At just five years old, the Yamaguchi family picked up everything they knew in Tokyo, Japan and relocated to Los Angeles, California. Without much knowledge of her now-former traditions, Yamaguchi was forced to adapt quickly to her new surroundings.
It did not go so well.
“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,” Yamaguchi said.
“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.”
Yamaguchi was put through several situations straightaway that would force her to develop thick skin.
“Whenever I got bullied, my parents, they told me to stay strong. Just believe in yourself, just hang out with good friends,” she recalled.
“As a Japanese kid growing up in the United States, everyone was curious about Japanese culture. But at the same time, some people made fun of me and I got bullied. But I learned that I needed to be strong and say, ‘I am Japanese. I have the spirit.”
When she was seven years old, Yamaguchi began to develop self-defense skills after she was inspired by Hollywood icon Jackie Chan. With the support of her father, she would join a dojo shortly thereafter to begin karate lessons.
“I really thank my father for taking me to a karate academy,” Yamaguchi said. “Since then, I have met so many teachers and elders, and they taught me to grow up the right way.
“I felt lonely, but whenever I go to karate, I can forget about the loneliness. Everyone is always waiting for me, so I feel like they are my family too.”
Just as she was getting familiar with the United States and finding her passion through karate, Yamaguchi was dealt with tragedy. Her mother passed away, leaving behind a huge hole in her heart – but also creating inspiration for her future.
“Suddenly she could not breathe, she started coughing,” Yamaguchi said. “I went to call for help, but it was too late. My mother was sick all the time and I had to take care of her and my sister, but suddenly, she died.
“I always thought mother is the person who supports you, always gives you hugs all the time, so I never had that when she was gone. It was really hard.
“It took a few years to realize how hard it was to live without your mom, and it is still hard, but I do have my sister who supports me a lot.”
Yamaguchi would continue building her hands-on skills when the family moved back across the Pacific Ocean to Japan following the tragedy, with her calling it “the hardest part of my life.”
She added Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and wrestling to her karate, becoming a black belt in both Brazilian jiu-jitsu and karate.
It wasn’t long before Yamaguchi found her true calling — to become a professional martial arts athlete.
Yamaguchi made her professional debut in 2007, earning victories in eight of her first 11 overall bouts. She first captured gold with the Valkyrie Featherweight Championship, adding the DEEP Jewels Featherweight Title to her resume a few years later.
In 2016, Yamaguchi signed with ONE Championship and met Angela Lee for the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship at ONE: ASCENT TO POWER. She would become the first athlete to push Lee to a decision, but came up empty in her quest to wear the title.
“ONE Championship is around Asia, and I want to show all Asian women, somebody might have struggles in their lives, but I want them to be more brave to challenge anything,” Yamaguchi said.
While it might not be for everyone, Yamaguchi believes her work with ONE Championship and in martial arts will be what brightens the eyes of her mother when they meet again.
“I want to do what I really love to do, and when I see my mother the next time, I am going to say I did my best in my life,” she said. “That is why I do what I really love all the time, and that is martial arts for me right now.”
At ONE: Century last weekend, Yamaguchi scored her fourth straight win, defeating Jenny Huang via unanimous decision. She is getting close to another shot at the title after having defeated two former ONE World Title Challengers in Huang and Laura Balin.
With every victory, Yamaguchi believes she brings honor not only to her country of Japan, but to her mother as well.
“Everything I do, I do with the intention of making my parents proud,” said Yamaguchi.
“I think this is a very Asian characteristic. We always want to give back to our parents who raised us and sacrificed for us. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
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