishikari and former WWE inaugural Light Heavyweight Champion Taka Michinoku, Suzuki-gun added Lance Archer, Yoshihiro Takayama, Black Tiger VII, Davey Boy Smith Jr., Kengo Mashimo, Hiro Tonai, Shelton X Benjamin, Takashi Iizuka (turning on CHAOS), El Desperado, Takashi Sugiura, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru. Suzuki-gun’s latest acquisition is believed to be in line to be a big star for the company in the near future.
Wrestling is undoubtedly going through another age right now and interestingly enough, it appears the earliest indicator of this renaissance was the UK. This is certainly true when it was announced two years ago that World of Sport Wrestling was returning (as the series recently debuted featuring New Japan talent) but the trio who arguably best represent this resurgence were not initially involved with WOS’ return. Noted earlier, the “Aerial Assassin” Will Ospreay is a more recent recruit to CHAOS while the “Villain” Marty Scurll joined Bullet Club, but arguably the bigger star to emerge was WWE Cruiserweight Classic competitor Zack Sabre Jr. Considered the best technical wrestler in the world today for four consecutive years by the Wrestling Observer, Sabre is an expert in catch-as-catch-can wrestling as well as the World of Sport style likely best exemplified by Johnny Saint. While the relatively young Sabre could almost put on a ballet of submission, he has come under the wing of Suzuki and become as brutal and sadistic as his mentor. With Michinoku as his manager and spokesman (drawing parallels to Gedo and Okada), many consider Sabre to be on the fast track to being one of New Japan’s biggest stars. Should Suzuki decide some day soon to step back from competing, one has to wonder if he’ll pass the torch to Sabre much like Nakamura passed the torch to Okada. However, another competitor from the United Kingdom and fellow alumni to Sabre of the NWA UK Hammerlock school left a mark on New Japan that has undoubtedly made the company larger and more globally expansive than in its entire history.
At the age of nineteen, Irishman Fergal Devitt graduated NWA UK Hammerlock and was one of the earliest stars of the wrestling resurgence in the UK (Pac, WWE’s Neville, another notable mention). Signing with New Japan in 2006 under the name Prince Devitt (because no one could pronounce his first name) before inheriting Chris Benoit’s masked legacy as Pegasus Kid for a short while, Devitt’s career floundered for a few years before teaming with fan favorite Ryusuke Taguchi to form Apollo 55. The team performed well and opened the door for Devitt as a notable singles wrestler during the different tournaments New Japan hosts throughout the year. However, after four years together, Devitt turned on Taguchi and founded the Bullet Club. Joined by Bad Luck Fale, “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson, and Tama Tonga, the Bullet Club became a major force in the company and was viewed as the heel gaijin (Japanese slur for “foreigner” meaning “dirty barbarian”) stable. In 2014, WWE had signed Devitt as Finn Balor and the Bullet Club’s newest members in the Young Bucks bid him farewell in the ring by turning on him (becoming a tradition for the group each time WWE signed its members). Devitt’s exit was quickly answered with the signing of former WCW, ROH, and TNA talent A.J. Styles who joined Bullet Club and soon after became the Heavyweight Champion when he defeated Okada with interference by fellow CHAOS member Takahashi who turned on him to become Bullet Club’s first Japanese member. The group only continued to grow and add members (as WWE consistently kept signing its members for their company) in Doc Gallows, Jeff Jarrett, “Cleaner” Kenny Omega, “Bullet Babe” Amber Gallows, Cody Hall, Chase Owens, King Haku, Tanga Loa, Adam Cole, “Hangman” Adam Page, “Bone Soldier” Hideo Saito, “American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes, “Villain” Marty Scurll, Hikuleo, “Golden Star” Kota Ibushi, and “Bone Soldier” Taiji Ishimori.
Bullet Club has become its own personal soap opera with its internal conflict fueled by their appearances in New Japan as well as on ROH television and its web series Being the Elite. Noted earlier, New Japan was largely built upon the idea of realistic competition and the Bullet Club has embraced the American style of operatic conflict which has alienated a fair share of the Japanese audience but has become a gateway for New Japan into the global market (especially America). Because of this, a unique challenge has become presented to NJPW as stables like CHAOS and Los Ingobernables de Japon are wildly popular in Japan while Bullet Club is massive virtually everywhere else (considering the venues in the United States Bullet Club has opened for NJPW and ROH and the fervor in which WWE has pursued its members). Further, just as CHAOS and LIJ’s popularity has lead the heel stables into a gray area where the villains are being cheered (causing a rift in the former as Jay White has been challenging Okada for leadership), Bullet Club recently saw a rift where the Tongan members and Ishimori formed Bullet Club OG (a heel stable), aka the Firing Squad, as the rest are referred to as the Elite (a questionably heel stable).
Noted earlier, while Bullet Club is the most popular stable from New Japan for the global market, Japan’s most popular stable today is Los Ingobernables de Japon. This was built upon the back of Tetsuya Naito. As noted, New Japan gave several big pushes to Naito but he never seemed to quite catch on with fans. In 2015, Naito did a tour in Mexico as part of NJPW’s partnership with the world’s oldest wrestling promotion still in operation in CMLL. Therein, he teamed with La Sombra (WWE’s Andrade “Cien” Almas) as part of his heel stable Los Ingobernables. When Naito returned to Japan, he closely emulated Sombra’s attitude and mannerisms (referred to as “Tranquilo”) which went over huge with fans. Declaring he was opening the Japanese branch of Los Ingobernables, Naito added Takaaki Watanabe (Evil) and Bushi and the trio were even more over with the crowd. The group soon grew to include “Cold Skull” Sanada and “Time Bomb” Hiromu Takahashi where in a large way, LIJ was something of a redemption group where New Japan had these incredibly talented performers that couldn’t seem to get the fans behind them. But, repackaged with different looks and attitudes made them some of the most popular wrestlers in the company. One may also take note, the group has been kept relatively small as the other stables noted earlier blew up to massive size where its members get lost in the shuffle. LIJ has become a marquee reminiscent of WWE’s D-Generation X that is anti-authority and centerpiece for the company. One might also note thus far, New Japan’s stables are predominantly heel (until they become popular, then they begin to walk the line between two worlds) so it shouldn’t be surprising that a babyface (hero) stable would have to emerge to stand up for justice.
New Japan has had no short supply of babyfaces: Tanahashi, Taguchi, Ibushi, Ricochet, Kushida, “Big” Michael Elgin to name a few. An early attempt to make a team of faces was Yoshitatsu’s Hunter Club but it quickly shriveled on the vine. The next try was considerably more successful: Taguchi Japan. Elgin experienced a career resurgence in 2016 in Japan and he became a frequent ally to Tanahashi which largely made the duo the company’s top faces. At Wrestle Kingdom 11, Elgin teamed with Taguchi and Manabu Nakanishi against LIJ which formed the foundation of Taguchi Japan, adding David Finlay, Dragon Lee, Kushida, Juice Robinson, and Ricochet to the group. Various faces weaved in and out of the safe space the group afforded them against the massive stables of heels to emerge but its members and allies haven’t been terribly successful in any ongoing capacity given the overwhelming odds. Tanahashi, Liger, Rey Mysterio Jr, War Machine (NXT’s War Raiders), ACH, Jeff Cobb, G.B.H., Yoshitatsu, and Sami Callihan (NXT’s Solomon Crowe, Lucha Underground‘s Jeremiah Crane/Snake) all worked with or beside the group. Most recently, a masked wrestler by the name of Sengoku Enbu has debuted who could mean changes within the stable (unless the gimmick crashes and burns like Masked Horse).
Today, New Japan is larger and more expansive than in its entire history. The establishment of NJPW World has changed the game for the company in ways it couldn’t possibly conceive. The company is making headway into the United States and United Kingdom that makes the future seemingly limitless and opens up possibilities for the wrestling world not seen in nearly two decades. New Japan certainly is not shirking on this idea either: the company’s Young Lions program is getting a spotlight that I haven’t seen on it in the years since I started watching. In fact, one of the handful of shows the company is handling in the United States this year will be The Lion’s Break Project at CharaExpo USA featuring the Lions. Among this year’s Lions include Yota Tsuji, Yuya Uemura, Ren Narita, Toa Henare, Tomoyuki Oka, Shunsuke Sayama, Dinosaur Takuma, Ayato Yoshida, and Shota Umino. While their names maybe unfamiliar now, the next Jyushin Thunder Liger, Great Muta, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, or Tetsuya Naito could be among them.