What’s With All the Female Skaters in Japan?


By Shana Chandra. Photo: Paulo Macedo

Female skateboarding has had its seminal moments every decade.

Patti McGee doing a handstand on a deck on the cover of LIFE magazine in May 1965, Peggy Oki becoming the only female skater in the Z-boys crew of the 1970s, Cara Beth-Burnside donning the first female signature skate shoe in ’97, Elissa Steamer signing to Toy Machine as the first female skater to go pro in 1998, and Hillary Thompson becoming the first transsexual pro skateboarder in the 2000s. These days though, female skateboarding is bigger than ever, thanks to the rise of video-sharing on Instagram and Youtube, not to mention the Girls Skate Network and movies like Skate Kitchen (2018) taking inspo from IRL, all-girl skate crews.

Although the majority of the spikes in female skate history has happened in the USA, it’s the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo currently creating buzz. 2020 will be the first year skateboarding is featured at the Olympics for both men and women, with the hopes that skateboarding can do for the Summer Olympics what snowboarding did for the winter: attract younger viewers. Now more than ever, companies and magazines like Thrasher, Nike SB, and Levi’s have swivelled their cameras and wallets to face female skaters around the world, but it is the riders from Japan getting most of the spotlight.

Top of the list to take gold is Aori Nishimura, a seventeen-year-old Tokyo native who earlier this year won the Street League Skating Championships in São Paulo and was the first Japanese athlete to win gold at the X Games. A Nike SB billboard of her flashing a smile can be seen at Shibuya’s crossing, Tokyo’s busiest intersection, and she’s been featured in the brand’s first-ever all-female skate flick, Gizmo (2019). The rise in female skateboarding in Japan seems unlikely, Aori Nishimura says. ‘People are hyped to watch you street skate in the US, but in Japan, it’s the exact opposite.’ Though there’s plenty of concrete to attract skateboarders, restrictions on skating are high. But more and more rails keep popping up around the country, helping the sport to become way more visible.

It’s not only the ‘veterans’ of the skate scene that are gaining momentum. Yumeka Oda and Sky Brown, aged 12 and 10 respectively, are also heralding the way. Half Japanese and half British, Brown is gunning to be Britain’s youngest Olympian, having started skating at age 4 in the Minagawa prefecture where she was born and raised. With 424k followers on Instagram, she is encouraging other young girls to skate around the world.

Oda, hailing from Nagoya, is more into street skating and has competed in the SLS tour. She 
became interested in the sport after seeing a sign for a skate park as a seven-year-old. Instead of training under a strict coach and joining a team like most athletes in Japan, Oda learned tricks from older boys and girls at the skate park and used her phone to search how foreign skaters performed tricks so she could copy them.

 

Despite the exposure and awareness the Olympics will bring to skateboarding—especially female skateboarding—Yuri Murai, who has been skating for the past decade, insists it’s still difficult to ‘bring hopefuls to unsponsored skateboard events’ and to have ‘Olympic hopefuls and other girl skaters join in skateboard events together.’ At a time when women-only skate videos are still in no way the norm, Murai has produced three full-length, all-female Japanese skate films featuring over sixty skaters. Entitled Joy and Sorrow, the original and its two sequels (Joy and Sorrow 2 and 3) were produced, funded, shot and edited by Murai herself, sans sponsors, while working her part-time job at a life insurance company. Her aim is to ‘shout out to the world’ about female skating in Japan and to try and bring female Japanese skaters together. Murai’s friend Chichiro Uchida, founder of the deck company Sunny Skateboards has been working to cultivate the scene for younger skaters too, and her organisation, The Colorful Project, supports girls by hosting camps and clinics throughout the year, fostering the burgeoning scene for ladies in Japan.

The DIY approach these skaters have resorted to is nothing new in female skateboarding. Back in the U.S, it was Cara Beth-Burnside who originally approached Vans for the shoe sponsorship, and along with Jen O’Brien they convinced the X Games to host a women’s demo in 2002. They also obtained legal aid to ensure the X Games gave pay parity to male and female skaters, which was granted three years later. And although the Tokyo Olympics are helping to turn the tide, ensuring sponsors court female skaters rather than the other way around, it’s the hard work at the grassroots level that really makes things happen. As Murai points out, ‘generally in Japan, skateboarding is known as a sport, not as a culture, due to it becoming an official Olympic sport.’ For a country known for its rich and diverse sub-cultures co-existing on the streets, the exposure to skateboarding that Murai and her cohorts are generating, as well as the general buzz the Olympics may bring, the all-girl skate scene in Japan looks ready to explode.

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