THE HISTORY OF ALL JAPAN WOMEN’S PRO WRESTLING (AJW):
With enough reviews posted, and a better understanding of joshi, I figured I would post a full history of the top company in the genre.
-AJW, called “Zenjo” in Japan (“All+Women”) is pretty much where Joshi begins and ends- it’s responsible for all the peaks and most of the valleys. When Meltzer and his readers go on about ’90s Joshi, they’re almost always talking about something AJW did- most of the biggest stars of all time (The Beauty Pair, Crush Gals, Manami Toyota, Aja Kong, Akira Hokuto) are AJW alumni, and all the biggest cards feature them.
Jumbo Miyamoto- one of the first dominant champions.
AJW was founded in 1968, and most of the early cards were dominated by Jumbo Miyamoto trading their top title back and forth with mostly foreign workers. All I can find on her is her billed height and weight (5’1″ 175 lbs.) and a single black & white picture that… gives credence to that billed height and weight. Its key Championship belt, the WWWA Title, was the very same one worn by Mildred Burke, who’d set off a women’s puro explosion during a tour of Japan in 1954- the Japanese are HUGE on belt continuity. The promotion quickly got a deal with Fuji TV that would last for decades, and would be the source of a lot of their success, as they were the only Joshi company to consistently have TV coverage.
THE “RETIRE AT 26” RULE:
Controversially, AJW always had a “you must retire at 26” rule. This was due to a lot of factors, one being Japanese society’s assumption that women should be getting married at some point and starting families, and the fact that their audience was meant to be teenage girls. Having 30-somethings competing would make it hard for these fans to “see themselves” in the wrestlers, and so oldsters would have to go. This rule tends to get mocked as stupid in most Joshi articles I’ve read (it killed a LOT of acts at the peak of their popularity and credibility, creating big “peaks and valleys” in the promotion), but actually had real purpose if you look into it- the refreshing of the Main Event scene prevented stagnation and political maneuvering. And teen girls leaving the fanbase ended up having disastrous effects on recruitment eventually.
The Crush Gals, who redefined “phenomenon” in wrestling. Most articles out there will parrot Dave Meltzer’s “They drew reactions equal to/bigger than Hulk Hogan” remarks.
THE CRUSH GALS & MORE:
The 1970s would see one of the early “Idol” teams- as Beauty Pair was formed, releasing hit pop singles and selling out arenas to their matches. Jaguar Yokota was considered one of the top workers in the world in the early 1980s, too. Biggest of all were the Crush Gals, who became a true cross-cultural phenomenon in the 1980s, dropping hit albums and selling out huge arenas. The Gals, Chigusa Nagayo & Lioness Asuka, would create a massive boom in Joshi’s popularity during their feud with Dump Matsumoto’s Atrocious Alliance (god I love that name), and lead to thousands of girls applying to AJW.
1986 saw the creation of a rival promotion in JWP, which formed itself out of forcibly-retired AJW alumni like Jackie Sato (part-owner) and Devil Masami, among others. The retirement of Nagayo, then Asuka, caused another valley in AJW’s popularity, but said Post-Gal recruiting classes were SO stacked with applicants that some of the very best wrestlers of all time were forged out of them- Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Manami Toyota, and others, all debuted in the late ’80s and made a new boom period in the 1990s.
Manami Toyota- the kind of once-in-a-generation athlete that was lured to AJW by the Crush Gals/Bomb Angels period (she saw a Bomb Angels match and instantly knew what she wanted to do with her life).
1992-1995- THE NEW BOOM PERIOD:
This period, forged by the aforementioned Rookie Classes of 1986-88, was based off of both incredible matches (by this point, Joshi was the “Starting Point” for many pro wrestling moves, which would then move to other Japanese promotions, then the American indies, and finally mainstream Western stars) and another first- interpromotionalal bouts. These matches saw AJW team up with JWP and a few other rivals that’d sprouted up, magnanimously trading wins (and even Titles! The WWWA Tag, JWP Tag, and other belts, were frequently won by rival promotions’ athletes!) and creating SUPER-SHOWS- the Dream Slams were mega-smashes in early 1993, St. Battle Final was big in late 1993, and Big Egg Wrestling Universe (1994) broke the all-time record for biggest women’s wrestling show, selling 42,500+ tickets to the Tokyo Dome! Other, less-friendly rival companies would sprout up as well, with Chigusa Nagayo forming GAEA (taking Akira Hokuto away) and Jaguar Yokota (former AJW trainer) forming JD’.
This period is largely the one I’m familiar with, and was the one most heavily promoted by Dave Meltzer, who was a HUGE fan of Toyota in particular (as she had the best MOVEZ and the quickest workrate; both things he’s a mark for). When I got into Joshi in 2002 or so, it was the Dream Slams and Big Egg shows that were among the most-talked-about, and generally considered the best. It’s notable that after 1995, Dave stops giving out ***** ratings to Toyota, who is one of the all-time leaders for those, and most Joshi entirely.
1997- SHIT FALLS APART:
Unfortunately, this boom period would be the final one in Joshi history- the infamous economic meltdown of Japan in the late 1990s would shatter the industry, crippling most of the companies. AJW’s owners went bankrupt in 1997, owing to some bad real estate investments not working out (because of said bust), and the massive failure of a restaurant franchise in Tokyo the President was undertaking, and that would lose them fourteen wrestlers, including some of their biggest stars (Aja Kong, Kyoko Inoue, LCO, Toshiyo Yamada, Reggie Bennett and others) when they stopped getting paid. This also cost AJW their all-important Fuji TV slot for most of a year. Companies like ARSION formed in this mess as well.
This dissolution led to a huge mess, as the rival promotions suddenly gained a lot of edge (especially GAEA, who surpassed AJW for years). And of course “Japanese Splinter Promotion” nonsense is usually bad for almost everybody- this diluted the product to a huge degree, and resulted in a lack of compromise or interpromotional stuff. Any show after 1998 is likely taking place in a small gym, and the biggest shows of all now rank about 1,000+ fans, when they used to routinely hit 16,000+ for big shows, and even ran a Dome show!
In 2002, AJW lost their TV spot permanently, and the company itself finally died in 2005, after 37 years of operation, making it the longest-running promotion in Japan at that time (New & All Japan have since surpassed this number).
The story of Joshi and its boom period is largely the story of AJW itself, so in the gap they left, there’s largely “small indies” by comparison. Nothing in women’s wrestling today even comes close to the peak of AJW, even though there’s many good wrestlers working today- this level of consolidation of talent, and the willingness to push said talent, is largely unknown in wrestling history, regardless of gender. It wasn’t as famous as the All Japan “King’s Road” style, or New Japan’s top acts, but I think it should have been. It was the greatest form of “wrestling snobbery” to say you were a fan of Toyota, Hokuto and others, and I find there’s a TON of obscure stars in the history of joshi that have gone largely unappreciated and missed by Western viewers especially.
Bull Nakano, “Ace” during the period between the “Crush Gals” boom and the “***** Matches Every Show” boom, holding the massive 3WA Title.
WORLD WOMEN’S WRESTLING ASSOCIATION TITLE: The WWWA (or 3WA) Title, the “Big Red Belt”, is the very same belt worn by Mildred Burke when she was the biggest women’s star of the 1930s. The belt was initially the sort that got traded rapidly (with Aiko Kyo winning it thrice, and Jumbo Miyamoto five times), as well into the 1970s title reigns rarely exceed four months. Miyamoto dominated the mid-1970s, but soon Beauty Pair’s Jackie Sato did, holding it for 637 days. Ronda “Monster Ripper” Singh became a notable Monster Heel, and then Jaguar Yokota (future trainer of the “Best Generation” of Joshi) dominated for 801 days.
Devil Masami actually ruled during most of the “Crush Gals Era”, but soon Chigusa, then Asuka, would be champion, Asuka retiring while on top. Bull Nakano therefore became the Ace- a Monster Heel who was unbeatable, defeating all comers for a ridiculous 1,057-day reign that was never surpassed. She defeated Aja Kong several times during that span until Aja FINALLY unseated her in 1992, becoming the new Ace during the 1990s peak of the company. The legendary Manami Toyota would finally win it in 1995, drop it back to Aja, then unseat JWP’s Dynamite Kansai at year’s end to hold it for almost a year. So she was never really a proper “Ace”, but a vulnerable, highly-beatable champion.
Toyota finally became 3WA Champion in 1995.
The champions of the post-1995 era include Kyoko Inoue (about time- she rose up with Manami!), Yumiko Hotta, and oddly, a year-long run by rival LLPW’s “Ace”, Shinobu Kandori in 1998. Toyota actually spent four years without the title during the late ’90s (arguably, she didn’t need it), and Kaoru Ito would finally rise up in 2000 to win it twice. The rest of AJW’s existence saw Ayako Hamada, Amazing Kong (the final gaijin to hold it), Kumiko Maekawa and finally, Nanae Takahashi, all holding it. It would be retired in 2006 with the company’s death.
You won’t find a better picture with “The White Belt” in it- trust me.
ALL-PACIFIC TITLE: Formed in Hawaii in 1977, “The White Belt” quickly moved to Japan and became AJW’s second-tier belt- the one worn by elite uppercarders who were either on their way up, or had peaked at the level where they wouldn’t ever win the WWWA Gold. It was largely traded by various one-and-two-reign individuals (Judy Martin got one in 1982) before people whose names would be more familiar to us started holding the gold. Devil Masami, Chigusa Nagayo, Leilani Kai and Bull Nakano would all be AP Champion during the ’80s, with Chigusa’s reign being a massive 740-day one during the peak of the Crush Gals phenomenon.
Takako Inoue, who held the belt repeatedly during the late ’90s talent exodus.
Manami Toyota’s great rise would start with a 1990 win, while Suzuka Minami’s career would peak with two 1991 reigns. Akira Hokuto, Kyoko Inoue, Yumiko Hotta and other rising stars would win it, while others like Toshiyo Yamada, Reggie Bennett and Takako Inoue would have it as their crowning achievement in singles. During the mid-90s, it could almost be said to be “Takako’s Belt”, as anyone above her was typically only meant for the WWWA Title, while anyone below her was not that capable of defeating her. After 1999, it’s largely people whose names I don’t recognize, though Tomoko Watanabe, a rookie in the early ’90s, would peak here.
Sakie Hasegawa winning this “Up & Comers Title” in her first years.
AJW TITLE: Curiously, the lowest of the “Big Three” Titles was called the “AJW Title”, and was created last, becoming a thing in 1980. This was functionally like WWF’s European Title, sort of- it appears that a LOT of future stars won the belt, typically during their early rookie years, though a few others peaked there and never won a bigger one. So you see a 1982 reign for Lioness Asuka, a 1985 one for Bull Nakano that lasts for three years (damn, they saw something in HER early!), Manami Toyota in 1989 and Kyoko Inoue in 1990.
Takako Inoue, Mariko Yoshida, Sakie Hasegawa, Tomoko Watanabe & Kaoru Ito are successive champions between 1991-1992, getting rapid-fire reigns, and this helps me “place” the title a bit more- most of those girls were utterly demolished by Main Eventers, but would do “wrestle well, but ultimately lose” matches with midcarders. Ito & Watanabe would trade it during the mid-90s, while future star Momoe Nakanishi would dominate after that.
Toyota & Yamada and Double Inoue- dominant champions.
WWWA TAG TEAM TITLES: AJW’s top tag belts, held typically by two major singles stars. It was initially traded between native and foreign teams repeatedly, with literally dozens of said switches going on during the 1970s, often separated by mere days or weeks. Jumbo Miyamoto, Jackie West and Sandy Parker appear a ridiculous number of times until the mid-1970s, at which point Beauty Pair become champions and icons. Nancy Kumi dominates the late ’70s & early ’80s with various partners, and the Crush Gals phenomenon sees them capture the belts in 1984. They trade the belts with Dump Matsumoto & Crane Yu, but are unseated by the Jumping Bomb Angels in 1986. The Angels get only this one single reign, as the Gals beat them, then lose to Dump & Bull Nakano.
Bull wins with two more partners, teams with rad names like the Fire Jets & Calgary Typhoons hold them, and the Gals give up the belts during their fourth reign, when Nagayo retires. The Marine Wolves (Suzuka Minami & Akira Hokuto) hold them for a while, but soon Jungle Jack (Aja Kong & Bison Kimura) dominate the scene in 1990, crushing all comers. They are the only champions until 1992, when the legendary team of Manami Toyota & Toshiyo Yamada beat them. The belts were traded with JWP’s top stars Dynamite Kansai & Mayumi Ozaki during the 1993 interpromotional shows (holding the belts for almost a year each time), before Double Inoue became the dominant champions in 1994, also lasting about a year.
LCO, beside their senpai, Akira Hokuto.
Mima Shimoda wins with two different partners (Hokuto & Toyota) before her natural team with Etsuko Mita, Las Cachorras Orientales, dominates in 1997, reigning for almost a year. LCO would win the belts in 1999, 2001 and 2002, having good runs in two of the three reigns. Tomoko Watanabe would reign with multiple partners during the early 2000s, as would Takako Inoue. The final champions were, incredibly, Aja & Amazing Kong.
AJW & 3WA Tag Champions Jungle Jack.
AJW TAG TEAM TITLES: I always loved the idea of a crowded tag team scene requiring secondary Tag Titles- imagine a world in which the Rockers had deservedly won tag gold? So the AJW Tag Titles are ones meant for more midcard workers. They debuted in 1986, during the height of the Crush Gals, probably so teams outside of the Gals/Alliance feud could win SOMETHING. The Red Typhoons hold the belts twice, the early form of Jungle Jack (Aja Kong & Bison Kimura under their real names) does once, then the Honey Wings reign for most of a year until Dream Orca beats them. Their reign lasts ANOTHER year, and the Wings win the belts back in 1990. They’re beaten by Las Cachorras Orientales (Dream Orca’s Etsuko Mita with a new partner in Mima Shimoda), who reign for half a year. Then we see a lot of rising stars and rookies holding the belts in various pairings- Sakie Hasegawa, Takako Inoue, Mariko Yoshida, Tomoko Watanabe, and more. Michiko Omukai of all people was a champ in 1994! As it’s the “Rookie Tag Belt”, I pretty much stop recognizing names after 1995, with future stars Momoe Nakanishi, Nanae Takahashi and others winning multiple times. The final champions were actually women who’d held it way back in 1991- Takako Inoue & Tomoko Watanabe!
AJW JUNIOR TITLE: A title given to green rookies- Chigusa Nagayo & Noriyo Tateno are early champions before they hit their peak, for instance. I believe you can be aged out of it, as there’s a TON of “Title Vacated”. As a “Rookie Belt”, I’m finding a lot of champions whose careers never panned out, as I’m seeing names I’m totally unfamiliar with- for every Mima Shimoda (1989 win), there’s a Saemi Numata (1993 win), who won the belt, then turned into a Comedy Jobber and retired early. Kumiko Maekawa was champion during the Dream Slams, for instance, but I’ve never seen her on any 1992-94 stuff I’ve been watching. Rie Tamada, Chaparita Asari & others were early ’90s Champions who became something, though- Asari in particular dominated the title for much of the decade.
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION TITLE: This is a weird one- sort of a mid-tier IC-Level Title, introduced from Stampede Wrestling in Calgary but later being given to top stars who they don’t want holding the WWWA Title or something. It initially belonged to Monster Ripper (Ronda Singh, given a “she beat Wendi Richter for it- honest” win), who lost it to Chigusa Nagayo, who traded it with Madusa Miceli a few times. Kyoko Inoue was champ for almost a year in 1991, but dropped it to Manami Toyota- both were hot stars given “Future Main Eventer” pushes, so the belts at this point were largely trophies- Manami’s run would last for THREE YEARS (1992-95), with Reggie Bennett & Takako Inoue being the final two sole champions- the belt would be unified with the WWWA Title when Takako lost to Kyoko Inoue, who would then abandon the title when she vacated the WWWA Belt after a 60-minute draw against Kaoru Ito. The belt was eliminated in May 1997.
Chaparita ASARI- when you’re so good at what you do that they invent a new title for you so that you can be relevant.
WWWA SUPER LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE: … okay, this belt literally only existed as a trophy for Chaparita ASARI, okay? She was the inaugural champion in 1996, and held it for over a year. I think she got it because they didn’t want her as Junior Champion, and she was too small to really beat anyone holding the bigger belts, so it was better to give her this Trophy Belt as a showcase for her unique high-flying talents. Future star Momoe Nakanishi was the next champion, but ASARI would win it back, vacate it AGAIN, and then beat Ai Fujita for it, becoming the final champion before the belt was dropped in 2003 with her retirement.
WWWA MARTIAL ARTS TITLE: This was a glorified “Trophy Belt” for Bat Yoshinaga, who was a legitimately tough girl with a sloppy kickboxing style, who nonetheless handily defeated a bunch of hapless contenders, having a token awful MMA fight at many of the major Joshi events I’ve watched during the early ’90s. Bat was the inaugural champion in 1991, and retired as champion in 1994. Someone named Fumiko Ishimoto was the only other champion- the division was discontinued in 1995 and the championship was abandoned.
Proof I’m not making this up. This was really on one of their biggest shows!
WWWA MIDGET TITLE: Yes, a midget title. And the WOMEN’s Wrestling Association created it to be awarded to MEN. This was largely a Trophy Belt for Little Frankie, given to him in 1990, and he’d hold the belt for eight years, dropping it in 1998, winning it back, then losing again in 2000. It was vacated in 2002 when the last champion retired, and awarded permanently to Little Frankie when he died in Aug. 2002.
WWWA MIDGET’S TAG TEAM TITLES: ….. WHAT? This was held by one team in the 1970s, and another one (Pretty Atom & Little Frankie) in 1982, retired when Atom did.
And that does it for my AJW History! I figured something like this would be relevant if I was going to post more stuff about them- it gives a good “bigger picture”, and now that I’ve seen a few more shows and various wrestlers, I’ve a better idea what they’re about.
Next up will be more Wrestlemarinepiad reviews, plus a History of Other ’90s Joshi Companies, in a similar template to this (but posted all at once, since I don’t have a lot to say about, say, JD’ or LLPW).