Shundai Matsui was midway through a sentence Thursday night, chatting about the exploits of Japanese skateboarders, when a familiar interruption showed up.
“I thought Japanese skaters weren’t as good at skateboarding as people from other countries,” Shundai, 15, was saying as his three friends flipped their boards on a streetside plaza next to an office building in Tokyo. But in four Olympic skateboarding events, Japanese competitors seized five medals. Three were gold. It was, Shundai said, “awesome.”
Then a security guard interrupted. “It won’t be good if there’s an accident. One day, a guy broke something,” the guard said, shooing away the four teenagers with their boards and bottles of cold tea.
“It’s like this all the time,” Shundai said as he stalked off, his anger muted by familiarity. “In Japan, there are many security guards, right? And they are so annoying.”
Japan is, suddenly and improbably, a skateboarding superpower. At the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese skaters dominated the discipline the way Jamaicans have dominated sprinting. Now, Japan needs to sort out what to do with the attention the sport has received.
As Japanese gold medalists Momiji Nishiya, Yuto Horigome and Sakura Yosozumi used their position atop Olympic podiums in the past week to encourage others to do the same – “Skateboarding is a great sport, a fun sport, so please try,” Ms. Yosozumi said – a rush of people have entered Japan’s skateboard shops. Even in the midst of a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales have doubled at Instant Skateboard Shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward.
“Most of them are junior-high-school and high-school students,” said shop manager Daizo Shiode. Instant has six locations across Japan, but Mr. Shiode is sold out of a number of models of children’s boards. Even if the gold medals have been good for business, though, that hasn’t stopped Mr. Shiode from sending Olympic-inspired beginners out with a warning. “We tell new buyers that skateboarding is dangerous,” he said. “It is dangerous if not done correctly. And we tell people not to ride on public roads and in places with a lot of people – so as not to bother people.”
Japan has used strict laws and vigorous enforcement to maintain a meticulous social order. In the world’s biggest city, urban spaces are free of litter, jaywalking and the ills of disorderly conduct – a category that, for many in the country, includes skateboarding. Japan is by some measures demographically the world’s oldest country, and the grey-haired set doesn’t much like something that looks unruly.
“It doesn’t feel very good to see children with skateboards sitting on the sidewalk with drinks or snacks,” said Tatsuhiko Murase, a 77-year-old retired bank clerk in Tokyo. “They also have tattoos,” he said. “To be honest, the image is not good.”
“Sometimes,” added Kayo Nakano, 81, “there are people who ride on skateboards and run on the sidewalk. I’m old, so I can’t avoid it – and I’m a little scared.”
That’s not to say there is no space for skateboarders in Japan. Take Miyashita Park, where a skateboarding area first opened in the early 2000s, with rails and steps at a rooftop location. Last year, it was replaced with a more professional arrangement, with interconnected bowls that allow much bigger tricks. The park is located in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s busiest wards.
But an attendant said it’s normal to see only 20 people a day. It charges about $11 for an adult and $5 for a child to skate for two hours. On its outer fence, red notice boards list prohibited activities: no posting stickers, no distributing food or drinks, no kites, no balloons – and no using skateboards or inline skates outside the skate park itself.
In Tokyo, you “can’t really just ride,” said Anderson Lee, who had come to Miyashita with his friend, Gento Uchida. The two 11-year-olds watched Olympic skateboard events in awe. “I thought it was amazing,” Gento said. “It inspired me as well.”
But outside the Olympic venues, riding a skateboard in Tokyo is a fraught endeavour. In general, skateboards are not allowed on streets or sidewalks. Some subway and train stations use signs and announcements to remind travellers about skateboard prohibitions.
Authorities take a particular disliking to acts in defiance of gravity.
“One time I got caught by police for doing some tricks,” Anderson recalls. He was on a sidewalk near his home at the time, learning how to kickflip and ollie. “They told me you cannot skateboard because it’s dangerous.”
He was lucky to get away with a warning.
Police across the country have fined people for riding skateboards on public roads and publicized reports of damage to public property, such as the planks on a wooden bridge. “It’s troubling if everyone thinks it’s okay to skateboard anywhere they wish,” a Tokyo official told The Japan Times last year, citing damage to wooden decks and benches.
Some skateboarders travel with their boards in backpacks to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
In 2016, the All Japan Skateboard Association counted just 80 professional skateboarders in the country. The association does not publish an estimate of how many people in Japan ride, although its website cites industry estimates of 400,000, a number that is rising. Things are getting better, the association says, but it recommends “patience and tenacity” for those seeking more places to ride. It cautions against being an annoying rider, lest the number of places that allow skating be further reduced. Consider, it suggests, building your own facility.
There is an argument that Japan’s official vigilance against skateboarding has kept it closer to its countercultural roots.
“Skateboarders, even the most talented people in the game, have to go out and battle their tricks in the face of cops, security guards and local heroes who want to try to shut down a session,” Australian cultural magazine Monster Children wrote in 2017. “This challenge has a way of keeping skaters humble and anti-authoritarian. And this applies tenfold in Tokyo.”
The city’s Olympics have given ample proof of skateboarders’ ability to flourish under that pressure.
On Thursday, Shundai, the 15-year-old skater at the streetside plaza, picked up his board and walked off with his friends, knowing it would be too risky to ride on a sidewalk but determined to find somewhere else to practise.
“I just want to skate,” he said.
With a report from Naoko Mikami
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