Want to be a lawyer? Go to law school. A doctor? Med school. But where do you enroll if you want to learn how to fly off the top rope to deliver a brutal body slam?
Japanese universities don’t offer a degree in professional wrestling, so students nationwide have taken physical education into their own hands by establishing pro-wrestling clubs. Their final exam, the fifth annual Student Pro-Wrestling Summit (Gakusei Puroresu Samitto, or GPWS) occurs Feb. 26 at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and gathers talent from as far afield as Kyushu for an intramural battle royale.
Last weekend I met all the major clubs from Kanto at a group study session held in the gymnasium of Teikyo University’s Hachioji Campus. The self-taught athletes rely on YouTube to learn technique and the advice of upperclassmen to keep from killing each other. There are no coaches and no medical staff on hand should a suplex go sour. It’s just gym mats, guts and raw energy.
My guide, 22-year-old Yoshiki Inamura, clocks in at 105 kg and 180 cm — not including his buzzsaw of a bleached mohawk. A senior in Buddhist studies at Komazawa University, I watch the baby-faced heavyweight practice his routine with Hironobu Nagata, a third-year student from a rival stable, Nihon University’s NUWA. He’s 88 kg and 175 cm of pure beef. The two giants take turns lifting each other with a ballerina’s grace, their slow-motion dance punctuated by piledrivers and the odd elbow to the chin.
The other 20-odd members run riot around them, flipping, diving, screaming like elementary students at recess. I’m not sure if I’m at a wrestling stable or a playground. Turns out it’s a bit of both.
“Most of us are sort of social outcasts,” Inamura explains to me during the break. “But here we belong. We can be ourselves.”
A surprising number of them wear idol-group or anime T-shirts, the self-branded mark of a misfit. One especially rowdy member grabs my attention. He careens down the aisle pushing his friend on a handcart, then brakes suddenly to launch him onto the mat, cackling all the while. He wears purple spandex with a red cross pattern on the knee, a nod to the MS-09B Dom, a giant robot from the classic anime “Mobile Suit Gundam.” When I ask him about it, he dodges the question with a joke.
“My other pants say ‘Triple H,’ ” he grins, partially in homage to the WWE wrestler of the same name, but also because “H” in Japanese is pronounced “ecchi,” as in “pervert.” I thought the point of joining university clubs was to get a date, but everything in the gym is pure woman repellent. Then again, their innocent school-kid smiles don’t seem to hold a shred of regret.
Pro-wrestling college clubs appeared in the late 1970s at the height of the sport’s popularity. In 1980, upper-crust menswear brand D’urban seized the opportunity to sponsor the first intramural tournament on the roof of the Seibu department store at Ikebukuro Station. Club memberships soared.
Although it was before his time, Inamura remembers how each major university had its own, or even multiple clubs. That changed in the ’90s when mixed martial arts promotions such as Pancrase and Pride Fighting Championships exploded onto the airwaves with live, nonscripted bouts. MMA beat professional wrestling out of prime time and into the late-night ghetto. People stopped watching and the number of clubs shrunk to the 10 or so active today. Local stations were the only ones left to broadcast matches at a decent hour, and with nothing else to watch in rural Tochigi Prefecture, a junior high school-aged Inamura sat up to pay attention.
As a fan of K-1, pro wrestling piqued his interest enough to seek out more on YouTube, where he fell down the rabbit hole of Golden Age WWF: The Road Warriors, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan! The freak show had him hooked. His current costume brings together WWF-style theatrical flair and his love for Japanese trash culture. The shoulder studs, chaps and codpiece all smack of Jagi, the iconic masked villain from “Fist of the North Star,” a hilariously hyper-violent manga that reads like a kung-fu bootleg of “Mad Max” starring Bruce Lee instead of Mel Gibson.
“Back in the day, most people would copy their favorite wrestler — signature moves, ring choreography, you name it. But now the audience doesn’t get the references so we have to think of original characters,” Inamura says, lamenting the recent drop in pro-wrestling literacy. Many wrestlers instead use lowbrow humor to keep the audience in on the joke. Their ring names — Span Kingston, Shiofuki Go, Tiger Bedscene — are cute in a harmlessly crass way, even clever if you know classic wrestlers as well as Japanese porn lingo.
Inamura wrestles as Chinko Tomitsuki, a gag too bawdy to explain in a publication as respected as The Japan Times. As for his opponent Nagata, aka Onaho Hazushita, the less said about his name the better. Things could get messy. A more pressing issue — doesn’t the crude humor alienate the opposite sex? Inamura seemed amused at the concern.
“No, not really. Women love our gags. My fans get to yell ‘Chinko!’ at the top of their lungs. It lets them blow off steam.”
As goofy as their profiles are, it’s all business in the ring. Inamura’s club, University Wrestling Federation, prides itself on the members’ techniques and storylines. They play their matches straight, though the announcers may unleash zany zingers. On the other side of the spectrum there’s clubs such as Santama Wrestling Session who focus on the spectacle with surreal skits.
In a recent stunt they delivered a member dressed like Thomas the Tank Engine to the ring on a dolly. Children cried in terror as their beloved TV friend sprouted limbs and dropkicked a boy in front of his dad. But worry not, the father-son tag team rallied to wipe the floor with the runaway train. SWS are pranksters, not monsters.
Professional promotions follow the same script. The Dramatic Dream Team, or DDT, falls squarely in the humor camp, with matches involving inflatable love dolls, invisible opponents and secret victory conditions. But most promotions play it straight. New Japan Pro-Wrestling, or NJPW, is the hottest game in town, and despite its orthodox style, the new owner — trading-card-game company Bushiroad — has succeeded in recapturing the hearts of the young.
“It’s kind of a cliche, but people come to feel the ‘fighting spirit,’ ” Inamura says of the sport’s appeal and differences on either side of the Pacific. “Compared to American wrestling, Japanese fights start out low-key. Dull, even.” Don’t expect punches and piledrivers at the sound of the gong. It’s mainly grapples, submission moves and reversals as combatants feel each other out. “Then when you least expect it — boom! — they kick it into high gear. A good match will shift up and down to work the crowd.”
The club members spend time together engaged in this sort of pop culture critique. When they’re not in the ring they’re at someone’s apartment watching classic matches or raising a ruckus at a family restaurant. For some, the club is simply a social hobby. For Inamura, it’s the first step toward his dream.
“I want to make wrestling my livelihood. Some people supplement the sport with a part-time job — we call them ‘amateur professionals’ — but that’s not for me. It’s all or nothing,” he says.
Inamura interviewed with a big-name stable last month, and while he can’t divulge specifics, it sounded like the gym class from hell.
“They put you through the wringer — pushups, situps, pullups, the usual — so it’s all about physical fitness, not ability,” he says.
I assumed people with a background in contact sports would have an advantage, but that’s not the case.
“The stable reteaches everything from square one. Look at martial arts like sumo, karate or judo — if you steamroll the other guy you won’t get hurt. But the essence of pro wrestling is taking hits,” he says as his eyes twinkle mischievously. “For people who grew up in a dojo, it’s a refreshing take on pain.”
The major difference between the professional and student leagues is resources. Obviously money is a limiting factor — students pay for the venue out of pocket and hope to recoup costs through spectator donations. They only charge for tickets at large events like GPWS, and even then members pay a participation fee. But the main restriction is time.
“Your professional career can last for decades, barring injury,” Inamura says, “but what we’re doing here has a definite end: four years — long enough to set a goal, short enough to accomplish it.”
For Inamura, that end is the upcoming main event: a one-on-one match against Nagata.
“We’ve spent as much time together in the ring as at the bar. We’re from different clubs, but I love him like one of my own. A fight with him is the only proper way to go out,” he says.
You can argue if pro wrestling is fake — or if that even matters — but as far as these students are concerned, there’s no denying that the friendship is real.
Student Pro-Wrestling Summit takes place from 6 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Korakuen Hall in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. Tickets cost between ¥2,000 and ¥4,000. For more information, visit gpws2015.blog.jp.