The Tokyo Skate Scene: A Contemporary Look at Skateboarding in and Around the City
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Skateboarding and Japan might not be as closely associated with each other as ‘Godzilla’, cup ramen or Shibuya crossing are with the country of the rising sun. But while the latter pop culture icons claim much of the island nation's subcultural fame, skate culture has been comfortably cruising in the shadows as a tight-knit community for quite some time.. After all, 6 of the 12 Supreme stores worldwide are located in Japan, with the Daikanyama one having opened in 1998 only 4 years after the very first New York store. Back then, skating in Japan was seen as rebellious and notorious. Skaters were hated by local residents, and instantly labeled as “bad people”. However, after many years have passed in Japan, the rebellious sport has started to gain more acceptance. While skating was seen as a niche counterculture back then, it has evolved and grown to near-mainstream popularity, with the sport even being recognized as an official discipline of the Olympic games for the very first time.
Characterized by a long period of isolation, Japanese society functions by means of numerous, unwritten rules, common courtesies and public order. For instance, when waiting for the subway, everyone lines up carefully and carries their backpacks on the front in order to avoid pushing anyone standing behind you. Also, trash and graffiti are virtually non-existent in public spaces.
So when a rebellious counterculture, backed by misfit kids listening to punk and rap, emerged in the States, it was met by a small, yet fertile breeding ground in the East. Imported via early VHS skate videos, used skateboard magazines and the first competitions starring a young Tony Hawk, skate culture arrived and was embraced by a generation of teenagers who wanted to challenge the strict status quo. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the first skate craze coincided with the 90s Ura-Harajuku movement that was similarly inspired by Punk music and didn’t want to abide by societal norms. Despite local residents not being the biggest cheerleaders of skate crews, it is thanks to their rebellion that the sport has become more widely accessible today. While rebellious movements in the present seem rather obstructive to bystanders, they often enable, and are actually vital, for pushing the boundaries of what will become possible in the future. The continued resistance by OG Japanese skaters has shown in impressive manner how the sport has blossomed and became the subculture it is today in Japan, to the extent that it became an Olympic discipline and young parents sending their children to skate classes.
As the skate community grew, so did the amount of signs prohibiting it everywhere. While skaters are quickly stopped by the police when they’re roaming the streets or sidewalks of the city, bikers are embraced with open arms to zoom through the masses of pedestrians. You might be asking yourself why, but the reason is as obvious as it is reflective of the deeply embedded cultural code against causing public nuisance: While the two wheelers are zipping through the crowds quietly, skateboards grind and clatter over the Tokyo asphalt - thereby causing loud noise which is considered bothersome behavior. As a result, skateparks were built, typically out of sight and away from the crowded downtown to push the rebellious, nuisance-causing skaters out of the busy cityscape.
Today, Tokyo’s streets are filled with young and old repping renowned skate brands, regardless of whether they’re actually aware of the brands origins or if they even skate themselves. The reason for the uptick in skate apparel cannot only be found in the desire to imitate and show belonging to a rebellious subculture, but can also be traced back to Japan’s flirt with baggy clothing. While there has not been a clearly defined skate uniform, some trends have never gone out of fashion and are actually being embraced by a larger, non-skate fashion audience. Since the early days of skate culture’s arrival in Japan, one constant has been the traditionally baggy pants and tops. Whether they are made out of denim, corduroy or more recently ripstop, baggy pants have been an absolute must-have for any skater - not just because of their cool and laid back look, but also for functional reasons such as allowing for greater flexibility. While oversized tops are still a go-to for many, the aesthetic has changed slightly. While early skate tees typically featured graphic-heavy prints on the front, the more contemporary update would be a low-key print on the upper left part of the chest or simply a stylish font. Without wanting to over interpret this style evolution, it could possibly hint at the fact that skateboarding in Japan has moved on from its once rebellious stage, where loud graphic prints signaled pride to stand out from the masses, to a slightly more civil stage, where skaters still want to stand out due to their style, but not for other wrong reasons that would cause nuisance to their surroundings.
While the street regulations make it a lot harder to skate in Japan than anywhere else, times have started to change and skateboarders are starting to gain more light than back then. Moreover, there are more skate parks and shops than ever before, which only goes to show that skateboarding has developed from a niche subculture to near-mainstream popularity. The inclusion of the sport in the Olympic games is another piece of evidence to this.
To detail skateboarding’s long-arching influence on Japan’s youth, gather first-hand insights into the Tokyo youth skate scene, and build an idea of its role in the country’s future, we spoke to Yuya, Yusuke and Masato, long-time skaters who have witnessed the gradual change in the sport’s perception and are part of the skate culture in and around the city.
Hey guys, how are you? Could you please introduce yourselves?
Yuya (hereinafter called YY): I'm Yuya, the shop owner of the retail store Under the Sun.
Yusuke (hereinafter called YS): Hi, I'm Yusuke and I’m working as a hairstylist.
Masato (hereinafter called M): Hi I'm Masato and I’m working as shop staff in a vintage store.
How long have you been skateboarding? How did it all start for you?
YY: I think I’ve been skating for 6 years in total now? The first time I got interested in skateboarding was when I was 12, my sister's ex-boyfriend inspired me, but I quit as soon as I started basketball. Then I restarted skating again 5-6 years ago.
YS: I started about 10 years ago when my friends invited me to join them at the skate park near my hometown.
M: I picked up the board for the first time 11 years ago. I got a skateboard as a present from my ex-girlfriend, so I started it.
Do you prefer to skate in skate parks or in the streets?
YY: Definitely in the streets. Skating in parks is also fun, but it really depends on the park.
YS: Street for sure. Sometimes, unpredictable things happen in the street, which is super fun and makes it way more exciting than going to a skatepark. It's always super fun.
M: Both, but I prefer skating in parks because I can meet and hang out with various generations of skaters who are all passionate about the same thing.
Tokyo is a pretty densely populated city. Does that mean it's difficult to find good spots in and around the city?
YY: I think Tokyo has tons of good skate spots! I mean there are lots of skate spots in Tokyo, but as you know Tokyo is always busy so it can be quite hard sometimes to find a skateable spot in the downtown area.
YS: Yes, I think so. It's quite challenging to find a quiet spot but it forces you to be creative and look at things from a different angle.
M: I’d say so, but it also depends on the kind of skater you are. There’s for sure always new ways to repurpose and use the obstacles in the streets to your advantage if you really want to.
Almost all the skate videos that are shot in Tokyo are shot at night. What's the reason for this?
YY: There are simply too many people on the Tokyo streets at day time so we can't really skate then. That's why the only time you have enough space to skate in the city is during the night. Plus, the police and security guards in Tokyo are super strict, and the people living in the downtown area also seem to be quite sensitive to the noise of the skate wheels. It's always those people that call the police, putting an abrupt stop to a skate session.
Who is worse - policemen or security guards? Does it often come to run-ins/confrontations with them and if so, how do these usually go down?
YY: I really don't like both policemen and security guards who come charging at you, yelling at us and treating us disrespectfully. I always try to be friendly to them, so I never find myself in a confrontation or get into trouble with them. That's the best way to get them to retreat I guess if you ask me.
YS: Both policemen and security guards can be equally bad. But if you ask me, the stubborn ones are the worst. I always try to avoid any kind of trouble so you won’t catch me around any confrontations.
M: Like Yusuke said, security guard or policeman doesn’t really matter. Some of them are just plain angry and aggressive from the get-go. I’m not one to argue unnecessarily since its a pretty widespread premise that skaters are always the bad guys, so the cards are stacked against us from the beginning. I get that they’re just doing their jobs, but I can’t help but laugh a little at the ones that snap super quick.
While the winters in Tokyo can get quite cold, the summers are notoriously hot. What does that mean for skaters and the way they dress?
YY: I don’t think skating in the mild Tokyo winter is too bad. Although I tend to skate less during the winter, the temperature is around 8 - 10°C so it's actually quite manageable. The summer on the other hand is terrible. It’s so humid, that skating in the daytime means death. That’s why I only skate at night then. Whether it's winter or summer, I always try to dress lightly when I skate. I never wear puffy down jackets even if it's a super cold winter day. In summer, hats and baseball caps are absolute essentials.
YS: Half-pants that you can zip are the best for summer. If it gets too hot, you can simply convert your pants into shorts, which comes in super handy on sweaty summer days. During winter, my rule of thumb is pretty easy: Keep on skating until I feel a risk of freezing to death.
M: I think skating in Japan can be quite challenging due to the range of temperatures and climates. The coldness of the winter, the absurd humidity of summer… this range is simply the worst. Although I usually wear the same style all year around, its pretty common for others to wear shorts in summer. I completely change my outfit after skating to hit the Izakaya (Japanese bar) with my friends.
Skating in the streets or doing tricks in public spaces raises a lot of attention. Does that lead to a negative perception of the sport or how does the general public feel about skate culture in Tokyo/Japan?
YY: I think the skateboarding we do in the streets is very different from the skateboarding as an Olympic discipline. Ironically, skateboarding is getting popular due to the fashion world and is considered as “cool culture” these days. At the same time, this also means that sometimes, people who don't skate but cause nuisance while wearing a Supreme shirt give a bad rep to Skaters as a whole.
YS: I think given the current state, there is a danger that skating will get a bit of a negative perception. Its important that skaters educate and share the real culture and history to people who have no idea about skate culture before they characterize it as something bad.
M: I think there's a bunch of people that don’t think too positively about street skating. Pushing on the asphalt streets is already causing quite the noise, so I get a lot of weird looks whenever I do it. I think its still a long way to go until Skateboarding and Japan will get warm with each other. A good start would be to build more easily accessible public skate parks, especially after the addition of skating as an Olympic discipline introduced a bunch of young kids to the sport.
Is there some kind of dress code for Tokyo skaters? What makes the (fashion) style of Tokyo-based skaters so different and unique? What are some typical outfits/brands?
YY: I don't think there's a specific dress code for Tokyo skaters, but I'm sure that striped beanies, Polar's Big Boy pants and blacked out shoes with white laces are a big trend among young skaters in Tokyo. Also, Clarks Wallabee Boots are getting popular as the shoes worn by skaters when they wanna dress up.
YS: I think Supreme or Polar are quite popular these days. In general, everyone is getting heavily inspired by the styles they come across on Instagram. Skaters pay attention to their style, so they actively search for new items on social media. At the same time, there's also a bunch of people that hate the idea of a dress code, so they naturally have a very different style.
M: Theres no such thing as a dress code, but a lot of the younger skaters wear pretty similar outfits. If you hit up Komazawa Skatepark, you’ll always catch a bunch of skaters rocking a Baker Skateboards deck, Polar Big Boy jeans, Nike Dunk Lows and a golden Necklace. I’m not trying to roast them or make fun of them at all - it's just that I’ve seen that exact outfit too many times that it becomes a bit repetitive and funny. It's basically the Komazawa Skater starter pack.
What are some Tokyo skate hotspots? Are there infamous spots that are popular amongst the community? What makes these places so popular?
YY: I would say the Plaza in front of the Kaigakan (Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery) is a cool spot. I wouldn’t say it's infamous tho. Shinpei Ueno, one of the more famous Tokyo skaters, often skates there and posts it on his Instagram.
YS: I agree with Yuya-san. The Plaza as we call it might not be infamous, but it's a really laid back spot. There's plenty of space to skate and no one chases us away.
M: Maybe the Asakusa Bank? Although the spot has a bunch of different nicknames, there is a spot at the Sumida River Bank that always appears in the videos from skaters that come from abroad. I also recommend this spot since you almost never get kicked out and you can take it chill from early in the morning. And since Asakusa is nearby, you can skate there afterwards to explore and do some sightseeing.
How would you describe the Tokyo skate scene to newcomers?
YY: Pretty similar to the skate scenes all over the world. The only difference is that the likelihood of getting kicked out is much higher compared to other countries. So my recommendation is to train your leg muscles to run away fast before you come and skate in Tokyo haha.
YS: "Loose trucks are better."
M: You should search for “Buggye” and “Ugly Weapons”. We’re a young skate crew repping the Tokyo skate scene. We hit up our favorite spots night after night and make the streets our playground. I think that you can get a fairly decent understanding of the Tokyo skate scene if you follow us around. Personally, I’m a big fan of Kelly Ishihara and Ayahiro Uratsuka. Both of them are from Yokohama but have a very very cool style. If you haven’t heard of them, I’d highly recommend checking them out to get a sense of the Tokyo skate scene.
If skaters from abroad visit Tokyo, what would you advise them to do, where should they go to skate and where can they link up with the local scene?
YY: I would advise them to skate at night because of the strictness of the police and security guards and sensitivity of the residents. Plus, at night you can skate longer and drink beer on the streets without hesitation. The easiest way to connect with locals is by simply going to skate parks.
YS: Go to a skatepark in the evening, hit a couple of street spots afterwards and finish it all off with a couple of beers at the closest FamilyMart. In case you didn’t know, drinking on the street is actually legal in Japan! So if you follow those steps, I’m sure you’ll make local skater friends in no time.
M: Make sure to hit up Tamachi Skatepark, Komazawa Skatepark or my local park at Shin-Yokohama and you’ll always run into some skaters who are for real.
Can you tell us about the convenience store life for skaters in Tokyo? What are your favourite convenience stores and what are your Top 3 snacks? (Can be food/snacks/drinks)
YY: Chilling in front of a convenience store after skating is hands down one of my favorite things to do. If you ask me, the best konbini is definitely 7 Eleven. You would think 7 Elevens are all over the world, but Japan's 7 Eleven’s are exceptionally good. My recommendations are Nikuman (steamed bun), hot snacks like fried chicken (usually sold at cashier), and Sapporo beer.
YS: We can get beers quickly at the convenience store. It's perfect and a crucial part of the real skate life in Tokyo.
M: 7 Eleven is my favorite for sure. My go-to’s are a cup of hot coffee, a bottle of Pocari Sweat and a hot snack. Real talk, the 7 Eleven hot snacks paired with a beer are a match made in heaven.
Any last words?
YY: Skating is all about having fun. Thank you so much for reading our answers. I’m looking forward to meeting you one day at Under the Sun.
YS: What Yuya-san said; If you have the chance to visit Japan, you’re always welcome to drop by and say hi!
M: Like I said in the beginning, Japan is quite the tiny island nation in the East. It's a very homogenous country with a very distinctive culture, which makes it a fun country to explore. I’ve been lucky enough to travel and experience the States and Europe and love culture there, but I also really like my home country. Consider the developed infrastructure or the diverse food culture. Although the skate culture still has a lot of room and potential to grow, I’m sure that its a super fun experience to come here and skate. If you’re reading these sentences, hit me up when you come to Tokyo and we’ll go to a skatepark together and have some beers in front of the konbini afterwards!
Tokyo’s youth and skate scene has changed drastically throughout the years. As evidenced by Yuya, Yusuke, Masato skaters are still far off from more widespread local sports like baseball. At the same time, it seems as if some parts are timeless - such as the fashion aspect of the sport, which is still extremely relevant in a fashion-conscious country like Japan. While baggy, oversized silhouettes have been skate favorites since the very beginning, they are still widely celebrated today - with the only exception being a slight change of volume when it comes to the loudness of graphic prints and overall colors. Tokyo’s skate culture continues to evolve, with the inclusion of the sport as an official Olympic discipline only being another catalyst. But while the sport has entered the mainstream, it still hasn’t fully shaken off its bad boy image. A welcome change to the largely homogenous Tokyo society.
Words, interview and imagery by sabukaru.online
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