As we dive into the new year, I wanted to look back as one thing which absolutely was one of the highlights within Japanese pro wrestling : Factions !
New groups have formed, some came back to prominence while some are maintaining themselves being a relevant unit. Today, this is what I will be diving in !
Within a good portion, if not most Japanese promotions, there will be one thing you will quickly notice : The prominence of factions, or units of various size being at the forefront of the promotions’ field. Quite possibly the biggest modern example of this, of course, is New Japan Pro Wrestling. With likes of CHAOS, Los Ingobernables de Japon, Bullet Club and Suzuki-Gun, faction warfare is a reccurring theme within the company’s structure and dynamic, even if the booking doesn’t necessarily put a huge emphasis on it. Now, while I will bring up NJPW again in this article later on, I would like to focus on other promotions first. The likes of Pro Wrestling NOAH, STARDOM, Dragon Gate and so on !
One group I want to mention before actually diving in is STRONGHEARTS, a group affiliated to OWE. This group, led by the quite legendary CIMA, has went nearly everywhere in Japan delivering great matches, and has been an absolute highlight in every place they went.
So, what was so good about factions in Japan during the year 2019 ? Let’s first start by diving into NOAH, and to start things things off because there is a lot to tackle here, their Junior Heavyweight division. As you will know if you watched NOAH for a while, the last few years have pretty much been dominated by one group within the Juniors : RATEL’S. This group coming all the way from Osaka Pro has been THE dominant force regarding the Junior division for a few years now. Daisuke Harada has been the Jr Ace since Taiji Ishimori left back in 2018, and the team of YO-HEY & HAYATA especially, have asserted themselves as a prominent tag team, winning two Global Junior Tag Leagues as well as the tag titles. Even Tadasuke, who was kind of left behind regarding achievements, won his first championship alongside Harada this year. Speaking of this year, HAYATA also won Global Junior League and held the GHC Jr Heavyweight championship for half of 2019. Now, with RATEL’S being the one dominant faction in the division, pretty much against everyone else, a new group formed in 2019 : STINGER.
This group led by the duo of veterans Yoshinari Ogawa and Kotaro Suzuki, who started teaming together back in October of 2018 against RATEL’S, created the faction as YO-HEY betrayed his friends to join them early this year. However, the trio didn’t last very long, since as soon as the Global Junior Tag League came around, an injured YO-HEY expressed his wish of teaming with then former partner HAYATA for the tournament : Obviously, his STINGER mates did not like this all and once YO-HEY returned, he was attacked by them, only being saved by his former RATEL’S mates, which he rejoined (bringing balance back to the Force). That left Ogawa and Suzuki alone in STINGER for a while, until Britain’s own Chris Ridgeway, who made his NOAH debut in time for Global Junior League earlier in the year, joined the group in the summer, not only adding a breath of fresh air to the division, but reinforcing STINGER in a big way. Another big recruit would then come a few months later, as former Revolutionary Hero Atsushi Kotoge, who left another recently formed faction due to his desire of being a Junior again, also joined STINGER.
Over the course of the year, STINGER has been a rising force within NOAH and one of the most entertaining parts of the whole promotion, thanks to the year-long feud with RATEL’S, which is probably not going to slow down anytime soon. This feud gave us lots of really good multi-man tag matches, as well as great matches over both the GHC Jr Heavyweight Tag Team championships (which were in the faction’s hands for most of the year), and the now pretty much dead (since IPW went out of business) IPW:UK Junior Heavyweight championship.
Let’s now head to NOAH’s Heavyweight divison, where after quite a long time without actual factions dominating the field, back when the likes of Marufuji’s BRAVE and KENTA’s No Mercy were colliding, new groups have formed. First, there was the Hooligans which were already there in 2018 and were finally disbanded early on in 2019, but we will first talk about NOAH’s own company dogs : Sugiura-Gun / The Sugiura Army. This faction formed out of the rest of the Hooligans, which were disbanded by, you guessed it, Takashi Sugiura himself. At Great Voyage in Yokohama last March, Sugiura and former Hooligan KAZMA Sakamoto had a singles match, which Sugiura won. At the end of it, both men shook hands while NOSAWA Rongai was watching alongside them, and the group formed from there. Since then, the group only kept growing, adding Junior Heavyweight Hajime Ohara (who had betrayed his former Backbreakers partners Hitoshi Kumano), freelancer Hideki Suzuki, as well as legends like Kazushi Sakurada and Kuzuyuki Fujita, all adding a serious sense of dangerousness to the faction. MLW’s El Hijo Del Dr Wagner Jr, while apparently not being officially within the group (or, is he ?) has been siding with Sugiura-Gun since making his debut in NOAH, and returning trainee Kinya Okada also joined in, while he is not yet an official member. If you wonder which was the rising force within the Heavyweight division this year in NOAH, you are looking at it. Sugiura and Sakamoto claimed the Global Tag League as well as the GHC Tag belts from AXIZ for a short while, asserting dominance. Sugiura would even become the first ever GHC National champion in Sumo Hall in November. Combining these first achievements to the plethora of great matches the leader of Sugiura-gun participated in, and the attraction the group represented thanks to NOSAWA Rongai bringing in very welcomed surprises throughout the year,
However, Sugiura’s army of company dogs wasn’t the sole rising group within the Heavyweight division, as Kenoh also ended up forming his faction : Kongoh / Kongo. The faction formed after Global tag League, where Kenoh and Kaito Kiyomiya were participating as a team. By the end of it, Kenoh got fed up with the young man he sees both as his rival and little brother, insinuated he was essentially LIDET’s (NOAH’s new owners) puppet, and went on to recruit Masa Kitamiya, Yoshiki Inamura and Atsushi Kotoge to form his rebellious faction. While Kotoge ultimately left the group as we know, the end of the year saw Kongoh add not one, but two new members at once : Hao and Nio, which are respectively Yuki Sato, a freelancer who has been appearing quite a lot in Michinoku Pro (Kenoh’s first promotion he wrestled in), and NOAH’s own Hi69, thus forming Kongoh’s newest Junior Heavyweight tag team.
In terms of actual achievements, outside of Kenoh winning his second Global League, now named N-1 Victory tournament, and The Tough (Kitamiya & Inamura) facing AXIZ for the tag titles in Sumo Hall, the group has yet to really accomplish much. 2020 will most likely be a really good year for the faction, I would easily bet on that.
As you can see, NOAH has seen a good amount of groups rise up, and each of them brought up great interest in their own way, and should continue to do so as long as they exist. The likes of Sugiura-Gun and Kongoh have already started colliding, and you can be sure that, looking at who leads each group, we are far from seeing the end of the story between both factions.
Let’s now move on to another promotion, one I have not watched as much as NOAH but still grew a big interest as the year went on : Dragon Gate. Anyone who watches this promotion knows that factions are very prominent there as well. Natural Vibes, Tribe Vanguard, R.E.D, and other groups which came before them. As we speak, only R.E.D remains of the three groups I mentioned, since Dragon Gate completely reshaped in what should be a generational war, but this won’t be the focus here, as I’ll focus on R.E.D themselves.. 2019 saw very interesting things happen regarding R.E.D. Not only did PAC (which joined the group in 2018) held the Open The Dream Gate title, remaining undefeated, for half of the year, but the group also gave birth to the new groomed Ace of the promotion in former member, « weak link » and King Of Gate winner Ben-K, who ended up defeating his former stablemate for Dragon Gate’s top championship at Kobe World. Adding to that, both the Open The Twin Gate and the Open The Triangle Gate belts often were held by R.E.D members this year. Adding to newest member Kaito Ishida being the current holder of the Open The Brave Gate championship, that means R.E.D held all of Dragon Gate’s championships in a year span : No other faction in the company can actually say they accomplished that !
Lastly with R.E.D, not only Kaito Ishida joined the group late this year, former Tribe Vanguard member and now former Open The Twin Gate champion BxB Hulk was the man which Eita and company presented as the « Red demon », which led to the titles being vacated. Hulk joined R.E.D, not wanting to deal with KAI, the man who injured him in the past, which was let into Tribe Vanguard by YAMATO, the leader of the group.
Let’s now take a quick look at STARDOM, or World Wonder Ring STARDOM if you want to be exact. Another promotion, a Joshi promotion actually, which also sees a lot of faction warfare within its own realm. The likes of Oedo Tai, Queen’s Quest and STARS have been mainstays for now quite some time, but another group was born in 2019 : Tokyo Cyber Squad. Created by former Oedo Tai member Hana Kimura, and picking into the other various groups to make her own faction, TCS quickly became the hottest group in the company, as fast as they grabbed success. Not only is Hana is a pretty popular and charismatic leader, she won the 5 Stars Grand Prix, defeating her stablemate Konami in the finals. While she lost her World of STARDOM championship match against Bea Priestley later on, Hana is undeniably a rising star, and her winning the Grand Prix proved that. As I mentioned Konami, let’s bring her up, too. Kana’s (WWE’s Asuka) only trainee has had a breakout year, reaching the finals of both the Cinderella tournament and the 5 Stars Grand Prix, as well as holding the Goddesses of STARDOM championships alongside stablemate Jungle Kyona since July, growing as one of the best teams in all of wrestling as far as 2019 is concerned.
Last, but not least, let’s head back to talking New Japan Pro Wrestling, and more specifically the faction welcoming all kinds of outcasts, the Gaijin centered group we all know as Bullet Club. After a VERY ROUGH 2018, seeing the mess of a story which was the faction’s split between « The Elite » and « The OG’s », Bullet Club reunited late in 2018 under the guidance of the Switchblade, Jay White. However, it was only in 2019 that the group really got their resurgence. Starting in the Tokyo Dome where both Jay White and Taiji Ishimori left victorious, with the latter becoming IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion. A month later at New Beginning, White would defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi to become IWGP Heavyweight champion for the first time. The Guerrillas of Destiny reclaimed the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles from EVIL & SANADA after losing them at Wrestle Kingdom, KENTA of all people and El Phantasmo were two key acquisitions which played a good part in the group’s success in the latter half of the year. The former won the NEVER Openweight championship from Tomohiro Ishii at Royal Quest, while Phantasmo, teaming with Ishimori, claimed the IWGP Junior Tag Team belts from Roppongi 3K.
All year long, Bullet Club has claimed or reclaimed gold, with Jay White continuing by becoming Intercontinental champion in september. As we head into Wrestle Kingdom 14 and the Double Gold Dash, the group holds half of New Japan’s championships, and with their Ace looking to become the first ever double champion by holding both the Heavyweight and IC titles at the same time, after becoming the second man in history to be an IWGP Triple Crown champion, we can safely say that Bullet Club, indeed, resurrected, and became both relevant AND interesting again.