While Japan will be the main battleground for the All Blacks next year when they defend their World Cup title, there’s another Kiwi athlete who will be looking to make it big here (in Tokyo) as well.
It’s been a long journey for Henare, who has Ngāpuhi and Ngāi Takoto heritage. I met him under the shadow of the iconic Tokyo Dome in the heart of the city, he and the other wrestlers live in a hotel that’s part of a complex that includes training facilities, restaurants and a theme park.
Toa Henare (real name Aaron Henry) is a 26-year-old pro-wrestler with New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Originally from Panmure, he’s spent the last two and a half years based in Tokyo, training and competing in one of the world’s most storied and illustrious wrestling competitions.
Toa Henare, aka Aaron Henare, has committed to making sure his character isn't misrepresented - Photo / Supplied.
“I started wrestling at high school and did quite well there. I joined a school based in NZ that was set up to bring wrestlers over to Japan and graduated, and here I am,” he tells me.
While we mostly associate professional wrestling with the US, it has a long and storied history in Japan. It came through the post-war American cultural influence that you can see in all facets of life here in Tokyo because in those days it was one of the few ways a form of Japanese patriotism could flourish in the public eye.
Just like its American counterpart, heroic local wrestlers would battle dastardly foreigners to the delight of an appreciative fanbase. The matches have evolved into a more nuanced thread of storytelling since then, however, it’s obvious that this is quite a different product to the over-the-top spectacle of the WWE.
That’s no accident, NJPW International General Manager Michael Craven tells me when I attend Henare’s match later that evening. The tall and friendly Canadian is at pains to point out that they are not in competition with the WWE, and that the way they do things is literally half a world away.
“Each hopeful wrestler spends a long period of time training in a dojo, much like any martial art,” he says.
“This is to prepare them mentally and physically for the workload that they’ll face working for the company.”
Henare is on a card of eight matches scheduled for the evening at the nearby Korakuen Hall. There are around 2,000 fans in attendance, ranging from children to middle-aged businessmen who have just finished work. However, the most notable sight is the number of women in the crowd - Japanese wrestlers are held up as prime symbols of masculinity in an otherwise very conservative sexual culture.
As the curtain opens, the crowd roars its approval of Henare’s entrance. The six-man tag match itself is slick but very tough - these guys do not hold back and one of the tag team partners suffers a broken nose from a kick to the face. However, Henare's team wins the match to a warm reception.
Afterwards, he's stoked with the win but it won’t be long till he’s back in the ring.
Reporter Jamie Wall and Toa Henare in Tokyo - Photo / Supplied.
That workload is around 100-150 shows a year. Henare says that his dojo training took two and a half years.
"We were cooking, cleaning, doing 1000 squats a day, 200 push ups, sit ups. Old school Japanese style. Once you’ve finished that you move into the main roster, it’s sort of a way of weeding people out and making sure you want it."
“All these things make it seem a lot more real. In Japan, wrestling is all about how much heart you’re showing. What made it easier was coming from a Māori background, I can understand how Japanese people come at life - the respect you get from exerting yourself,” he says.
Craven is excited with Henare’s progress so far, especially his growing popularity with the Japanese fans.
“I can tell there’s a lot of similarities between the two cultures. We see Henare as a cultural ambassador for us, so it’s important for us to make sure he’s portrayed as such.”
Henare himself has committed to making sure that his character isn’t misrepresented.
“Everything I have used so far I’ve been taught by a matua or haka group. I’m not just trying to do this to make the crowd like me, I’m trying to show what’s inside. I’m very respectful of that."
He says, “It was sort of organic. Nothing in wrestling gets popular if you totally fake it. I think that’s why the Japanese people have taken a liking to me.”