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Remembering KAIRI’s Epic Return to Japan

6 months ago Vertical Bison | MP

Vertical Bison | MP

Remembering KAIRI’s Epic Return to Japan

By: James Carlin

Last Spring, the joshi world was buzzing with hype surrounding a mystery wrestler set to grace the wondrous rings of STARDOM. When the big reveal came, it was the return of the world traveling Pirate Princess, Kairi Hojo. She embarked on her journey home, now using the mononym KAIRI, a bigger star than when she left for WWE in 2017.

In a series of nine matches throughout 2022, KAIRI fought the best of STARDOM’s new talent who arrived in her absence. KAIRI proved she was still the woman to beat, entering 2023 as the inaugural IWGP Women’s Champion. The title held the symbolism and legacy of Antonio Inoki himself, who passed away in October of her big return year. In our interview with Takami Ohbari, the NJPW President spoke fondly of Inoki, saying that we’re in a new era where women and men can compete in the same New Japan ring.

“We cannot stick to the outdated ideas of male-only professional wrestling. We often say that professional wrestling is a mirror reflecting the world,” said Ohbari. “All wrestlers and all matches should be appreciated, and any wrestlers should be provided fair opportunities in the ring regardless of gender or anything else.”

KAIRI and Mayu Iwatani main-eventing the first Historic X-Over to determine the inaugural IWGP Women’s Champion was the first step in this effort, with the next at Wrestle Kingdom 17, where KAIRI defended her newly won title against future World of Stardom champion, Tam Nakano.

The Twilight Dream in the Tokyo Dome

Her first return match pitted KAIRI against Tam Nakano, where the Pirate Princess stood next to her Team Yamaguchi partner Mayu Iwatani once more, opposite from Nakano and Unagi Sayaka. In the second match, KAIRI and Nakano teamed up as “White Knights” in May 2022 against Utami Hayashishita and Miyu Amasaki.

Now carrying the treasure of the IWGP Women’s Championship, KAIRI looked for what the Top Kawaii of the Cosmos could show in singles action. She heard all about Nakano from Io Shirai – who almost had Nakano join Queen’s Quest in 2018 – and the bright lights of the Tokyo Dome created the perfect setting for one of STARDOM’s most dramatic collisions of egos in recent memory.

Tam Nakano’s unrelenting desire to be on top was not enough, though – she lasted just seven minutes, washed ashore by KAIRI with relative ease. Nakano’s six-year ascent in STARDOM was admirable, but there was only so much that could be done against a newly reborn and revitalized Kairi Hojo, who remained dominant throughout and whose ruthless offense incapacitated the challenger after she kicked out of Nakano’s violet screwdriver and capitalized with a cutlass followed by the insane elbow.

As the Cosmic Angel looked up towards the Dome’s faraway ceilings, the next challenger to the IWGP Women’s Championship emerged. Mercedes Moné (fka Sasha Banks), staked her claim to the Pirate Princess’ gold. Her debut in New Japan Pro-Wrestling shocked not only the champion, but the wrestling industry. A girl whose dream was to wrestle in Japan, who admittedly marked out to matches and legends in All Japan Women’s (AJW), now stood in the ring of the Tokyo Dome with KAIRI’s title in hand.

Anchoring the Women’s International Wrestling Grand Prix

The stage was set: Mercedes Moné’s first match in New Japan would take place at Battle in the Valley in San Jose, California. It wasn’t a match in Japan like Moné wanted, but so began a new era for one of America’s most influential women’s wrestlers of a generation.

Mercedes Moné proved her doubters wrong showing by she could hang with top stars in Japan. As KAIRI entered to her iconic STARDOM entrance music The Last Voyage, Mercedes entered to Moné, wearing ring attire paying tribute to someone who KAIRI had once defended the Wonder of Stardom championship against: Hana Kimura. After a fantastic match that could have main-evented any STARDOM PPV, the two came out of the event as the most talked about part of the show.

Her championship reign was only 90 days, but it’s all she needed to give prestige to the newly minted IWGP Women’s Championship. KAIRI once led STARDOM in 2015 during a dark period for Joshi, but with STARDOM now reaching new heights, she stood toe-to-toe with her former WWE co-star as equals in a bright new era.

She’d return a month later to team with another former tag-team partner in Nanae Takahashi. KAIRI again found herself opposite Tam Nakano once again, but this time Nakano had Waka Tsukiyama as her partner. Tsukiyama to this point had lost every single match. The losing streak was becoming a spectacle unto itself. Whether singles, three-way, or a tag team match – it was always Tsukiyama succumbing to a submission or pinfall. Nakano took it upon herself to issue an ultimatum to her Cosmic Angels member: If she couldn’t win a match, Waka was out of Cosmic Angels.

Her final test would be at New Blood Premium: Tam Nakano and Waka Tsukiyama vs. 7KAIRI. For over twenty minutes, Tsukiyama pushed and heaved, inching closer and closer towards her first victory. The crowd was behind her every step of the way, as she fought valiantly against one of the company’s most revered tag teams – WAKAMANIA was born.

KAIRI and Takahashi weren’t going easy on their opponents but the blood, sweat and tears put into her craft finally paid off when Tsukiyama rolled-up Takahashi for the pin to a rousing ovation. Takahashi and KAIRI were shocked and surprised at the loss, but Tsukiyama had earned their respect. “Smile, and carry joshi puroresu on your back. But from now on, we are rivals,” said the veteran Takahashi.

A Second StArt for KAIRI

With Spring rolling around and KAIRI coming up on a full year back in Japan, All Star Grand Queendom at Yokohama Arena emerged as STARDOM’s biggest show in a generation.

It seemed KAIRI was a surefire asset to the company, ready to play a prominent role.

The outsider group Prominence held the Artist of Stardom championships since Dream Queendom the year prior. The trio of Suzu Suzuki, Risa Sera and Kurumi Hiiragi needed challengers at All Star Grand Queendom, and KAIRI had the perfect idea. She entered Korakuen Hall on April 2nd accompanied by two old friends, Natsupoi and Saori Anou.

Natsupoi previously teamed with KAIRI once many years back and was gifted KAIRI’s old ring gear as a symbolic gesture. She wore it in a Wonder of Stardom title challenge against Tam Nakano in 2021, and would go on to team up with KAIRI in 2022 on the second day of the 5★STAR GP against Mayu Iwatani and Saya Iida.

For her part, Saori Anou had recently come off a hot streak on the independent scene. Catching promoter Rossy Ogawa’s eye, the “Absolute Indomitable Girlfriend” found Natsupoi’s kindred spirit laying in wait within STARDOM.

Back in 2016, KAIRI, Natsupoi, Saori Anou and Hiromi Mimura were previously known as the group stArt. Although Mimura retired in 2018, the three remaining group members had reunited in STARDOM, dubbing themselves “REstart”.

REstart would defeat Suzu Suzuki, Kurumi Hiiragi and Risa Sera to win the Artist of Stardom championships at Yokohama Arena, the first time KAIRI would carry the Artist title in six years.

It put an exclamation point on this new era for STARDOM at their biggest show in the promotion’s history.

Only a month later at Flashing Champions, REstart fought to defend their newly won multi-color titles against Donna del Mondo’s Bari Bari Bombers. Giulia, Thekla and Mai Sakurai had formed as part of the Triangle Derby tournament and despite not winning, they were still looking to make their mark as a three-piece by hoping to dethrone the newly formed superteam that held the belts.

The main talking point of the REstart vs. Bari Bari Bombers match became the face-off between Giulia and KAIRI, two of the biggest stars in the same ring. It was a hard-hitting and intense match, yet it was clear that the long period spent apart for the champions only made it easier for the challengers to plan an attack when Anou and Natsupoi kept butting heads throughout, which allowed the challengers to capitalize and ultimately win the Artist of Stardom titles.

Fighting A Who’s Who of Japan’s Indie Circuit

Throughout the rest of 2023, KAIRI set sail for foreign waters in the indie circuit.

Her first docking came at Kenta Kobashi’s Fortune Dream 8, where she came face-to-face with a familiar foe from February in Unagi Sayaka. The Kabukimono didn’t care if she was a former WWE Superstar, she was adamant on “assessing her” – and now her time to achieve that goal had arrived.

Despite almost wobbling and falling off the top rope before hitting her trademark Insane Elbow, KAIRI came out victorious against Unagi, whose improvement in the last years was now highlighted as she also went out on her own outside of STARDOM.

Taking a little detour, Natsupoi, Tam Nakano and KAIRI teamed up at Stardom Sunshine to defeat the newly emerged trio of Mei Seira, Maika, and Suzu Suzuki. It was a fun match, but greater things lied ahead for the World Traveling Pirate Princess.

It would be two months until KAIRI’s next match, and the wait was proven worth it. She arrived at Sareee-ISM Chapter 2 to team with Sareee, who had likewise recently returned to Japan. They fought fellow STARDOM alumni Takumi Iroha and Beyond The Sea champion Arisa Nakajima.

This was an incredible showing as all four gave it their best shot to emerge victorious. Nakajima and Sareee evidently had a score to settle as the latter looked upon the championship held by who she calls “The Devil”, and the exchanges between each of the four participants in the match made for a memorable bout. It doubled as a sweet reunion for Iroha and KAIRI, who last shared the ring together in 2015 when Iroha challenged the Pirate Princess for the World of Stardom championship.

At the beginning of August, KAIRI announced she would be taking an indefinite hiatus from wrestling starting in October. As rumors swirled about her next career move, there were some scores evidently left unsettled.

KAIRI returned to Sendai Girls in September for the first time since 7KAIRI wrestled the Jumonji Sisters in March 2015. This time, however, she wasn’t teaming with Nanae Takahashi – it was with VENY, an incredible stand-out on the independent scene. The two took on Red Energy (Mika Iwata and Miyuki Takase) at BIG SHOW in Niigata.

Six days later, the Pirate Princess would team up with Saori Anou once more, teaming against Sareee and Unagi Sayaka for All Japan Pro-Wrestling at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. It was clear that this match was emotional, and a big deal not only for Sareee, but for Sayaka too. The Sun Goddess expressed her regret at not being able to face KAIRI one-on-one, while the Kabukimono said it would be a “historic day.”

With KAIRI in WWE Imminent, One More Match

The final date on KAIRI’s return to Japan was announced in STARDOM. After expressing her regret at not being able to perform one last time in the company, STARDOM gave fans a final voyage with KAIRI, Nanae Takahashi and Mayu Iwatani going up against the team of Classmates – Hazuki, Koguma and Saya Iida.

An emotional bout ensued as KAIRI fought with and against those that had made the company what it was today. Its past, present and future fought together in a symbolic match. Following her team’s win, KAIRI gave a passionate speech encouraging her opponents and telling them to look towards the future, and not to lose to their past selves.

After her final match before sailing back to the States, KAIRI would go silent before suddenly appearing back in WWE to assist her old Threedom partner IYO SKY in defending the WWE Women’s Championship against Bianca Belair in Saudi Arabia.

The Legacy of the Pirate Princess in Japan

Throughout the year, KAIRI acted like a joshi Minoru Suzuki. While not as dangerous or scary, she was a veteran that travelled from company to company, making waves as the grand aura of her entrance to The Last Voyage kicked in.

From when she first left STARDOM to her return five years later, we saw an entirely different person in KAIRI. She is still the World Traveling Pirate Princess, but her first run in WWE gave her a star-like aura around her unlike any woman currently wrestling in Japan. No longer was she just a bubble of fun and energy, she was there to lift up the next generation of joshi stars while visiting some old friends along the way.

KAIRI was the last of the Three Daughters to exhibit that special aura – with Io Shirai displaying the proverbial It factor ever since she first won the Red Belt in 2013 at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, and Iwatani gaining It on her journey to become the Icon of STARDOM. Even though she may have been the last to obtain It, that doesn’t change the importance of her career to STARDOM, or her legacy as part of this new boom period for joshi puroresu.

KAIRI’s return run in Japan is one that cannot be fully encapsulated by words; you just had to be there along for the ride.

All MP Photos c/o Masahiro Kubota 

Written by:

Initially hired for social media management and Joshi coverage, I lead the coverage of joshi between May 2023 and March 2024, and worked behind the scenes in multiple roles since August 2022 that allowed Monthly Puroresu to smoothly operate.