Okada Kinya: Boy, Interrupted.
The journey from debut to first singles victory is a torturous road for nearly every young wrestler. Trapped in a cycle of loss, they must prove themselves over and over until they accumulate just enough skill, desire and ring-sense to break through. Without that win, they remain in on the threshold where their only possible story is youthful persistence. For some young wrestlers, even that win does not end their waiting. Wrestlers like Okada Kinya.
Okada Kinya, Dec 2020. Image credit: @noah_ghc
Pro Wrestling NOAH has acquired something of a reputation for not making the most of its younger talents in recent years. But this isn’t an article about booking, nor the relative merits of younger or older champions. This is the story of one boy, interrupted in his journey. It’s about how those interruptions have shaped him and his relationships with key figures in his story. It’s also about how the diversions, dead ends and seeming blank spots in his story provide the basis for new paths and how, despite interruption, Okada Kinya may yet find his way into the light.
Interruption, part one: Debut (2018)
From the very start Okada Kinya, affectionately dubbed ‘Okakin’ by fans, has been beset by interruptions to his wrestling journey. Due to debut for Pro Wrestling NOAH in August 2018 alongside dojo-mate Inamura Yoshiki, an injury put Okada’s debut back three months. When he finally debuted on 7 December 2018, his first match was a predictable loss but was also against his peer Inamura, putting Okada at an immediate disadvantage. The loss showed how far behind he already was and put him in the position of having to chase Inamura’s back. But it also gave him a gift in the form of a ready-made rival.
Inamura and Okada, Aug 2019. Image credit: @noah_ghc
Inamura and Okada are close, their birthdays just one day apart. Their friendship has been a source of strength at times and their styles are different enough that they do not overshadow the other directly. Nonetheless, Inamura became the yardstick by which Okada, and others, measured his success. As such, he has been the catalyst for many important moments in Okada’s growth, including as a partner, an opponent, a rival and a friend.
Okada lost to Inamura twice more, before a brief spell teaming together. As a rookie, Okakin settled into the pattern of losing to his seniors, while Inamura, by contrast, began to develop rapidly, first receiving a 7-match trial series and then forming a partnership with Masa Kitamiya. To avoid forever being behind, Okakin had to do something significant to get out of Inamura’s shadow.
Interruption, part two: Notice me senpai (2019-20)
That something significant was joining Sugiura-gun. Prompted by Inamura’s progress, Okada made an impassioned appeal to Sugiura Takashi in July 2019 following Sugiura’s in-ring invitation to join the faction. Doing so placed Okakin opposite his rival, as, in May 2019, Inamura had become a founding member of the rebel unit Kongo. The philosophy of Kongo, formed in opposition to NOAH’s then owner LIDET Entertainment, was a stark contrast to the ‘company dog’ slogan adopted by Sugiura-gun.
Joining Sugiura-gun, although a development in his story, put Okada squarely back to the position of rookie, being acknowledged only as a partial member of the group. He continued to lose. And although those losses eventually started to come from increasingly tougher opponents, several also came at the hands of Inamura Yoshiki. It took several months for Okakin to begin to earn Sugiura’s approval, while in the meantime Inamura had a GHC Heavyweight Tag Championship challenge alongside Kitamiya. The picture for Okada had changed only slightly. Setting himself against Inamura wasn’t enough. More was needed.
Image credit: @pkdx
And so, Okada chose to focus not only on who he was chasing, but also on himself. Withdrawing from the Sugiura Army in early March 2020 to go it alone, he appealed to Nakajima Katsuhiko to be allowed to join a planned match between NOAH and All Japan. The appeal was about more than one match – it was also a continuation of Okada’s resolve to focus on his kicking technique and followed a YouTube special where Okada received instruction from Nakajima. Although the change in allegiance, in theory, again put Okada in the position of apprentice, his resolve was to prove himself, not simply as a rookie but as a NOAH wrestler. Aligning with Nakajima offered Okada his own story, rather than one dependent on his rival. Nakajima accepted, and an interesting mentorship was born.
Interruption, part three: The great quiet (2020-2022)
Unfortunately, the match with All Japan never happened. Coronavirus restrictions led to no-audience shows and limited mixing of roster members, meaning a reduced spotlight for all wrestlers and an abrupt halt to Okada’s plans to prove himself. Nonetheless, Okada still made leaps forward in 2020. He competed for a shot at the GHC National Title, his first tournament. A no-audience match in July and then a time limit draw in October against Inamura showed how much he was developing against his rival and, finally, on 28 October 2020, that elusive singles victory came against new debutante Yasutaka Yano. The win came 1 year, 10 months and 3 weeks after his debut. Even though it wasn’t quite the path to proving himself Okada had set out in March, he still pushed forward.
Diamond 3, Dec 2020. Image credit: @noah_ghc
His penultimate match in 2020 was alongside Inamura in a tag match against their respective mentors in Nakajima and Kitamiya. Facing the somewhat tentative alliance of the not-quite-reunited ‘The Aggression’, both Inamura and Okada impressed, Okada finally taking the pin from Kitamiya. Despite Inamura still being out ahead of Okada, the match highlighted their parallels and potential against their seniors, putting them on more even footing.
And then…nothing. You could be forgiven for assuming nothing happened for Okada Kinya in 2021. His wikipedia Japan entry ends at the point he left Sugiura-gun. Almost all online profiles of him mention nothing between his leaving the faction in March 2020 and his entry into the N1 Victory 2022.
For some, this was the period of the ‘old men’ in NOAH – a period where home-grown talent was overlooked in favour of bigger ‘draws’ and nostalgia. And it’s true that in this period there was little consistent focus on Okakin or other young talent but this was not the fallow period for Okakin’s story it might first appear. Despite not having been able to represent the company externally and despite the challenges in getting noticed during ongoing coronavirus restrictions, there were glimmers of a young man continuing to build himself up. Most of this took place outside of NOAH’s main programming.
NOAH the home, a YouTube dojo show started, in part, to address the lack of opportunities for young talent during coronavirus restrictions, provided a platform for Okakin to shine. Three years into his career, he finally got his 7-match trial series, main eventing the first seven episodes of the short show. The series told a story, with Okada first seeking to try to match the talents of his varied opponents and then, when unable, falling back on his own strength and kicking skills. Over seven matches, we see Okada learning that it is not enough to try to excel in one area, whether that be someone else’s strengths or his own. Instead he must adapt his efforts to the skills and weaknesses of his opponents. As with most trial series, he lost all matches, but some were repeated as part of NOAH’s main schedule, giving him a bigger stage to demonstrate his learning.
At Zero One’s Yasukuni Shrine Festival in March and at Cyberfight festival in June 2021, Okada finally got his chance to act as a representative of NOAH outside the company. Both were ‘rookie’ matches, teaming with first Inamura and then Miyawaki Junta against other young wrestlers, and it was Okada’s partners in both cases who picked up the win. He also joined NOAH’s team in January 2022 as part of the joint NOAH/NJPW Wrestle Kingdom show, taking the pin in the match. These were not the successes Okada may have hoped, particularly in contrast to Inamura’s or Miyawaki’s achievements, but they were progress nonetheless.
Despite these developments outside NOAH’s usual programming, Okada’s opportunities within it were sparse. The momentum that he began to build in 2020 fizzled out quickly without the stage to display it. He did not go wholly unnoticed, with good matches against juniors and seniors alike, but what attention he did garner only highlighted the limbo of his position – stuck between younger talents getting exposure and the more senior talents he still had not shown he could match. In such a context, the skills he was developing meant little.
“Break through” Okada Kinya’s theme for 2022. Image credit: @noah_ghc
2022 seemed like it might be a continuation of Okada’s almost permanent position on the threshold of breaking through. His experiences of victory again came outside the regular schedule, though they were arguably greater successes than 2021. An N-Innovation show in May saw Okada wrestle to a time limit draw against the more senior Miyawaki Junta, and at Cyberfight Festival 2022 in June, it was now Okada as the senior winning the battle of the rookies, pinning DDT’s Kojima Toui. Still, his ability to put on interesting matches was doing nothing for his position on NOAH’s cards, nor extending his own story. He needed a change and an opportunity.
Interruption, part four: Opportunity knocks (out) (N-1 Victory 2022)
Opportunity finally came in the form of a last-minute open spot in the N-1 Victory Tournament 2022. Visa issues for intended competitor Timothy Thatcher meant that NOAH held a qualification match for the place, pitting Okada against friend and rival, Inamura. A victory for Inamura would mean him entering the tournament for a second time and would add to his recent momentum as a block finalist in the Zero One Fire Festival Tournament. Okada, by contrast, was hardly on a roll, but was hungry and in desperate need of a chance to catch up to Inamura.
The qualification match has an air of seasoned rivals but all the classic beats of a rookie overcoming pain and frustration. It starts with a firm handshake and ends with an increasingly hard hitting back and forth where it seems like neither can break the other’s will. There is a moment, barely a minute in, where a defiant Okada juts out his chin and stares determinedly at the man he must defeat. He looks ready to do it. And he is. His attacks are methodical, patient and delivered with a certainty that borders on arrogance. There are shades of Nakajima in his footwork and mannerisms. The finish is opportunistic – a rolling back clutch – but it doesn’t matter. He has done it. He has a chance.
That chance led to a series of matches that are a prime demonstration of how a big stage can offer even a relatively junior wrestler the opportunity to tell meaningful stories beyond the rookie staple of struggle and loss. Despite being the ‘easy win’ for other entrants in the tournament, simply having been able to gain entry to the tournament and beating his rival to do so gives Okada’s fight what it had been missing – the possibility of something different. In the stats shown on screen during every match, Okada’s numbers reflect where he is in his journey; Technique – 7, Stamina – 7, Degree of expectation – 10.
Okada Kinya’s N-1 Stories
1. Against Funaki, Okada never has an advantage, but he hangs on gamely until Funaki rains down palm strikes from above and turns the momentum fully in his direction. This is not just a match of a senior schooling a rookie, but of someone with potential seeking the moment to unleash it.
2. Against Kojima Satoshi, Okada shouldn’t stand a chance, but he takes a tactical approach in attacking Kojima’s right arm. Although it doesn’t prevent him from receiving machine gun chops, or from finally falling to Kojima’s lariat, Okada shows an awareness of his opponent and a strategy. Not only that, but his attacks against Kojima are successful – he gets the first cover, his kicks seem to wear Kojima down and more than once a well placed kick or dropkick saves him.
3. Against Sugiura, his former teacher and mentor, he lasts less than 7 minutes but he manages to draw a fire from Sugiura that is unexpected and has been lacking from Sugiura of late. After seeming only mildly inconvenienced by Okada’s attacks, Okada’s attempt at a bridging pin pushes Sugiura into a response, crushing Okada with an Olympic slam. Sugiura presses Okada’s face away as he holds him down for the pin. The move shows how far Okada has yet to go but in its own way is a form of recognition in its intensity.
4. Against Jack Morris, Okada shows his pride as a NOAH-born wrestler. Morris, who had an early shock result in defeating Kiyomiya Kaito, has barely been a week in the promotion and has yet to fully establish his character. Okada becomes part of helping him to do that, easily matching Morris’ touch of arrogance and pushing Morris to throw more at him. When Okada falls to the same finish as Kiyomiya, a Tiger Driver, Okada becomes part of the story of establishing Morris as a worthy competitor in NOAH. Though not extending his own story, this capacity to develop someone else’s is rarely within the grasp of a rookie confined to opening matches.
5. Okada’s match against Kaito is perhaps the most significant. Alongside Inamura, who is technically his peer, Kiyomiya is the back Okada is chasing. He represents the path to success as a young NOAH-born wrestler in the current era. Although Kiyomiya is clearly far ahead of Okada, Okada’s most recent loss to Morris matches Kiyomiya’s – in some ways, they are not so different at this moment.
The match is good. Really good. Okada demonstrates his strength and speed with a style and confidence that makes him a force to be reckoned with. He is relentless, aggressive and in no way the easy win that Kiyomiya might have reckoned on. Applause rings out again and again as Okada tries and succeeds in wearing down the former champion. There are screams from the audience as a bridging pin from Okada looks like it might have secured him the victory, Kiyomiya pushing out at the very last second. The intensity of this match is hard to overstate. Kiyomiya’s pin feels desperate and opportunist, but also the mark of a more experienced wrestler pushed to find a way to win. After the 3 count, Okada pushes the ref, disbelieving that he still has yet to gain a single point in the tournament. He pounds the mat in frustration, watching Kiyomiya’s back yet again as he exits the ring.
6. Against Masa Kitamiya the strength and power he showed against Kiyomiya are hardly advantages. There is surely no way Masa is going to be overpowered by the protege of his hated rival, yet Okada shows no signs of the hopelessness of his position. He has determination and even a strategy, targeting Masa’s spine with his attacks. This is a more traditional rookie test match – Masa the immovable object that Okada attempts to shift, his rashness losing him the match. He fails to win anything except Masa’s respect for his efforts, but his persistence at this late stage of the tournament is important. Also important is Inamura in his corner – his long time rival and friend willing to support even his losing efforts.
7. And so, to the final match, and another interruption. Okada’s final match was against mentor Nakajima Katsuhiko – a match with stakes, having the potential to spoil Nakajima’s tournament. It was, in theory, a one-sided affair on many levels. Nakajima can outclass Okada’s skills in kicking and strength, having been one of those who taught Okada how to harness them. He is Okada’s senior and, given his position in the tournament, had far more to lose in defeat than the winless Okada. But there was still hope. Who better to spoil Nakajima’s tournament than the protege he had taught so well? And Okada had shown determination throughout, almost beating Kaito Kiyomiya, the man Nakajima was tied with in the race for the block victory. In defeat or victory, the story was a compelling one on both sides.
The match is over quickly, an accidentally placed kick from Nakajima breaking Okada’s jaw just a few minutes in. Coming soon after a similar accident for Nakajima with a knock out strike to DDT’s Endo Tetsuya, the focus on the match has been on Nakajima as a performer, with sometimes heavily speculative commentary on Nakajima’s character, intentions and abilities (for my part, I thought Dylan Fox’s thoughtful analysis of the incident was spot on). But that is not Okada’s story. In the short three minutes before the kick, Okada demonstrated both his own potential and the potential of this match. He loses out early competing with Nakajima on kicks but uses what he learned from his NOAH the Home trial series – it is not enough to try to match his opponent’s talents, he must also attack their weaknesses. He tries to mix things up with a headlock and a dropkick, using his speed to keep Nakajima from having a strong position from which to attack. He is goaded into a kick exchange by Nakajima, which despite being on the losing end of, he refuses to back down from, showing his confidence and determination. He doesn’t look weak. Even after the kick that puts him down, the focus of commentators has been on Nakajima’s strength, not Okada’s weakness.
It is not a match I can recommend watching. But I believe that the rematch will be.
Okada is now adept at overcoming interruption. Each apparent step back in his journey has provided an opportunity – first the creation of a rival, then the adoption of a mentor, then the resilience to craft a narrative outside of NOAH’s main stage and finally, a story that may surpass them all. His rivalry and friendship with Inamura has reached new levels, as he has finally beaten Inamura in a match and relied on his support and respect throughout the tournament. His relationship with Nakajima offers extensive possibilities – will Okada return seeking revenge or a further opportunity to learn? His ability to nearly match Kiyomiya, the eventual tournament winner, also offers avenues for exploration. Most importantly, a returning Okada Kinya has options not open to all rookies. He has the possibility of a story and has demonstrated that he has the skills to tell it. Let’s hope he’s provided with the stage to do it justice.