Japan is a country that places a high value on quiet and order. People queue with the patience of monks, don’t speak on their phones on public transport, and diligently carry their rubbish until a bin is found. Yet here we are, in Tokyo, immersed in bedlam. Bodies are flying in every direction, moving to a cacophonous soundtrack of sugoi! (awesome), as well as fair bit of banging, crashing and yelling. In this moment, the strict rules of Japanese society have evaporated. It is Saturday afternoon and Komazawa Skate Park is heaving.
The 1964 Olympics are the reason this skate park exists, but the upcoming Tokyo Games in 2020 help explain why it is so packed today. Skateboarding was nowhere near the ’64 menu, but two years from now, the sport that Tokyo’s security guards so desperately try and expel from the streets will be making its Olympic debut in the city. There is a quid pro pro apect to its inclusion. While the Olympics wants to capitalise on the immense popularity the sport has gained outside of any structured setting – skateboarding will be looking to leverage the mega-event to boost its own reputation. From its infancy back in the ‘70s the sport has grappled with negative stereotypes, becoming associated – rightly or wrongly – with rebellion and vandalism.
These stereotypes have made it hard for skateboarding to be accepted in a city as neat and organised as Tokyo, says local skater Shodai Baba. Tokyo residents are so accustomed to the city’s peaceful, orderly environment that they are perturbed by the chaotic nature of skateboarding. “In the parks is ok but if you want to skate on the street, which is easy to do in other countries, it causes a lot of problems,” he says behind the counter at Stormy, Tokyo’s oldest skate shop.
Opened in 1977, Stormy has long been a magnet for Tokyo skaters. In the early days, it quickly accrued a near-ecclesiastical following, as the only space for the city’s tiny community. Now, Tokyo is considered one of the world’s leading skating cities, known primarily for its instinctive, talented youth.
Skaters as young as 30 fondly reminisce about travelling all over the city as a teenager, searching for new skating spots. There were a few deterrents: a lack of dedicated parks in Tokyo meant boarders had to use streetscapes as their apparatus. Security were especially strict, with skaters constantly on the lookout for guards as they navigated the city by kerb, bench, wall, or stairs. Instead of becoming phased by these obstacles, the young skaters adapted. Travelling at night when the streets were quieter and guards asleep allowed them to hone their tricks, with rough surfaces making them sure-footed and hardy at increasingly young ages.
A serious scene started to develop in the city. Photos and videos of elite Japanese skaters started to get exposure in the Western media, and professional skaters from the US and Europe began visiting the city to film their own exploits. The 2020 Olympics may just be the event that finally makes Tokyo a true global skateboarding capital. That would be just fine with Shodai. As opposed to other cities across the world where local skaters are infamously territorial, Tokyo’s skate scene can’t wait to grow. “We want more of everything – more skaters, more parks, more shops.
“Tokyo is ready. We want to be like a skating heaven.”
WORDS: Ronan O’Connell
IMAGES: Nobuo Iseki