“I gave up trying to be liked by everyone.” The determination of Mina Shirakawa, a gravure-idol wrestler who uses her complex as a weapon.

This is the first in an exceptional interview series by Mugiko Ozaki, on Twitter @ozaki_mugiko, for Sportiva. I’m planning to work on Mayu’s next when I have time, and after that Utami’s. As always, caveat that my Japanese is far from perfect, so while I’ve done my best I can’t guarantee these translations are completely error free. My hope is that even if I did get anything wrong, they can still be insightful and better than nothing.

Edit: Huge thanks to @1222DragonMoon on Twitter for some extremely helpful translation feedback and additional context! This piece has been updated to incorporate that feedback to correct a few mistakes and for additional nuance and clarity.

Part 1

The interviewer explains that this is the start of a new interview series where she interviews a wrestler and at the end asks them who she should interview next, who is the strongest wrestler (aside from yourself). The theme is “What is strength?”

Ozaki-san talks about how she wrote a column in 2019 that didn’t turn out well and felt like she couldn’t write. In public conversations with her editor she said “Maybe I should just get married and find “female happiness.” Mina found this comment and on Twitter said she shouldn’t worry about finding “female happiness”, but should find “Mugiko’s happiness.” (Mugiko Ozaki is the interviewer). This prompted her to think, what even *is* a woman’s happiness? What is a woman’s strength? What is *my* happiness? These thoughts quickly lead her to want to interview Mina, pursuing the question of “What is strength?” and she decided to do a women’s edition of her “The Strongest Wrestler List” interview series.

Ozaki-san shows that she and I feel the same about Mina as she writes “When she appeared at the interview location her long pink hair was blowing in the wind, and I took one look at her and thought, “An angel has landed….” Her angelic smile was so dazzling that I couldn’t help but look down and catch sight of her ample breasts, and my heart started beating faster even though I’m the same sex.”
Mina: I saw your tweet! You went pink, didn’t you? I was so happy!
For this I had gone to a nail salon and had my nails done in pink, Shirakawa’s theme colour. I did this to ease my nerves, to boost my spirits, and above all, to show my respect for Shirakawa. Yes, around here we respect Mina Shirakawa from the bottom of our hearts. [Girl me too!]

Working with her aforementioned editor who is also a woman, she described her feelings of censorship towards the sexuality of other women as like a “PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] of the mind.” “The first time we saw Shirakawa make her entrance with her H-Cups bouncing, the PTAs of our minds went into overdrive. “Oh my god, she’s so indecent!” “Ahh, she’s so lewd!” But as she continued, how beautifully she stretches her fingers, the determination in her gaze, her belligerent smile…. The PTA fell silent as they watched her fight, her whole body conveying her way of life.”

Budokan & Mina’s return was the day before this interview, the author says “her brilliance stood out in the crowd of wrestlers at the rumble.”

Mina: “When I woke up today I my neck was so stiff I could barely turn my head. It’s been a long time since I woke up like that, but I felt great about it. I was like, “This is wrestling! I’m a pro wrestler!”, that feeling is part of wrestling, so I’m really happy right now.”

Mina likes to look at the faces of fans in the audience. With cheering banned right now people couldn’t speak, but she was really happy and felt like she could see the fans saying “Welcome home!” anyway.

In a rumble it’s easy for it to just feel like a featureless deluge of wrestlers, and the rumble was supposed to be about the history of Stardom as part of it’s 10th anniversary, which she can’t say much about as a newcomer. Just as a wrestler, of course she wanted a singles match or title match rather than being crammed into the rumble. She wanted to spend as much time in the ring as possible but all she could do was do her best with what she had. So she was determined to not get eliminated and to win the rumble.

“But honestly, I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting Yuzupon-san to use her return after 8 years to hit me with a Tiger Suplex. I was so surprised I lost…” They provide some backstory on Yuzupon and her return in the rumble.

Mina thinks Yuzupon changed what gravure models and idols could aspire to as wrestlers so she looks up to her a lot. But because she’s the one who’s a currently active wrestler she still really wanted to beat her.

When Mina debuted as a wrestler, all of the fans that came up to her were like “Awesome, just like Yuzupon!” She laughs and says that in her head she was annoyed and thinking “Hey! Shut up!” The interviewer asks her if she saw Yuzuki as a goal but Mina says “No not really, I don’t see her as an end point.”

“At her retirement press conference, Yuzupon said something like “I’ve made a lot of being a woman and having big boobs, but feminine appeal doesn’t last forever. As such, I’m retiring.” But, I really hate it when people say stuff like “women’s appeal doesn’t last”. A woman is still a woman no matter how old she gets, right? I don’t think there’s an age where it becomes uncool to challenge yourself, and I think regardless of age there are still lots of things you can accomplish.”

Mina debuted at 29 and is now 33. She says she knows there are different expectations for her than for an up-and-comer who’s in their 20s. But because of the experience she has she has a unique way of fighting in the ring and can bring show different feelings to her opponent. She says she won’t decide when to retire based on her age.

“I feel like idols have a reputation for faking who they are to appeal to men and hiding their private lives, but I don’t try to hide my age or my past and get comments like “wow, you’re how old?” or “Hang on, you were a gravure idol?” But by being open about all of this stuff and putting it all out there I’ve found that more and more women are able to relate to me. Those are the people who I want to work hand-in-hand with, so I feel like I need to keep being open about all of this stuff. If I wanted to get married, I would, but that doesn’t mean I would suddenly quit wrestling. I’m just going to keep doing what feels right.”

Asked if she’s ever had a complex about her “huge breasts” Mina laughs and says “gravure got me where I am now, so I feel like I owe my boobs a debt of gratitude.” The author tells Mina that when she was younger she was very self conscious of her own chest and always tried to cover up and ended up walking hunched over to hide. Mina nods slowly and says yes, when she was younger she did have a complex over her breasts.

“From my 1st year of middle school I did kendo for about 4 years, and wore a sarashi every day. People would say things to me like “with tits that big you must be pretty stupid”, or that they made me look fat, and besides that they’re heavy, they hurt, they get in the way and make it hard to move. I didn’t think they were a good thing at all, you know?”

She went to an all girls school in junior high and high school. Growing up she was in environments that were 90% girls, and went to college at Aoyama Gakuin University, where she majored in English and American Literature. Growing up in an environment where she was surrounded by primarily women it didn’t really occur to her that she was sexy and she never thought she would become a gravure idol. Did she at all resist the idea that she could be sexy?

“Yeah, absolutely! I cried the first time I tried to do a shoot and I was like this isn’t what I want to do at all. At the time I wanted to sing and thought I could maybe do more appearances on variety shows, so I changed my mind and tried to do things to get those kinds of opportunities, but even then I still cried sometimes. I learned that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to in order to be able to do the things you do want to.” She says it was when she started doing variety shows and the talent tried to tease her about her big boobs that her complex around them went away.

“That was when I thought, you know, oh wait I can use this to my advantage. I knew right away that there would be some women who were offended, “Oh you’re just selling yourself on your big boobs!” But I was more concerned with making myself into someone people would find interesting, or someone who would stand out on a variety show, just whatever it took to try and get popular. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get everyone to like me, so I didn’t care if some people didn’t like it.”

Mina spent about 2 and a half hours reading Ozaki’s piece on the first time she saw her and her conversations with her editor, and Ozaki asks her if she has any thoughts about it. “You’re both women, around the same age, doing your work together. As a woman living in society, of course I relate to that. I’ve first and foremost always been a wrestling fan, so I really really connected to the way you were talking about wrestling. I loved what you said about “triggering your inner PTA!”

Huh, does even Mina have an inner PTA….?

“No, I don’t think so. But with my background in gravure I know wrestlers in other companies have been like “Oh, she’s the model who thinks she’s a wrestler”, or think I’m some bimbo or that I can’t wrestle. If I want to change that perception, I feel like I need to have matches that are twice as intense or emotional as someone else. I’m hoping that people can understand me through my matches.”

She says she has some pointed thoughts about “a woman’s happiness.” The staff of gravure shoots are almost exclusively men, and before she turned 30 people were constantly making sexually harassing remarks like “Aren’t you about to turn 30? Are you going to keep doing gravure?” or “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just get married?” She absolutely hates when people try to tell her what she can or can’t do because of her age.

“I really hope that with my work in pro wrestling I can change that kind of mindset. That thinking from both men and women. One time I tweeted “women are so limited in what we can and can’t do” and my replies were full of men like “so are men” and “I’ve had it tough too.” I know even just among wrestling fans there are some who make fun of my age, and I find myself thinking “What’ll they have to say if I win more and more belts?”, and I wonder if that’ll shut them up. I’m just really looking forward to proving them wrong.”

Part 2

“Maybe this is just something I was born with, but I feel like Japanese culture can make it harder just to live.” Hearing Mina say this was what made Ozaki-san not just interested in the glamour of women’s wrestling, but really want to understand the wrestlers.

“Even when I was working as a gravure idol, it’s not like Japan is explicitly requesting all models be virginal maidens or the ideal Japanese woman, but they still expect every model to have their proper straight black hair and be neat and prim and exactly what they expect. But when I debuted I was already 25, you know I seemed grown up, I had a bit of a more sexy vibe, so I didn’t fit into the mainstream. I tried my best to conform to that, but it was hard. And once I started wrestling, people would say stuff like my strong point was my intensity, or that I was overpowering. Since I was a kid the entertainers that I looked up to exaggerated their mannerisms in such a precise way, so it was kind of painful to be told that I was too overbearing. 

Ozaki-san figures, professional wrestling is so competitive, are even wrestling fans looking for someone that’s so modest and pure even in a wrestler who’s putting their wellbeing on the line? It feels so antithetical to what wrestling is, is that really what they want?

“Yeah, I think a lot of fans are still expecting that. But it’s just not something I can do, and I know my wrestling skills have a ways to go too, so I’m in a situation where all I can do is hope the fans support me anyway and use that energy to get better. So I need to work harder, because otherwise I won’t be able to get to a place where people say they respect me.”

Mina cares about her fans a lot and this is why she still posted a lot while her nose was broken to show she was doing well. But actually, mentally she was quite down. “When I’m not wrestling, I feel like I’m not living. If I didn’t know about wrestling I don’t think I would feel like I was missing something, but I do, and I love it so much, so when I couldn’t wrestle and couldn’t work towards the things I wanted to do, that was extremely difficult. When I returned at Nippon Budokan I was so happy. I’m so happy to have a full schedule of matches again.”

She is a competitive person at heart. She also finds lots of things in the world frustrating. She’s frustrated when people take her lightly because she comes from a gravure background. She’s frustrated that women’s wrestling isn’t considered a major sport. She’s frustrated when she’s told that women are supposed to be weak and can’t do certain things. She explodes with all those feelings when she gets in the ring. She says that’s how she can express herself, why she enjoys wrestling. She says wrestling is like a drug but laughs and adds “not that I’ve ever done drugs.”

The first time she saw wrestling was October 2012, New Japan at Ryogoku. She had just quit as a wedding designer for a bridal company and was trying to make it as a gravure idol. She had decided to work hard at it, but couldn’t help but feel embarrassed when doing stuff like wearing a bathing suit around other people and she was struggling, and then she found out about wrestling. “When I saw the wrestlers risking themselves to entertain the fans I suddenly felt like I couldn’t keep wasting time with whining and complaints. Just by watching a wrestler fight you can get a glimpse of what they’ve been through, right? The face they make when they’re hurt, the way they put all their strength into their fight and fight with no fear. You get little glimpses through things like that. Usually when I looked up a wrestler I was interested in, I would find that their past was filled with conflict. I thought, that’s why those people are so strong.”

On the Tam vs Giulia hair vs hair match: “I felt like a fan while I was watching it. I couldn’t stop crying. I’ve only been working with Tam-san for a few months, but I knew she’d tried and tried to get the white belt so many times, and I was so happy for her to finally get it in the main event of such a huge show. I know the hair-vs-hair was controversial, but as for me I don’t understand what the problem people had with it was. They both decided to do it, and honestly, I thought it made both Tam and Giulia seem super cool!”

On what she thinks about risking it all in a match like that: “I get it. I think deep down, everyone is scared to get into the ring. One wrong step and you could get seriously injured. When my nose got messed up I was like “This is the worst!” It looks sparkly and glamorous, but everyone fights with a determination that people can’t imagine. But how lucky is it to have something you want to do with your whole heart? I always think that if everybody could find something they were that crazy passionate about, the world would be a better place.”

On when she said last October that she came to Stardom to go from being seen as “the fighting spirit H-Cup gravure idol” to a serious “gravure-idol (or “gradol”) wrestler”: “Well when they say “fighting spirit H-Cup gravure idol”, the core of that is still that I’m seen as a gravure idol. The nuance is that I’m a gravure idol just trying her best to wrestle. So when I said I wanted to be a serious gradol wrestler, that means I want the people around me to understand that I am, first and foremost, truly a wrestler. Stardom is the birthplace of the gradol wrestler, so I felt like I had to come here to prove myself.”

When she came to Stardom she thought “Wow, joshi pro wrestling is at an insanely high level” more than she ever had before. She wants to help spread joshi wrestling to the world as a gradol wrestler. “I think gravure idols as a concept are pretty unique to Japan. When I go abroad I get asked a tonne of questions about what a gravure idol is. If I say it’s a bikini model, people overseas tend to think of a very sort of sporty and cool look, but gravure idols are a bit different from that. Or they think it’s kind of shady. Even since I was only a gravure idol and wasn’t wrestling, I’ve wanted to share this culture of gravure, this beautiful thing that’s unique to Japan, with people overseas. Gravure and joshi pro wrestling, I want to share everything about them both with the world.”

Mina says she’s been aware life is short since she was a child: “The only thing that’s 100% certain in life is that we’ll die. I’ve always been aware of that. I feel like I need to do the best that I can, one day at a time, so that one day when I do die I won’t have any regrets. Obviously I get tired, I sleep, I’m not going every single second, but it’s about doing what I’m able to. I’m not afraid of death, I see being aware of it as a positive.”

Ozaki-san asks every wrestler as a part of this interview series what strength means to them. When she asks Mina, she quickly responds “It means believing in yourself.” Mina offers to explain more if that’s too simple, but Ozaki-san tells her she doesn’t need to. It’s obvious that Mina is extremely strong, and it’s because she believes in herself. She says during the interview she kept thinking that just based on the way Mina talks, how she never breaks eye contact, the expressions and gestures she makes. 

Mina names Tam as who she thinks is the strongest wrestler. “She’s mentally strong. If you just saw her you might think she looks kind of weak, but as a wrestler she is so strong. She got slapped yesterday and her face was swelling up, it looked really bad. The first thing she asked me was “Am I still cute?” but I was just immediately like “You look terrible!” She’s so kind, the sort of person who really considers what other people are thinking and might change her opinions for others. But as soon as she starts wrestling, she can change that.”

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