Mayu Iwatani, KAIRI and the Parable of the Prodigal Daughter

On November 20 the first ever IWGP Women’s Champion will be crowned, as two of Stardom’s most important figures face off for the first time in five and a half years. Two of the Three Daughters of Stardom: KAIRI and Mayu Iwatani.

One daughter who travelled across the globe in search of new challenges and glory, the other who stayed back and lifted the company to new heights. With the lights shining as brightly as they ever have on Stardom, these are the two who will represent the company.

Many thought this would be a battle between two long friends with the same goal, but there’s more underneath the surface in the relationship between Mayu Iwatani and KAIRI. After qualifying for the final of the tournament on October 23, Mayu’s feelings towards her next opponent began to materialize. Even when she joked afterwards that they can’t possibly have such a dark match, she couldn’t hide the truth deep inside. When KAIRI exclaimed how long she had been waiting for this match, there was bitterness in her reply.

“Do you even get that I kept standing in this Stardom ring for the past five years without KAIRI?”

It was a response that caught KAIRI and many fans by surprise. The Icon of Stardom wasn’t one to typically speak with such venom on her tongue, and she had seemed happy enough when she teamed with KAIRI in her return match in March. The reality was laid bare in that single line: five years of resentment and pain that had been simmering under the surface all this time.

Before 2017 their history was inseparable, both between each other and with Stardom. Mayu has been there from the very beginning, debuting at the company’s first show on January 23, 2011. Less than a year later KAIRI, then Kairi Hojo, entered the ring for the first time. Across her five years in the promotion, KAIRI won her share of championships, and alongside Mayu and Io Shirai formed the all conquering force known as the Threedom. At one stage, the trio held every single championship in the company. The company was theirs.

The Threedom with every single Stardom Title. Credit: Stardom

Through all of that success, KAIRI set her sights elsewhere. She left Stardom in 2017 to showcase herself on the other side of the world, joining the behemoth that is WWE. There she took on new challenges, gained new experiences and forged the next part of her legacy while Mayu stayed in Japan.

Stardom underwent a difficult change during this time. It wasn’t just KAIRI leaving for America, but Io as well. The house that the Threedom had built felt hollower as two of the Daughters of Stardom left the old family home.

Mayu was left to lead the company and deal with the pressure of being the indisputable top star and leader. It wasn’t a position she naturally fit in. She had very much been the third daughter, despite being the first in Stardom. Io Shirai was the Genius of the Sky, the legendary figurehead of the company who set records as their top star. Kairi Hojo was the lovable and smiling star, entrusted as the new champion in the wake of the crisis and fallout of the infamous Yoshiko/Act Yasukawa match.

In the iconic visage of the Threedom holding all the gold, it’s hard to ignore that Io Shirai wore the Red World of Stardom Championship and Kairi Hojo held the White Wonder of Stardom Championship; Mayu was left with the far less prestigious High Speed Championship.

Io Shirai had practically dragged Mayu into maturing into a stronger star when she betrayed her out of frustration for her complacency. That year long rivarly ended when Mayu Iwatani finally beat her for the Red Belt, having beaten Hojo the month before for her White Belt. The Third Daughter now held both top singles titles, the first person to ever do so.

Mayu Iwatani and KAIRI facing of in 2017. Credit: Stardom

After that, the Pirate Princess set sail for America and Io’s departure came a year later.

Stardom underwent a lot of changes during the five years without KAIRI. A roster that had become so dependent on the Threedom now had to radically adjust without them and others who retired during this time, and just as Mayu’s Stardom was starting to take shape, disaster struck in 2020. The pandemic hit and the next crop of big names who were leading the company forward with her were no longer there.

When Stardom returned in June 2020, Mayu was the only established main eventer left. She had to keep the ship afloat while their next generation quickly prepared to join her at the top. The top companies struggled as attendance dropped and the crowds that were there were restricted in their participation.

Through all of this, Mayu Iwatani and Stardom not only endured, but thrived. A lot is made of Stardom’s meteoric rise during this time, but The Icon cannot receive enough credit for what she did during this period. She was the only Daughter of Stardom there to keep the house standing as the hurricane hit. Now that it had survived the storm and was thriving once more, another chose to return.

KAIRI’s first match back in Stardom, teaming with Mayu. Credit: Stardom

KAIRI was welcomed back like nobody before her. For months a big secret was hinted at, developing both online and in the ring with the kind of storytelling not normally seen in Stardom. When most returning wrestlers just pop up at a show, KAIRI got a special press conference and reveal.

The Daughter of Stardom who set sail to conquer the world was back, and even though Mayu Iwatani was competing for the World of Stardom Championship the following day, all of the attention was on her reuniting with KAIRI in a tag match.

From the moment the opening notes of ‘The Last Voyage’ begins to play at a Stardom event, the vibe changes. The company has grown astronomically in recent years, but despite this nobody feels like more of a superstar than KAIRI. Her presence and aura overcomes all. If the years in WWE taught her anything, it was how to become truly larger than life. KAIRI is a special attraction, every match she has feels important. Since returning in March she’s wrestled six times, each one of those appearances on Pay-Per-View. It’s a big deal to see her name on the poster. There’s no forgetting the name.

Which is why it was curious when Mayu Iwatani called out her opponent on October 23.

“Kairi Hojo! It’s actually KAIRI. Well, not actually…I wonder what it is. It’s not Kairi Hojo, is it changed again, to KAIRI?”

Mayu Iwatani is infamous for her ability to make mistakes, it’s part of her charm. But this, this was different. This was intentional. A reference to who she once was, before five years of distance between them. The Pirate Princess had changed a lot in the time they’ve been apart. Kairi Hojo became Kairi Sane became KAIRI. NXT and WWE Championships bestowed upon her, the honour of being the inaugural Mae Young Classic winner, she had formed a new team with Io Shirai before joining up with Asuka. She had gotten married and opened a gym.

All while Mayu Iwatani kept Stardom alive. After carrying the company through crisis, she essentially took a backseat to the next generation, happy to play a supporting role for now. There was something greater in her sights.

As New Japan Pro Wrestling and Stardom began to work together, that’s when Mayu came back to the forefront. She was the company representative for this new venture. She went to the press conferences and stood alongside Hiroshi Tanahashi. When Stardom first appeared at Wrestle Kingdom, Mayu was there. When Stardom appeared on an American NJPW show for the first time, Mayu was there. When the IWGP Women’s Championship was announced, Mayu was in the tournament. She had let others shine, but this was her moment. She even relinquished her SWA World Championship just so she could put all of her energy towards becoming the first IWGP Women’s Champion. That’s how important it is to her.

Mayu Iwatani and KAIRI pose with the IWGP Women’s Championship. Credit: Stardom

For Mayu to make the final, she had to topple heavy hitters Momo Watanabe and Utami Hayashishita on back to back nights. By comparison KAIRI received her own special announcement, got a first round bye, and her semi final opponent had only wrestled one match in the two years prior.

Six matches in six months and always treated as a special attraction, back only after Stardom has risen to all time highs, now here looking to steal the moment she most desired. It’s understandable that Mayu Iwatani might feel a little bitter towards her old friend.

Well, even friend might be a stretch. In a recent interview with Tokyo Sports, she said the following:

“I don’t like her [KAIRI], and I’ve been with Io all the time, so I didn’t really get along with her.”

While the Threedom were on top of the Stardom world, it was Io and Mayu who were the Tag Team Champions together as Thunder Rock. It was with Io that Mayu always felt most comfortable with. Though she was older, KAIRI was Mayu’s junior when it came to pro wrestling, yet she always lagged behind the Pirate Princess. Mayu was a high school dropout and a shut-in while KAIRI graduated from University majoring in literature and used to sail in school. They are two very different people.

They weren’t the perfect fit you might think given their history together. Even when they teamed up on March 27 in KAIRI’s return match, reuniting ‘Team Yamaguchi’, it wasn’t seamless:

“We were a little out of sync, but we still worked well together right? Or were we not so great together? We kind of both fought our own match, huh. Even when we tried to sync up. But even since she became a Superstar that’s still one of the things that Ho-chan’s good at. If we come together to tag, I didn’t think we’d be super genius tag partners, but more like a team that just has a little something charming and interesting.”

Mayu Iwatani in the post match press conference, English Translations by Dana

It seems that maybe her Stardom sister returning wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be. When they were at the press conference together ahead of their first match, she asked KAIRI if she could refer to her affectionately as ‘Ho-chan’ – the chan suffix in Japan serving as a form of endearment and closeness. Yet in the ring together in October, she was intentionally questioning her name and dropped the honorifics.

There’s five years of separation and the feelings that come from that, all waiting to be expressed on November 20. Any lingering bitterness, hurt or frustration Mayu might feel needs to be expunged through the language of pro wrestling. Through war inside the squared circle.

As she exclaimed, a match between her and KAIRI should not be as dark as it has become. They might not have been best friends, but they’re still family. Together they helped build Stardom. There’s no hiding Mayu’s feelings anymore, but if she wants to be crowned the first IWGP Women’s Champion, she cannot let her emotions overtake her once the bell rings. KAIRI might be the Prodigal Daughter, back to take the treasure Mayu most yearns for, but she will need to be at her absolute best to earn that which she feels is rightfully hers. And once the bell rings and the winner has been decided, can they let bygones be bygones and shake hands in the middle of Ariake Arena?

Two of the Three Daughters of Stardom, back under the family roof once more.