Mei “V.V.” Yamaguchi faced many hardships during her childhood.
The Japanese martial arts icon has rarely spoken publicly about what she has gone through, but now she feels it is her responsibility to share details of her struggles.
The 35-year-old has a strong desire to inspire a new generation of martial artists, and believes her story could help others who are going through similar trials and tribulations.
In 1988, Yamaguchi and her family relocated from Tokyo, Japan to Los Angeles, California, USA. She was 5 years old, and was not prepared to be immersed in a new culture.
“The only words I knew were ‘thank you.’ I could not speak English at all,” she says.
That was only the beginning of her learning curve. In elementary school, she found out the hard way that American culture was quite rougher than the calmness of her homeland.
“Japan is a safe country. Everyone is pretty nice, but I do not think that is always good when you go to a foreign country, because you do not know how to protect yourself,” she explains.
“When I was in first grade, someone stole my snack, and that never happens in Japan. I was shocked. Like, ‘Oh my God, someone stole my snack.’
“I learned that I needed to take care of my stuff, and I needed to protect myself in the United States. It was not that bad, but it was still shocking.”
Adjusting to a new life was difficult, but not impossible.
When she was 7, Yamaguchi started to learn self defense. Inspired by the skills of her hero, Jackie Chan, she asked her father to take her to a dojo to begin karate lessons.
That kicked off a lifetime passion, which surrounded her with positive role models everywhere she trained.
“I really thank my father for taking me to a karate academy,” she says. “Since then, I have met so many teachers and elders, and they taught me to grow up the right way.”
However, soon after, her family would be hit by a devastating blow – her mother unfortunately passed away.
That tragedy prompted the Yamaguchis to move back across the Pacific once she had finished elementary school.
“When I lived in California, my mother died, and that is why my family came back to Japan. That was the hardest part of my life,” Yamaguchi says.
“I do not really talk about these things, because I want people to see me as a fighter, not a poor child who lost a mother. But going through these things, I got tougher.”
Through martial arts, she always had an outlet to channel her energy. She poured her heart and soul into training. Her love for karate led her to other disciplines, including kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and mixed martial arts.
Her ability and enthusiasm eventually took her into a professional career. She drew upon her inner strength to quickly become one of Japan’s most respected champions.
In her storied career, Yamaguchi captured several titles, including the DEEP Jewels Featherweight Championship, Valkyrie Featherweight Title, Pan-american BJJ gold medalist, Asian Open BJJ champion, and Japan National BJJ champion.
This Friday, 18 March, at ONE: UNSTOPPABLE DREAMS, Yamaguchi will compete in her biggest bout yet, when she challenges ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee once again for the coveted title.
Though she has been reluctant to talk about the despair from her youth, she has been driven to inspire a new generation of martial artists. Her story of success shows what is possible despite the kind of deep emotional trauma that could have stopped many others in their tracks.
“I feel like maybe I should talk about these things because a lot of people who live in different cultures or are of a different race are watching.
“I want them to be inspired by watching my fights and knowing my background.”