People in Japan thought skate culture was dangerous. Now it's going mainstream

Contributors Oscar Holland, CNN

A young person leaps into the air on his skateboard earlier than thudding to the bottom. Nearby, his pal rotates a board on his head whereas one other makes use of zig-zags down concrete steps.

It’s near midnight and these skaters have gathered at Osaka’s Triangle Park within the metropolis’s Amerikamura (American Village) neighborhood. Flanked on all sides by attire outlets and impartial boutiques, this has lengthy been a hub for younger creatives. But it additionally has a near-constant police presence.

“From the outside, this park looks like it belongs to young people, but when we skateboard here, the police always come,” says skater Taiichiro Nakamura, higher often known as “Chopper.”

“So while this place is meant to represent freedom, it’s not quite the case.”

For the previous 30 years, Chopper has been a part of the Osaka Daggers, a skate collective named after a gang within the 1986 American film “Thrashin.” When he began coming to Triangle Park within the Nineteen Eighties, the crew usually clashed with native youths — and had been branded rebels and misfits by older, extra conservative elements of Japanese society.

The Osaka Daggers, a collective of skaters and artists.

The Osaka Daggers, a collective of skaters and artists. Credit: Courtesy Osaka Daggers

Today, the Osaka Daggers is a various group of artists and skate boarders of all ages. And with skateboarding making its Olympic debut this Sunday, a once-niche counterculture is now a world commodity and high-fashion obsession.

But whereas purists may see the prospect of mainstream acceptance as a risk to this once-underground tradition, Chopper welcomed the event.

“I don’t think our alternative skateboarding culture (will be) changed by the Olympics,” he says. “When skateboarding became an Olympic sport it expanded the scene.

“People who consider in old-school types aren’t being pressured to vary their methods simply because skateboarding turned an Olympic sport.”

The Osaka Daggers merge skating with art and punk culture. Taiichiro 'Chopper' Nakamura is pictured here on the left.

The Osaka Daggers merge skating with artwork and punk tradition. Taiichiro ‘Chopper’ Nakamura is pictured right here on the left. Credit: Courtesy Osaka Daggers

A global phenomenon

Skateboarding can be traced back to 1950s America, where West Coast surfers started attaching wheels to wooden boards in order to “surf” on land. It flourished in the 1960s, with stars from Clint Eastwood to Katherine Hepburn pictured trying their hand at the sport.

In 1965, ABC televised the National Skateboard Championships, which saw international skaters battled it out for prizes of $500. And in decades since, this underground subculture and casual hobby has transformed into a competitive profession and multi-billion greenback business.
Taiichiro Nakamura, who goes by the nickname 'Chopper,' has been part of the Osaka Daggers for 30 years.

Taiichiro Nakamura, who goes by the nickname ‘Chopper,’ has been a part of the Osaka Daggers for 30 years. Credit: Courtesy Osaka Daggers

In Japan, the trend took longer catch on, but the All Japan Skateboard Association, founded in 1982, helped to gradually introduce the activity through surfing centers. Chopper, meanwhile, got his start in skateboarding in the late 1990s when — aged 15 — he rented his younger brother’s board for 500 yen ($5) a week. He imitated the American skaters he saw on grainy VHS tapes, which, he said, took about six months to make it to Japan after their US release.

Encouraged to pursue an unconventional career path by his father, Chopper practiced skating obsessively, eventually turning his hobby into a profession. After performing well at national competitions, he soon found posters of himself pasted on the walls of local skate shops. He was then offered a column in a monthly magazine, where he balanced crude jokes and anarchic commentary with more serious explorations of the art of skating.

Chopper’s musings — coupled with his punk rock look and ethos — earned him an underground following. Kids interested in skateboarding often bypassed the Tokyo scene and headed to Osaka, forming the foundation of what is now the Osaka Daggers.

How skateboarding went mainstream in Japan

With his slight build, Chopper never thought he’d reach the same level as international skaters. So with many of his American counterparts chasing bigger “air” and increasingly ambitious aerial tricks, Chopper stuck close to the ground and pursued innovative street skating. He imbued his tricks with a sense of fun, inventing moves like the “potato roll,” which sees him twisting his body against the ground with his board balanced on his feet.

“Chopper made folks notice that skateboarding is not nearly copying different folks’s types,” says Hayate Kamimura, who skates with the Osaka Daggers and works as an instructor at a nearby skate park. “It’s about the way you deliver out your individual creativity and invent a mode that is distinctive to you.”

Olympic breakthrough

After decades in Japan’s underground, skateboarding experienced a global breakthrough in 2015. As part of an initiative that sees host countries propose new sports for the Games, Tokyo 2020 organizers included skating on its shortlist.

The next year, the proposal was formally accepted by the International Olympic Committee alongside surfing, karate and climbing. History will be made on Sunday at Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park, as the very first skaters to call themselves Olympians kick off the men’s street skating competition.

Yuto Horigome of Team Japan practices on the skateboard street course at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.

Yuto Horigome of Team Japan practices on the skateboard avenue course on the Ariake Urban Sports Park. Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But when it comes to mainstream acceptance in Japan, there’s still a long way to go, according to Daisuke Hayakawa, coach of the country’s Olympic skateboarding team. While the excitement around the Games has encouraged more parents to take their kids to skateboarding class, he said, skating in public areas is still frowned upon.

“There nonetheless aren’t sufficient skate parks the place we are able to skate with out disturbing folks,” he said. “If you skate on the road, it’s important to share that house with folks strolling by — who will get the impression that skateboarding is noisy, harmful or scary.

“That’s why people still don’t have positive attitudes towards skaters.”

Nonetheless, in comparison with the late Nineties, when Chopper and his crew began out, skaters are more and more a part of Japan’s city material — regardless of the continuing police presence at Osaka’s Triangle Park.

“Now we have more kids, women and elderly people skateboarding because of the Olympics,” Chopper mentioned. “The scene is definitely becoming more diverse.”

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