Written by Leslie Lee III
Conducted by Sonny Gutierrez and Leslie Lee III
Translation by Yoshiko Naoe, Pumi Boonyatud, and Melchor Hernandez Jr.
Additional Photography courtesy Resuner (3), Kenji Nuruki (5, 6), Pumi Boonyatud (2,7,8)
‘There was a lonely girl whose dreams were impossible. She was sick. She was bullied. She was lonely. She had no one to talk to about her problems. No one who would listen. No one who would help. She took a bottle of toxic cleaner and drank it, hoping to end her life…’
This was the story Sonny scribbled on a notepad for me to read prior to meeting up with Act Yasukawa. He and Yoshiko gleaned it from an article about Act’s life in Weekly Pro Wrestling magazine. I was floored; although I was already a fan of Yasukawa’s as a character and wrestler, I had little idea about how gripping her personal story was. I wanted to find out how that sad, troubled girl became the brash, cocky Stardom Joshi pro wrestler.
Act told us the whole story over dinner at her favorite restaurant, an Italian eatery in Tokyo called NICE. This was DDS’ most in depth interview. We hope you find Act’s story as engrossing was we did.
We walked past Act on our way to the restaurant without noticing. Aside from the cherry red streaks in her hair, Act looked like a typical young Tokyo woman on the way home from work or to the bar. “My image in the ring is very cool and masculine and I have many female fans, but they’re surprised when they see me outside the ring as I’m very feminine.” She apologized for dressing so casually, and informed us, “Now, you are just talking to Yuka Yasukawa,” That’s the name Act goes by outside of wrestling or Act’s twin older sister, depending on your level of imagination. She had come to the interview straight from a hard day training with Stardom, “I got slammed a lot.”
Act ordered a glass of white wine, though she said she was taking it easy on drinking since she had a title defense coming up. After a kanpai, we started her story from the beginning:
Act was born in Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Japan’s main island. Her relationship to Aomori is “complicated,” as her family moved around for her father’s work in the Self Defense Force.
As a child, Act was a “tomboy” with a vivid imagination. “When I was growing up I watched a lot of samurai movies and action movies.” Abarenbo Shogun was her favorite series. “I used to play with a walkie-talkie and I could hear transmissions from a US military base. I’d go to a storage shed and pretend to be an action hero!”
Act’s dream was to become a samurai, something she genuinely believed was possible. Her parents played along with the fantasy and directed her passion towards Kendo. “When I was in first grade, my parents got me to take kendo lessons by telling me it was how I could become a samurai. I practiced kendo from 1st grade through 6th grade.”
However, when Act reached middle school her friends broke the news to her that samurai was no longer an actual profession in Japan. “It was like being told that Santa Claus does not exist! I believed from the bottom of my heart that samurai were real. I was so upset, I quit kendo.”
Middle school was also when Act would face her greatest difficulties. She was bullied for being “different” and having a disability: near blindness in her right eye. She suffered from attention deficit disorder and mental illness. Act spent most of her time in isolation, even at home. Her father was away and her mother was busy taking care of her own ailing parents. Act sought help but instead of finding a trained and supportive counselor, she was referred to a surgeon that diagnosed her as, “a bad, lazy kid who pretends to be sick to get out of going to school.” Thinking she had nowhere to turn for help, Act attempted suicide.
After her suicide attempt Act finally began to receive counseling and started the path to recovery. She also found a new passion, “In Junior High and then High School I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s office because I was still afraid to go to my classroom. One day after school when most students left, I walked into class and a script happened to catch my attention. Someone saw me, and she asked if I wanted to try acting. I followed her to drama club and she asked me to read a part since someone was absent. It was a part of a rich girl and I still remember the line. I really got into it. The drama club said I was so good and asked me the play the part!“ Act saw acting as a way to live her dream of being a Samurai, “I am a loner, but with acting, I could be anything that I wanted to be. I could be the action hero that I dreamed of. I couldn’t be a samurai in real life, but I could be one in film.”
The chef asked us if there was anything that we couldn’t eat, instead of what we wanted to order. Act let us know that NICE was offering us a special menu. “For celebrities?” I asked. She just laughed.
As Act’s love for acting grew her mental health improved. Act followed this love of drama throughout high school. She attended the Japan School for the Moving Image and appeared in several stage productions and films, including the live action version of Death Note.
However, Act began to suffer from an illness that threatened her career, “I rapidly lost weight, felt shaky, and I couldn’t stand for long periods of time.” Act was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease, a thyroid disorder. “Due to my illness, I was not getting the roles that I wanted. I was very thin and weak, so I received roles as weak girls, not action heroes. There was a huge gap between what I wanted and what I got.”
Act did find herself a strong role though, one that would give her a pivotal opportunity. In 2011 Act was cast in the stage production Wrestler Girls, alongside model-turned-wrestler Yuzuki Aikawa: “Aikawa was practicing for her wrestling debut at the time, and would often miss practice. Aikawa is quite a loner, so I was very intrigued by her. She joked with me that she didn’t like reading the script, and didn’t like acting! She was a lone wolf.”
After meeting Aikawa, the general manager of Stardom Fuka invited Act to audition to become a wrestler. In spite of her illness, Act did not hesitate: “I felt like this was probably my last chance to become a fighter in real life, so I took it. I felt like it was destiny, my chance to fulfill my dream.”
Early training was difficult for the then frail actress, “When I started, I could not even do one push-up!” Did you ever consider quitting? Act smiled, “No. Never! Before I started I knew I was weak and inferior, I knew training would be hard, so I was determined to not give up.”
After 3 months of training, Act fell seriously ill again,“My doctor told me to not wrestle, not even to do anything too active, but I refused. I couldn’t live with giving up. He then gave me the option of taking a medicine that would strengthen my body, but told me the drug’s side effects could prevent me from ever having children.”
The doctor asked Act to take two weeks off and seriously consider her next step, but Act never wavered, “After two weeks I came back to training and saw everyone practicing the dropkick. I was so upset that I was behind.” Beaming with pride she said, “I was so angry, I practiced the dropkick so much that now my dropkick is higher than anyone else.”
She took the medication and it allowed her to recover and pass her audition with Stardom: “My weakness gives me strength. If I was healthy and everything was alright, I wouldn’t have tried so hard; I would have given up.”
One of the questions I had planned to ask Act was if she had thought about stopping wrestling last year when she had what was reported as a very serious neck injury. That question seemed silly now. Act did point out that it was that injury that introduced her to the restaurant. “While I was injured I saw a doctor and his office is nearby. He always came to NICE after work, and he invited me to come as well. The food was good so I’ve been coming ever since,” she said, gnashing into our massive appetizer plate of Italian meats.
We did ask how Act’s now total blindness in her right eye, due to Graves’ disease, affects her wrestling. Act said, “I cannot easily judge distance. In this respect, Kendo still helps me even today as we had to learn how to properly gauge the position of my opponent. I’ve also been training grappling. Once I get my hands on someone, I don’t need to judge distance. I always try to find a way to do something when it’s difficult. I always think, ‘Okay, I have to try harder. I can’t give up now.’”
Act incorporated her impairment into her character. She wears an eye patch to the ring and designed her gear with one pants leg to reflect the asymmetry. “People think that I’m inspired by pirates because I wear an eye patch and drink rum. There’s a samurai named Date Masamune who was also from northern Japan. He had an eye patch. I’m not a pirate!“
“As for the rum, it’s just because I like alcohol! I chose rum specifically because it has color and a smell, so fans know that when I walk to the ring, I’m drinking the real thing. If you’re at Shin-Kiba on the south side, you can smell the rum and you know that’s Act’s area. I’m marking my territory.”
Pirate or not, Act’s character immediately caught on with fans when she debuted. She remains one of Stardom’s most popular characters, “Even though I’m a heel, I’ve never been booed. Once, in Korakuen Hall, I had a fan screaming my name, and I spit the alcohol onto him. Now, fans are always screaming, ‘Act! Act!,’ wanting me to spit on them too, but I can’t hit everyone!”
Reflecting that popularity, Act is the current Wonder of Stardom champion. “I feel that the holder of Wonder of Stardom Championship is responsible for energizing the crowd. While the red belt [World of Stardom title] represents strength, the white belt represents spirit and energy.”
The concepts of the “red” and “white” belt are ones Stardom borrowed from AJW, Zenjo as it’s known in Japan. “Stardom has inherited the soul of Zenjo, but gives it a modern twist. My trainers have taught me about Zenjo history, and I like to watch matches of the trainers and legends I meet. It’s rude not to.”
Besides a sense of history, Act’s trainers have also instilled in her a sense of pride, “Being in Stardom means being a pro wrestler that people can be proud of. We are different from other groups. We aren’t just sexy or cute, we are part of a great tradition. You have that strength and authenticity. Stardom has real puroresu spirit.”
Of course, “sexy or cute” are things Act has been. She’s even dabbled in modeling. On the potential discord between that and her turn as a serious pro wrestler, “I haven’t been modeling lately but if somebody is offering to photograph me, sure why not? My arms are buff and I don’t have a girly figure anymore, but my mindset is: If that is what you want to see from me, sure go ahead.”
Our main course arrived: hamburger steaks smeared with cheese and tomato sauce. We played word association between bites.
On Kairi Hojo: My peer, my classmate and a great rival.
On Natsuki Taiyo: A master and senpai of my aspiration.
On Yoshiko: Someone that I have to overcome some day. Will you overcome her? Yes.
On Kyoko Kimura: A free spirit.
On Miho Wakizawa: Comedienne. She is always doing funny things, but she spit water on me during a match and it was like torture! It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me in the ring. I won, but it was traumatic. It made me feel a little bad about spitting out alcohol towards people. I almost wanted to stop doing it. Laughs.
Momoe Nakanishi: A person that Natsuki admires.
On Hiroyo Matsumoto: Good at getting along with people. Party person!
Io Shirai: I’m very amazed by how agile she is! Great lucha style. At first I thought she was older than me, and I found out that she’s much younger.
Mio Shirai: She works for many companies.
Tsukasa Fujimoto: Like a ninja!
Hikaru Shida: A wrestler with an unyielding spirit.
Tomoka Nakagawa: Very calm, but a heavy drinker.
Yuzuki Aikawa: Full of pride.
Akira Hokuto: Legendary.
Bull Nakano: Legendary and kind-hearted.
Kellie Skater: Cheerful and outgoing! Always partying. How about you? I always join if there’s drinking. I don’t do tea parties. Wherever there’s alcohol, I’ll be there.
Dark Angel: Beautiful.
Alpha Female: Huge!
Hailey Hatred: Where did she go? What happened to her? She disappeared.
Fuka: Very charismatic in how she deals with the fans. Strives for perfection in engaging with them.
Rossy Ogawa: Loves money! Uncle Scrooge.
Nanae Takahashi: She is Joshi Puroresu.
Yuka Yasukawa (Act’s outside-the-ring name and personality, whom she refers to as her older sister): Zasso damashi. It means, “Like a weed that doesn’t die, even if it is stepped on, or crushed, it keeps on living.”
Favorite venue: For our home base, I enjoy Shin-Kiba 1st Ring, but I love Korakuen Hall. It is a sacred place for puroresu.
Favorite match: I love singles matches! My first singles victory versus Yuzuki Aikawa in the 2012 5 Star Gran Prix is my favorite match. I remember the crowd cheering me on, they gave me the strength to win.
Favorite movie: The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. I watch this movie all the time! Ken Watanabe or Tom Cruise? I love everyone in the film, but Ken Watanabe.
Favorite Anime: Since I did work as a voice actress, I always watch the first couple of episodes of any anime to get past the boring part. I know how anime can get good after that point, so I give them all a chance and know a lot about many different shows. So I don’t have one favorite, I just know a little about each. I do like Studio Ghibli, especially Porco Rosso!
Three secrets: First, I like gardening. I like to grow cucumbers. I like to grow veggies and eat them. Second, I like cooking. I like to cook hirabayashi daikon, even though it’s the sort of thing your grandmother would cook for you. Third, I am too scared to watch horror films! Fans think that I am cool and strong, but they might be surprised. In real life I am pretty girly.
Speaking of Kellie Skater, Act and I received concurrent texts remarking that at that moment Skater was in Roppongi, Tokyo’s infamous party district. “Kellie Skater is my English teacher. I wasn’t confident in speaking English, but I like talking to Kellie so much that I now enjoy learning English.” Sonny and I informed her that Kellie, being Australian, does not actually speak English and that Act should not begin calling everyone “mate.”
Act was days away from a defense of the Wonder of Stardom Title, but does she have her eyes on the World of Stardom title? “Some day I think that I will achieve it, but I am not ready yet. I’m still not confident enough yet. I get nervous before matches, but that fear is the source of my strength and it’s why I continue going on. Once I am stronger, I will challenge for it, for sure. I am determined to have the belt around my waist. I know someday I will be ready and it will be my turn. “
It seems likely. While Stardom has developed many home-grown talents, she, along with Kairi Hojo, is one that can exclusively be seen in Stardom and nowhere else, at least in Japan. “As for wrestling overseas, yes I would love to if I’m invited. Kellie is often telling me that she is hanging out with her SHIMMER friends in Tokyo.”
When asked where she would like to be in five years, Act has a clear goal in mind: “When people hear of Joshi Puroresu, I want them to think of Act Yasukawa. Five years may be too soon, but that’s my hope. I’ve been a baby face and a heel, but when I’m a heel I’m never booed. In five years I want to be neither; I just want to be Act Yasukawa. My path is known as Act Road. My style is different from other Joshi. I was the first to bring sake to the ring. I am one of a kind.”
Before becoming synonymous with Joshi Puroresu, Act hopes the sport itself continues its recent growth. “Joshi needs more media exposure. More people need to see it, not only wrestling fans, but other people as well. That’s what Stardom tries to do. Recently there was a poll of wrestling fans on what TV programming they want to see, Stardom was one of the highest ranked.”
But Act doesn’t want notoriety for its own sake. Act’s story of dealing with suicide and mental illness is far too common among Japanese youth, and she wants to use her success as a platform to help. “Because of the trials in my own life and when I attempted suicide, I want to be influential and give hope to young people. When I was younger, like them I was bullied and unhappy. I survived and now I feel really alive, and I’m living my dream. That’s the feeling she wants to give to the audience and the younger generation. I want to give them hope.”
Sonny asked Act if there was anything upcoming that she wanted to plug, but she preferred to just give fans this message: “Live while you’re alive. Don’t have a dead life. You can be alive, but be dead inside like I used to be. I didn’t have emotions or feelings. I want all fans to live life to the fullest!”
With that we asked Act to pose for some pictures. The gracious woman we’d chatted with disappeared and was replaced by the rum swigging samurai. Perhaps we spent the entire time talking to Yuka and Act just comes in when the cameras are rolling. Act or Yuka, we were touched by her story and her willingness to share so much of herself with us.
All four of us walked to the train station together. Act was carrying several bags with her, more than she brought since Sonny gave her a bottle of Okinawan Sake. Someone asked if she’d have trouble dealing with the burden of getting them all home. She said, “No, it’s Okay. I’m strong. I’m a Joshi pro wrestler.”