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KAIRI and a Pirate’s Treasure

11 months ago

KAIRI and a Pirate’s Treasure

How KAIRI’s Return to Japan Helped Shape the Most Important Gold

By: Trent Breward

The eyes of the wrestling world were cast upon STARDOM like never before during the main event of the November 20, 2022 Historic X-Over event. Over 8000 people filled Ariake Arena, watching the crowning of the first ever IWGP Women’s Champion. It was only fitting that the two competing for that prize in the main event were KAIRI and Mayu Iwatani.

Two of the iconic “Three Daughters of STARDOM”. Two of the most important figureheads of the modern joshi scene, fighting for what could become the most important championship for women in Japan.

When the bell rang it was KAIRI who stood tall with the title in hand, completing a decade long journey that had carried her to one side of the world and back. At the end of that trip was a prize that made the years of dedication all worth it. The Pirate Princess was the first ever IWGP Women’s Champion.

Becoming Captain of the Seven Seas

KAIRI’s journey to greatness began on the first show of 2012, just weeks before STARDOM would celebrate their one year anniversary. As Kairi Hojo she climbed her way up the ranks, winning every major title she could and becoming one of their most beloved babyfaces. She would become so integral to the company that she would be named one of the Three Daughters of STARDOM, alongside Io Shirai and Mayu Iwatani.

Five years later, she set sail for the bright lights of the WWE, looking for new challenges and experiences. There, the newly christened Kairi Sane would learn to adapt to a new wrestling system. She worked her way through NXT, winning the Mae Young Classic Tournament and the NXT Title before heading for the main roster and striking gold with Asuka.
Another five years later, she would find her way back in Japan and back in STARDOM. However this wasn’t the Kairi Hojo that fans remembered from 2017.

The gravity surrounding her comeback was immediately evident. In the past, any time a performer returned it was done so in the ring, surprising crowds as they walked out to the ring. For KAIRI it was different. A months-long story was developed, centered around a mystery person and a huge incoming announcement. The whispers of it possibly being KAIRI were loud, and they were confirmed on February 18.

Everything about KAIRI in 2022 was designed to highlight her value. She was a special attraction, appearing only on certain PPVs. The talent she stood in the ring with were carefully chosen as figures of either STARDOM’s present or future. When she made an entrance it was a grand affair, and the aura of the Pirate Princess shone blindingly bright.
The STARDOM training system had merged with the shiny gloss of the WWE machine. Its creation was a true superstar, capable of going hold for hold with the best grapplers while feeling like the biggest person in the room despite standing at a mere 5’2”.

Gone is the lovable but fierce underdog face Japanese audiences had grown fond of. KAIRI in 2022 is a swashbuckling enigma. She controls a match, demanding her opponents strive to meet the Pirate Princess at her level. Show weakness, and she’ll blast you with a cracking backfist. Doubt yourself, and you’ll be left at sea. It was a long journey to get to where she is now as a performer, and it’s one she herself recognises:

“Who I am now isn’t Kairi Hojo, and it’s not Kairi Sane either, I’m already a very different person from who I was during those periods so that’s why I’ve updated my image. Not to date myself, (laughs) but if you were to compare me to like, Mothra, I had my larval stage, my chrysalis stage, and now I’m in my imago stage, I think I’m now probably in my final form and I really feel like I’ve gotten a fresh start.”

KAIRI at her return press conference, 2.18.22 – English Translation by Dana

After a decade, this KAIRI can provide something unequaled in STARDOM. Nobody else on the roster brings the same level of skill she acquired through her long journey, and it presents a unique opportunity for every opponent, every ally. KAIRI’s frequently matched up with wrestlers with bright futures. They can learn from the best, someone with insight that’s been crafted from time in both Japan and America.

KAIRI has never shied away from the pressures and responsibilities of being a locker room leader. Even in her first run with the company she took on added responsibility, serving as a talent representative. She was the bridge between the performers and management. When STARDOM was reeling from the drama and the fallout surrounding the 2015 Yoshiko vs. Act Yasukawa match, one which greatly impacted the locker room, it was in KAIRI whom they put their trust in to be their World of Stardom Champion.

In her second sailing with STARDOM, KAIRI serves as a senpai for the young talent: a mentor looking to lift up those willing to learn. Despite her enthusiastic and joyful exterior, learning under KAIRI brings with it a certain amount of tough love. She doesn’t hesitate to call out Utami Hayashishita for going easy in her training of rookie Miyu Amasaki, or challenging Saya Kamitani to show her strength rather than weakness before their title match.

It’s all done out of a love of wrestling, knowing that the journey to becoming the best you can be is a long and painful one. After facing Miyu Amasaki, she took the time to speak directly and relate to her. Recognised the hurt she rookie was feeling in the face of a tough loss, and encouraged her to keep fighting. She always speaks positively of her opponents in the aftermath, even if beforehand she’s challenging them.

Just as her mentors looked out for her, she is doing the same now. This is perhaps best exemplified by the backstage footage seen in the aftermath of her first match back in the company. After winning her first match back – a tag match with Mayu Iwatani against Tam Nakano and Unagi Sayaka – she was seen congratulating and consoling a tearful Unagi. It was a small moment, a peek at the world beyond the STARDOM curtain, but it showed how much she cares.

The strength of KAIRI might never be greater, but she is never too big for the sport itself. It’s a love of wrestling that keeps everything going.

A Most Precious Treasure

“Red Belt, White Belt, High Speed Belt, Tag Belts, Artist Belt and…IWGP Belt. The value of any of these is determined by the wrestler”

KAIRI at STARDOM Gold Rush, November 19, 2022

The news of New Japan Pro-Wrestling introducing a women’s championship caused a stir amongst the wrestling scene. Like much of Japanese wrestling, NJPW had historically been a mono-gendered wrestling promotion. The company had been testing the waters with women’s matches on select events for a couple of years, usually taking the form of either dark matches or undercard exhibitions. However introducing a title specifically for them suddenly changes the direction and the expectations moving forward.

It was an important step forward for New Japan as it looked to continue evolving. As they set their sights on the global market, the Japanese cultural division of men’s and women’s wrestling stands in stark contrast to what many western fans are used to.

It is a separation that NJPW President Takami Obhari looked to challenge, as stated in an interview with ‘Proresu Today’:

“I think the environment has already changed from the old prejudice against women and bringing women into the ring… But I don’t think we should forget the struggle… Besides, I think women’s wrestling is being re-evaluated because of their efforts, especially STARDOM.”

The IWGP Women’s Championship represents a commitment to that step forward. Obhari had the idea for the championship back before the COVID pandemic, but it would be a process to help overcome those prejudices. The first step for NJPW towards integrating women into its big events occurred in 2020 with four STARDOM women: Mayu Iwatani, Arisa Hoshiki, Hana Kimura and Giulia, appearing in a dark match at Wrestle Kingdom.

Two and a half years later the IWGP Women’s Championship would be announced, the first time in 35 years that the IWGP branding would be connected with a title for women. On the surface those four letters might not mean much, but it was an important distinction in the value Bushiroad sees in further connecting its two wrestling rosters.

The letters I-W-G-P carries a certain credibility and honor. The International Wrestling Grand Prix, not what it once was in the days of Inoki, but still a serious weight of honour attached to some of the greatest prizes in pro wrestling.

The championship design too is meant to instill feelings of prestige. It is a clear homage to the second iteration of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – one that immediately calls back memories of such icons as Shinya Hashimoto and Keiji Muto. The championship both sounds and looks prestigious.

The final step was to find someone they could entrust with exemplifying the spirit and vision of the IWGP Women’s Championship. Of course, a weak first champion would undermine everything being put into creating the title. In KAIRI, Takaaki Kidani had exactly what he needed. For all of STARDOM’s growth as a promotion in the past few years, none of its stars can match what KAIRI brings. People who have never heard of STARDOM know of the Pirate Princess who won the Mae Young Classic, the NXT Women’s Championship and the WWE Women’s Tag Team Title. There are few women with the global name power that also have a deep connection with the Japanese wrestling scene.

Kairi Sane and Asuka as WWE Women’s Tag Team champions, c/o WWE.

Kairi Hojo… Kairi Sane… KAIRI. From humble and eager rookie, into global superstar. She challenged herself halfway across the world in a completely new system and country. Now, that final form, the ‘imago stage’ as she put it, she could carry the pressures, expectations and burdens of being the first champion – and bring her new fans along for the journey.

“It’s a real honour. Timing is everything as well – I just have to thank the god of pro-wrestling for giving me that chance. I’ve never been first in anything in my wrestling career, so it’s huge.”

KAIRI speaking to njpw1972.com, of the IWGP Women’s Title.

She had held championships before, both in STARDOM and WWE, but KAIRI understands the importance of being first. It would be through her that the value of the belt would be weighed and measured. She would be representing all women when she stepped onto the cerulean blue mat of a NJPW ring, proving that they belong on equal footing with the men. Obhari’s vision needed someone like her to carry it forward.

For KAIRI, she entered the tournament to crown the first champion with a special focus and dedication.

I’m not challenging for this IWGP belt with the same feelings as normal. Break my fingers, tear my eardrum, do whatever you want and I’ll get my shoulder up and keep moving forward. This is for everyone that’s supported me before, I definitely won’t give up. I’m going to win.

KAIRI, Goddess of Stardom Tag League, November 1, 22. English translation by Dana

That determination would be put to the test, as KAIRI’s journey to the IWGP Women’s Championship was nearly over before it could begin. The week of Historic X-Over, she badly sprained her ankle while training. It swelled up, but went against her doctor’s advice to not wrestle on it. To make matters worse, she had a Wonder of Stardom Title match against Saya Kamitani the night before she would challenge for the IWGP Women’s Championship. Despite the injury, she went out and wrestled to a thirty minute draw as she attempted to win the White Belt for the first time since 2016.

She might have been hobbled, but she didn’t let it show. She was as cool and collected as ever once she stepped out in front of 8000+ fans in Ariake Arena. Carrying herself like a champion just waiting to be crowned.

The Historic X-Over event was aptly titled. The men of NJPW and the women of STARDOM, presented on equal footing on a co-promoted event for the first time ever. A true step forward in that changing environment Ohbari referenced.

When it was time for the main event, standing out there wasn’t Hiroshi Tanahashi, or Will Ospreay defending his IWGP United States Championship. It was KAIRI, it was Mayu Iwatani, and it was for the IWGP Women’s Championship.

For the next twenty five minutes the two women worked towards establishing the value of the new championship. It was a fierce, hard hitting affair that took both challengers to the limit. KAIRI hit her famous Insane Elbow, only for Mayu to somehow muster the strength to kick out. It took a second elbow to finally keep her down.

It was a spectacular match that instantly instilled value in the belt, and was won by somehow who could carry the belt forwards. A wrestler who knew the importance of the belt that now hung around her waist, had the skill to put forth matches worthy of the belt, and the character to represent the IWGP name.

Ultimately her reign with the IWGP Women’s Championship might have only been a short one, successfully defending the title at Wrestle Kingdom against Tam Nakano before losing it to Mercedes Mone in San Jose. However she set out and achieved what she needed to: she set the standard by which all other IWGP Women’s Champions would be measured. Can they carry themselves with the grandeur and strength that the Pirate Princess did? Can she serve as a headline attraction?

These are the questions which will be asked of those who follow in KAIRI’s footsteps.

It is a tall task for any wrestler. It took KAIRI a decade to grow into the global superstar she is today, evolving her character to suit the times and the location. By the end of it, she was fit to match the prestige of a title as important as the IWGP Women’s Championship, and define it as its first champion.

Written by:

After a regular receiving my Bachelor's degree from the University of Tasmania – yes, it's a real place – I went on to hone my writing craft before falling in love with STARDOM. As luck would have it, Thom and I started chatting about Joshi in early 2021, and I've been responsible for spearheading STARDOM content at Monthly Puroresu ever since. My work includes shortform, feature length profiles, op-eds, and Q&As.