This past January 4th, a talent purge of New Japan was rumored to have happened as stories broke that WWE had signed AJ Styles, Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson, and of course Shinsuke Nakamura. Obviously, the rumors became true over the course of a few months. All three members of The Club are the epitome of what Gaijins can aspire to be in the Japanese wrestling scene - Gallows learned how to be a better worker than his first stint in the WWE, Anderson for the most part only worked in Japan and became ingratiated with the culture, and AJ Styles solidified himself as a great worker the world over. The history of white workers in Japan is a long and rich one, as men like Stan Hansen became Gods in The Land of the Rising Sun.
Conversely, Japanese wrestlers have had their own fair share of success when coming over to the States. Currently, we are seeing what two of Japan's top stars are capable of here stateside as The King of Strong Style and The Empress of Tomorrow are both currently taking NXT by storm. Time will tell where they'll ultimately end up on this list, but they are here, along with 13 other entries, detailing great exports from The Land of the Rising Sun.
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15 Masato Tanaka
While not as famous stateside as fellow ECW alum, Tajiri, the master of the Diamond Dust finisher, Masato Tanaka, was the first guy to ever kick out of the 3D. He was also one half of one of the most fun and violent brawling feuds in ECW history. Against Mike Awesome, the duo destroyed more tables than a wood chipper and beat the holy heck out of each other in each and every encounter. He would eventually defeat Awesome to become the first (and only) foreign ECW World Heavyweight Champion. After Awesome absconded from the company, Tanaka was left to feud with Balls Mahoney until he went back to Japan. He, like several other of his constituents, would appear in the some of the Indies, against up and comers like Kevin Steen (Owens). Tanaka's battles with Awesome were so memorable that even though Awesome was branded a traitor to ECW, when the first One Night Stand happened, Awesome was able to regain a shred of respect when he reignited his war with Tanaka as the pair stole the show.
14 The Great Kabuki
It should come as no shock that one of the most underrated men on this list would also be part of underrated manager Gary Hart's stable in World Class Championship Wrestling. But that is only because the territory didn't make it too far past Texas. The fans that came to the Sportatorim will remember and fans with the WWE Network can educate themselves about The Great Kabuki. Heck, the guy could be on this list solely for creating the magical "Poison Mist" that has been adopted by several others over the years, including a few wrestlers on this list. His run included a battle of the Superkicks as he would take on Gentleman Chris Adams (the guy that trained Stone Cold). He also made a few appearances in the NWA, even taking on Ric Flair. WWE fans would know him best as one of Mr. Fuji's (much more on him later) hired guns at the 1994 Royal Rumble where Kabuki would help keep The Undertaker from beating Yokozuna (success!) while also trying to stop Lex Luger from wining the Rumble (epic fail!).
13 Kai En Tai
At an ECW Pay-Per-View, we were introduced to the Blue World Order's Japanese contingent, Dick Togo, Taka Michinoku, and Terry Boy. They worked a six-man tag at 1997's Barely Legal. Togo and Taka shed Terry Boy and their bWo routes and headed towards the greener pastures of the WWE. There, they added Yamaguchi-San, his wife, Shiryu, Mens Teioh, and Sho Funaki to become Kai En Tai. In the beginning, the group were an ensemble of Light Heavyweights from Japan who were assaulting their now former friend, Taka Michinoku. From there, Mrs. Yamaguchi would commit the ultimate betrayal, which led to one of the most infamous early Attitude Era segments, " I choppy, choppy your pee-pee."
Kai En Tai was truly a made group when Shane McMahon started dubbing their voices, ala cheesy Kung-Fu movies. The group's time in the states might have been short-lived, and while it seemed to be a vehicle for Taka, Funaki would actually be the one to make the most of the experience as he became sort of a mascot for the company, doing whatever comedic bit he was needed for - Kung-Funaki and SmackDown's #1 Announcer to name a few. Most recently, Funaki was The Edge and Christian Show's announcer (dubbed by The Fink), while also doing commentary for the Japanese team in WWE.
12 Masahiro Chono
One of the leaders of nWo Japan and a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion who even headlined Japan's version of Starrcade - of course Masahiro Chono would be on this list. After innovators like Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, Chono was part of a group of performers that revolutionized what wrestling in Japan was. He also has the distinction of being the only Japanese NWA Champion to main event the aforementioned flagship event of WCW. As an up and comer he fought one of the best Gaijins to have ever gone to Japan - The Mastadon, Vader. While not as serious as the injury that would ultimately end Stone Cold's career, Chono suffered the same injury at the hands of then Stunning Steve Austin while defending the NWA title. Chono was never the flashiest star from the Orient, but he was double-tough as Jim Ross might proclaim and he too was one of the few stars who decided to shoot on Goldberg ... only to suffer a dislocated shoulder in the process.
11 Bull Nakano
If there are any fans who think "Naka, Naka, Nakamura," then they're old school fans who remember Bobby Heenan's silliness when referring Japanese star, Bull Nakano. As one of the first bigger gals to step into the ring during the nineties, Nakano had a great look to her, with her hair spiked to look like an Otaku villain (which Heenan also poked fun at whenever she suffered a piledriver) and veiny makeup to match her friend/manager, Luna Vachon as the duo aimed to dethrone then Women's Champion, Alundra Blayze. Nakano was way ahead of her time for American women's wrestling, but would have fit in much better with today's working women, who are among some of the best workers in the industry, regardless of gender. Bull certainly fit in though with other Japanese females of her time, like Aja Kong. She helped paved the way for women like Awesome Kong and Nia Jax and her finisher, Bull's Angelito, was adopted by Paige as the PTO.
10 Hideo Itami
Currently, NXT is home to not one, but three of the biggest and brightest stars to have ever come out of the Orient. First is Hideo Itami, the former KENTA, who Daniel Bryan recently cited as having one of the hardest kicks in the business. Itami came in like a house of fire, leading the way for the new wave of world-class athletes that are coming to NXT. But prior to that, the Japanese star began to cement his legacy in America for Ring of Honor, where he did battle with current NXT Champion, Samoa Joe, teamed with the future Seth Rollins, Tyler Black, and of course put on memorable matches with Bryan Danielson, where he would challenge unsuccessfully for the ROH World Championship.
Once in NXT, KENTA would announce his new name, Hideo Itami, the Hero of Pain. So far Itami has been nothing more than a footnote, debuting at Finn Balor's tag team partner against The Ascension and NXT's entry into the 2015 Andre the Giant Battle Royal. But that's only because of a shoulder injury which has kept him on the sidelines for the past year. Now working NXT house shows again, it's only a matter of time before Itami returns to TV and begins to truly make his mark in WWE and around the world.
Asuka is still undefeated and is now the current, reigning, and defending NXT Women's Champion - the first non-Paige, non-Horsewomen to hold the belt, mind you. The Empress of Tomorrow is quite possibly a fanboy's greatest fantasy come to life - a smoking hot Asian vixen whose a graphic designer and a video game journalist in her spare time, even garnering an Xbox 360 sponsorship deal with Microsoft. The former Kana worked all over Japan, including that parody-filled DDT promotion, both of Tajiri's promotions, Smash and Wrestling New Classic, as well as working for the all-female American promotion, Shimmer.
Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer recently said that Asuka might be the best worker the WWE has, male or female. That's heavy praise coming from one of the most respected critics of the business and so far she has lived up to that acclaim. After all, no one else on any roster is an undefeated champion. She quietly, deftly, and deadly rose up the ranks utilizing some of the hardest kicks seen in a long time and as a master of the Crossface Chickenwing, one of the most devastating submissions ever. There's no telling who will be able to dethrone The Empress.
If you appreciate the way The Undertaker walks the ropes, then you'll truly marvel at the way The White Angel, Hakushi (Jinsei Shinzaki) did it. With a prayer, he deftly walked around the ring to deliver a crushing blow. He was a kamikaze-style wrestler. Essentially a luchador, an aerial artist who got the opportunity to work not only against Bret Hart in what is still one of Raw's best matches, but also against The Deadman himself in Japan, in what is an odd piece of footage if you can find it.
For some reason, he turned face and began a partnership with perennial jobber, Barry Horowitz and then whatever momentum The Kamikaze had went out the window. Aside from a badass tag team match with Hyabusa against Sabu and Rob Van Dam at ECW Heatwave 1998, turning face was more or less the death knell for Hakushi in America, but his visage, a figure clad all in white, with Japanese Kanji tattooed all over him remains one of the most memorable appearances in wrestling history.
7 Ultimo Dragon
Razor Ramon used to talking about oozing with machismo and dripping with gold, but The Ultimo Dragon was literally dripping gold. At one point, Dragon held ten different Light Heavyweight Championships from all over the globe, including the WWE Light Heavyweight belt, which at the time was defunct but still recognized by New Japan. Even more insane was that he carried the belt with him, along with the other nine, onto Monday Nitro at the height of The Monday Night War (maybe Vince didn't realize that one of Dragon's belts was his). Either way, Ultimo Dragon was one of the many Cruiserweights who helped to educate American wrestling fans on how amazing luchas and Japanese stars are, since he was both. He was Evan Bourne and Neville before there was ever an Evan Bourne or Neville. He's also the innovator of the Asai Moonsalt, along with the Dragon Sleeper.
6 Antonio Inoki
If you don't know about Antonio Inoki, then it's time to sit under the learning tree for one moment and educate yourself about the WWE Hall of Famer. While he didn't make too many appearances in America throughout his career, his contributions to sports are too much to ignore on a list like this. He defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE Championship during his five year run, which is not recognized by either the WWE or the company he founded - New Japan. That's right, the creator of the Enziguri was the Vince McMahon of Japan, gifting the wrestling industry with the creation of NJPW in 1972.
He also fought Muhammed Ali in what is regarded as the first ever MMA match in history, ending in a 3-3 draw. He also worked against Ric Flair in their only match together, in front of the largest crowd ever in professional wrestling. Approximately 190,000 people came to North Korea's Rungnado May Day Stadium to see the match. Inoki sadly didn't work too much in North America (which explains his lower ranking on this list), but again the man's influence stretched and still stretches far beyond the Rising Sun.
Tajiri came to the States and worked for ECW alongside Mikey Whipwreck as the disciples of The Sinister Minister. The duo were a lovable, albeit twisted and maniacal tag team and their combined forces won the ECW World Tag Team Championship in a tournament at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. After the fall of Extreme, the Japanese Buzzsaw, Yoshohiro Tajiri made his way to the WWE and then became quite possibly the company's most popular Oriental Superstar. He was batcrap crazy, willing to do anything and was a master in the ring. A former Cruiserweight Champion, Tajiri somehow wound up with Torrie Wilson and forced her to wear a kimono. Obviously forcing her to wear more clothes made him a vicious psychopathic heel.
He's still beloved to this day and one of the purveyors of the Asian Mist is set to make a historic return to the WWE, as part of the Cruiserweight Classic. Hopefully, even if he stays on as a coach, his inclusion in the tournament is signalling his return full time to the company.
4 Shinsuke Nakamura
Last, but farthest from least in the new class of Japanese stars is The King of Strong Style, Shinsuke Nakamura. The youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion ever has done battle with Brock Lesnar and AJ Styles and happens to be the hottest thing in the industry today. His enigmatic charisma alone is something to behold. There is simply no way to quantify the abundance of "It" factor Nakamura has. No one has connected with the NXT Universe the way he has in well...ever. The NXT faithful in Dallas chanted "Holy $#!+" during his entrance... his entrance! The King came in with a king's load of hype and delivered tenfold and more was added just by watching his strut to the ring. His match with Sami Zayn became an instant classic for NXT and easily is a match of the year candidate. His match with Finn Balor had more hype than any match in NXT or WWE's recent memory.
The King of Strong Style has done nothing but exceed the hype machine that follows him around the wrestling world. No matter how fantastic the NXT Japanese trio is, it is still too early to tell in each of their careers what kind of global impact each will have. But they all definitely have the greatest opportunity of anyone ever on this list, with Nakamura being the clear crown jewel of this threesome as he (hopefully) will be allowed to ascend to this throne.
3 Mr. Fuji
Probably the most well-known name on this list is the evil-as-they-come, Mr. Fuji. Despite being a wrestler and a former five time WWE Tag Team Champion with Toru Tanaka and Mr. Saito, Fuji is better known as one of the best heel managers of all time. The Hall of Famer turned his managerial phase into one of the most hated in WWE history and he is now beloved for his performance. Although he might be the single reason that the evil Japanese character survived for a few more years than it should have, Fuji made his managerial career work by being a twerp of a heel, using his cane and the blinding ceremonial salt to help his acolytes gain any advantage they could. He is the single most successful manager of all time title wise - leading Demolition to the longest reigning WWE World Tag Team Championship reign of all time. Alongside Jim Cornette, Fuji managed Yokozuna to the WWE World Championship as well.
2 The Great Muta
While most mainstream wrestling fans wouldn't have had the opportunity to see The Great Kabuki on television, in the late eighties and early nineties, fans did have the chance to see his "son," The Great Muta compete in WCW. Muta even debuted with Kabuki's old manager Gary Hart. His brief time here led to feuds with Ric Flair, Sting, Lex Luger, and many other top stars. While early WCW wasn't as successful as they were during The Monday Night Wars, at least they knew talent when they saw it. Had he debuted during the height of the War, he probably would have been tossed into either The Dungeon of Doom stable or the Blood Runs Cold angles, neither which would have showcased how good he was in the ring.
In the ring, he was one of the first to combine martial arts skills with an aerial assault that included one of the best moonsaults you'll ever see. His greatest night stateside would have to be Starrcade 1992, where he factored in heavily to the night's proceedings, working three times - once in tag match with Barry Windham against Brian Pillman and 2 Cold Scorpio (it was awesome as it sounds). Then he challenged fellow listmate, Masahiro Chono for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Lastly, he'd win the inaugural Battlebowl, which was the main event of the night. While he might have wound up being booked as a joke, Muta is one of the few to have never worked for the WWE, which leaves fans to wonder what might have been.
1 Jushin Thunder Liger
There is no wrestling Superstar, regardless of nationality, who has the impressive resume of Jushin Thunder Liger. His resume could fill this entire list alone. After the New Japan dojo originally turned him down, Liger went to England and The Dungeon to learn his craft before returning to Japan to begin his career defining run as Jushin Thunder Liger. His greatest success stateside came in WCW where he, along with Brian Pillman showed American wrestling fans what Cruiserweights were truly capable of. Later on, he would wrestle a dream match at the 1996 Starrcade against Rey Mysterio. With the only glaring omission in his resume being ECW, thanks to his appearance at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, Liger has worked in just about every single major North American promotion since his debut in Stampede back in the mid-eighties, including lesser known indies like PWG (against El Generico, the future Sami Zayn).
He has worked now for over thirty years and pretty much every single Light Heavyweight that ever meant anything to the business came up against Liger at some point. He's the greatest Cruiserweight of all time, a sure fire WWE Hall of Famer one day, and the quintessential best Japanese Superstar ever to make his way to North America.
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