As Rihito watched the first Olympic skateboarding competitions last week, he learned that even the superstars slip and fall off the board sometimes. It gave him confidence about the fact that he often falls, too, and he resolved to try harder in the sport that makes him feel free to be himself.
“I feel really proud seeing him out there doing what he loves,” said Chikako Minowa, 44, who sat on a bench watching Rihito practicing at a Tokyo-area skate park this week. “He loses confidence easily, but seeing him out there actively talking with the teachers and trying so hard, I’m really happy.”
In Japan, skateboarding is gaining a newfound recognition — and residents such as the Minowas are hoping others in Japan will appreciate and embrace the sport’s emphasis on individuality, freedom and creativity that they have valued even before it made its Olympic debut at these Games.
Skateboarding shops around Tokyo are seeing spikes in sales and foot traffic since the competitions began airing last week. Children and adults alike are filling up slots for skateboarding lessons and getting added to wait lists. The sport has drawn so much hype that local officials announced this week they are working to turn the temporary Olympics skateboarding venue into a permanent facility.
“After the Olympics, we’ve been getting a lot more customers, many dads who used to skateboard who now want their kids to skateboard,” said Koji Takahashi, a sales associate at Murasaki Sports, located in the center of Tokyo’s shopping district of Harajuku.
The surging interest in skateboarding has been driven by the achievements of its own athletes. Two of the country’s own won gold medals in the Olympic street skateboarding competitions last week: Yuto Horigome in men’s and Momiji Nishiya in women’s. Japanese skateboarder Funa Nakayama won bronze in the women’s street competition.
On Wednesday, Japanese athletes Sakura Yosozumi and Kokona Hiraki won gold and silver, respectively, in women’s park skateboarding. Sky Brown, a British skateboarder who is half-Japanese, won bronze. Hiraki, 12, made history as the youngest Japanese summer Olympian. Olympic snowboard silver medalist Ayumu Hirano is expected to compete in Thursday’s park finals.
The local buzz is a noteworthy development in a society where skateboarding long has been stigmatized as a noisy nuisance of a hobby for misfits who don’t comply with social expectations. Such perceptions of the sport are not unique to Japan, but it can feel quite acute because of the country’s rigid social norms and lack of tolerance for those who stray from expectations that center on being cisgender, ethnically Japanese and able-bodied.
To many longtime skaters and fans here, the Olympic spotlight feels like a potential inflection point in the way the country views their sport — which in many ways is also a lifestyle and a subculture, with its own slang and fashion. They hope that the Games have shown that these tweens — even those with blue hair or tattoos or of mixed race — are world-class athletes worthy of Olympic medals for their “super sick” talents.
“In skate parks, diversity, race, gender, different ages, disabilities are all embraced, and everyone is equal as ‘skaters,’ ” said Satoru Kawasaki, the head of the Japan Skate Park Association. “I hope with the Olympics, more people become aware of this ideal in skate parks and what’s at the core of skateboarding as a sport and really understand why it’s grown so much.”
It’s unclear whether the excitement is a momentary blip or the beginning of a shift.
Skateboarding is still strictly regulated in Japan. It is not allowed in areas with foot or car traffic. Skaters either must find their way to designated parks on the outskirts of central Tokyo that often require entry fees or must wait until 2 or 3 a.m. to practice in the streets so that they don’t get caught by law enforcement.
Large “No Skating” signs hang on the fences of local parks. U.S. Olympic skateboarder Nyjah Huston posted on Instagram last week that a Japanese security guard inside the Olympic Village banned him from skateboarding there.
Even those who skate at designated parks must follow strict rules. According to a 16-point “Skatepark Etiquette and Manners Book” booklet stacked at a Tokyo-area park, skaters may not eat or drink or make loud noises on the premises and must remember to greet others when they enter the park and to say “please” and “thank you” as necessary.
Skateboarding began in Japan in the late 1960s with the arrival of other board sports such as surfing and snowboarding, Kawasaki said. The strict ordinances and social expectations made it difficult for skaters to practice freely, so they worked to expand their sport while building trust with the local community over many years, Kawasaki said.
“Japan has a difficulty accepting new things or have negative reactions to it, so it’s really hard to challenge new things and for it to be really accepted,” said Kawasaki, 51. “The most important is to communicate properly and not do it behind their backs and really show that they have respect for the property, such as actively picking up trash in the area.”
Kawasaki said some longtime aficionados fear the surge in interest among novices may create havoc on the culture they have spent decades to protect. For example, beginners who took up the sport during the pandemic have been blamed for violating trespassing rules and damaging property.
“While it’s great that skateboarding is gaining new recognition, there are some people who may not necessarily appreciate skateboarding becoming so big with the Olympics,” Kawasaki said.
Still, many welcome the renewed attention and hope it’s here to stay. Ryosuke Ueno, 23, began skating a decade ago because he thought it looked cool. But he came to realize not many others in Japan viewed the sport as he did.
“Skateboard until now was honestly not seen in a good way in Japan, but I think with the Olympics I’m really happy that people’s images and impressions of skateboard have really changed,” said Ueno, who works at Instant Skateboards, a shop located near a skate park in Shibuya.
There has been an influx of customers at the shop since the Olympics began last week, buying parts to personalize their skateboards and asking to sign up for classes.
“We’ve had a lot more customers since the medal win, especially women,” Ueno said. “Seeing the Olympics, there were much more women coming in, saying that they wanted to start after seeing the female skater winning a gold medal.”
Several skaters said they hope the Japanese public will begin associating the sport with community and acceptance and lament the missed opportunity of showcasing skaters with disabilities at the Paralympics later this month.
“Skateboard is not a Paralympic sport this time, but there are many skaters with disabilities that are absolutely amazing,” said Takahashi, 47, the sales associate at Murasaki Sports who has been skating for nearly 30 years. “And I think it’s the beauty of skateboard that things like that don’t matter and everyone is accepted in the community.”
There are signs that messages of acceptance are resonating with the Japanese public.
During Wednesday’s women’s park finals, where three of the eight finalists were from Team Japan, the skaters cheered each other on. When Hiraki, the 12-year-old, finished her runs, Yosozumi gave her a hug so vigorous that the two fell to the ground, then laughed.
“Skateboard was absolutely amazing!” a Japanese user tweeted just as the medal ceremony began. “Of course the medals, but I loved their smiles even when they fell. And the smiles of the other skaters. They’re all friends and cheering each other. What an amazing sport.”