(This interview was originally published in Japanese in the August 2018 issue of Ladys Ring.)
For this installment of Ladys Ring’s “Dangerous Women” series, we sat down for a candid interview with Maki Ito – the outspoken “idol wrestler” who has an army of Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling fans calling her name whenever she brings her unique presence to the ring. Interview by Junichi Sase.
Your wrestling career has a lot of people talking. When is it that you feel most like you’ve truly become a wrestler?
Back when I was an idol, all I did was sing and dance, week in, week out. But nowadays, working out – not to mention getting tackled and so on – has become more of an everyday thing for me. As an idol, I just felt blank. But now that I’m a wrestler, I’m constantly suffering. I’m finally feeling something! It’s like, “Ah, this is what it means to be a wrestler!”
Your wrestling career has roots back in 2013, when you participated in DDT’s Idol Lumberjack 4-Way at Ryogoku Sumo Hall as a member of LinQ. What did you think when you first got that offer?
I was completely on board! I had absolutely zero interest in pro wrestling, but it’s Sumo Hall, right? I’d never performed there before, of course, so I said yes for the chance to get on such a huge stage. Besides, it’s not like I did any actual wrestling in that match! Just headbutts.
Weren’t you scared going into it? You must’ve been worried about what’d happen if you got injured.
Hmmm… No, nothing like that. I was way more stressed about how the other idols involved were going to try to make their own marks! All I could think about was how I didn’t wanna lose out to any other idols. That’s why I ignored all the real wrestlers in the match.
Hahahaha! So you didn’t care whether it was an idol or a male wrestler on the receiving end – You just kept headbutting and the audience ate it up. That was your first taste of the thrill of the ring, then?
Yeah, yeah. As an idol, the audience was completely frigid towards me, even when I sang solo parts. The whole time I was wondering, why don’t they like me? But there in the ring, I finally got the attention I craved. I guess that’s how I got hooked. I needed more of that feeling!
But even then, you didn’t become a wrestler for another three years.
I had a lot going on. But that was where I started wondering whether I really wanted to be an idol. Should I try wrestling instead? In the end, I chose to stay an idol. I was only in my second year as an idol when I wrestled at Sumo Hall, you know, so there was more that I still wanted to do.
But at the same time, I knew I had to face facts: I was in my second year as an idol and I still didn’t have any fans. Those next three years were a total slog.
In 2015 you appeared on TV Tokyo’s God Tongue. Your comments on that show got you some buzz as an entertainer. Did you ever think about going down that road instead?
I’d been thinking about it since around my idol debut. When I was still training to become a full-fledged idol, I’d mapped out a pretty orthodox idol career for myself. But when I made my official debut, the boss at my company told me, “Well, you’re ugly, so you should focus on variety shows instead.” Those words’ve stuck with me ever since.
You probably could have made a decent splash as an idol on variety shows. Why did you decide to abandon that and become a wrestler at the end of 2016?
Okay, here goes. This is the first time I’ve publicly said this: My second appearance on God Tongue is a really, really awful memory for me. When I watched the episode as it aired, I found out they didn’t use a single second of me actually talking!
And yeah, I went and namesearched afterwards, and what’d I find? “Damn, I thought Maki Ito was funny at first, but I was wrong.”
My first time on God Tongue, I was there in a group group as a member of LinQ. That second time, I was all alone! That’s what clued me in to the fact that I can’t do anything on my own, and that led me to think, well, pro wrestling’s pretty much it for me, then.
You made your debut in a singles match against Miyu Yamashita, the ace of Tokyo Joshi Pro. You took lot of kicks, but I guess you got a taste of a different sort of pain, too, starting out wrestling like that.
Sure did. But at the time, I didn’t really think I’d stick with wrestling for very long, either. I don’t have super good reflexes or anything; I was mostly just trying to find the best way to get my revenge on life, hahaha.
But after my debut match, when the fan meet-and-greet began, my line was freakin’ huge! As an idol, I’d be on stage for two hours and I’d be happy if five people showed up to meet me. And there were about thirty people lining up this time! I felt like I had to keep living up to their expectations.
In 2017, when you started regularly wrestling in Tokyo Joshi Pro as a freelancer, your first opponent was Reika Saiki. You’re both billed as so-called idol wrestlers, but Saiki’s really strong, isn’t she? I’m sure you had similar thoughts as an idol, but did you feel, “oh, I can’t half-ass this match, I have to prepare myself?”
Yeah… I mean, yeah, I did, but… Well, I’m kinda like Nobita from Doraemon, you know? I’m full of myself. I think there’s something about me that makes me easy to cheer for… I know this sounds really self-absorbed, but I tend to be the main character, hahaha.
I mean, I’m not saying I’m a good main character! But I’m the type to identify with the protagonists you see in Shonen Jump comics – they overcome all sorts of setbacks. I see myself as one of them.
So I got my ass kicked, but still, a lot of people were cheering for me. For some reason or other, I felt like I’d found my place.
You’re meant to wrestle, no doubt about that.
I must’ve given the fans them some return on all the cheering, since there were a ton of them coming up to me afterwards!
Right after Mizuki arrived in TJPW in April, you sort of… half-forced her to form the Ito Respect Army with you. Did you start the Ito Respect Army to build up your position as a wrestler? Or was it more of an attempt to keep a foot in the idol door, as it were, out of some lingering affection for your old job?
Ah, well, at the time, I was trying to sell myself as an idol wrestler, so I needed a way to make myself seem more idol-y. Mizuki had just arrived and didn’t have anyone to hang out with in the greenroom yet. I saw that and thought, “This’ll do the trick!” And the Ito Respect Army was born.
And then, that June, your involvement with LinQ ended. You say you got fired, but…
No, no, I never said I wanted to quit LinQ! Not exactly. The LinQ brass asked me, “Well, where are you going with all this?” LinQ said they were trying to get serious and become a bigger deal, and I wanted to step it up along with them. I wanted to do my best to ride the pro wrestling wave. So I told them, “Whatever you think works is fine with me.”
And when news sites started posting LinQ’s updated lineup, my name wasn’t on the list. That’s how I found out they fired me.
That’s how you found out? Yikes. But I suppose on the other hand that might have helped you steel yourself to focus solely on wrestling.
Yeah, that’s how I saw it. I wanna show LinQ I can outsell them! No, but I still like LinQ, though. That’s where I got my start!
At this point in your pro wrestling career, the most impactful, most highly-regarded match in your career was at Korakuen hall on January 4 this year, where you faced Danshoku Dino.
That one got people talking, huh… I still get comments about that one all the time.
One of the big spots there was the so-called “lip lock,” of course. Knowing Dino, you probably figured a kiss would be an effective attack against him, but aren’t you supposed to be, you know, an idol…
Ahh… Yeah, you got me there.
And out in full view, too. And to top it all off, you said yourself that it was your first kiss…
I did say that, huh. That kiss… Look, it’s not like I like him or anything! I was just trying to win the match. It wasn’t even a little passionate! I don’t know if you can count that as a real “first kiss.” That seems like a grey zone to me.
A kiss is something you do with someone you like. What I did with Dino was a lip lock! Even if you’re in front of people, even if you’re an idol, a lip lock’s just a wrestling move.
I- I see… But that adds to your growing image as someone who lets it all hang out, so to speak.
That’s right. That was the moment I decided to throw my life away. Like, no turning back now! Hahaha.
Any time I do or say something I don’t want my parents to see, I feel like I’m tossing my life right out the window. But it gets a huge reaction from the fans.
Some things you’ve posted online include “I thought I was in my prime, but after I told a guy I wouldn’t go to a hotel with him, he ghosted on me.” Also, “I’m a 22-year-old virgin…”
Nnngh. But it’s all true, so…
Deep down inside, I think if I just keep putting that out there, someone’ll eventually come along for me. But I also wonder if maybe guys aren’t into girls who’re so forthcoming like that.
Hahahaha. Well, I guess a lot of people do feel that way.
I’ve dialed it back a bit these days. I haven’t been exposing myself as much on Twitter, either. I’m 23 now, after all. I guess I should be focusing more on trying to get a boyfriend. Ha ha.
Do you ever deliberately air out embarrassing parts of your private life to cause a stir as a wrestler? I’ve heard Atsushi Onita likes to do that…
I wouldn’t say I try to embarrass myself on purpose, but sometimes it ends up getting pretty embarrassing in retrospect. Everything I do in the ring and everything I say on the mic comes from a desperate, earnest place, so I’m not embarrassed about it.
And yet during some of your post-match comments, after you get caught up in the moment, we can hear you mumbling, “aw, shit…”
Ahahahahaha! Yeah. Yeah, that happens. I’ve put some of Abema TV’s plans in jeopardy, too. But I feel like I have to pour my soul out there, so I end up getting over my head sometimes. And then the moment I get home, I’m like, “I wanna die!” Which isn’t a great feeling to go to bed with, haha.
Like you get caught up trying to draw more blood than you should, or like someone’s switched your filter off.
To tell the truth, I don’t have a ton of self-confidence. So maybe I want to come across like I have more than I really do. As I talk and talk, I start to feel better, and I get carried away, and before I know it, the filter’s off.
You say you come home and wish you were dead. But in your promos and press conferences, you often say, “Don’t be so quick to say ‘I wanna die!’ Don’t give up so easily!”
I can say that because I find myself thinking “I wanna die” so much, of course! Because I know what it’s like to feel that way. When I tell people not to give up, that’s where it’s coming from.
Ahh, I see. You got plenty of press from your match with Dino, then you caused another stir with your provocative ads for DDT’s Judgement 2018 event. Then the Ito Respect Army put out its first CD and music video, and put on a live concert. You’ve certainly given people more than enough to talk about.
From January 4 until April, there was definitely something going on with me, huh? I was on fire for a while there, but things have calmed down and gotten boring lately.
Now that you mention it, you were out with a knee injury at what might have been the height of that wave. I remember you saying “A knee injury? I’m a real wrestler now.” You almost seemed happy about it.
Yeah! People who aren’t wrestlers don’t tear their knee ligaments too often, right? It felt like the gods of pro wrestling finally accepted me. Rehab was a nightmare, though.
And then, as the wave died down, you announced that you might disband the Ito Respect Army at the May 3 Korakuen show.
You could say I’d lost all interest in being an idol. Up until then, I was like a ghost, doomed to haunt the idol industry until I learned to let it go. But then I put out a CD, and made a music video, and with the Ito Respect Army, I’d let go of that unfinished business and could finally pass on to the afterlife.
But it seems that the Ito Respect Army meant more to Mizuki that you thought, and it ended up just proving the bonds between the two of you. So what do you want next for the Respect Army? Medals? Big wins?
These days, what I want more than anything is a belt! Being a hot topic of conversation, being a big name, whatever – gimme a belt!
Is there any particular reason you want a belt so much?
Well, around mid-May, I had no… let me rephrase. I had abso-fucking-lutely no money. I don’t know how I got by. I thought and thought about how I could turn things around quick. I figure if I could get a belt, that would mean recognition, which would mean more work, which would mean I could eat! If you’ve got a belt, you can strike it rich. So I really want one!
You hear a lot about how champion boxers make a ton of money, and in a sense that’s the origin of combat sports…
Right?! For some reason, champion wrestlers don’t win prize money like boxers do. But still, as a champion, you can still rake it in with TV and magazine appearances, right? I wanna feed myself with a belt!
You had your first ever title match in Kitazawa on May 19, and unfortunately couldn’t claim the tag belts. After the match, you said “This is just foreshadowing to my championship reign. This is only the first episode.” I’ve been thinking back on that all day, and how surprised I was to hear you say that something so involved was only “episode one” to you.
Hee hee hee. Yes, that was episode one. I’m excited to see how the next episode will turn out. I’m gonna push myself hard and make sure it goes above and beyond episode one.
So if that was episode one, does that mean you’ve got your whole success story, up to the very end, mapped out in your head?
Yeah – but it’s not just a wrestling success story, it’s a life success story! Right now, I’m broke, so first I want a belt. Then I’ll get more and more gigs, all according to plan, and save up a whole bunch of money. And once I’ve got my money saved, then I’ll become a boring wrestler, probably. But either way, I’ll be rich in the end!
Earlier, you said you don’t have good reflexes. But you can’t get a belt with innate talent alone.
I mean, I do go to the gym, enough to keep my conscience quiet, at least. But I’m not gonna turn into Reika Saiki overnight!
You never show off any pictures of yourself training or anything.
Ugh, I hate that! There are even some idols who always put up post-workout selfies with some caption like, “Just finished my lesson!” Like, oh, thanks for the update.
If you ask me, hard work is like shit: you’re not supposed to show yours to other people. So I don’t! I’m not saying I hate people who do, but it goes against my personal aesthetics.
You don’t like to let people see you putting forth effort. Still, even though you lost to Miyu Yamashita in the first round of the 2018 Tokyo Princess Cup tournament, the match was was pretty close. It’s plain to see how much you’ve grown as a wrestler.
It was way, way less scary than my debut match, that’s for sure. The kicks still really hurt, but I wasn’t scared of them. If anything, my approach was more like, come on, kick me again! And she obliged. She kicked the life out of me.
Yamashita’s the singles champion of TJPW. Do you think you brought yourself within reach of that title with your Princess Cup match?
Hmmm, maybe it’s still a little early for that. Getting that belt right now would be a big step towards the paycheck of my dreams, of course. But being honest with myself, I don’t think I’m at the point where I can pull all of TJPW along behind me.
Ah, so that’s how you see the Princess of Princess champion – someone who leads the whole promotion.
Ah… Yeah, haha. But I don’t know anything about what it’s like to be the champion and bring a whole promotion together. When I understand that a little better, that’s when I’ll be ready to challenge for that belt! I think there’s a lot TJPW could accomplish with me as champion, but nobody has that kind of confidence in me!
Strong words! Okay, let’s finish up. More and more idol wrestlers have been popping up lately. So, according to Maki Ito, what does it mean to be an idol wrestler?
A cute face, of course! I apologize in advance for what I’m about to say. I’m ready to catch flak for it. But look: The faces in joshi wrestling just aren’t that cute. That’s why I’ve gotta be! I need to be the flower at the top of the hill, you know? I can’t afford to slack off on skincare or my hair game.
But don’t take that as me saying to only take photos of my matches when my face looks good or anything! Pro wrestling isn’t so easy that you can afford to worry about that. You have to put your whole self out there.
You put that in your bio on your blog, too. “At the very least, I’m giving it all I’ve got.”
Whenever I’m feeling down, that’s always at the root of it. There’s only one thing that can really bum me out, and that’s thinking, “Dammit, I didn’t really go all out this time. I held back a bit.”
That’s why I’ve made “give it all you’ve got” my motto. But you hear that platitude so much, and it’s so hard to quantify whether someone’s actually doing it or not, right? So these days I have a new motto: “Throw your life away!” I’m going to throw my life away as much as I can legally get away with!