Note: A lot of the information in this article is based on a 2018 interview with Ikari Sadako. The video of the interview can be found here, and the translated transcript can be found here. The translation is a little rough, but if someone wants to read it, I recommend reading it side by side with the video playing so that you can get the context of the slides.
Japanese Women's wrestling begins in 1948 with one man: Pan Ikari, パン猪狩 , real name Noboru Igari, 猪狩登. He was a vaudeville entertainer with a background in Judo, wrestling, and boxing. He came up with the idea of training women to wrestle as a part of a comedy act. For all intents and purposes, Pan is the father of Joshi Puroresu.
Unfortunately, I don't have a way of knowing where exactly this idea came from. None of the sources that I could find really go into that part.
According to Japanese Wikipedia, he took a small group of women 7 or 8 and started training them. This group became known as All Japan Women's Wrestling Club. Among those women was Ikari Sadako. Ikari's oldest brother was an actor who performed under the name Roppa Furukawa. He was a comedian who performed all sorts of roles in the Japanese entertainment industry before and after World War 2. Roppa and Pan were close friends.
Pan took his troupe of Japanese Women Wrestlers to various Armed forces bases during the American occupation of Japan post-World War 2. A lot like the Sumo wrestlers that came before, Women's Pro Wrestling had very negative connotations and was seen as an underground activity. Ikari recalls that she was reluctant to start wrestling, but was talked into it.
Around the same time, before Rikidozan became a professional wrestler, Japanese Men's professional wrestling was also developing. There is very little information about this period of either men's or women's wrestling. Japanese wrestling historians have confirmed that wrestling cards were run during this period, but I don't have any details on them.
In 1953, after learning the ropes in America, Rikidozan returned to Japan and formed the Japan Wrestling Association, JWA. Rikidozan was the face of the promotion and founder. Nitta Shinsaku was the president of the company. Nitta invited Ikari and another wrestler, Katsumi Tayama, to receive training at the JWA dojo with plans for them to take part in early JWA cards in a similar manner to how American Women were used at the time. One, maybe two undercard matches on the card. For example, Japanese wrestling historians have been able to find an October 1953 card with a match listed between Lily Ikari(Ikari Sadako) and Rose Katsumi(Katsumi Tayama). It is unclear if this match took place. Ikari doesn't recall it today.
Another noteworthy part of that October 1953 card is that it also featured acrobats. Katsumi Tayama herself came from an acrobat background. According to Ikari, Katsumi was a great wrestler due to her superior athletic ability. At the time, Japan had a worldwide reputation for great acrobat acts. Western newspapers as far back as the 1800s have many references to traveling Japanese acrobats. For example this April 19, 1868 newspaper clipping from Reynold's Newspaper in London.
Another source of talent at the time was Women Sumos who were underground after the war. Ikari remembers training with three women Sumos and not fairing well against them due to their power.
1954 saw a significant turning point for Japanese women's wrestling. Mildred Burke came to Japan and changed everything. The story of Mildred Burke deserves an encyclopedia written about, and most of it is beyond the scope of this article. I will summarize it by saying that she had a major falling out with her husband and kingpin for American womens wrestling, Billy Wolfe. Wolfe was a monster. That and a very personal rivalry with June Byer lead to essentially a shoot match over the World's Women's Title that ended with Mildred getting double-crossed. Byres was recognized as the NWA World's Women's champion. Burke kept identifying herself as the champion under the banner of the WWWA. Due to all of that trouble, Burke went on an extended tour of Japan in late 1954 to get away from the NWA's influence.
Burke's tour was a smash hit and a cultural phenomenon in Japan. Her matches were televised on TV. Although sadly none of the footage survives today as far as I'm aware. Tens of thousands of fans are reported to have seen her matches.
Ikari and Katsumi, among other Japanese women, took part in these Mildred Burke shows. Ikari recalls being asked to go on tour overseas with Mildred, but she declines due to not wanting to leave her family behind. In 1955, Ikari ended up making headlines for the wrong reasons. During a particularly heated match, Ikari was hit in the head with an empty milk bottle by a fan and sent to the hospital. Thankfully she was OK.
Two other notable names that worked with Mildred Burke were Chiyo Obata and Kyoko Chigusa. They can be seen wrestling in this 1975 match for the IWE promotion. Chiyo also had a younger sister named Kio who also wrestled in the 1950's.
Ridding the wave of Mildred Burke and with the popularity of Japanese Women's wrestling in Japan booming we see the records of various Women's companies popping up. It's hard to really say which of these companies were active when before Mildred and which were around afterward. It's possible that some may have popped up post-1948, but only started getting noticed after the Mildred boom. Some of these companies include:
There were more groups than just these.
1955 saw the formation of All-Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling Federation. An attempt to combine a few of these groups under one banner. One of the significant things that the Federation accomplished was to establish the first set of Women's champions in Japan. According to Japanese wikipedia, the first set of champions were:
This set of titles would have a long history. Mariko Akagi, a mid-1970's WWWA Singles champion for AJW held the Light Weight title at some point early in her career. It's listed on her official website.
During the boom period, shows were held in large arenas. Kokugikan, the National Sumo Hall, which held 13,000 fans hosted some of the Mildred Burke cards. Nichidai Kodo, which stood in the current site of Ryogoku Sumo Hall and was used by AJW in the 1970s through early 1980s also saw women's cards during the 1950s.
By 1956 the Women's craze was dying down. The attendance was solid, but not tens of thousands of fans. We see in this British reel footage of Japanese Women's Wrestling that the arenas were not sold out.
Long term the Federation was not successful due to the continuing decline of the popularity of Women's wrestling. By the 1960s, Joshi was relegated to small venues like nightclubs. By 1968, AJW would spin off from the Federation, and by 1972 the Federation was dead.