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How a Group of Japanese Kids Made Freestyle Skateboarding Great Again

In Japan, freestyle skateboarding is a family affair, driven by former champions of the 1980s skate community

On July 26th, Kelvin Liu, the director of communications at Activision, shared a video on Twitter of Isamu Yamamoto, a 17-year-old Japanese freestyle skateboarder. It quickly went viral.

It’s not hard to see why: For Yamamoto (known to the world at large simply as “Isamu”), the laws of physics are merely theoretical. At one point, sliding against the asphalt on the edge of his skateboard, tilted 90 degrees to one side, he is outright mocking gravity.

Stylistically speaking, his movements are more like brush strokes from 17th-century Japanese calligraphy than those of a Thrasher video. This is ballet, a skateboarder twirling like a figure skater. 

The video of Isamu has nearly half a million likes and has been retweeted more than 140,000 times. But it’s not by any stretch the first metric of how far the art of freestyle skateboarding has come in the last decade — the popularity of the video is merely the most recent indication of how a nearly dead form of skateboarding has been resurrected and thrust into the mainstream by a group of Japanese kids and their parents.

In the most literal sense, freestyle skateboarding tends to mean flat ground skateboarding, explains Brett Novak, a filmmaker who directed a short film with Isamu in 2017. “I don’t want to even say there’s a routine,” he says. “It kind of used to be more centered around this idea of a routine, but I don’t really think that applies anymore.” In that sense, today’s freestyle skateboarding is more abstract than it was back when skateboarding was first invented. “There are no rules,” he says. “With skateboarding, that’s our mantra already — that there are no rules, do as you wish, but the kind of comedy of it is that a lot of the culture develops correct ways of doing things.” And for a time, freestyle was that original culture of skateboarding. 

Beginning in the early 1950s, and born from the notion of transferring the feeling of riding waves onto the streets, freestyle skateboarding — then known as asphalt surfing — was largely defined by outcasts in Venice Beach, explains SkateDeluxe. But as the sport began to gain traction, many of the “freestyle tricks” were derived from gymnastics and dancing — the adrenaline pulsing big-air acrobatics that we mostly associate with the sport now hadn’t yet been invented.

The other basic difference between freestyle and street skateboarding (the form of skateboarding most often associated with the sport) is that freestyle makes the board the puzzle. “Whereas street skating is all about adjusting or adapting to the obstacles in your environment,” says Mike Osterman, a professional freestyle skateboarder and owner of Waltz Skateboarding, “freestyle looks at the skateboard and says, ‘This is the obstacle. How can I manipulate this in a new way?’” 

The following two decades of freestyle, and through the mid-1980s, were characterized by a progression toward technical, fluid and more creative routines. For one particular 1980s freestyler, the board quickly manifested into a fifth limb: Rodney Mullen, arguably the most influential skateboarder in the history of skateboarding. 

“Rodney is responsible for skateboarding as the whole world sees it now,” says Novak. “He invented the modern board shape, he invented the flat ground ollie, he invented the kickflip, he invented the heelflip, he invented 360. Any trick anyone could probably name, that knows the basics of skateboarding, Rodney personally invented that trick.”

Before the advent of the street style and its ultimate rise to the conventional form of skateboarding, Mullen dominated the sport, winning his first freestyle world championship at age 14. “He was basically winning every contest,” says Terry Chui, who helps run the World Round-Up showdown, the premier freestyle contest in the world that happens every year in Vancouver. 

Mullen, in his own words, was about halfway through his pro career in the mid-1980s when skateboarding went through its first major revolution. “There was evolving a new kind of skateboarding in the streets,” he says in his TED Talk. “Freestyle, it took about five years for it to die. And at that stage I had been a champion for 11 years.”

Part of the reason freestyle died, according to Chui, is that the industry wasn’t really selling a lot of freestyle boards because it was still very niche. Instead of “dancing around to music” and doing a choreographed routine, in street skateboarding, you’re grinding handrails, you’re jumping off stairs. “It was more aggressive,” says Chui. “It was more accessible for kids.”

Chui remembers Kevin Harris, another professional freestyle skateboarder from the 1980s, telling him a story of being at dinner after a contest with the heads of the biggest skate companies and magazines. “‘Look, Rodney Mullen’s won all these contests the last 10 years,’” Chui recalls Harris relating what he was told at that dinner. “‘It’s not really going anywhere. Street skateboarding is going to be the next big thing.’” Seemingly overnight, they stopped holding freestyle contests, “and then that was really the death knell to freestyle,” says Chui.

And so, from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, freestyle was dead. “You could count in each country maybe a handful of people that were still doing it,” says Chui. Among those who were still doing it, however, were brothers Toshiaki Fujii, 41, and Masahiro Fujii, 47. “They’re heavily responsible for developing the newest generation of freestyle skateboarding that’s happening in Japan,” says Novak of the veteran Japanese duo. 

If Rodney Mullen is considered “the seed,” as Novak says, from which all skateboarding stems, then the Fujii brothers are the wooden trellis that has effectively kept the freestyle community from withering away during the so-called dark ages, when street skateboarding took over. “If you’ve seen young Japanese kids that are freestyle skateboarding, they almost always have a direct connection to the Fujii brothers,” says Novak. “Isamu is kind of separate, but it’s hard to talk about the scene without talking about them.”

“They’ve essentially just built a community over there,” says Osterman. “There are obviously a bunch of freestyle skateboarders all across Japan, but those two skateboarders, in particular, have just been very outgoing in terms of growing their scene.” 

Part of that growth is genetically driven. Masahiro Fujii’s son, Yuta Fujii, was, after three years of Isamu victories, most recently named the champion of the World Freestyle Roundup. “We started holding this contest in Vancouver, and then every year, the Japanese team would come with their kids and their friends and it became this big kind of family reunion every year,” says Chui. Because of the pandemic they couldn’t hold the contest in person this year, so instead they had each skater send in a video of their performance. “Masahiro’s son won that contest,” says Chui. “How cool is it that father and son compete in the same contest?” (Masahiro won the masters division, which is for people over the age of 40.)

The freestyle community in Japan is unlike anything here in the States, being, again, very much a family affair. “Isamu comes from a very art-minded family,” says Novak, and Isamu and his dad are by all accounts inseparable. “Any contest, any time I’m filming, I mean, it’s a particularly tight relationship of bouncing ideas off each other.” But Shoji [Isamu’s dad] isn’t Isamu’s teacher. “It’s hard to talk about him [Shoji] without it being perceived like a soccer dad vibe,” says Novak. “But it’s not like that. It’s very collaborative.”

Osterman, who’s also spent a lot of time with the freestyle world in Japan and in various contests around the world, tells me that what makes it unique is the community aspect. “For instance, Ikkei [Nagao], this incredible freestyler from Sheba, Japan, his family would come out and he has a little brother, and his parents would go out and bring racquetball and skateboards,” says Osterman. “And they would go from playing racquetball with his little brother, and then the brother would jump on a skateboard and their mom would jump on a skateboard a little bit. It wasn’t like it was just another toy.” 

Hidemi Ohishi is yet another freestyle skateboarder from the old guard, guiding this generation of prodigious Japanese teens to unparalleled heights. Ohishi, like so many other skateboarders, was influenced by Mullen. “After I saw a video of the NSA [National Skateboarding Association] contest and was shocked by Rodney Mullen, I chose freestyle,” he says. Ohishi — who currently runs the M80 skateboard shop in Japan, which specializes in freestyle gear — is yet another ligament connecting the 1980s freestyle skateboarding arm with that of today’s resurgence in Japan. 

In 2011, it was Ohishi who actually presented Isamu with a special award at the All Japan Freestyle Skateboard Championships (JFSA) in Osaka. Three years later, Isamu became the first person ever to win the World Freestyle Round-Up using two skateboards at the same time. “I think Isamu is still evolving,” says Ohishi. “His possibilities are endless.”

Hidemi Ohishi handing Isamu his prize at the JFSA Flatland Skate Contest in 2011

For his part, Novak can’t remember exactly where he first saw Isamu skate, but wherever it was, he could tell that his brain clicked differently. “He was so young that his parents were driving us around to spots to film at,” Novak recalls of making his short film. “And I’m sitting in the back seat with him as he’s playing a DVD with my old videos of Kilian Martin [a freestyle skateboarder in Spain] that I shot years earlier,” he says. “It’s a very trippy moment of seeing the next generation pick up what you hoped to put out there.” 

Chui tells me that at contests, Isamu is known for taking naps after long flights while the other skateboarders socialize. “You’re in a bright curling rink with fluorescent lights and he’ll throw a jacket over his head and nap for an hour and a half, because that’s how he prepares for things,” says Chui. “I interpret it as, ‘I’m saving my mental energy for finals day.’ That’s literally what I think he’s doing. I don’t know if he would ever say that, but he’s conserving mental and physical energy to the point where he’s bottled it and he’s going to fire it like a rocket when he needs to.” According to Novak, unlike the rest of the freestyle community in Japan, Isamu is “a solo traveler.” “He skates with them, but he’s very in his own head, a strict artist type,” says Novak. 

In the past, Mullen was described in much the same way — he’s been called “quiet, to himself and an introvert,” making the parallels between the former freestyle skateboarding champion and the current 17-year-old reinventing the sport impossible to ignore. When you watch a Rodney Mullen skate video, you can see that he has a physicist’s approach to calculating his every move. As Tony Hawk describes him in a 2012 documentary on the Bones Brigade, “Rodney knew every single minute thing he was going to do. Exactly what his feet were going to do. The order it was going to happen.” 

In 2017, after witnessing Isamu skate in one of Novak’s videos, Mullen admitted that Isamu is the same. “The way he links his tricks together and the speed of them — it’s beautiful to watch,” Mullen told Rolling Stone. “I would dare say that not many could do that, in that way, if they tried.”

It’s hard to believe that, at 17, Isamu is already a legend and a role model, but that’s exactly what he is. “When I see the younger Japanese kids, you can tell they’re all looking up to Isamu,” says Chui. “They’re rocking the baseball cap that’s a little too big, that’s cocked to the side. They’re wearing the T-shirts that are two sizes too big. They’re all wearing the pants that are a little bit tighter.”

In that sense, Isamu is already paving the way for the next generation of prepubescent prodigies, such as 11-year-old Yuzuki Kawasaki who, in 2018, at just eight years old, was featured on ESPN with a clip that Novak recorded. “His video went viral last year,” says Chui. “I think it had like three million views on all these different platforms. It was featured on ESPN, it was featured on SportsCenter. It was on Facebook. It was on Instagram. It was all over the place.” Last month, Kawasaki placed fourth in the World Roundup, and in doing so, all but confirmed that the momentum propelling the freestyle redux is still in bloom.

Next year, Japan is set to host the Olympics in Tokyo, and for the first time, skateboarding will debut as an Olympic sport. Much to the chagrin of the emerging fandom surrounding these young talents, though, Isamu won’t be there. “Freestyle isn’t part of it,” says Novak. Instead, the Japanese skate team will have the opportunity to compete in street and park disciplines. 

One potential outcome of freestyle being left out of the Olympics, per Novak, is that, with street skateboarding cementing itself as the organized version of skateboarding — with mainstream global acceptance — it could open the door for freestyle to re-emerge as the insurgent side of the sport. But his feelings are mixed on that evolution. “Mainstream creates accessibility, and skateboarding being in the Olympics, it’s a hard thing to accept because I want it to be rebellious,” he says, referring to skateboarding writ large. “But on the other hand, that means it opens up skateboarding to billions of kids around the world. And who am I to say that freestyle skateboarding needs to be kept in this cool little fringe box?”

Olympics be damned — if videos of young stars like Isamu, Yuta Fujii and Yuzuki Kawasaki continue to set social media ablaze with awe, surely it will be them who write the next chapter in skateboarding’s storied history.

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