Tokyo Olympics 2020: Taking skateboarding to the streets? Not in Japan
Daisuke Hayakawa is the coach of Japan’s Olympic skateboarding team, which is likely to dominate the sport when it makes its debut at this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. But that does not mean he would dare set his skateboard down on a city sidewalk.
He may be a rebel in Japan, but he has manners.
“Skateboarding became one of the sports at the Olympics, but the image of skateboarding in Japan is that it’s an activity for unruly kids,” he said.
So as evening fell on a warm summer day last year, Hayakawa, 45, carried his board in the crook of his wrist. He left home in central Tokyo and took the subway to Kanegafuchi Station, a half-hour train ride north of downtown, and walked about 15 minutes toward the Sumida River.
The streets and sidewalks were mostly empty. Yet his skateboard still never touched the ground.
It was not until he had reached a broad and lonely concrete path near the river, under a thrumming highway viaduct near a homeless encampment, that Hayakawa set the board on its wheels.
Skating alone, he practiced a range of ollies and flips, mostly leaping as his board spun beneath him, the kind of tricks his Olympic athletes will do in front of millions this summer.
Across the river was a manicured park, acres of green grass etched with a tangle of smooth sidewalks. There were scintillating curbs and sets of concrete stairs lined by steel railings. There were benches where people sat.
It would have been a perfect playground for skateboarders. But it was a tease, a mirage. Hayakawa would not dare.
“I can’t skate over there,” he said with a shrug. “That would bother people.”
Japan adheres to strict, unwritten rules of comportment. It is a culture of courtesies and public reserve, a land of order — where people line up to board subways, where they rarely eat or drink in public, where trash and graffiti are virtually absent.
Dignity comes from blending in, not standing out. That explains the swarms of office workers in matching white shirts and the signs on public transportation politely requesting that those with headphones keep the music down, lest a muffled drumbeat disrupt another commuter’s quiet. Business cards are exchanged with two hands in a gesture of humility. Simple goodbyes become a dance of bowing and nodding in an exercise of demure grace.
Skateboarding is none of that. It is disruptive, noisy, messy. That is the main reason it has, for decades, been relegated to the unkempt shadows of Japanese society — far more hidden and distrusted than in other places around the globe.
“Here, no one uses skateboards for transportation — you can’t,” said Shimon Iwazawa, 20. He is known to eschew cultural norms and local ordinances by doing it anyway, but usually only in the dark of night. “If you skate in the street, it means you’re from a bad place. It’s a bad image.”
Those perceptions can have consequences. On a Sunday last summer, Iwazawa said, he was carrying his skateboard through Tokyo Station when a security officer stopped him and demanded to see inside his backpack. It happens regularly, he and other skateboarders said.
But this time, Iwazawa’s pack had a blade used to cut grip tape, the sticky sandpaper-like sheets skateboarders put on their decks to give their feet a grip on the board. The blade was confiscated as a weapon, Iwazawa said, and he was photographed, fingerprinted and held for several hours.
Some skaters conceal their boards in bags to avoid judgment in public. They say they are used to being chastised by the elderly, especially, and by security guards. Sometimes they are called “Yankees,” an insult to what is perceived as boorish behavior.