Aja Kong is an unforgettable figure in the world of professional wrestling. Her striking appearance, with red paint on her cheeks and temples, baby blue around her eyes, green on her forehead, and a moon in the center, has left a lasting impression. She even inspired Leon White’s development of his character Big Van Vader! Aja Kong’s story is both poignant and inspiring, and the details of her life might surprise you.
Erika Shishido as Aja Kong
To fans, some wrestlers become larger than life. Erika Shishido, who later would be known as Aja Kong, is one of them.
Shishido is a powerhouse figure in grappling history and still wrestles today after three decades in the squared circle. Her drive, energy, and troubled family history are all important pieces that make one understand how Erika became Aja.
Erika’s Japanese mom met a soldier from the United States military while he was stationed at Tachikawa Airfield outside of Tokyo. The two connected quickly, and Erika was born on September 25th, 1970.
Unfortunately, after her mother’s family found out the father of her child was Black, they essentially disowned her and Erika.
Erika’s family dynamic shifted again when her parents split up, and her father returned to the United States when she was only five years old. Later she would find out she had two other siblings from him.
Seeing Her Future
In Japan, in the 1970s, it was uncommon to be a single parent, and it was severely frowned upon to get a divorce. And as too many people know, kids can be vicious, and Erika was severely bullied because of her single mom and being the only mixed-race person at her school.
There seemed to be a pervasive racist mindset towards mixed Japanese people in general. Shishido stated that her classmates usually ignored her, but boys would taunt her for having what they called "mixed blood" while calling her other derogatory names.
Many Black Japanese people, Black tourists, and residents have expressed the difficulty and hardship that can be born from these prejudices. There have even been attempts towards multicultural education programs for Japanese kids who experienced such cruel treatment.
Erika found some solace at first in talking through her hardships with her mom, who repeatedly told her not to be ashamed of who she was but to be patient and brave. Then, on a particularly tough day, she asked her mom why she had her.
Her mom crying in front of her for the first time, shockingly went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and said, "Since I decided to have you, it is up to me to decide to kill you."
While it was the first and, apparently, the last time her mom did something like that, Erika started looking for a way to channel some of her understandable frustration and pent-up aggression.
When she was 14, it was 1984, and the Crush Gals were taking over wrestling, becoming idol-level famous among teenage girls.
The Crush Gals had those short, jaw-length mid-80s "boy" haircuts, like that photo of Winona Ryder in high school. They resembled any teenage villain in a 1980s movie. These wrestlers were superstars, and as Erika looked up to these idols, maybe she saw a future of her own in their sparkling image.
Aja Kong: A Character All Her Own
At age 15, in 1986, Erika attended a mass audition at All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW). Shishido distinguished herself from the throng, and out of the 2,500 who tried out, she was chosen to begin training with the inimitable Jaguar Yokota.
As she kept returning to the dojo, those training her quickly realized what a powerhouse Erika was. She didn’t resemble the myriad of other girls who took to the ropes there. She was bigger than them, and the force she summoned made her a standout.
While physicality is imperative, learning the psychology of wrestling is another battle. Wrestlers struggle to find a way into a character- grasping their mindset, mannerisms, and quirks. Resonating with a character is gravely important.
For example, as Erika developed her in-ring personality, she told her trainers she wanted to be a hero. She had and still has a sweet demeanor outside of the ring and wanted to be celebrated.
However, her trainers rebutted that she would not be believable because, as a half-Black, half-Japanese woman, she was a "natural villain." So instead, they insisted that her character enact hatred towards her Japanese competitors and "crush them," simultaneously using her Blackness as a weapon and insinuating she is not Japanese.
The country’s hegemony inspires Japanese wrestling characters, and outsiders represent danger regarding how characters are used in stories. In Japanese entertainment, specifically wrestling, Americans have symbolized the strangers over whom they must prevail.
In the essay "Professional wrestling as culturally embedded spectacles," author Dan Glenday sources this angle with the father of professional wrestling in Japan, Rikidozan.
In postwar Japan of the 1950s, the United States still occupied much of the country. Rikidozan’s agility and honor in the face of his brutish and deceiving American opponents swelled Japanese fans’ pride. This dynamic has been repackaged and reused many times.
But heel work isn’t born solely from this; it has many contributing elements. And Erika’s presence was intimidating.
She looked different from most women around her, fitting the same bill as AJW alumni Bull Nakano and Dump Matsumoto. They christened Erika Aja Kong, naming her after the monster.
Wrestling has had a long and prevalent history of taking fat people and using them as villains. Wrestler’s bodies are used to tell and sell a story, but bodily convention has restricted how storytelling is constructed. As a result, fat women in wrestling tend to be coded or presented as villains, usually taunting a puny and petite feminine girl- the classic David and Goliath epic recreated in the squared circle. The characters may vary slightly, but the trope remains to this day.
This is all to say that Erika had no real options regarding her character. AJW had a monopoly on Joshi (Japanese women’s wrestling) in the ’80s, so this was the only circus in town, and she had little choice but to follow their lead if she ever wanted to wrestle.
Her Audience Of One
While this was not the personna she craved, Aja Kong soon began filling out the character and finding herself in villainy. So much in fact that her character eventually transcended face and villain; her in-ring presence made her intimidating, but fans could not help but support her. She would soon become one of the country’s most beloved wrestlers.
From all that, AJW promoters made Aja into the brand of another famous heel, Dump Matsumoto. Aja debuted in her heel faction, Atrocious Alliance, the arch-foe of her childhood favorites, The Crush Gals.
In 1987, Erika would rise every day at 5 A.M. to go to the dojo early and clean it, then she trained all day, cleaned again, went home to sleep, and did it all over the next day. Her life was consumed with pro wrestling.
Life still went by, and when she was 17 years old, her mom had a brain hemorrhage, which put her in the hospital for a few months.
All Erika wanted to do was be with her mother, but she needed to make enough money to support both of them, and she was barely getting by. So while her mom was in the hospital, she spent much time in bed and watched TV late into the night when pro wrestling would air.
Erika realized her mom had been watching her, and she found out that it lifted her mom’s spirit to see her daughter doing so incredibly well in the ring. So she said she started performing for her mother only, knowing she was watching not too far away—her audience of one.
This was when she said she wanted to go all the way with this; she would make a name for herself.
Aja Kong Career Highlights
In 1989, Aja Kong and Grizzly Awamoto won the World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) tag team championship. Then when their duo quickly split up, she tagged with Bison Kimura, winning the same titles two more times.
Even early in her career, Aja Kong so inspired Leon White that he copied many of her set-ups, moves, and mannerisms and used them to create his character Big Van Vader.
1990 saw a legendary cage match between Aja Kong and Bull Nakano that still stir fans’ souls and makes them scream. To see the two women in a ring together is to see some awe-inspiring feats of strength.
The match featured ropes, chains, scissors, blood, trash cans, and a Nakano leg drop from the top of the cage onto Aja’s chest. While Aja may not have won that bout, there were no real losers, as fans were exposed to such innovation.
Her opportunities and successes revealed themselves in November 1992, as Aja became the WWWA Championship beating Bull Nakano after a notable, long-term feud.
In her win, Aja was the first Black champion AJW had in almost twenty years since the icon Sandy Parker held the title in 1973. Aja went on to hold the belt for two and a half years.
In January of 1994, Aja had a bout with Yumiko Hotta that showed fans what she was capable of.
Author Phil Schneider paints a picture of Aja’s brutality in his book "Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History," writing, “Aja punches, stomps, and rips at the open wound like something out of a torture porn horror movie.”
He continued, “Ringside doctors try to tape up the wound, but Kong taunts Hotta into ripping the bandage off and continuing to fight."
Later that year, with Manami Toyota on November 20th, 1994, they both put on a jaw-dropping show debated as one of the best wrestling matches in history.
The intensity is palpable; you can feel yourself in the room and practically hear the audience’s collective heart beating as they "ooh" and "aah." Yet, her performances consistently remained hard-hitting and spectacular.
Aja Kong in the WWF
In 1995, Aja Kong took to the United States and began her run, debuting in the WWF. The space in women’s wrestling in the WWF was limited in the 1990s. However, Japanese women wrestlers brought incredible innovation to the roster.
WWF Survivor Series that same year included an incredible match in the women’s division. With the influx of Japanese women’s wrestlers like Bertha Faye, Lioness Asuka, Chaparita Asari, Kyoko Inoue, and many more, the audience was shown skill that exceeded much of the other wrestling bouts that night.
In the face of abundant talent, one of the announcers, Mr. Perfect, antagonized, "These women should be at home making their husband something to eat."
As if she heard him and thought, "I’ll show you," Aja stepped into the ring and eviscerated the competition with an unmatched power from that of her opponents.
When she won, she was gifted the opportunity to face the women’s champion Alundra Blayze for her title.
Leading up to the title match Aja continued her rampage when she wrestled on two episodes of Raw and broke her opponent Asaris’ nose during their match, prolonging her vicious streak.
But the WWF women’s division began and ended with Alundra Blayze, and when Blayze left the company for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and threw her title in the trash on live television, writers and promoters left Aja without her shot while simultaneously putting the entire women’s division on ice.
Transcending Face and Villain
Aja Kong returned to Japan, where she started at HUSTLE and returned to AJW (All Japan Women).
Only two years after her WWF run in 1997, Erika started her promotion, ARSION. Although she was the champion for about a year, she was still competing in other promotions simultaneously, a common practice in indie wrestling promotions worldwide.
But in 2001, Erika walked out of the middle of a match and quit her involvement with the company. It stemmed from a disagreement between her and others behind the scenes, resulting in her suing the president, Rossy Ogawa, for false advertising.
After the company dissolved years later, Ogawa started one of the most reputable women’s wrestling promotions of the modern day, Stardom.
Aja continued to work throughout the next few years of her career and even traveled back to the US for title opportunities. During this time, she became the mentor and tag team partner to the incredible Awesome Kong, A.K.A Kia Stevens.
When Awesome Kong debuted in Japan, she and Aja united to form the W Kong tag team. They defeated the Crush Gals for the AAAW Tag Team Championship only a month later.
After that, the team won championships wherever they went, AJW, LLPW, and HUSTLE, until they eventually lost one of their titles to the Dudley Boyz. Their relationship transcended rivalry and comradery, being all at once the others’ nemesis but also her ally.
Their connection was made out of design. When Kia Stevens began working in Japanese wrestling promotions, she faced similar adversities as Erika.
Stevens was told to abandon her beloved wrestling persona, a sexpot named Vivacious, in favor of a villain named Awesome Kong.
She later said in an interview that she was essentially told, "You’re big, you’re Black, go work it."
It is worth reiterating that many promotions worldwide treat curvy, plus-sized, and fat bodies equally. Even in the realm of fantasy, theatrics, and soap opera: bodily conventions, archetypes, and stereotypes persist over stories that could have attempted to subvert those beliefs.
Aja Kong Today
Today Erika Shishido is incredibly famous in Japan. Her career transcends wrestling as she, throughout the years, became a regular TV star.
Famed Japanese wrestling journalist Fumi Saito quotes in Sisterhood of the Squared Circle, "[Aja Kong] on game shows, morning talk shows, afternoon studio shows, early evening news and gossip shows, late night comedy talk shows."
So if one turns on their television at any time of day in Japan, there is a good chance Erika will be on the screen.
Saito continued, "She can be scary, funny, witty, and sometimes smart and serious. She has a special ability to connect with an audience that transcends wrestling."
Over the last ten years, Aja Kong has appeared at SHIMMER, CHIKARA, All Elite Wrestling, and many more. Over WrestleMania 2023 weekend, Aja put on an impressive match with Masha Slamovich.
In a very vulnerable interview on Assignment Asia, from which much of her personal information is sourced, Erika Shishido admitted that she is afraid of her own death and the death of Aja Kong.
She need not fear because she transcends time and space to wrestling fans.
Erika’s entrance music sings, "God made the Devil just for fun; when he wanted the real thing, He made Aja Kong!" However, it seems her entity has grown larger than being just a heel or a face, a devil or god; she is a person whose passion has burned into the whites of her fans’ eyes.
Like when a TV is off, and an image is still burned into its surface, much of her will live forever.
Listen to author Alexa Pruett dive further into the history of Aja Kong on her podcast, “That Wrestling Wench”:
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