Article: WH Park’s 6 to Watch in Japan in 2019

WH Park takes a look at the six Japanese performers to keep an eye on in 2019 with a look at their work over the past year, recommended matches and more.

6 To Watch in Japan in 2019

by WH Park

As the year comes to a close, it’s natural for many of us to reflect on the year that was. In the Japanese wrestling scene, 2018 saw many performers elevate their games to another level:  Zack Sabre Jr. in the New Japan Cup; Momo Watanabe succeeding Io Shirai in Stardom; T-Hawk & El Lindaman venturing outside of Dragon Gate in the Strong Hearts faction to great success; and,  Miyu Yamashita tearing it up as the ace of Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling.

Here are six wrestlers/teams I think are ready to make significant strides in 2019. They have all had a good to a great 2018, but the future still holds tremendous potential for growth for them in the respective companies that they wrestle for.

*As a side note I purposely did not include New Japan’s current crop of Young Lions in this list. I wanted to shine a light on wrestlers and companies that a majority of fans might not be aware of or follow.

Hazuki (Stardom)
Debuted in 2014
Age: 21

Hazuki trained in the Stardom dojo and, for the first couple of years of her career, was a rookie performer learning the ropes and gaining experience. It wasn’t until Io Shirai took her under her wing that she found a direction in Stardom. Shirai and HZK (the new spelling of her name) would form Queen’s Quest along with AZM (Azumi) and Momo Watanabe.

In QQ she floated around in Stardom’s upper mid-card with occasional forays into the main event in a tag or trios matches, usually for the Artist of Stardom trios titles. Her 2017 ended with a loss to her mentor, Io Shirai, in a match for the Wonder of Stardom title at Korakuen Hall.

Early in 2018, she continued as a member of QQ, but now playing third fiddle to Io and Momo. Momo was the one who was singled out to be Io’s successor as Stardom’s top star in the future so things didn’t look good for HZK unless something changed for her.

Fast forward to April 15, 2018, and the second night of Stardom’s Rebirth Tour. On that night there was a three-way match to determine the order of the Stardom draft to the different units in the promotion – Stars (the regular army), Queen’s Quest and Oedo Tai. Each unit was represented by their leaders – Mayu Iwatani, Io Shirai and Kagetsu. It was Kagetsu who won the first fall and thus the right to get first pick.

During the actual draft each leader picked members who were already in their units, but it was Kagetsu who threw the first curveball and drafted HZK (now spelled Hazuki) away from QQ. This, of course, angered Hazuki as this occurred in the third round of the draft and her teammates AZM and Momo were picked before her. It didn’t help that she had been feuding with Oedo Tai for the last year and especially didn’t get along with Hana Kimura.

In the following weeks, there was resentment and friction within Oedo Tai as the only one who was happy with the new additions to the group was Kagetsu. However, it wouldn’t be long until Hazuki finally embraced the opportunity she had in Oedo Tai to step out of the shadow of both Io and Momo.

In Oedo Tai she unleashed the heel that always lurked underneath her public face in QQ. She could openly show her jealousy and resentment towards Momo (who was getting her big push in the company at that time).

Recently Hana Kimura turned on Kagetsu and left Oedo Tai, leaving Hazuki the clear number 2 in the group. She had also taken the role of Kagetsu’s tag team partner and apprentice, which has done even more for her evolution as a worker and character.

What I want to see in 2019:

Her continued rivalry with Momo which hopefully leads to the Wonder of Stardom championship.

A renewed feud with Hana Kimura, who has reinvented and reinvigorated herself recently, could be exciting.

More work with other promotions, in particular, Sendai Girls, would further her development.  I really, really want to see her and DASH Chisako have a singles match with each other.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • Hazuki vs. Hana Kimura (April 30 1st Round of the Cinderella Tournament Stardom).
  • Hazuki vs. Momo Watanabe (July 16 Wonder of Stardom Title match Stardom)
  • Kagetsu & Hazuki vs. Chihiro Hashimoto & DASH Chisako (November 16 Korakuen Hall show Sendai Girls).

 

Hazuki vs Momo Watanabe

 

Kaito Kiyomiya (NOAH)
Debuted in 2015
Age: 22

Kaito Kiyomiya is arguably the brightest prospect to come out of NOAH’s dojo system in the last ten years. Though he spent the first couple of years in typical Japanese fashion by losing almost of all his matches to his seniors in the company, it was very quickly clear that NOAH had something special in him. His early career had a lot of parallels to Go Shiozaki, another wrestler who was pegged for greatness at an early stage in his career.

In the summer of 2017 Kiyomiya was sent on an excursion to Canada where he wrestled in indies from Quebec to British Columbia and all points in between. He got to work with talents like Jonathan Gresham, Tony Kozina, Chase Owens, Silas Young, and underrated Canadian wrestlers like Rip Impact, Phil Atlas, Tarik, and Josh Alexander.

In late 2017 he finally returned to Japan and to NOAH, promptly challenging Kenou, who himself had just won the  GHC Heavyweight Championship from Eddie Edwards. Kaito failed in his first GHC title shot, and from there he continued his losing ways until he allied himself with Shiozaki and formed a tag team with him.

The newly-christened team of GoKai reversed Kaito’s fortunes and saw him finally winning regularly. They were a great addition to NOAH’s burgeoning tag team division, along with Kenou & Takashi Sugiura, The Aggression (Katsuhiko Nakajima & Masa Kitamiya), and 50 Funky Powers (Mohammed Yone & Quiet Storm). Go & Kaito would win the Global Tag League and earn a shot at the GHC Tag Team Titles held by Nakajima & Kitamiya. They would win that match and the titles and marked Kiyomiya’s first major championship.

The rest of 2018 chugged along uneventfully until October and the start of the Global League tournament. He picked up significant wins over Maybach Taniguchi, Sugiura, and Shiozaki before defeating Nakajima in the finals. Kaito was originally supposed to face Naomichi Marufuji in the finals but the latter had to pull out due to injuries, so that showdown still looms.

What I want to see in 2019:

Kiyomiya is slated to parlay his tournament win into a shot at Sugiura’s GHC championship on December 16. I think he has a good chance of dethroning the seemingly indestructible champion.

If he wins, I hope NOAH just gives him a chance and doesn’t take the title off of him too quickly.

He should work in as many other promotions and face the other up and coming stars like himself.

He needs to become more confident and give better promos and interviews.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • Go Shiozaki & Kaito Kiyomiya vs. The Aggression (April 29 GHC Tag Team Title Match NOAH)
  • Kaito Kiyomiya & Ayato Yoshida vs. Takuya Nomura & Toru Sugiura (June 11 Fortune Dream 5)
  • Kaito Kiyomiya vs. Takashi Sugiura (November 8 Global League NOAH)

 

Kaito Kiyomiya vs. Takashi Sugiura

 

Mika Iwata (Sendai Girls)
Debuted in 2015
Age: 22

*Senjo in the nickname for the Sendai Girls promotion.

Mika Iwata is a generational peer of Sendai Girl’s number two top star and current champion, Chihiro Hashimoto. She is the student of Senjo’s top star and founder, Meiko Satomura. While Chihiro enjoyed a supernova push right from the start of her career, Mika followed a more traditional path for a Japanese wrestler.

2018 saw her star start to rise and fans really take notice of her, primarily due to her mini-feud with Hana Kimura from Stardom. Iwata and Kimura had been wrestling each other in tags and singles across different promotions, but the feud came to a head with Mika beating Hana in a singles match on a Senjo show at Korakuen Hall.

Mika also got her first taste of Senjo gold when she and Chihiro won the Sendai Girls Tag Team Titles from Cassandra Miyagi & Heidi Katrina. This title win was a clear sign that Senjo is ready to take Iwata to the next level.

2019 will likely be the year that Senjo gives her the big push to put her on a similar level to Chihiro and DASH Chisako. It would be foolish if they didn’t as she was all the tools to be a top star in Joshi –  great wrestling skills and strikes, a great look, and a fiery babyface personality.

What I want to see in 2019:

A chance for her and Stardom’s Kagetsu to mix it up. They interacted in the Oedo Tai/Senjo tag match at Korakuen and they had good chemistry in their brief exchange.

Iwata and Hashimoto holding the tag titles for a significant reign.

A chance to face Hashimoto for the Senjo Championship.

A singles match with Meiko Satomura.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • Mika Iwata vs. Hana Kimura (April 19 Korakuen Hall Sendai Girls)
  • Mika Iwata vs. Saree (July 27 Sendai Girls)
  • Chihiro Hashimoto & Mika Iwata vs. Cassandra Miyagi & Heidi Katrina (September 15 Sendai Girls Tag Team Title match Sendai Girls)

Mika Iwata vs. Hana Kimura


The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier & Zachary Wentz) (Strong Hearts, Wrestle-1, DDT)

The team debuted in 2016

Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz have been teaming since 2016, working primarily in the U.S. indie scene for companies like CZW, AAW, and others. Originally they used the name Scarlet & Graves before settling on The Rascalz. In 2017 they branched out to the UK, working primarily in Fight Club: Pro.

Because of their work and willingness to work in as many places as possible Xavier and Wentz are drawing comparisons to The Young Bucks when they were at a similar stage in their careers.

On the recommendation of Ricochet, Xavier and Wentz were invited to do a tour of Japan for Dragon Gate. It was during their first and only tour that the duo first matched up with Flamita and Bandido, whom they have had some excellent matches with since.

They also developed a relationship with CIMA. This bond with Xavier and Wentz was so strong that when CIMA decided to leave DG and join the Shanghai-based Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, they chose not to continue with Dragon Gate and joined OWE along with DG wrestlers like T-Hawk, El Lindaman and Takehiro Yamamura. Even more interesting was that CIMA formed his own unit – Strong Hearts – with these guys which includes a revolving door of Chinese OWE talent.

Strong Hearts are unique in that they are like a mercenary group plying their services for whichever promotion wants to pay their fee to bolster their roster and spike interest in their shows. So far they’ve paid dividends for both Wrestle-1 and DDT by moving tickets for live events and increasing the number of views on their respective YouTube channels.

Initially, the Rascalz had only done one match under the Strong Hearts banner for W-1 so it seemed their commitment to the unit and to touring Japan was in doubt. They were in demand in other parts of the world, working dates for PWG, AAW, Impact Wrestling, FCP, and OTT, among other companies. However, as of this writing, Xavier and Wentz were going full-tilt in Japan with recent shows for W-1, DDT, and J-Stage. I can see them doing more tours of Japan in the coming year.

What I want to see in 2019:

Recently the Rascalz have added Trey Miguel to the act both in Impact and Strong Hearts so going forward the duo is likely going to be more of a trios act.

A commitment to appearing in Japan more steadily.

Rascalz should challenge and win some tag team titles in one of the Japanese promotions they’ll be appearing in.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • The Rascalz vs. Bandido & Flamita (January 16 Dragon Gate)
  • The Rascalz vs. Kaz Hayashi & Seiki Yoshioka (June 22 Wrestle-1)
  • Dezmond Xavier, Zachary Wentz & Trey Miguel vs. Kazusada Higuchi, KUDO & Shunma Katsumata (November 25 DDT)

Rascalz + CIMA (Strong Hearts) vs.  Naoki Tanizaki, Shota Nakagawa, Yuki Sato & Yuya Susumu

 

Shun Skywalker (Dragon Gate)
Debuted in 2016
Age: 22

Among the current generation of young wrestlers on the current Dragon Gate roster, Shun Skywalker stands out as a potential main event player in the future. He’s a high-flying daredevil with a likable personality and a good look.

Shun Watanabe trained at the Dragon Gate dojo and was part of the same class as Hyo Watanabe, Yuki Yoshioka, and Futa Nakamura. All of them wrestled under their real names while gaining experience and doing young boy duties, but very quickly Nakamura got on the fast track by becoming Ben-K and getting a push. This push included membership in the MaxiMuM unit led by Naruki Doi and Masato Yoshino. He was also paired with Big R Shimizu in a tag team called Big Ben.

Meanwhile, Shun carried on in typical young boy fashion, working multi-man tag matches and eating pins most of the time. However, Watanabe finally saw a glimmer of hope as he was able to get repackaged with a mask and new name, Shun Skywalker (no relation to Luke). Unfortunately, the new name and mask didn’t necessarily translate into big wins or even a push at that time. At the King of Gate 2018 tournament, Skywalker finally got a big win when he pinned veteran, Yasushi Kanda. Soon after that. Dragon Gate legend, Masaaki Mochizuki took Shun under his wing and started to team with him. Mochi and Skywalker would get booked as a team for All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Junior Tag Battle of Glory tournament. They did ok, getting 3 wins and 6 points, and they had the best match of the entire tournament on August 9 against Kotaro Suzuki & Shuji Kondo.

The next step after was Shun, along with Watanabe and Yoshioka, convincing Mochizuki to form a pseudo-unit where he would be their mentor. This unit was appropriately named Mochizuki Dojo. The concept of their group is “members” can come and go within the unit as they please. They can wrestle together as a team or against each other in order to improve themselves as wrestlers. It’s currently my favorite unit in Dragon Gate.

On September 6 at Korakuen Hall, Skywalker challenged Willie Mack for the HOH Twitch TV and CWFH Heritage Heavyweight titles. He lost the match but looked impressive with both men getting a good buzz on the internet for their performances. Skywalker and Mochizuki have also challenged for the Twin Gate and Triangle Gate titles (with Yoshioka). Again, he came up short but raised his stock in each match.

What I want to see in 2019:

Shun Skywalker to be a big part of the rebounding and rebuilding Dragon Gate following the departures of CIMA & co. and Shingo Takagi.

Win either the Twin or Triangle Gate titles. I’d prefer to see him win the Twin Gate with Mochizuki.

Develop a stronger rivalry with Ben-K. Both should be more clearly defined and positioned as the future of Dragon Gate.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • Masaaki Mochizuki & Shun Skywalker vs. Kotaro Suzuki & Shuji Kondo (August 9 Junior Tag Battle of Glory league match All Japan)
  • Masaaki Mochizuki & Shun Skywalker vs. BxB Hulk & YAMATO (September 24 Open The Twin Gate title match Dragon Gate)
  • Shun Skywalker vs U-T (December 4 Dragon Gate)

Shun Skywalker vs U-T


Takuya Nomura (Big Japan)
Debuted in 2016
Age: 25

What do you get when you have an unassuming, cherub-faced young man who embodies the attitude, fighting style and dickishness of Akira Maeda, KENTA and Katsuyori Shibata? Answer – Takuya Nomura.

Trained in the Big Japan dojo by Hideki Suzuki (a Billy Robinson student) and Kazuki Hashimoto (who reminds me of a young Koji Kanemoto), you can see the influence both men have had in developing this UWFI-esque fighter whose boy band looks belie his fearlessness and toughness.

Nomura did the usual things a rookie Japanese professional wrestler is expected to do – continue training at the dojo, attend to his seniors, set up and tear down the ring, and lose a lot of his matches. But Big Japan must have seen something special in him early on because they sent him out to wrestle in other promotions as often as they could. In his first year alone he wrestled in K-Dojo, All Japan, DDT, and Zero-ONE. This is a big deal as he’s representing his home promotion as much as he is himself. He also got to enter Big Japan’s Saikyou Tag League 2016 with Suzuki.

2017 became a significant year for Takuya as he started showing rapid improvement, picking up wins, and getting a lot of buzz. He also expanded his resume of promotions he has worked in to include Wrestle-1, WAVE, Ice Ribbon, and J-Stage. If there was a spot on a show where Takuya could gain experience, Big Japan sent him there.

In April he entered NOAH’s Global Tag League with Kaito Kiyomiya as his partner. A pairing of Big Japan’s top rookie and NOAH’s top rookie got a lot of attention on them before the tournament even started. As expected, they lost most of their matches but at least got one win (vs. Cody Hall and Randy Reign). However, Nomura picked up invaluable experience getting put in the ring with the likes of  Go Shiozaki, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Takashi Sugiura, and Naomichi Marufuji.

The latter half of the year saw him teaming semi-regularly with Big Japan legend Daisuke Sekimoto which included a three-match stint back in NOAH.

2018 saw Nomura enter BJW’s Ikkitousen Strong Climb tournament for the first time. He also started teaming regularly with Fuminori Abe in a tag team called The Astronauts (the name is a reference to the UWF U-Cosmos Tokyo Dome show from 1989). Abe and Nomura compliment each other very well and have found some success together. June 20 saw him challenging Hideki Suzuki for the Big Japan Strong World Heavyweight title for the first time. The Astronauts entered the Big Japan Saikyo Tag League and finished with 1 win. All these experiences added to Takuya’s evolution as a performer in the ring and his reputation among the fans.

What I want to see in 2019:

The Astronauts continuing to team and start to collect wins including a tournament and tag titles somewhere.

More matches against Suzuki and Sekimoto. He doesn’t necessarily have to beat them but shows that he’s slowly and surely figuring them out each time.

Work some Lions Gate shows for New Japan.

Recommended 2018 matches:

  • Takuya Nomura vs. Hideki Suzuki (June 20 Strong World Heavyweight title match BJW)
  • Hideyoshi Kamitani & Takuya Nomura vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima & Masa Kitamiya (July 10 Riki Choshu Produce Power Hall 2018)
  • Fuminori Abe & Takuya Nomura vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Hideki Suzuki (August 12, 2018 BJW)

 

Takuya Nomura & Hideyoshi Kamitani vs. The Aggression

2018 was a great year for wrestling and wrestling fans across the world. We can look forward to Hazuki, Kaito Kiyomiya, Mika Iwata, The Rascalz, Shun Skywalker, and Takuya Nomura making 2019 a great year for wrestling as well. It would be well worth following them on their journey.

With thanks to Matt McEwen for help with editing.