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Japan’s Skateboarders Roll, Warily, Out of the Shadows

TOKYO – Daisuke Hayakawa is the coach of the Japanese Olympic skateboarding team, which is likely to dominate the sport when he debuted at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But that doesn’t mean he would dare leave his skateboard on a city sidewalk.

He may be a rebel in Japan, but he has manners.

“Skateboarding has become one of the sports of the Olympics, but the image of skateboarding in Japan is that it is an activity for rebellious children,” he said.

Since it fell on a warm summer day last night, 45-year-old Hayakawa was carrying his board at the curve of his wrist. He left his home in central Tokyo and took the subway to Kanegafuchi Station, a half-hour train ride north of downtown, and took about 15 minutes to the Sumida River.

The streets and sidewalks were mostly empty. Yet his skateboard has not yet touched the ground.

“One thing that worries me is that after the Olympics, if it gets too popular, they can further restrict skateboarding on the streets.”

Yoshiro Higai, photographer, 54

It wasn’t until he reached a wide, lonely concrete path near the river, under a raging highway viaduct near the homeless camp, that Hayakawa placed the board on his wheels.

Skating alone, he practiced a number of oils and flips, jumping mostly as his board spun beneath him, like the tricks his millions of Olympic athletes will do next summer.

On the other side of the river was a maintained park, an acre of green grass engraved with a tangle of smooth sidewalks. There were sparkling curbs and sets of concrete stairs lined with steel railings. There were benches where people sat.

It would be an ideal playground for skateboarders. But it was a joke, a mirage. Hayakawa would not dare.

“I can’t skate there,” he said with a shrug. “That would bother people.”

Japan adheres to strict, unwritten rules of comparison. It is a culture of courtesy and public reserve – a country of order, where people line up on the subway, where they rarely eat or drink in public places, where garbage and graffiti are virtually absent.

Dignity comes from mixing, not standing out. This explains the swarms of office workers in matching white shirts and public transport signs, who politely require those with headphones to hold the music so that a muffled drum beat does not disturb the silence of another passenger. The business cards are exchanged with both hands as a sign of humility. Simple goodbyes turn into a dance of bowing and nodding into an exercise of modest grace.

Skateboarding is none of that. It is destructive, noisy, messy. This is the main reason why it has been pushed into the scattered shadows of Japanese society for decades – far more hidden and distrustful than anywhere else in the world.

“Nobody uses skateboards for transportation here – you can’t,” said Shimon Iwazawa, 20. He is known to avoid cultural norms and local regulations by doing so anyway, but usually only on dark nights. “If you skate on the street, it means you are in a bad place. This is a bad image. “

These perceptions can have consequences. On Sunday last summer, Iwazawa said, he was carrying his skateboard through Tokyo station when a security guard stopped him and asked to see inside his backpack. This happens regularly, he and other skateboarders said.

But this time in Iwazawa’s backpack was a blade used to cut a grip tape, sticky sheets like sandpaper, skateboarders placed on their decks to squeeze their feet against the board. The blade was confiscated as a weapon, Iwazawa said, and it was filmed, stamped and held for several hours.

“In my generation, young people on the outskirts either got into motorcycle gangs or skateboards. Skateboarding was seen as something young criminals do. “

Haroshi, Artist, 41

Some skaters hide their boards in bags to avoid public condemnation. They say they are used to being punished by the elderly, especially the guards. They are sometimes called “Yankees”, an insult to what is perceived as boorish behavior.

“This is the skateboarder’s fight here,” said Nino Moscardi, Nike’s skateboard team manager in Japan. He was sitting in Streamer Coffee, a Shibuya skateboard-themed shop, under skateboards commissioned as works of art. “People are shouting, ‘You have to do this in skate parks!’ “And this is a complete misunderstanding of the skateboard. “

This has been the case in the United States for some time. Skateboarding was once part of the counterculture, a haven for unsuitable children, backed by punk and rap soundtracks. Skate parks were built, usually out of sight, to keep up the chaos on the streets.

Over the decades, like many other anti-authoritarian movements, skateboarding has leaked into the mass flow. Skateboards – a form of transportation, an art tool, a challenge totem – are now sliding on American sidewalks, squares and streets. Nowadays, skateboarding style, fashion and culture have become beacons for the masses seeking a calculated revolt.

These American exports reverberated around the world, like Levi’s and Hollywood movies, to places like Japan. It came second hand in the mail, in VHS videos and worn out skateboard magazines. He came to competitions and demonstrations where he liked teenager Tony Hawk and showed how to do it.

Decades later, the crowded streets of Tokyo are filled with young and old wearing Thrasher T-shirts and Vans shoes. There are skate shops and a growing number of skate parks.

“Before the Internet, we had to wait for all the videos to come out and the magazines to be sent. This means that we could not keep up with skateboarding – tricks and fashion. With the Internet, the time interval has shrunk. “

Massafumi Kaitani, writer and magazine editor, 44

One thing is not: a real skateboard on the streets and sidewalks.

“You’d think that the bigger the skateboard in Japan, the more accepted and less restrictive it would be,” Moscardi said. “But it’s actually the opposite.”

Signs banning it are everywhere. Part of the reason is practical: Tokyo’s streets and sidewalks are crowded. But bicycles are welcome, they are often seen turning at pedestrians. The main difference is that the bikes are quiet. The skateboards grind and pound. Street skateboarding is considered “meiwaku-koui” – annoying behavior.

And yet now comes an army of young Japanese, men and women, boys and girls, who are likely to win more medals than any other country this summer in the first Olympic skateboarding competitions. They are impudent only with their athletic talent.

There will be two separate events: a “street” with an assortment of rails, stairs and other city-like obstacles to perform tricks on, and a “park” that is mostly a smooth pile of mounds and shores that attract to empty swimming. pools in California that give birth to a surf-like skateboard style.

Already Japanese riders such as Yuto Horigome, Aori Nishimura and a group of girls are stars of the world racing chain and rising heroes for many in Japan. Now their expected success at the Olympics is pushing the skateboard into the mass current. This gives the sport here a recognition it has never had and perhaps never wanted.

“The skateboard is much bigger than I expected. When I was a kid, I thought it was just a skateboard. But now it’s fashion. Now it’s the Olympics. “

Akio Homma, owner of Skate Shop, 52

Skate parks are being built, especially in the suburbs and smaller towns. Parents enroll their children in skateboard lessons. They hire coaches. The skatepark has become a cousin of a climbing gym – limited and approved by parents.

These cocoons give birth to some of the best athletes in the world just in time for the Olympics.

Expectations are high. Hayakawa expects Japan to take at least six of the sport’s 12 medals, including a number of golds.

It will certainly be a strange but exciting time for Hayakawa and others of the older generation, the grown-up mismatches, most deeply connected to skateboard culture in Japan.

“For my old friends, we want to show that what we did was not wrong,” Hayakawa said. “For newcomers who come on skateboards for the Olympics, I explain that our culture is cool. We are why they compete. “

About an hour below the viaduct, the red sun engulfed by a distant horizon that had just begun to shine, Hayakawa glowed with sweat. He threw his skateboard back in his hands and retreated all the way to the station. He then rode the next train home, carrying his own wheels under his arm.

“People are gradually perceiving skateboarding as a sport,” Hayakawa said. “But most people won’t understand that the country of counterculture is the real skateboard.”

Cantaro Suzuki contributed to the reporting.

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