Japanese wrestlers have always been treated with a magical reverence by the rest of the world. Asuka, Kairi Sane, and Shinsuke Nakamura were all brought into the WWE with a massive fanfare that eventually translated to a mainstream US audience. These examples are not one-offs ever. WCW, ECW, and WWE have always looked to Japan to bolster their roster.
However, it seems like Japanese talent is no longer the hot commodity it once was. Travel restrictions have seen the likes of Rhio and Yuka Sakazaki sidelined in AEW. The vast amount of homegrown talent has made for fierce competition and lessened the allure of Japanese talent. Traveling back and forth no longer cuts it. To make a name for yourself, you have to live in the States. It’s a journey often romanticized as dreaming chasing where happiness and fame are guaranteed. I mean, you’re doing your dream job in front of thousands of people. Why wouldn’t you be happy? Right?
Rarely do we see the other side of the coin. The struggle to adjust to a new culture. The lack of a support system. Finding a place to live. It is a situation rarely broached. It wasn’t until Hikaru Shida’s recent comments that the difficulties of moving to the States in today’s climate fully came to light. Writing in the Japanese publication Weekly Pro Wrestling, Shida wrote about her challenges. Shida mentioned her concern for one Emi Sakura. The 45-year-old from Chiba, Japan, has recently made the bold move to leave Japan to live permanently in the United States. A move that she deserves to be praised for.
For those who are unfamiliar with her, Emi Sakura is a veteran wrestler, trainer, and all-around Joshi star. In her 27 years in the business, Sakura has traveled across the globe, working for various promotions, including Pro Wrestling EVE, DDT Pro-Wrestling, and countless others. She has trained an array of Joshi talent, including two former AEW Women’s champions in Rhio and Shida. She has established two wrestling promotions, Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling and Ice Ribbon. She made her first AEW appearance at their inaugural Double or Nothing PPV. It was here I got my first glimpse of Emi and instantly fell in love gimmick of a Freddie Mercury tribute wrestler. She was the perfect mix of flamboyance and in-ring talent. Clearly, AEW thought the same and eventually offered her a spot in AEW, where she now wrestles and helps train their women’s division.
On the surface, Sakura’s journey doesn’t seem like anything special. Traveling the world is part and parcel of wrestling, as part of the job as taking bumps. The industry is littered with stories of Americans traveling to Japan, horror stories of the schedule, the travel, and the hard-hitting style. Japanese tours were a right of passage for everyone from Bruiser Brody to Colt Cabana. Yet the reverse is a far less familiar story. Sakura is a rare example, and while both perspectives are similar, certain distinctions make Sakura’s journey more daunting.
As native English speakers, there is a privilege to travel. There is an invisible safety net of knowing wherever you go, there will be at least one person with a tentative grasp of the English language. As a Japanese speaker, Sakura has no such luxury. Reverting to her native language if a tire bursts or she’s taken a wrong turn on the highway is not an option. Then there is the culture shock of a new country. Things move at a different pace, social norms are different. What was once acceptable is now frowned upon. It’s all a lot to absorb, especially at 45 years of age.
Possibly most daunting of all is the permanence of the move. For most wrestlers traveling in Japan, no matter how hard the tour, there was always an end in sight. An end date that you could work towards. Again not the same for Emi. She has admitted that this was a one-way trip. This permanence can be terrifying and induce fear that will have your stomach in knots. But it can also be a pressure cooker that forces you to succeed. When there’s no chance to turn back, all you can do is move forward.
Despite the hardships of this transition, Sakura is taking everything in her stride. Much in the vein of KanaChan TV, Sakura’s Twitter feed is a stream of mini-adventures, everything from English lessons with Audrey Edwards to complaining about US mushroom prices.
This sweetness is punctuated with bittersweet moments. Most recently, Sakura was in tears after watching one of Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling’s matches. It is a moment filled with joy, happiness, and a longing to be with the ones she loves. While social media is a skewed snapshot of a person’s life, it appears Sakura is doing well and has a handbuilt support system in place, with her protege Lulu Pencil intermittently by her side.
Emi needs to be given flowers. At 45 years of age, she has taken a brave step into an endeavor that few others have had the opportunity to take. No massive payday or main event push is waiting for Sakura at the end of this run. No, her fulfillment is the adoration and gratitude from the next generation of wrestlers she is responsible for training. A longer-lasting, in not slightly less glamorous form of recognition. While the transition may be tough, we wish Emi the best of luck. May the Queen of AEW continue to reign.