Japan’s first generation of skaters reflect before skateboarding’s Olympic debut

With skateboarding set for its debut at the 2020 Games, John Branch tells the stories of an artist, a photographer, a writer and a skate shop owner as they reflect on the past, present, and future of the sport and the culture in Japan

John Branch
Friday 07 February 2020 16:45
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Skateboarding is one of five sports added to the 2020 Olympics, announced here by Fujio Mitarai (centre), chairman for the Tokyo 2020 additional event programme panel, and Yoshiro Mori (left), head of the organising committee
Skateboarding is one of five sports added to the 2020 Olympics, announced here by Fujio Mitarai (centre), chairman for the Tokyo 2020 additional event programme panel, and Yoshiro Mori (left), head of the organising committee

Skateboarding’s history and culture in Japan is an echo of the United States – imported a generation ago, through rebellious teens skating in the dim corners of polite Japanese society. One big difference from America? Skateboarding, with all its noise and commotion, has never been welcomed on the streets and sidewalks of Japan. But that has not hindered its growth. Skate parks are popping up everywhere, skateboarding’s countercultural vibe has hit the mainstream, and Japan is expected to dominate its competitors when skateboarding makes its Olympic debut at this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo.

This new popularity is met with ambivalence, though, by some of those who were there in the early days. They were part of Japan’s first generation of skateboarders, and they still make a living from it – through photography, art, magazines and skate shops. Their hope is that the Olympics will make skateboarding even bigger, while somehow keeping it cool.

Yoshiro Higai, photographer

Yoshiro Higai was not quite a teenager when he first saw skateboarding in an otherwise forgettable 1976 American movie called Kenny & Company (Boys Boys in Japan). It followed the neighbourhood adventures of an 11-year-old who skateboarded.

“That’s why I wanted to do it,” Higai says.

The film emerged from the first wave of skateboarding’s popularity in the United States, and it took time to wash up on Japan’s shores. When it did, it arrived not as a countercultural movement but as a fad that represented American pop culture.

“I felt the breeze of California,” the 54-year-old Higai says, comparing skateboarding at the time to the Frisbee, Coca-Cola and graphic T-shirts. “It felt very fresh.”

There were few places to skateboard in Japan back then. During nights at one playground, Higai and his high-school friends used to sweep the deep sand from around the equipment to expose the concrete. It was a perfect bowl for skateboarding – maybe the first unofficial skate park in Japan. Before heading home, the boys dutifully shovelled the sand back before children and their parents arrived each morning.

Like roller skating and disco, skateboarding seemed to fade, as fads do. As it had in the United States, the sport wormed its way into the subculture, finding refuge with teens on the fringes.

“The majority of those who continued riding into the 1980s were people who didn’t always follow the mainstream of music or fashion,” Higai says. “For example, if a certain pop song was popular on the radio, they wouldn’t like it. They liked punk or hard rock. If a majority of people liked baseball, they didn’t like baseball. They did not want to be part of the mainstream.”

By the mid-1980s, US companies were bringing American skateboarders to Japan for demonstrations sponsored by brands like Converse and Swatch. Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain and other members of the so-called Bones Brigade rolled into Tokyo wearing striped tube socks and short shorts.

Higai began to photograph them. It marked the beginning of his career as a skateboard photographer.

His work now fills coffee-table books and lines the walls of Nike Dojo, an indoor skate park that the shoemaker created in Tokyo ahead of the Olympics.

The tricks now are more subtle than before, when there were vertical ramps and board grabs.

“It’s more difficult to photograph now,” Higai says. “Because a trick is more complicated. It’s very hard to describe by photographs.”

Pint-sized Japanese schoolgirl Misugu Okamoto, who won the Park Skateboarding World Championship in Brazil last September, trains in Ama, Aichi (AFP/Getty)

Haroshi, artist

In a two-level building off a side street far from the neon lights and tourists of central Tokyo, a 41-year-old artist builds sculptures from the colourful, discarded wooden decks of skateboards.

Each deck is less than an inch thick but otherwise unique from all the rest, distinguished only by colourful decals and artwork on an underside scratched and worn from use. The studio is filled with hundreds of decks, stacked like firewood. They lean on one another for support and sometimes spill across the floor in a clattering, chromatic burst.

And when the artist, Haroshi, cuts them into shapes from his imagination and glues the new shapes into sculptures that rise anywhere from a few inches to many feet, they become art – expensive, curated art. Haroshi has done commissions for Nike, Apple and others. Last autumn, his work was featured at a New York gallery.

On the wall of his sawdust-sprinkled work room is a piece he has not yet finished for Tony Hawk. (“Four years,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”)

“Historically, Japan has been an isolated island,” Haroshi says. “We have been using what has come from abroad. To me, the sculpture is an interpretation of skateboarding coming from America.”

His beard hangs to his collarbone and he is dressed like a skateboarder – khaki pants, plain white T-shirt, a black cap spun backward. Haroshi has tattoos on each arm and big holes in each earlobe. In the United States, he would blend in.

“But in Japan, I am very different,” he says with a laugh.

In an upstairs apartment above his workshop, the shelves are lined with art books, including those highlighting pop-art icons like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Haroshi explains how the Japanese have a deep-rooted, postwar affinity for American culture, from Coke to skateboarding. Look how many young Japanese wear T-shirts with English on them, he says, even if they do not understand the words.

Haroshi worries that the Olympics will sanitise skateboarding.

We were allowed to skate almost anywhere. Now young people can only skate at skate parks. I feel sorry for them

Haroshi

“In my generation, young people on the fringes either went into motorcycle gangs or into skateboarding,” Haroshi says. “Skateboarding was regarded as something that young criminals do.”

He smiles wistfully, the way a New Yorker might when describing the seedy days of Times Square.

“This image is changing rapidly,” he adds. “Nowadays, parents bring their kids to skateboarding class. And my generation are the teachers.”

Haroshi was a struggling artist when he discovered a low-cost medium in discarded skate decks. Most are seven-ply maple.

At first, he carved them into fashion accessories, like necklaces. They did not sell well. He started to make figurines, mostly to attract attention to the accessories. Those objects got more attention, with their whimsical designs and colourful, striated construction.

Burton Snowboards commissioned a large piece from snowboards for an event in Tokyo. Nike wanted shoes. Other companies followed, using skateboard art to evoke rebelliousness in the corporate crowd. One of his popular designs is a middle finger. (Lance Armstrong has one, Haroshi says.) Collectors of pop art know Haroshi well. Some of his pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But like any artist, and any skateboarder, he pushes the boundaries.

“The skate parks have created less freedom,” Haroshi says. “Especially in Tokyo, the security is really tight. We were allowed to skate almost anywhere. Now young people can only skate at skate parks. I feel sorry for them.”

Reigning Asian Games champion Kensuke Sasaoka shows his skills during training in July 2019 (AFP/Getty)

Akio Homma, skate shop owner

Akio Homma liked to surf as a teenager, but it took money to get to the beach. A friend gave Homma a skateboard. The streets were free.

He skated in the nighttime shadows of alleys and parking lots, under viaducts and railroad bridges. He and his friends learned tricks extrapolated from photographs in recycled American skateboard magazines.

But now, at 52, Homma sits on the top floor of a high-end, seven-story shopping mall in Tokyo, the owner of five skateboard shops called Instant. He planted Instant’s flagship store here and is surrounded by big-name American brands rooted in skateboarding: Vans, HUF, Volcom.

On the mall’s roof is a skate park, big by Tokyo standards and certainly the one with the best views. It attracts all types – the lone 20-something carrying a skateboard in a bag for an after-work workout, the fathers who once illicitly rode the streets now teaching their kids how to ride, the young man trying to teach his girlfriend, the pack of boys daring one another into bigger tricks. Homma helped design its ramps, stairs and kerbs.

“Skateboarding is much bigger than I expected,” Homma says. “When I was a kid, I thought it was just skateboarding. But now it’s fashion. Now it’s the Olympics. I welcome more people.”

He laughed. “Because I own five skateboard shops,” he says.

Homma went to college and landed in the business world. Back then he was a “salary man”, the moniker for the packs of male office workers that flood Tokyo on weekdays in a sea of white-shirted, dark-suited conformity.

“I saw my future – crowded trains, suits to work,” Homma says.

He quit and toured the United States. He carried a backpack, a guitar and a skateboard. He visited an aunt in Cleveland, skipped between Chicago and New York, and ventured up and down the west coast.

He returned to Japan to make a life in skateboarding. He owns skate shops. He judges competitions. He helps local governments design skate parks. (“Fukui has a kerb inspired by the Los Angeles Courthouse,” he says, referring to a park in a city in western Japan.)

There are two parts of skateboarding – the sport and the culture. I think it’s good to have a difference. People can choose which is better for them

Akio Homma

He spends much of his time as an advocate for skateboarding, trying to polish the negative reputation – “Three words: noisy, dangerous and dirty,” he says – it has in Japan.

Japan has about 400 skate parks now, Homma says, most of them tiny. A growth spurt accompanied the coming of the Olympics. That is elevating the international success of Japan’s competitive skateboarders, especially among women, who are dominating international park events.

Homma worries about losing the underground street culture he knew. He tries to design parks with more elements found in urban environments – more handrails and kerbs, not just swooping bowls – and he wishes more top riders would ride the streets. Most adhere to a code, if not in their sponsorship contracts then understood as an unwritten rule, not to be filmed riding the streets of Japan.

“Even Yuto,” Homma says of Yuto Horigome, a gold-medal favourite, who grew up skating the streets. “If he does street skateboarding, people might film him and say, ‘Look, he does illegal skateboarding.’ It should be permitted, and should be popular, but a number of kids don’t want to go against it. So they go to the park.”

On a steamy August night, at the indoor Nike skate park, Horigome was among the half-dozen skaters, all young men. He spends much of his time in California, where the weather and the riding are easier.

“There are two parts of skateboarding – the sport and the culture,” Homma says. “I think it’s good to have a difference. People can choose which is better for them.”

Yuto Horigome of Japan (left), alongside American Nyjah Huston (centre) and Gustavo Ribeiro of Portugal, after placing second in the WS/SLS 2019 World Championship in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Masafumi Kajitani, writer and editor

The epicentre of skateboarding’s literary culture is a small third-floor office on a quiet Tokyo street. Among the few young men working at big computer screens inside on a recent afternoon was Masafumi Kajitani, wearing Vans and a T-shirt.

Kajitani, 44, is editor of VHS Mag, an online magazine devoted to skateboarding in Japan, and a writer for a slick print magazine called Slider.

“We are at least 10 years behind American skateboarding,” he says. “Before the internet, we had to wait for all the videos to come out and the magazines to ship out. That means we couldn’t keep up with skateboarding – the tricks and the fashion. With the internet, the time gap has shrunk. The world is a lot closer and smaller.”

The sport is growing in Japan, even if it is not obvious on the streets and sidewalks. “It’s pretty impossible to practice street skating in the streets, especially in Tokyo,” Kajitani says. “People here think that skaters are like punks.” Skate parks, once the seedy hangouts of outcasts, are becoming safe havens. That means more girls and young women, Kajitani says. Riders are getting both younger and older. What used to be the domain of teenagers is now filled with toddlers on one end and greying parents on the other. Sometimes, they ride together.

But top riders know their reputations among peers are burnished in the streets. Like previous generations, they want to be known for their exploits in the untamed world.

“The main job as a pro skateboarder is to come up with videos – a 3-minute piece, which might take months, maybe a year, to make,” Kajitani says. “That tells what kind of a skater they are, what kind of music they like, what kind of personality they have. As long as you’re still putting out these videos, people in the skateboarding community will still respect you.”

Magazines are aimed at culture, not contests. But the Olympics are coming, and the worlds are blending through world-class skaters like Yuto Horigome, who balances between mainstream star and anti-hero.

© New York Times

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