Whilst the average American will think of WWE when thinking about wrestling, it is not the only wrestling out there. In Japan, many promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling, NOAH and DDT dominate the male wrestling scene, and produced some of the best Japanese wrestlers of all time.
Japanese wrestling did not take off as a sport until after World War Two. The country began to become more Americanised after the war, and began to import foreign concepts like pro-wrestling to it’s shores.
From that time on, thousands of extremely talented wrestlers have come out of Japan and wowed the world with their incredible wrestling. In recent years, New Japan Pro Wrestling has been one of the best in-ring products in the world, and fans flock from across the globe for their flagship show, Wrestle Kingdom.
In this article we will go through the top 10 best Japanese wrestlers of all time.
Best Japanese Wrestlers of all time
When it comes to the most influential wrestlers of the last 20 years, it’s hard to look any further than NOAH legend KENTA. His influential style changed the wrestling landscape, with wrestlers like Bryan Danielson, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins and Kenny Omega all owing KENTA as being the inspiration for their style of matches.
KENTA spent his prime wrestling for the likes of NOAH and Ring of Honour, where he had some legendary matches against the likes of Naomichi Marufuji and Bryan Danielson.
He had a period wrestling for WWE on the NXT Brand, but injuries halted his progress and his time in the company was broadly a failure because of it. He has since debuted for New Japan Pro Wrestling as part of the infamous Bullet Club stable. Despite being unable to wrestle his own influential style as he did 15 years ago, he is still putting on excellent matches and winning championships.
He also made a handful of appearances in AEW during his feud with former AEW Champion Jon Moxley.
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi
The Ace of New Japan can lay claim to being one of the greatest Japanese wrestlers of all time. Hiroshi Tanahashi helped guide New Japan through the dark days of the mid 2000s, and was rewarded with a record eight reigns with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Starting his career in 1999, his rise to the top of the wrestling world began in 2003 when he captured the Openweight Championship and IWGP Tag Team Championship. Since then, he has won eight IWGP Heavyweight Championships and main evented multiple Wrestle Kingdom shows.
He has had multiple legendary matches in NJPW against opponents like Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, Testuya Naito, the Great Muta and KENTA, among others.
8. Jushin “Thunder” Liger
Jushin Liger is one of the most influential junior heavyweights in wrestling history, and one of the best Japanese wrestlers of all time. He influenced the junior heavyweight style and became one of the most popular wrestlers in the world regardless of nationality or weight class.
Known to fans across the globe, he wrestled in England for World of Sport, America for WCW, WWE and various other promotions, and more prominently in Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Despite his gimmick being based off an anime character, he outlived the character and became so popular that few even know the origins of his gimmick
He won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship a record 11 times, at a time when the Junior Heavyweights were some of the best in the world. He was also a key part of the WCW Cruiserweight division in the early 1990s, as well as wrestling a match in NXT against Tyler Breeze.
7. Satoru Sayamu (The Original Tiger Mask)
Very little needs to be written about the original Tiger Mask. Just watching his bouts with the Dynamite Kid show just how good he was and how he ranks among the best Japanese wrestlers in history.
Tiger Mask used a high flying style not seen outside of Mexico in the 1980s, bringing a new style of wrestling over to Japan. His style involved innovated top rope moves, jumping high in the air with twisting moonsaults and other incredible high-risk offence.
Tiger Mask wrestled all over the world, honing his craft and becoming a top class wrestler. He wrestled in America, Mexico, England and Japan to showcase his unparalleled talent worldwide. He wrestled under the name Sammy Lee whist wrestling on World of Sport.
6. Keiji Mutoh (The Great Muta)
It takes huge talent to become an icon in Japanese wrestling, but even more so to achieve greatness in both Japan and America. Keiji Mutoh, under his alter ego “The Great Muta” can claim both, having been a star in both New Japan Pro Wrestling and in World Championship Wrestling.
In WCW, The Great Muta is most well known for his feud with the Franchise of WCW, Sting. His feud with Sting was one of Sting’s greatest feuds prior to the rise of the NWO, and their matches were years ahead of their time.
He is also a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion, as well as being one of three wrestlers to win the three major world championships in Japan. He is a former IWGP Heavyweight champion, Triple Crown Champion and GHC Champion, winning the later title early this year at the age of 58.
5. Kazuchika Okada
Many wrestlers are earmarked for greatness at a young age, but very few become even greater. Kazuchika Okada is one of the few that claim to have outdone any and all expectations of him.
At only thirty-one years of age, Kazuchika Okada already has the claim to be the greatest in-ring wrestler in the world. He has had some of the greatest matches of all time, with fantastic bouts against wrestlers like Hiroshi Tanahashi, Testuya Naito and especially his trilogy against Kenny Omega.
He has won six IWGP Heavyweight Championship and three G1 Climax’s, and is one of the most successful wrestlers in wrestling history. With potentially another 20 years left of his career, it’s incredible to think what else this legend of the industry could achieve going forward.
4. Mitsuharu Misawa
One of the greatest in-ring talents of all time was the legendary Japanese wrestler Mitsuahru Misawa. He was part of the legendary “Four Pillars of Heaven” in All Japan Pro Wrestling, alongside Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue.
Misawa was one of the greatest wrestlers to set foot in the ring, and nobody has had as many five star rated matches from Dave Meltzer than him.
After the death of AJPW President Giant Baba (who narrowly missed out on a place on this list) he left the company to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. Misawa was so respected that a mass exodus of the roster occurred and followed him to his new promotion.
Misawa tragically passed away in the ring during a wrestling match. He suffered a cardiac arrest during a bout in 2009 and died in the ring despite medical intervention.
3. Riki Chosu
The first Korean-Japanese man on this list is the legendary Riki Chosu. Despite being born in Korea, he became a hero the people of Japan as one of the most influential wrestlers in the history of Japan.
Chosu spent the majority of his career in New Japan, winning every accolade that was available to him. He became a three time IWGP Heavyweight champion, as well as a three time IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion. His style of wrestling changed the way wrestling was viewed in Japan, and he was one of the most influential wrestlers of all time.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career is something that lives on to this very day. Riki Chosu innovated a wrestling move which has been popularised by wrestlers like Bret Hart and Sting in the United States. That move is known as the Sharpshooter or the Scorpion Death Lock, and was invented by the great man himself.
2. Antonio Inoki
Some fans will be furious that Antonio Inoki is not top of this list, and that is fair. He is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and many consider him to be the greatest Japanese wrestler of all time.
Antonio Inoki was a revolutionary. Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling after splitting from his mentor Rikidozan’s promotion, and helped build it into one of the best wrestling promotions of all time. He was the star of the show, winning multiple championships and having the most high profile matches in the world. Inoki even won the WWF Championship, although the WWE does not acknowledge Antonio Inoki as the WWF Champion.
Inoki also had one of the biggest matches of all time. In 1976, he faced off against Muhammad Ali in a special rules match that took the world by storm. Ali was the most famous sportsman in the world, so the bout against Inoki was out of this rules. The match was fought under special rules, and would become the precursor to the modern day Mixed-Martial Arts.
Inoki’s popularity in Japan was so great that he forayed into politics once his wrestling career was done. He was elected as a councillor twice and remains one of the most respected and loved wrestlers in Japanese wrestling history.
The grandfather of wrestling in Japan is top of our list as the greatest Japanese wrestler of all time. He is the greatest Japanese wrestling in the countries history, and is considered the father of Puroreso in the country.
Rikidozan was born under Japanese-ruled Korea, a fact he kept hidden for most of his career. He was credited as bringing the American sport of professional wrestling and being a hero to the Japanese people after the horrors of World War Two.
Rikidozan helped the country regain their national pride after World War Two, beating a number of American stars to help the country bounce back.
He gained recognition worldwide when he became the NWA International Heavyweight Champion. He defeated legendary grappler Lou Thesz in 1958, with Thesz agreeing to put over the challenger due to the immense respect he had to Rikidozan.
His legacy extended outside of the ring. He also trained two more of the best Japanese wrestlers in history, Antonio Inokiand Giant Baba. The founders of New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestler were training by the Japanese-Korean and went on to forge their own legacy in wrestling.
Sadly, Rikidozan was involved with the Yakuza and was murdered in 1963, at aged just 39.