While most American fans think of WWE-styled wrestling when they consider what professional wrestling is all about, there is a world of wrestling that is just as successful and very different from what WWE offers. That is the world of Japanese wrestling. While WWE is the biggest wrestling promotion in North America, New Japan Pro Wrestling sells out arenas as large — if not larger — than WWE does in today's wrestling world.
NJPW is also just one of several Japanese wrestling promotions. All Japan Pro Wrestling has been around since 1972, Dragon Gate since 2004, DDP Pro-Wrestling since 1997, and Pro Wrestling Noah since 2000. With such a rich history, here is a look at the 10 best Japanese wrestlers of all-time.
10 KAZUCHIKA OKADA
There are likely iconic superstars from the past that some would put in this 10th spot, but the list needs the best wrestler in Japan today, and that man is Kazuchika Okada. At only 31-years-old, Kazuchika Okada didn't hit it big from the start as he trusted TNA Impact Wrestling to help get his name out there, and they misused him terribly.
However, once he returned to Japan, he ended up revitalized and rebuilt and became The Rainmaker. One month after returning to Japan from TNA, he won the IWGP Heavyweight title in 2012 by beating Hiroshi Tanahashi, a title he has now held five times.
9 SHINSUKE NAKAMURA
Fans in WWE might see Shinsuke Nakamura as a goofy comedy styled wrestler, albeit a successful one who has won the NXT, United States, and Intercontinental titles in his run there, but he is much better than that. Before he came to WWE, Nakamura was one of Japan's top stars.
Known in Japan as the King of Strong Style, Nakamura won his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2003 and then won it a second time in 2008 and a third time in 2009. Before leaving for WWE, Nakamura had won 11 title belts during his time in NJPW.
8 HIROSHI TANAHASHI
Hiroshi Tanahashi holds the record for the most IWGP Heavyweight Championship title reigns with eight. He is also a two-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion, two-time IWGP tag team champion, and three-time NEVER Openweight 6-man tag team champion. He also won the G1 Climax three different times (2007, 2015, 2018).
This success came after Tanahashi started his career in 1999 and began his rise to the top starting in 2003. Throughout his career, he beat names like The Great Muta, Kazuchika Okada, AJ Styles, and Kenny Omega for his title reigns.
7 KENTA KOBASHI
Kenta Kobashi is a retired Japanese legend who worked for All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Noah over his career. He was one of the stars that left AJPW to help form Noah in 2000, and he was one of Noah's biggest stars for the next decade.
Throughout his career, Japanese media praised Kenta for being one of the best wrestlers in the world because he could do it all. At 245 pounds, he could pull off power moves and could hit a moonsault when needed. Kenta has 23 five-star matches in his career and held 17 titles in Japan.
6 THE GREAT MUTA
The Great Muta is someone that American audiences know well as someone very successful in the United States and Japan both. He had one of the best feuds of Sting's career in pre-nWo WCW. He held the TV title and tag team titles in WCW and, in 1993, won the NWA World Championship from Masahiro Chono.
Muta created the Shining Wizard and used it to win several titles, including the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in NJPW. He was the former president of All Japan Pro Wrestling and has held 24 titles in Japan and more around the world. Amazingly, he still competes to this day at the age of 56.
5 JUSHIN THUNDER LIGER
Jushin Thunder Liger is another hugely popular wrestler for North American professional wrestling fans. He is a Japanese wrestler and former MMA fighter who made his name thanks to his gimmick, which he based on an anime television series in 1989. However, he was not a gimmick wrestler and is one of the best junior heavyweight wrestlers in history.
His contributions to wrestling remain intact to this day as he is the man who created the Shooting Star Press. He holds the record for the most title reigns in NJPW with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship with 11. He has also worked in Stampede Wrestling, WWE, WCW, Ring of Honor, and Impact Wrestling.
4 MITSUHARU MISAWA
Mitsuharu Misawa was one of the most influential wrestlers in Japan before his untimely death at the age of 46. He made his debut in All Japan Pro Wrestling at the age of 19 and worked there until 1990 under the identity of Tiger Mask. Misawa ended up as the AJPW President after Giant Baba died, but when they removed him from the position, he left and started Pro Wrestling Noah.
Misawa was so respected that several wrestlers left with him, including Kenta Kobashi. Misawa was a world champion eight times in Japan and had more five-star matches than anyone in history with 24. Misawa died in the ring in 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest.
3 RIKI CHOSHU
Riki Choshu is a retired Japanese professional wrestler who worked for most of his career with New Japan Pro Wrestling and also served as the booker there for a time. Thanks to his work in the '80s and '90s, many consider him one of the most influential wrestlers in history. In some interesting trivia, he is the man who popularized the Sharpshooter.
Riki Choshu was a three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, a three-time IWGP tag team champion, and was the WWF International Heavyweight Champion before Vince McMahon broke off the relationship with NJPW. In 1996 he retired, but on his last day, he wrestled five matches and won four of them. Despite that, Chosu still competes in occasional matches to this day.
2 ANTONIO INOKI
Antonio Inoki will go down in history for many reasons. He fought Muhammad Ali in a boxer vs. wrestler match in 1976. That fight was the precursor to what would become Mixed Martial Arts. He was one of the top Japanese wrestling stars in the world, trained by Rikidozan. Inoki is the man who founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.
Inoki was so popular that he entered politics in Japan and was elected to the House of Councillors from 1989-1995 and a second time from 2013-2019. In wrestling, he held 14 titles in Japan. In 1979, he won the WWF world title from Bob Backlund, although WWE does not recognize the title change. In 2010, WWE inducted him into their Hall of Fame.
Rikidozan is the best Japanese wrestler of all-time, and his legacy is what Japanese wrestling was built on. He is considered the Father of Puroresu and is credited with bringing professional wrestling to Japan, to begin with. He was considered a national hero thanks to his role as a professional wrestling star in the era following their defeat in World War II.
He made his name beating several American wrestlers and helped the country regain a part of their lost national pride. No less than Lou Thesz respected Rikidozan enough to take a loss to him in an NWA International Heavyweight Championship match. Rikidozan won several NWA titles in his career. He is also the man who trained Antonio Inoki and The Giant Baba. WWE inducted Rikidozan into the Hall of Fame in 2017.