After threatening to start this thread for months, here it finally is!
This thread is for Japanese pro wrestling specifically, since the focus here is on using pro wrestling as a learning resource for Japanese. But if there’s sufficient interest in discussing pro wrestling as a whole, we can start another thread in the campfire section. Of course, the way the pro wrestling industry works, it’s inevitable that there will be some crossover regardless.
The first three posts in this thread can be edited by anyone! If you have anything to add or any corrections to make, feel free to edit it. I’ve only been watching wrestling since 2019, so my own knowledge is quite limited.
This is a long post. Sorry! I tried to make it very accessible to people who know nothing about wrestling, but who might be curious about it. This is intended as a general reference post, so read as much or as little of this as you would like.
Why professional wrestling is good for Japanese language learners
Pro wrestling is fantastic for immersion because it’s a rare example of media that you can watch and understand the basic story of even without understanding a single word of the language, since most of the storytelling happens without words, and the commentary is completely optional. This means that even as a complete beginner, it’s a great source for listening practice that won’t leave you bored or frustrated because of your lack of understanding, since the primary focus is on watching the match anyway. But the more you do understand, the more nuance and details you’ll be able to appreciate, so it’s a great incentive to learn more.
Wrestling is also great reading practice in the form of twitter and text interviews with the wrestlers. Twitter in particular is fantastic because wrestlers will use their twitter accounts to build storylines and further feuds (as well as just tweeting about everyday things in their lives), so it’s good motivation for daily reading practice with small, manageable amounts of text.
The other thing that’s really fun about wrestling from a language learning perspective is that pro wrestling is a very global industry, with a lot of cultural exchange between America, Japan, and Mexico (as well as other countries), and wrestlers frequently travel between different countries to perform (in a pre-pandemic world, at least). So there are all kinds of entertaining interactions between wrestlers who speak different languages, and a general spirit of welcoming international fans and wrestlers and forming connections despite language barriers.
Why professional wrestling is good
The appeal of pro wrestling can be difficult to explain because it’s a very weird medium for a lot of reasons. It’s sort of a cross between sports and theater, and often uses a lot of carny language since it originated in 19th century carnivals in America and still hasn’t outgrown its roots.
Pro wrestling is similar to soap opera or long-running shounen anime because storylines unfold over a period of years, with gradual development happening over many hours of content. The most unique thing about the medium is that it happens in real time. One minute in pro wrestling is one minute in the real world. The results to matches are scripted and determined ahead of time, but the matches themselves are stunt fights performed in a single take in front of a live audience, and they require an incredible amount of skill as well as requiring the opponents in the match to work together in order to keep each other safe and make the performance believable. It’s gymnastics with a plot.
Wrestling fans know that wrestling is “fake”, but enjoy suspending their disbelief and participating in the performance by acting like everything they’re seeing is real. Part of what is so compelling about pro wrestling is that it essentially offers a glimpse into an alternate reality running parallel to our own that is populated by larger-than-life characters and operates according to slightly different rules. It’s a really fascinating blend of real and fake.
For an in-depth explanation of a lot of basic concepts in pro wrestling (as well as a brief introduction to my favorite story in wrestling), Super Eyepatch Wolf has a really good video essay about it. I watched this when I was still very new to wrestling, and it was a fantastic introduction.
If you aren’t a video essay kind of person, this is the written essay that transformed me from someone who hated wrestling into someone who was absolutely obsessed with it. It’s a long description of one pro wrestling storyline involving a decade long gay love story.
However, I can’t recommend pro wrestling without also mentioning that the pro wrestling industry has a lot of awful history. You get the horrors of the entertainment industry in general, plus it’s happening in an industry where the companies are always lying to you. Even though everyone knows that pro wrestling is scripted, there is often a taboo (especially in Mexico and Japan) against breaking kayfabe by publicly acknowledging that the results are predetermined. All of this creates a culture where it’s actually expected that you’re being lied to, and it can make it easier for companies to get away with doing shady stuff.
As I heard another fan once describe it, pro wrestling is the best artistic medium of all time with the worst industry of all time. The industry can be a very evil place, but the medium itself can tell incredibly moving stories that will bring emotions out of you that you never knew existed.
How プロレス storytelling works
Japanese pro wrestling, or puro as westerners often refer to it, typically does almost all of its storytelling in the ring. This is in contrast to WWE and other American companies, which often feature non-wrestling segments and extensive backstage scenes on their shows. This can make it difficult to follow at first, if you’re unused to how wrestling matches can tell a story and convey character beats.
Pro wrestling storytelling happens both long-term and short-term. Each individual match has its own story, and individual matches function sort of like episodes in the longer story of the characters involved. You can watch a match in isolation and still get really invested in it, but the emotional payoff gets better if you view each match in the context of the larger story.
On a very basic level, wrestling storytelling is simple: the characters are in a fight, and each side wants to win. Because pro wrestling is “worked” (meaning matches aren’t real fights), this involves a concept called “selling”. When a wrestler gets hit by a move, they sell the move by acting like it hurt them a lot more than it actually did. As the match progresses, generally the wrestlers sell the damage from it more and more, until finally one of the wrestlers hits a move that the other wrestler can’t come back from and gets the win.
There are multiple ways to win a match. The two most common are by scoring a pinfall or winning by submission. To pin someone, both of their shoulders need to be touching the mat while the referee counts to three. If the person getting pinned lifts their shoulder or kicks their opponent off of them before the count reaches three, they avoid getting pinned. A wrestler wins by submission by putting their opponent in a painful hold and forcing their opponent to tap out. If a wrestler manages to reach the ropes, the referee will force their opponent to break the hold. Pins also do not count if part of the wrestler’s body is over the ropes.
The ropes (there are typically three) are attached to the ring posts with turnbuckles. Wrestlers often climb or leap up onto the ropes to do moves from the air, and many moves specifically happen at the turnbuckles because the ropes are more steady there. The turnbuckles are covered by padding, though it isn’t uncommon for wrestlers to cheat by pulling the padding away and exposing the steel turnbuckles, which they can then throw their opponent into. The portion of the mat that extends out past the ropes is called the ring apron. This is frequently referred to as “the hardest part of the ring” during matches, and moves on the apron are considered more dangerous. Wrestling rings vary a lot in shape and size.
Most matches go to “one fall,” which means they end after someone gets pinned or taps out, but in a two out of three falls match, the match continues until one side wins two falls. Most falls are only legal if they happen inside the ring, but in a falls count anywhere match, they can happen outside as well. In an elimination match, getting pinned or submitted (or falling out of the ring after going over the top rope) eliminates that wrestler from the match, but the match continues until everyone on one side has been eliminated.
Matches can also end by disqualification if a wrestler gets caught severely breaking the rules, or by countout if a wrestler is outside of the ring long enough for the referee to count to twenty (ten in some promotions, but I think twenty is more common in Japanese wrestling). They can also end by knockout if the referee determines that a wrestler has passed out. These tend not to be super common in Japanese wrestling, but you will see them occasionally, and matches will often tease these outcomes to add more drama. Most matches also have a time limit (the number varies according to the match, and according to the promotion). Time limit draws are fairly uncommon, but they do happen.
And of course, matches can have any number of other stipulations, which can be pretty much literally anything. Some are more traditional: hardcore matches, ladder matches, hair matches, etc. But some of them get pretty creative and/or wild! Western fans often have a perception of puro as being more sports-like and serious than American pro wrestling, but this isn’t true of all companies.
Tag team wrestling is a large part of Japanese wrestling. Many promotions divide their wrestlers into factions, and often shows will primarily consist of tag matches with few singles matches. Wrestlers will fight alongside their factionmates and get involved in their feuds, and their relationships with both their partners and their opponents will shift over time.
In a tag match, technically only one wrestler from each team is allowed to be in the ring at the same time, and if a wrestler wants to swap with a teammate, they must physically tag that person’s hand at their team’s corner (there are two main corners: the red corner and the blue corner, plus two neutral corners). There is a grace period (usually ten seconds in puro) before the first person has to leave the ring, so it is generally during this time that all of the cool tandem moves happen that are the entire point of tag team wrestling in the first place.
Of course, wrestlers frequently break the rules, and tag matches in particular often end up a little messy, with wrestlers coming into the ring illegally to help their partners and break up their opponents’ pin attempts, or overstaying their ten seconds after they tag out. Usually these are not offenses that referees deem worthy of disqualifying someone over, so naturally that means they happen in pretty much every single tag match. A wrestler can usually get away with doing something illegal as long as they stop doing it before the referee counts to five.
Foreign objects like tables, chairs, weapons, etc. are often brought into matches, usually illegally (though they are allowed in no disqualification matches). Despite most wrestling violence being worked, matches do occasionally involve blood. Deathmatch wrestling in particular has a tendency to get bloody. Sometimes the blood in a match is accidental (bleeding “hardway”), and sometimes it is intentional (the usual tactic is by blading). If you struggle a lot with the sight of blood, there are plenty of companies you can watch where it almost never happens! It’s something that I also struggle with, so I felt the need to mention it.
As with any sport or athletic performance, serious injuries do sometimes happen in wrestling, but this is pretty uncommon. It can sometimes be hard to tell if a wrestler is really injured or if they’re just selling a worked injury.
Most Japanese wrestling promotions have trainee wrestlers, and they typically start out at the very bottom of the pecking order and have to gradually work their way up the ranks by gaining more experience before the company gives them any wins. It can be very rewarding to follow a specific promotion long enough to see someone debut as a trainee, then start to actually win matches and get prominent storylines.
Some promotions also have weight classes. Often they just have two: a heavyweight division, and a junior heavyweight division. Usually heavyweight wrestling championships are given more prestige, and these matches typically are the main event over junior heavyweight matches (the main event is the match that happens last, and it is generally the most important and most anticipated match). There are some stylistic differences between heavyweight wrestling and junior heavyweight wrestling, and each has its own charms. Junior heavyweight wrestlers tend to lose to heavyweight wrestlers in one-on-one encounters, and juniors frequently take the pin from heavyweight wrestlers in tag matches, but not always!
Like all athletes, wrestlers have short careers, and there comes a point where they may still be talented but are pushed out because of their age, or may have to quit for the sake of their health. Wrestler retirements are usually very emotional, both for the fans and the performers. Often, bigger name wrestlers will get a full retirement tour before their final match, where they face (or team up with) their notable rivals in the matches leading up to the end.
Interesting conflicts play out between younger talent (who feel overshadowed by the stardom of legends overstaying their time) and older talent (who aren’t ready to step out of the spotlight and don’t want to “put over” the younger talent the way tradition mandates). This is even more tense when it happens within the close relationship of a trainer and their student.
A very basic concept in wrestling is the existence of heels and faces. A face (from the word “babyface”) is generally the hero of the match, and is the character that the fans are supposed to root for. A heel is generally the villain, and is the character that the fans are supposed to boo. Heels frequently cheat in matches and attack other wrestlers after the match in order to give themselves an unfair advantage.
Heel/face dynamics can be very complex, but these are the basics. It’s also important to note that racism and xenophobia have a long history in wrestling, and marginalized people and foreigners were often boxed into the heel role. Wrestlers who “have” to be heels because they don’t have the traits to become successful faces are often sympathetic on a meta level. There are also “tweeners,” which usually refers to wrestlers who are supposed to be heels, but are too beloved by the fans to be truly treated that way in the narrative.
Many matches are heel vs face matches, but not all of them, and wrestlers can also temporarily take on the opposite role in a heel vs heel or face vs face match in order to give the crowd someone to root for, or fully shift alignment during a match (known as a “heel turn” if it’s a face turning evil, or a “face turn” if it’s a heel turning good again).
Wrestlers all have their own movesets, which vary drastically depending on their body type and abilities, their heel or face alignment, their pre-wrestling background, their preferred style of fighting, and aesthetics. In addition to having signature moves that they’re known for doing, wrestlers usually have at least one finisher, which is their most powerful move. Most finishers have a unique name that the wrestler came up with (or that another wrestler came up with, once upon a time).
True to their name, a finisher is usually the move that finishes a match (but not always). These moves are harder for wrestlers to kick out of or escape, and depending on the finisher, it can be a very big deal if the opponent manages to kick out of it after it has successfully been hit. This often says something about the relationship between the wrestlers or their relative power levels at the moment.
One of the most fascinating aspects of wrestling is that it’s very intertextual. A spot (scripted series of moves) in one match will reference other matches, sometimes from a week or two ago, sometimes from many months or even years ago. Wrestlers will frequently reference each other by their choice of moves. This can mean using moves from vanquished opponents, or using moves from their friends or mentors, or using moves that their heroes or enemies use, sometimes as a homage, sometimes as a taunt. Sometimes they reference history from entirely different companies than the one they’re wrestling in now.
The costumes that wrestlers wear during matches is generally referred to as their “gear.” Wrestling gear itself can be used to tell stories, with wrestlers choosing particular motifs with symbolic importance, or using colors to represent particular things. Wrestling gear, like moves, sometimes references other wrestlers. Wrestlers will often debut new gear at important moments in their career, or bring back old gear when they’re trying to make a particular point.
All of these things provide the basic building blocks of wrestling storytelling. The decisions that wrestlers make during their matches give us a lot of insight into who the characters are. Some of them are cruel, while others are more mischievous. Some are powerful and overconfident, and some are well-intentioned but naive and inexperienced. Even without hearing any of the wrestlers talk, just by watching them wrestle, you can generally get an idea of their personality.
If you want to see an example of how all of this comes together, here’s a very in-depth essay on the storytelling of one match, which ties into the story talked about in the essay linked above.
Many promotions also have post-match and/or pre-match interviews with the wrestlers, where they have a space to comment on their match, their opponent, or on literally whatever they want to talk about at the time (Kenta, a NJPW wrestler, managed to turn some of his post-match comments into an otome game where he was romancing the camera operator). These interviews often aren’t shown in the venues (except for sometimes the very last interview after the main event) or included in the video uploads of the shows, but might be uploaded separately, and can sometimes be found in places like youtube or twitter.
The post-match interviews are optional, but they’re very important for establishing the characters’ motivation at the time, which helps make the matches a lot more meaningful. If you follow a promotion over a longer period of time and watch all or most of the matches and watch (or read) the post-match comments alongside them, you will see the characters shift and develop over time. Significant developments, like a character turning heel, will often be foreshadowed in the post-match comments.
Storylines are also built through press conferences and longer interviews with the wrestlers, as well as informal interactions between the wrestlers on twitter. All of these things tend to be optional to read or watch, but can be very entertaining and make the stories more compelling.
Japanese wrestlers usually keep kayfabe in interviews, and on their twitter accounts, and any place where they appear as a public figure. This means they don’t acknowledge that pro wrestling is scripted, and they stay in character in these settings. Many wrestlers also keep their personal lives private, though occasionally details will get out into the public, often because of some scandal.
It’s very common for Japanese wrestling promotions to have bigger shows spaced throughout the year with a lot of smaller shows in between them where storylines are advanced more gradually, and with less at stake in the matches. If two wrestlers have an upcoming big singles match for a championship belt, for example, the smaller shows will often have preview matches where the wrestlers in the upcoming match face off against each other in tag teams. These shows are typically less dramatic, and the wrestling is often less intense, so some fans choose to skip them and only tune in for the bigger shows. Personally, I really enjoy the smaller shows, because I appreciate seeing the build-up to the big matches, and I love watching how the relationships between the characters develop over time.
Usually title matches (and non-title feuds) have a deep ideological or personal matter at the center of them. The tension between the wrestlers can be caused by personal betrayal or ambition, or it can be caused by something as abstract as ideological differences concerning the direction of the company or concerning pro wrestling in general.
The “why” of the match is really the meat of the storytelling. Why does each wrestler need to win this fight? This is where wrestling grabs you by the heart. Once you become invested in one side winning, the match becomes even more compelling. Triumph becomes even sweeter, and defeat feels devastating. Sometimes it takes many years for a wrestler to finally get the big win that you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes it never happens. As a fan, all you can do is keep hoping.
One last note on プロレス during 2020-2021: the covid-19 pandemic affected pro wrestling just like it affected other sports and performance media. Wrestling for the first couple months of 2020 in Japan was normal, but after the pandemic hit, things changed a lot.
For a chunk of 2020, as well as parts of 2021, the only wrestling shows that were happening were shows filmed without a crowd. This drastically affects the medium! Crowds have traditionally been an extremely vital part of pro wrestling, and it can be hard to watch matches without them. Some promotions did some very experimental matches during this time that would not be possible in normal conditions.
Once crowds were allowed back into venues, the audience was allowed to clap and stomp their feet, but not verbally cheer or boo (since singing and shouting spreads the virus). As of the time of writing, this rule is still in place. The clapping is an improvement upon silence, but the crowd’s inability to cheer and boo means there’s something noticeably missing from the matches. If you watch wrestling from this period and are wondering why the crowds are so subdued, this is why.