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Japan dominated in Olympic skateboarding. Will it bring acceptance on Tokyo’s streets?

A skateboarder with a helmet performs
Sakura Yosozumi of Japan competes in the women’s park skateboarding final at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Tokyo, a few disappointed skateboarders hung about outside the sealed-off grounds of Komazawa Skate Park, boards in hand.

Some were regulars, there to continue working out tricks they’d long been practicing. Others were first-timers, inspired by Japan’s dominance at skateboarding’s Olympic debut on their home turf earlier in the week.

But they arrived to find the gates shut due to the city’s pandemic state of emergency, and outside the fence, unwelcome glares told them it didn’t matter that Japan had captured three of the four available gold medals of the Summer Games: Skateboarding would continue to be seen as an unacceptable nuisance on Tokyo’s streets and beyond.

Yuta Izumira and his friend had coasted down the paved pathway near the shuttered park — only to get an earful from a passing cyclist who yelled at them to get out of the way.

“It’s the first Olympics for skateboarding and the champions were Japanese!” the 18-year-old said. “Here, it’s hard to skateboard. … We get warned over and over again by the police. We get our names and our phone numbers taken down.”

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Friends Yuta Izumira, left, and Koshiro Hamada, right, both 18, near a closed skate park in Tokyo.
Friends Yuta Izumira, left, and Koshiro Hamada, right, both 18, were hanging out near a closed skate park in Tokyo on a Saturday afternoon after Japanese skateboarders dominated at the Olympics. It’s hard to skateboard in the city, where police often stop them, they said.
(Hanako Lowry / For the Times)

The city’s skaters say the reality of skateboarding on Tokyo’s streets is a far cry from the Olympic glory currently being bestowed on the sport on the country’s TV screens. The slew of medals, five in all, including a silver and bronze, the country will readily celebrate. Yet not so much the boundary-pushing, authority-questioning, devil-may-care ethos that comes along with the sport.

Some are optimistic about a change in the sport’s image the Games and Japan’s gold medals could bring. Others worry a surge in interest may only invite further restrictions. How kindly the city will take to an influx of people keen to try out the new Olympic sport remains to be seen.

In Tokyo, skateboarding is essentially banned in public areas, including most parks, and dedicated skate parks are a magnet for police inspection and complaints, skaters say.

The park that Olympic gold medalist Yuto Horigome grew up practicing in has banned the sport.

An airborne skateboarder
Yuto Horigome of Japan competes in the men’s street skateboarding final at the Olympics.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Hostility, hurdles and harassment are a daily reality for Tokyo’s skaters, for whom the sport can prove a lifeline in a society full of rules and restrictions.

For Shimon Iwazawa, 22, his local skate park in Osaka was a haven when he had trouble fitting in at Japanese public schools after moving back to Japan from Germany in the sixth grade. He was bullied for being mixed-race.

“One of the beauties of skating is that everybody is different and everyone respects and enjoys that difference,” said Iwazawa, a YouTuber and author of a book about his relationship with skateboarding. “In Japanese public elementary schools, being different was not always a good thing. But at the skate park, it was comfortable to be different. I was proud to be different.”

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He hopes that the Olympics will introduce Japanese viewers to the positive aspects of skateboarding, and that they’ll come to understand and embrace the rich culture behind it that long preceded it becoming an Olympic sport.

“I want people to know about its origins that lie in freedom,” he explained. “It’s like a tool to describe yourself. I think of it as more like an art.”

Iwazawa waxes lyrical about just how integral the street and the urban landscape — and not just sterile, designated parks — are to the art of skateboarding. It’s about charting your own courses, using your creativity, he says, and the increasingly tougher crackdown on skating on the streets of Tokyo sucks the life out of it.

The limitations on street skating may in part be responsible for Japan’s Olympic success, Iwazawa said. Skaters are forced to practice only in skate parks, and without that relationship to street culture, they hone skills and tricks with a singular focus on competitions.

Japan’s medalists, three of them teenagers and one just 12, have used their moment in the spotlight to plead for more space to practice.

“I hope we’ll see many more parks to practice in Japan,” 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya said after winning the gold medal in women’s street skateboarding. “We’d like to have good trainings and more often.”

But a relationship with the city is at the core of the sport’s allure, its devotees say.

“We want to be the first ones who conquer that particular handrail or whatever,” said Hiroki Hamada, an employee at a skateboard and BMX shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “It’s something that can only be achieved in that moment, because unlike the park, the city is always changing. I think every skater would prefer to skate street.”

A skateboarder's shadow is seen on the concrete
Yndiara Asp of Brazil casts a shadow as she loses her board during an Olympic practice session.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

On the day of the men’s street skateboarding final last week, the board and uniform sported by Horigome flew off the shelves. Hamada said it sold out at the store where he works. But he didn’t think skateboarding’s newfound popularity would make it easier for the city’s skaters — and in some ways, he’s perfectly fine with that.

“The older generations don’t really understand us,” Hamada said with a shrug. “But we aren’t really looking to be understood.”

Setagaya Skate Park, one of the few in Tokyo that has remained open during the COVID-19 state of emergency, was full of skaters young and old on a recent afternoon despite the stifling summer heat. A young boy flew down a ramp, his dad watching from the sideline with exclamations and feedback like an Olympic coach.

“I like feeling free on the ramp,” said 8-year-old Hibito Oshino, already two years into his skating career.

Yuta Machida, a 31-year old teacher who is a regular at the park, fretted that the Olympics could be bad for skateboarding in Tokyo in the short term.

“There are going to be more skateboarders but fewer spots,” he said. “The streets are going to get busier and people are going to be stopped more often.”

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A young skater who’d recently moved to Tokyo from Nara learned that the hard way on Tuesday evening on the streets of Shibuya. The first time he dared let his Baker skateboard touch Tokyo’s pavement, two police officers were on his case, giving him a lengthy talking-to and warning he could face consequences.

“What you are doing is wrong, you know,” one of the officers scolded.

When they finally let him go, he wandered off into the Shibuya evening on foot, not daring to put down his board again.

But Japan’s Olympic skateboarders seem to be winning over hearts in addition to the gold, silver and bronze hardware. A particularly poignant moment came after the women’s park skateboarding final Wednesday.

A skateboarder is carried aloft by others
Misugu Okamoto of Japan is carried off after her run in the women’s park skateboarding final.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

Japan swept with Sakura Yosozumi, 19, taking gold and Kokona Hiraki, 12, taking silver. But the event’s most memorable moment came off the course when skaters flocked around 15-year-old teammate Misugu Okamoto after she just missed the podium by placing fourth with a bad fall on her final run. They hugged and cheered her before hoisting her up on their shoulders.

Online, Japanese viewers expressed amazement at the sportsmanship and friendship displayed by the actions of the young female skateboarders.

“To me it was the sort of thing hooligans do,” read one remark on Twitter. “The youth taught me something today.”

Lowry is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.


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