Big Japan: The Jekyll and Hyde of Japanese Wrestling

While there are many examples of so-called “Garbage Promotions” to be found around the world of professional wrestling, it has to be said that some of them cannot wholly be described as garbage.

ECW would perhaps be the best example of the phenomenon, a low-budget, grungy affair which ran out of what could only be described as a dive venue, pushed violent, hardcore content for an adult audience. Yet, it also innovated bringing cutting edge North American, Mexican and Japanese talents to a US audience for the first time.

CZW has followed suit in more recent times, contrasting a continuation of the weapon-filled death-match style, and with an important role in nurturing such mainstays of the indie circuit as Chris Hero and the technical wizard Timothy Thatcher.

In Japan, arguably the original home of what we now consider to be hardcore wrestling, companies like FMW and IWA Japan laid out the blueprint for their western imitators in the late eighties and early nineties. But while most of those early pioneers have been consigned to history, one of their contemporaries known as Big Japan Wrestling (BJW) remains active and thriving to this day.

Founded in 1995 by former AJPW wrestlers Shinya Kojika and Kazuo Sakurada (also known as the Japanese incarnation of Kendo Nagasaki), BJW lacked the funds and star power that fuelled Atushi Onita’s infamous adventures with electrified barbed wire and pyrotechnic explosions over in FMW. And so it turned instead to innovation in using commonplace objects to turn a wrestling ring into a modern torture chamber.

Scaffolds, fluorescent tubes, baseball bats, tables, boards, thumbtacks, bags of salt, cacti, drills, buzz-saws, electric space heaters and endless amounts of barbed wire – often wrapped around the objects already mentioned – populated the elaborate and masochistic death-matches that helped to make BJW stand out from the crowd in those early years.

But perhaps the most memorable were the matches in which the insanity of BJW’s booking ethos reached out beyond the realm of the human, and drew other parts of the animal kingdom into the fray as well.

A so-called ‘Piranha Death-match’ introduced a tank of the voracious Amazonian fish into the middle of the ring, and required one competitor to be held in the tank for ten seconds by his opponent to secure victory; another variation of this match even saw the Piranha replaced by a tank full of live scorpions.

This inter-species insanity culminated on 23rd September 1998, when Matsuhiro Matsunaga and Shadow WX contested the first ever ‘Crocodile Death-match’, in which the loser of a typically vicious hardcore encounter would immediately afterwards be required to defend himself against said reptile, as if a loss in a weapon-filled brawl beforehand were simply not enough.

Matsunaga took the loss, and dutifully entered the ring to confront his fate at the hands of the apex predator supposedly awaiting his arrival beneath a curiously small Styrofoam box. Lifting the box revealed a specimen which could not have been more than two feet in length, and looking more afraid of the grizzled wrestler than he was of it, made a dash to get out of the ring.

Most likely wanting to bring a swift end to the farcical scene, Matsunaga easily caught the crocodile (which some sources claim was heavily drugged in order to keep it from attacking) and dumped it into a casket in the ring, which for some reason signaled its defeat, adding an insult of a profane nature as he did so, which may not wholly have been directed at the erstwhile reptile.

In the almost two decades since this incident, the hardcore antics in Big Japan have, if anything, become even more extreme (but thankfully less reliant on the Japanese equivalent of Pets At Home). But at the same time, the other side of the promotion, the one which presents straight-up, tradition puro has also garnered a reputation for solid, exciting matches.

Indeed Big Japan divides its roster roughly between ‘Death-match BJ’ and ‘Strong BJ’, with a heavyweight championship for each. Though there are often notable crossover matches involving wrestlers from both rosters, it is perfectly possible for fans of one style to watch a show purely for their chosen side of the roster.

But of course the genius of this arrangement truly lies in the ability to cater to both audiences at once whilst neither having to fully compete with larger and wealthier straight strong style companies like NJPW, nor being able to be dismissed purely as a garbage company in the way that FMW was in the mid-nineties.

Big Japan used this dual identity to its advantage in 1996, when it entered into an inter-promotional feud with NJPW in order to raise its profile, providing workers capable of competing on a level with the far larger company’s roster. Then again in the late nineties and early 2000’s, the Death-match roster gelled perfectly with the style of American promotion CZW, and the two companies began a talent-swapping relationship that they still maintain today.

Names of note on the ‘Strong BJ’ roster include the super tough likes of Daisuke Sekimoto, Yuji Okabyashi and Daichi Hashimoto (son of the legendary Shinya Hashimoto). While on the side of ‘Death-match BJ’ are colourful, and scarred, characters like Jaki Numazawa, Ryuji Ito and Adbullah Kobayashi (named after his trainer, Abdullah the Butcher).

So if you’re looking to expand your knowledge and experience of puro, or just to see some damn good straight-up matches, either strong style or crazy hardcore encounters, you could do far worse than to track down some of the best matches from the history of Big Japan. But be warned, all you purveyors of the more violent end of professional wrestling, this is not a bunch of mid-carders fighting over the WWE Hardcore Championship on a trampoline.

BJW – Some suggested viewing:

Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabyashi contend for the Strong BJ World Championship in a massively physical encounter from July 2015.

Ryuji Ito and Kankuro Hoshino clash for the Death-match BJ Championship in a ‘Needle Syringe, G-Shock, Scaffold Death-match’, which is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

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