Over the years, there have been many wrestlers in WWE who honed their skills in the wrestling promotions of Japan. The likes of Eddie Guerrero, Mick Foley, and Chris Jericho all rose to prominence during their time in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ before making their way to global fame in WWE.
In today’s WWE, there are many wrestlers who had prolific careers in Japan before signing with the pinnacle of Sports Entertainment. While some decided to follow in the footsteps of the greats and take a risk by taking their careers to the other side of the world, others are natives of Japan who reached the heights of fame in their homeland before deciding to look further afield. In this feature, we will look at five members of the WWE roster who were big in Japan.
Before making the move to WWE, Shinsuke Nakamura was a megastar in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He held their top title, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship three times, and became synonymous with their secondary title, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, a belt he raised in profile to the extent that his defence against NJPW’s ‘Ace’, Hiroshi Tanahashi, headlined Wrestle Kingdom 8 over the Heavyweight Championship bout between Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito.
Joining the promotion at a time when its founder, Antonio Inoki, was blurring the line between wrestling and mixed martial arts, Nakamura had one of the more unusual journeys to the top. Debuting in August 2002, only five months after entering the New Japan Dojo, Nakamura was put in a match with former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tadao Yasuda. Having a high-profile match as his first in NJPW led to fans dubbing him the ‘Super Rookie’, and showed the company saw something special in him too.
Soon after his debut, Inoki led Nakamura on a detour from pro-wrestling when he asked him to take part in an MMA fight at his ‘Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye’ event on December 31st, 2002. Nakamura had been an amateur wrestler in college and begun training in the combat sport Vale Tudo, but this was his debut in MMA. The fight was to be against Daniel Gracie, who was already well-known in the martial arts world having been a World Champion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Nakamura lost the bout in the second round by submission, but the future ‘King of Strong Style’ persevered in the MMA world under the NJPW banner, finishing with a record of three wins, one loss, and one no contest.
Even during his foray into MMA, Nakamura continued to rise in the ranks of pro-wrestling, and in December 2003 lived up to the ‘Super Rookie’ moniker by defeating Hiroyoshi Tenzan to become the youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history at only 23 years old, a record that has never been beaten. Unfortunately, an injury forced him to vacate the title only a few weeks later, but this was only the first of three reigns with the championship.
Over the years that followed, Nakamura’s star continued to rise as he left MMA aside and focused entirely on pro-wrestling. As a staple of the main event scene, he would go on to face greats such as Yuji Nagata, Togi Makabe, Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Tanahashi, who had joined the company around the same time as Nakamura and was making his own mark as the future ‘Ace’.
In 2009, he ‘King of Strong Style’ was born as Nakamura announced he wanted to bring ‘Strong Style’, a harder-hitting form of wrestling, back to NJPW and changed his moveset accordingly, utilising his MMA training by using more strikes in his matches. At this time, he also formed his own faction, CHAOS, which is still a dominant stable in NJPW today.
In 2012, the ‘Artist’ defeated Hirooki Goto to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship for the first of five reigns, a record which stood for several years in the company. Over the next few years, Nakamura solidified the Intercontinental Championship, which was created in 2011, as a top title through classic matches with Kota Ibushi, La Sombra (now Andrade in WWE), Naomichi Marufuji, and AJ Styles. It was during this time that he defended the belt against Tanahashi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8, a feat never equalled for a ‘secondary’ championship before or since.
Fittingly, Nakamura left NJPW at the end of his fifth Intercontinental Championship reign, having retained the title in a classic match against AJ Styles at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January 2016. He relinquished the championship later the same month, and was part of the winning team for his final match alongside his CHAOS stablemates against three men who had started in NJPW in the same class as the ‘Super Rookie’, Tanahashi, Goto, and Katsuyuri Shibata.
Long before Finn Balor became a ‘Demon’ in WWE and the ‘Prince’ of NXT, he competed under his birthname of Fergal Devitt throughout the UK and US and became the NWA British Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion on two occasions. Shortly after his second reign, he signed for NJPW and made his move to the East.
On starting with the company in 2006, he was renamed ‘Prince’ Devitt and joined the legendary Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’s stable at the time, Control Terrorism Unit (CTU). While he had a rocky start with the group, almost being ejected by his teammates after a lengthy losing streak, Devitt did begin to see success when he formed a tag team with Minoru Tanaka. After the dissolution of CTU in 2007, Devitt and Minoru went on to join Nakamura’s early faction, RISE where they captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships on two occasions. Those reigns were only the beginning of Devitt’s success.
When Minoru left NJPW at the start of 2009, Devitt began teaming with former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Ryusuke Taguchi with the pair calling themselves Apollo 55. They went on to become a dominant force in the Junior Tag Division between 2009-2013, capturing the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships four times, including reigns of 260 and 290 days, and defeating the likes of Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin), Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi), Averno and Ultimo Guerrero, and Strong Style Thugz (Homicide and Low Ki) along the way. During their third reign, Apollo 55 successfully defended their championships seven times, a record that still stands to this day.
During his time in Apollo 55, Devitt finally reached the top of NJPW’s Junior Heavyweight division. After winning the 2010 Best of the Super Juniors tournament, he went on to defeat the champion, Naomichi Marufuji, to begin his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship reign. He dominated the singles arena just as much as he and Taguchi did the tag team division, holding the championship three times for long runs of 364, 227, and 419 days respectively. During this time he had many classic matches against the likes of Kota Ibushi, Low Ki, Kenny Omega, and even his partner, Ryusuke Taguchi.
During Devitt’s third reign with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, he turned his back on Taguchi and created a new faction with Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, Karl Anderson, and later the Young Bucks, the infamous Bullet Club. Under Devitt, Bullet Club was known for utilising underhanded tactics more at home in US pro-wrestling, such as having members interfere in matches to help their teammates, using weapons, and knocking out referees. Dubbing himself ‘The Real Rock ‘n’ Rolla’, Devitt used the group to his advantage, going on to win all ten of his matches in the 2013 Best of the Super Juniors tournament with their assistance. Following the victory, he announced his intention to compete in the Heavyweight Division with his goal being to hold both the IWGP Junior Heavyweight and Heavyweight Championships at the same time. He began this campaign by targeting and defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi before setting his sights on the Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada. He ultimately fell short of his goal, with Okada retaining the gold.
Heading into 2014, Devitt began a feud with Kota Ibushi, who had ended his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship reign and was determined to repeat the feat. At Wrestle Kingdom 8, the rivalry came to a head and, despite the best efforts of Bullet Club, Ibushi once again emerged victorious, ending Devitt’s 14-month reign.
Wrestle Kingdom 8 marked the last time Devitt held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, as he would leave for WWE later that year. Before he left, Taguchi returned to settle their unfinished business. The two faced off one last time at Invasion Attack in April 2014. During the match, Devitt stopped the Young Bucks from attacking Taguchi, leading them to beat him down on the outside, effectively ending his tenure in Bullet Club. Taguchi won the match, and the two shook hands, showing that their animosity was behind them. This was to be Devitt’s last match in the company that had made him a star, and he left to make his name on the global stage in WWE.
Currently wowing fans with his high-flying and hard-hitting style in NXT, Kushida is another home-grown Japanese superstar. Like Nakamura, Kushida has a background in both pro-wrestling and MMA, having trained in both at the Takada Dojo in the Shinagawa area of Tokyo while in High School. He made his MMA debut in 2003 in the Japanese promotion, ZST, and remained undefeated after eight matches over the next two years, finishing with a record of six wins and two draws. Three of those wins took place on one night, January 11th, 2004, as part of the ZST Genesis Lightweight Tournament.
Even though he had a lot of potential for a career in MMA, Kushida opted to pursue pro-wrestling instead and moved to Mexico to train in the Lucha Libre style under El Oriental, a Luchador who was well-known in Japan due to his many tours there and work with CMLL’s Japanese brand.
Returning to Japan in 2006, Kushida joined the ‘Hustle’ promotion and quickly rose through the ranks, earning him the title of the ‘Hustle Supernova’. While there, he found a mentor in multi-time WWE Cruiserweight Champion Tajiri. His most notable feud in Hustle was against the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Champion, Ray Ohara. The two fought over the title for several months, but Kushida was unable to dethrone the champion and ultimately lost a ‘loser leaves town’ tag team match in which he and Tajiri were defeated by Ohara and the decorated veteran Minoru Fujita.
Following the loss, Kushida went on a tour of independent promotions in North America, including the former WWE developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) and Chikara, but met with little success. On his return to Japan, Kushida joined Tajiri’s short-lived ‘Smash’ promotion, where he got a taste of his future when he faced off with both Prince Devitt and Tetsuya Naito, who were already making their names in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. While Kushida was on the losing end of both bouts, the experience served him well as he began competing in NJPW.
Kushida made an impressive NJPW debut at Best of the Super Juniors 2010, winning four of his seven matches, including avenging his Smash loss to Prince Devitt, who went on to win the tournament. Over the next few months, Kushida continued to make a name for himself in the company in tag team action, reaching the semi-finals of the Super J Tag Team Tournament with veteran tag team specialist Gedo, and the finals of the J Sports Crown 6-man Tag Tournament alongside his longtime ally Tajiri and Hiroshi Tanahashi, who he formed a close bond with over the next few years.
After leaving Smash, and joining NJPW full-time in 2011, Kushida received a shot at Prince Devitt’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship but was unable to overcome the champion. Over the next year, Kushida earned several more opportunities for the title, but despite great performances against Devitt, Low Ki, and Kota Ibushi, was unable to win the big one.
Late in 2012, Kushida began to gain momentum, joining with Alex Shelley to form the famed ‘Time Splitters’ tag team. The pair soon found success, winning the 2012 Super Junior Tag Tournament and then defeating Forever Hooligans (Rocky Romero and Alex Koslov) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships. They would go on to defend the titles against the likes of Apollo 55 and the tag team of Jushin Liger and Tiger Mask IV before losing them back to Forever Hooligans at Wrestling Dontaku in May 2013.
While Time Splitters remained one of the top teams in the Junior Tag Division and earned championship matches several times over the next few months, it was over a year before they were able to recapture the gold in a highly-regarded encounter against the Young Bucks at Dominion in 2013. Their second reign lasted 140 days until they were beaten by the future ‘Undisputed Era’ duo of Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, then known as ReDRagon. Time Splitters continued to team for several more years but were not able to reach the top of the division again. It was at this time that Kushida began to focus on his singles endeavours.
While the Time Splitters were enjoying their second tag title reign, Kushida also accomplished his long time goal of winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship by defeating Kota Ibushi. However, he lost the title after only two months to Apollo 55’s Ryusuke Taguchi. His second reign, a year later, was to go much the same way. After beating Kenny Omega for the title, he successfully defended it against Ricochet but lost it back to Omega after only 80 days.
It was during his third reign as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion in 2016 that Kushida solidified his position as NJPW’s ‘Ace of the Juniors’. During a 257 day reign, he would have incredible title defences against Will Ospreay, Bushi, and Jushin Liger. He also won the Super J-Cup tournament, beating competitors from promotions around the world, including ROH, CMLL, AJPW, and Dragon Gate. He eventually lost the belt in a hard-fought contest when Bushi challenged him a second time.
Over the next two years, Kushida continued to rise in stature, winning the Junior Championship three more times and defeating all-comers. He remains tied with Tiger Mask IV as the second most decorated IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, the two are beaten only by Jushin Liger who held the belt on 11 occasions.
In 2019, following his sixth and final reign with the championship, Kushida announced that he would be leaving for WWE, having achieved everything he could in NJPW, and debuted in NXT in April that year.
By the time AJ Styles signed with New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2014, he was already a highly decorated veteran of the squared circle having won multiple championships in both Ring of Honor and TNA (now IMPACT Wrestling), including their Heavyweight Championships, and been the top champion for many independent promotions around the world.
While Styles had wrestled in Japan several times when working for TNA, including in NJPW, the Inoki Genome Federation, and Wrestle-1, it was during his later time in NJPW that Styles truly made his mark in the country. Styles shocked the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall at Invasion Attack in April 2014 when he attacked IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and challenged him to a championship match before revealing that he had joined the infamous Bullet Club stable. The ‘Phenomenal One’ went on to win the championship from Okada the following month, showing himself to be a formidable force in the company.
Styles held the title for five months, continuing his feud with Okada and defeating him two more times in championship defences. He was finally dethroned by Hiroshi Tanahashi in a thriller at Wrestling Dontaku.
Following the loss, Styles went entered the World Tag League tournament with fellow Bullet Club member Yujiro Takahashi, but the team were stopped from reaching the finals after losing to Styles’ nemesis Okada and his CHAOS stablemate YOSHI-HASHI on the final night of their block.
It wasn’t long until Styles journeyed back to the main event scene, first defeating the ‘Stardust Genius‘ Tetsuya Naito in an epic encounter at Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2015 and then, buoyed by that high profile victory, challenging the man who defeated him for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Tanahashi. The following month, Styles defeated the ‘Ace’ in another excellent bout and began his second reign at the top of NJPW.
Much like the first, Styles’ second run with the title lasted five months, this time it was put to an end by Okada at that year’s Dominion event. Following the defeat, he attempted to get back to the championship through the G1 CLIMAX tournament but came up short in his block. Despite this, a direct pinfall over Okada during a six-man tag match on the final night of the tournament allowed Styles to challenge the champion at King of Pro-Wrestling. However, he once again lost to the ‘Rainmaker’, putting an end to his Heavyweight Championship endeavours.
During his final few months in NJPW, Styles and Bullet Club continued to clash with CHAOS, however, Styles had now moved on from Okada and set his sights on Nakamura’s Intercontinental Championship. The feud came to a head at the Wrestle Kingdom 10 match mentioned above, where Styles once again came up short. He gained a small measure of revenge the following night at New Year’s Dash, when he and Kenny Omega defeated Nakamura and YOSHI-HASHI in Styles’ final NJPW match. The moment was, however, short-lived as Kenny Omega and the rest of Bullet Club turned on Styles and unceremoniously kicked him out of the group and sent him on his way to WWE.
Asuka began her wrestling career training under Yuki Ishikawa, a wrestler best known for violent matches that often resulted in he or his opponent drawing blood or injuring one another.
After signing with the Japanese women’s promotion, ‘AtoZ’, in March 2004, Asuka had an unremarkable start to her wrestling career. Wrestling under real name, Kanako Urai, later shortened to ‘Kana’, she would rarely win matches, and was abruptly forced to retire only two years into her career after a diagnosis of chronic nephritis.
However, the ‘Empress of Tomorrow’ overcame these early challenges and resume wrestling in 2007. This time, rather than sticking to a single promotion, Kana decided to become a freelancer, appearing for a wide range of companies including Pro Wrestling WAVE, Ice Ribbon, Smash, DDT, and NEO Women’s Pro-Wrestling.
In NEO, Kana formed a faction called Passion Red and go on to win the NEO Tag Team Championships with her teammate Nanae Takahashi in October 2009. They reigned for almost three months before losing the titles to Ayumi Kurihara and Yoshiko Tamura. The following year, NEO closed down.
In 2010, Kana infamously wrote a ‘manifesto’ for joshi puroresu, Japanese women’s pro-wrestling, which appeared in ‘Weekly Pro-Wrestling Magazine’. The manifesto was deliberately provocative and called out Joshi promotions and wrestlers for using obviously fake moves, only aiming their style at women, and having little to no personality amongst other things. The move angered much of the joshi scene and catapulted Kana into the limelight as a top villain, leading to members of the JWP roster, the oldest joshi promotion in Japan at the time, to confront her during a Smash event.
While with Smash, Kana would begin intergender feuds, notably with the promotion’s founder, Tajiri, who she lost to at the company’s December 2010 ‘Happening Eve’ event. The feud continued into the following year, with Kana bringing in her new ‘Triple Tails’ teammates, Mio Shirai and her sister, current NXT Superstar, Io Shirai, to defeat Tajiri and his partners Ken Ohka and Yoshiaki Yago.
The highlight of Kana’s time in Smash was her feud with current AEW star Serena Deeb. While Deeb defeated Kana in their first encounter, it was Kana who got the last laugh, picking up a victory over Deeb in the finals of the tournament to become the first Smash Divas Champion.
Kana also saw success in Pro Wrestling WAVE, defeating Misaki Ohata to win their 2011 ‘Catch the WAVE’ tournament, at the time the highest singles honour in the promotion. She also won their ‘Dual Shock WAVE’ tag team tournament alongside Ayumi Kurihara, making the duo the first WAVE Tag Team Champions. She held the tag team titles a second time in 2012, this time with her Triple Tails partner, Mio Shirai.
Also in 2012, Kana made her DDT debut, winning their Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship twice in a battle royal by first pinning Michael Nakazawa, then regaining it later in the match by forcing Antonio Honda to submit. She officially became a five-time Ironman Heavymetalweight Champion after successfully leaving a second battle royal with the belt, having beaten Michael Nakazawa twice and Keita Yano during the match after they beat her for it. She finally lost the title to Ayumi Kurihara during that year’s ‘Catch the WAVE’ tournament.
Despite the animosity created by her manifesto several years earlier, Kana began appearing in JWP in 2013. She soon began a rivalry with the JWP Openweight Champion Arisa Nakajima, who saw herself as a defender of all joshi wrestling. Kana won the Openweight Championship, JWP’s top title, from Nakajima in August 2013 and go on to defend it against both Manami Katsu and Hanako Nakamori. For her third defence, Kana asked for a rematch against Nakajima, and lost the championship back to her that December in a match that won JWP’s Best Bout Award for 2013.
In Kana’s last year on the Japanese wrestling scene, she joined Reina Joshi Puroresu. During her time in the company, she was able to capture both the Reina World Tag Team Championships, partnering with her JWP rival Arisa Nakajima, and the Reina World Women’s Championship. She and Nakajima would go on to lose the Tag Team Championships to Syuri and, now WWE Superstar, Mia Yim on their second defence. However, she held the Women’s Championship for the rest of her time in the company, only relinquishing it in August 2014 when she made the decision to leave Reina.
While Kana was a freelancer, she also produced pro-wrestling shows, both on her own and as part of Triple Tails. It was at one of these shows in 2014 that the infamous intergender tag team match between Kana and her partner Naomichi Marafuji and the team of Minoru Suzuki and the legendary Meiko Satomura took place. During the bout, Kana goaded Suzuki, who is a former MMA competitor known for violent pro-wrestling matches, his all and the result, while highly rated by fans, is an uncomfortable watch.
Kana also had her final match in Japan in a show she produced herself. In a 6-person tag match, she teamed with future AEW Women’s Champion Hikaru Shida and Syuri to defeat her old foe and sometimes ally Arisa Nakajima, Rina Yamashita and Ryu Mizanami. One month after the match, she made her debut in NXT and changed her name to Asuka.