Puroresu done by female wrestlers is called joshi puroresu (女子プロレス). Female wrestling in Japan is usually handled by promotions that specialize in joshi puroresu, rather than divisions of otherwise male-dominated promotions as is the case in the United States (the only exception was FMW, a men’s promotion which had a small women’s division, but even then depended on talent from women’s federations to provide competition). However, joshi promotions usually have agreements with male puroresu promotions such that they recognize each others’ titles as legitimate, and may share cards.
All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling was the dominant joshi organization from the 1970s to the 1990s. AJW’s first major star was Mach Fumiake in 1974, followed in 1975 by Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda, known as the The Beauty Pair. The early 1980s saw the fame of Jaguar Yokota and Devil Masami, major stars of the second wave of excellent workers who took the place of the glamour-based Beauty Pair generation. That decade would later see the rise of Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, known as The Crush Gals, who as a tag team achieved a level of unprecedented mainstream success in Japan, unheard of by any female wrestler in the history of professional wrestling all over the world. Their long running feud with Dump Matsumoto and her Gokuaku Domei (loose translation: “Atrocious Alliance”) stable would become extremely popular in Japan during the 1980s, with their televised matches resulting in some of the highest rated in Japanese television as well as the promotion regularly selling out arenas.
It is during the 1990s that joshi puroresu attracted much critical acclaim internationally, and several classic matches during these era competed by select joshi wrestlers were awarded 5-stars by the American wrestling publication Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Notable joshi wrestlers of the 1990s include Manami Toyota, Bull Nakano, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Megumi Kudo, Shinobu Kandori, Kyoko Inoue, Takako Inoue (No relation), Dynamite Kansai, and Mayumi Ozaki.
Primary differences between joshi and American women’s wrestling are the depiction of women in a non-sexualized way and that often the audience at women’s promotions will have a large proportion of female fans. Female wrestlers with natural beauty, such as Mimi Hagiwara or Takako Inoue may show off their beauty in non-wrestling related media, such as photobooks (one notable joshi wrestler, Mayumi Ozaki, also did a modeling video which featured both modeling and wrestling clips, I will link to it sometime), where they are treated no different from tarento and gravure idols. Also, unlike the women’s divisions of WWE and TNA wrestling, joshi puroresu tends to emphasize wrestling and sport over entertainment (but they also do comedy matches on occasion) and appearing in as little clothing as possible and still be PG or PG-13 rated. The female Japanese wrestlers tend to be athletic, high-flying or hard-hitting and sometimes do more of a shoot-style of wrestlling, even hardcore matches on occasion. A few joshi wrestlers have competed in the USA over the years, the most notable one today is Ayako Hamada, who competed in TNA Wrestling but has since returned to Japan. Other notable joshi wrestlers who competed in the US over the years include Bull Nakano, Akira Hokuto and Malia Hosaka among others. Now & then lesser-known talent will make appearances for independent promotions as well as for the SHIMMER promotion, which is said to be the US promotion that most closely resembles joshi puroresu. A couple of other joshi talent have appeared in various US indies, including the CHIKARA promotion.
While most of the major joshi promotions have now folded and joshi has been said to be a dying breed over the last decade, a handful of promotions continue to operate and still have small yet loyal fanbases and major shows can still draw up to 1000 fans or, at the very least 500-700 fans (but it should be noted that OZ Academy ran their 15th Anniversary event in August 2011 at the large Yokohama Cultural Gym, where they drew over 2500 fans). Even when they run in smaller arenas, some promotions frequently fill up their arenas even if that’s only 150-200. There’s also a lot of joshi material online, YouTube and Veoh are surprisingly good sources of matches, both those from the 1980s & 1990s as well as more recent matches from 2000 on (hint: search for “joshi puroresu”). 2010 has marked another potential downturn in the industry with the closing of at least 2 promotions: IBUKI shut it’s doors in February 2010 then in May 2010 it was announced that NEO, one of the only 2 major promotions really left, would shut down at the end of the year, leaving JWP as the only major promotion left. Most of the smaller promotions continue to do fine though, and Ice Ribbon has even expanded into the online spectrum with it’s new venture-19 Pro Wrestling, an online-only series that streams matches live on Ustream once a week (usually Friday evenings).
There currently are 5 major joshi promotions active today: JWP (Japan Women Project), OZ Academy, Sendai Girls, WAVE (Pro Wrestling WAVE) and Ice Ribbon. A 6th promotion, LLPW (Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling), is borderline inactive as they usually run only one or two events a year. A 7th promotion, Stardom, debuted in January 2011. An 8th promotion, Diana, debuted in April 2011. About the same time a 9th promotion-REINA-was also launched. June 2011 saw launch of another new promotion-Gakenohuchi Puroresu, a new effort from former Ice Ribbon star Miyako Matsumoto. All-Japan Women has also been revived as well, but it’s more like a new indy promotion rather than the former mega-promotion. There also is an occasional event from relatively new promotion Osaka Women’s Pro Wrestling, aka Daijo, which is built around young wrestler Sawako Shimotsuke. Additionally, popular wrestler Yuzuki Aikawa promotes one of her own “Yuzupon Matsuri” events every 3 months on average. Late summer 2011 will also see the debut of Happy Hour!!, a new project from former joshi star Hikaru. The promotions frequently feature both their own talent and those from other promotions. In addition, every now & then will be a special indy event or a wrestler-produced event (the most notable ones, when they do happen, are produced by top stars Kana and, on lesser occasion, Ayumi Kurihara). Joshi events generally run in small arenas like those that the promotion calls home, but also in smaller but well-known arenas such as Shin-Kiba 1st Ring and Shinjuku Face, while now & then major shows will be run at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall, a 2350-seat arena considered the mecca of puroresu in Tokyo.
Current active joshi promotions:
JWP (Japan Women Project)
LLPW (Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling) (Inactive, they hardly ever run events now)
WAVE (Pro Wrestling WAVE)
Passion Red (Inactive)
19 Pro Wrestling (Ice Ribbon sub-brand)
Osaka Women’s Pro (Daijo)
“New” All-Japan Women
Independents/Freelancers-These wrestlers are not specifically affiliated/aligned with any one promotion but instead work freely with multiple promotions.
There are not a lot of joshi resources outside of Japan, but if you can read Japanese or use a translator these official websites do exist for active promotions and are regularly updated (please note that, unless otherwise noted, all these sites are in Japanese):
NEO (No longer updated as of 12/31/2010)
IBUKI (No longer updated)
19 Pro Wrestling
These promotions are former major/notable promotions that have folded and are no longer active (their former talent may still be active in other promotions):
NEO (Next Entertainment Organizer/Neo Woman Pro Wrestling)