Tokyo A Go-Go

Amid active volcanoes, torrential downpours, and tsunamis, over the years Japan has developed a strong skateboarding scene that’s still growing.Japanese skateboarding began to grow twenty years ago, when American skateboarding was offering the birth of street skating. (Many distributors and shops have emerged over the years to accommodate longtime supporters of the scene.) Charlie Trading, Hasco USA, K&K, and Advance Marketing are a few distributors that have been U.S. liaisons for years, while shops like B7 in Ugata and Huckle Berry in Shiga have catered to the needs of Japanese skaters.

Hasco Distribution is located in Osaka. Hasco’s U.S. Representative John Hildeburn explains how skateboarding’s popularity in Japan has mirrored the ups and downs of skateboarding in the U.S.: “They had a big boom, then they had a dead time, and then they had a bigger boom.”

Huckle Berry is a skate shop and park that’s located in Shiga, just west of Tokyo. Owner Masafumi Yoshida says: “The history of the skateboard in Japan (goes back) only about twenty years, having been established little by little, according to that boom.” Yoshida says despite its popularity in the United States, skateboarding has not been accepted by Japan’s mainstream. Japan missed out on the Dogtown era, but was awakened to the Bones Brigade’s boom of the 80s and grew from there.

Located in Tsukuba, just north of Tokyo, Advance Marketing is the Japanese distributor of Costa Mesa, California-based Giant Skateboard Distribution’s brands. Fifteen years ago, Advance offered only two pro decks-Tony Magnusson and Steve Steadham. Today, they offer more than 50 pro models from some of skateboarding’s biggest companies.

Japan’s economy has seen some rough times. There was an age of prosperity, during which Japan earned the reputation for leading the world in technology, and with this prosperity came a knack for immersing themselves in the latest trends. Hildeburn explains: “For a long time Japanese people didn’t care about price-they were interested in whatever was cool.”

But this growth didn’t last. Paralleling Western economic cycles, Japan’s economy peaked in the late 80s, and then sank. Hildeburn recalls the country’s economic downfall: “Japan has been in a recession for at least ten years-they have fundamental structural economic issues that their political system is unable to resolve-bad debt problems.

“In Japan, the economy grew every year from not long after the end of World War II until 1989-the bubble burst, and it’s changing the whole paradigm for distributors.”

From that point there was nowhere to go but up. Japan’s economy grew steadily. Advance Marketing’s President Mike Miyazawa explains that skate shoes, for example, have helped fuel skateboarding’s struggling economy: “The shoe business totally grew 100 percent from zero.” Airwalk was the first skate-shoe brand marketed in Japan.

Due to air freight and handling charges, skateboards cost more overseas. With a .05-percent tax, Japanese skaters must shell out roughly 11,000 yen (approximately 93 U.S. dollars) for a deck, 6,000 yen (approximately 51 U.S. dollars) for trucks, and another 6,000 yen for wheels. When it’s all totaled up, a complete skateboard can cost well over 200 U.S. dollars in Japan. Hildeburn says life in Japan is about 25 percent more expensive than in the U.S. “People typically earn a little less (in Japan) than here (in the U.S).” Hildeburn adds that, because the Japanese are paying more for their products, they are more concerned about the quality.Harajuku, Tokyo-based Charlie Trading is one of the longest-running skate shop/distributors in Japan. It first opened as a retail store in May 1975 as Mr. Charlie. Soon after, Owner Hidefumi Yokoyama decided to begin a distribution company by the name of Charlie Trading. Soon, Charlie Trading began distributing skate goods all over Japan. Yokoyama first got into skating when he was younger. “I saw (a) surfing TV program when I was sixteen years old. It was on the air every Wednesday night, and it showed the skate scene. It was made in the U.S.A.”K&K Corporation, a Tokyo-based distributor, started in 1997. One of the only 100-percent skateboarding companies in Japan, K&K’s CEO Yasunobu Kamogawa feels strongly about supporting skateboarding. The company promotes skateboarding in Japan by inviting pro skaters from the U.S. every year. Kamogawa says: “We invite the team every year, for promotions, demos, and video premieres.”

The growth and decline in Japanese skateboarding popularityresembles patterns of the U.S. Perhaps because over the past twenty years, Japanese skaters, as well as Japanese non-skaters, have taken their cue from trends established in the States. This is evidenced by the influence of pop culture in Japan. “Japanese people are more susceptible to fads,” says Hildeburn.While Japan is roughly the size of California, it lacks the pristine skate spots California is known for. Hildeburn explains: “You have a country that’s about the size of California, without nearly as many flat buildable places-it’s very mountainous, and any flat spot is a place were somebody is either growing rice or growing buildings. So there’s very little room to skate.”

However, Japan isn’t entirely devoid of skateable terrain-in fact, downtown Tokyo has enough hubbas and gap-to-rails to keep the best pros coming back year after year. A lot of skating in Japan also happens in skateparks, the majority of which are private and charge a fee. Hildeburn says: “There are probably 50 or 60 places in Japan that you can go, and probably only one or two are public.”Huckle Berry is a private skatepark in Shiga open year-round. Owner Yoshida explains that the park appeals to skateboarders of all ages. “In these days, those who have revived under the influence of the Dogtown movie and the children of the second generation are also enjoying skateboarding.” Huckle Berry offers a healthy mix of rails and boxes for the younger guys, and ramps and banks for the older crowd.

Hildeburn says the demographic isn’t quite so large: “The average skateboarder in Japan is probably older, or started at an older age. We have kids twelve, thirteen, and younger. Certainly the whole World Industries consumption must be that age, but in Japan, kids that age are going to school and they probably go to school half-day on Saturday or at least every other Saturday and they wear uniforms. They’re just not quite ready to bust out from Mom and Dad’s clutches.”Nowadays, Japan’s skateboarding scene is getting recognized by the skating public. Zero and Flip held premieres for their videos (Dying To Live and Sorry) in Japan last year-a move that’s becoming more popular for companies that can afford to do so. Hurley Clothing rented an American-style house in Japan, and for two months, Hurley flew all its riders out to film. From the footage they collected, they created a video-Transmission Japan. It premiered in Japan in mid April-before it even premiered in the United States. Hurley’s Team Manager Charlie Thomas feels it’s significant because all the footage was filmed in Japan during the two months that the team was there. “The premiere will be a fitting end to a unique experiment,” says Thomas.

Hurley’s Kris Markovich has been to Japan eight times: “It’s basically like living ten years in the future.” And after two months of living in Japan, Markovich says the U.S. seems a bit archaic: “The first day I got back (to the U.S.) I had to go mail bills out. I went into a post office to use the stamp machine and felt like I was in 1960.” Markovich also notes that the Japanese are very space-efficient.

Shops, distributors, and local companies all contribute to the local skateboard scene. Advance Marketing also supports the local scene by bringing in American teams for demos and contests. In addition, Miyazawa explains: “We sponsor skaters with products, and we sponsor the contests in Japan-over 200 a year.”Charlie Trading also gives back to the Japanese skate scene by sponsoring skateboarders, demos, a
nd contests.

Ninja Performance Products is perhaps the most prominent Japanese skateboarding company. Based in Tokyo, Ninja manufactures bearings, skate tools, and lubricants. Ninja maintains a presence in both the U.S. and Japan by having both an American and a Japanese team. The Japanese team boasts names like Junnosuke Yonesaka, Shin Okada, Soichiro Nakagima, and Junichi Arahata. The American team, impressive as it is diverse, consists of skaters like Karl Watson, Ryan Sheckler, and Sam Hitz.Likewise, Hasco USA contributes to promoting Japanese skateboarding by taking American pros to skate spots, shops, contests, and demos. Hildeburn feels there is a gap in skateboarding ability between Japanese and American skaters: “Those guys skate at a level that very few Japanese skaters can attain, so there has always been a gap.” But nowadays, due to increased exposure from the U.S., Hildeburn feels this gap is closing quickly. “Finally that is leading to the emergence of a domestic scene.”

Yokoyama also feels skateboarding in Japan is growing, as today it’s even easier for Japanese skaters to stay informed with what’s happening in the U.S.: “It is very easy to have a real skate scene in (the) U.S. now. The Internet makes it easier for everybody to see all the products, news, and fashions from the U.S.A.”

Japan’s scene is still growing steadily. And with shops, distributors, and local companies all supporting Japanese skateboarding, it may not be long before the next Rowley or Burnquist makes their mark on the skateboarding world.