Japan's female pro wrestlers blur the lines between decorum and brutality

Wrestling may be far from the typical picture visitors to Japan conjure up but, with a strong fantasy element popular with its mostly male fans, this league cultivates a very Japanese culture of deference to veteran fighters. Enter the world of Japanese professional women's wrestling.

Stereotype of demure femininity takes a beating in the ring

Forget the cherry blossoms, red torii gates and delicate slices of raw fish. The Japan on which Kris Hernandez has pinned her dreams is the thud of body slams, sweat and garish costumes.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Step into the world of Japanese women's pro wrestling.

"I fell in love with the drama, the excitement," said the 31-year-old American ex-pat, who quit her job in San Francisco to live her dream in Japan.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

'Oh my God, how come they are not dead?'

"I was on the edge of my seat with every move, thinking, 'Can I make a living doing this? Let me try.'" And she did. 

Hernandez became the first foreigner to train from scratch and work her way up in the federation known as Stardom. Here she is getting a blast of healing spray during one of the highly theatrical matches. 

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Life as a wrestler is hard in and out of the ring.

At first Hernandez shared a house with other female wrestlers and lived off her savings while in training. She debuted in August 2014 under the name Kris Wolf and has since made a go of it in the semi-underground spectator sport. 

Here, professional wrestler Kairi Hojo is about to put the boots to opponent Mieko Satomura during a match in Tokyo last summer.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Women's wrestling has been known to get out of control.

The Japanese women's wrestling federations, of which there are many, are renowned for blurring the lines between theatre and actual brutality. In February 2015, a Stardom match ended when a wrestler named Yoshiko went off script and savagely pummelled opponent Act Yasukawa. Graphic video of the incident made the rounds online, shocking many fans. 

Here, Act Yasukawa delivers a jump kick to Kairi Hojo during a match unrelated to that incident.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Even now, the money is not huge. But that's not the point.

"I was doing it because it was cool," said Hernandez, who is now on a break after suffering a concussion. This is Hojo again, leaping off the top rope.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Speak only when you're spoken to.

Even in this world, which Hernandez said is harder-hitting than its U.S. counterpart, Japanese rules on hierarchy come into play.

New wrestlers are not to talk to veterans unless spoken to and have to arrive earlier and stay later, Hernandez said. Here, Kari Hojo speaks volumes with her expression alone. 

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Inside the ring, everything changes.

While there is an undeniable element of objectification that permeates Japan's all-women wrestling, known as joshi puroresu, the rough and tumble lifestyle may also be an outlet for many of the wrestlers in a country where women are usually expected to be demure and cute, Hernandez said.

"Sometimes it's a part of themselves that they cannot normally express," she said.

"I have met so many that are so sweet and shy outside the ring, and then you get into the ring and they explode."

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Stardom's fans are mostly men.

The brutal reality of the ring is masked by a strong fantasy element that feeds its popularity with fans, most of whom are men. Even ring announcer Fuka Kakimoto has fans. Here she poses for a photo after a show in Tokyo in December, followed with a shot of Stardom's president, Hiroshi (Rossy) Ogawa selling brochures. 

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)
(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Women's wrestling has a close-knit community.

What sets Stardom wrestling apart from other sports, aside from the obvious, is access to the league's stars. Here's Kris Wolf out for beers with fans Eiichi Nakazato and Eishi Matsumoto after a match in Tokyo in March.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

With files from CBC News