Skateparks are thin on the ground in Japan, and the characteristic sound of skateboard wheels rarely reaches one’s ears. Yet when the sport burst onto the Olympic stage in 2021, Japanese skaters shocked the world with three gold-medal performances from four events.
As the sport continues to pick up momentum, Rakuten played host to Japan’s biggest skateboarding event to date: Uprising Tokyo Supported by Rakuten. Over three days in late May 2023, some of the world’s top skaters and rising stars gathered in Tokyo’s Ariake Arena to show off their skills for several thousand enthusiastic spectators.
Hometown heroes impress
Street skateboarding was the name of the game at Uprising Tokyo, and the level of skill on display remained high across all three days. Skaters battled it out to record their best scores from three 60-second rounds in front of a panel of judges, who sent the top 10 from the women’s and men’s rosters through to the final contest on day three.
In the women’s competition, it was 14-year-old local Aoi Uemura who set the winning score with a flawless run in her second round, which she topped off with a backside smith grind down the Uprising course’s Hollywood High 12 stair replica.
The men’s contest kicked off with 31-year-old Carlos Ribeiro from Brazil setting a score that the rest of the finalists struggled to challenge over the following three rounds.
Ribeiro’s score was only beaten in the second-last run of the day by 24-year-old recent Olympic gold medalist Yuto Horigome of Japan. Following disappointing performances in the first two rounds, Horigome pulled off a technically brilliant third run, finishing it with a 180 switch crook that had eluded him all day.
The last-minute defeat didn’t take Ribeiro by surprise.
“Skateboarding is unpredictable. There are certain guys that have that consistency that is next level. Yuto definitely has that – he has shown that before,” he said after the final. “It’s almost hard to think that he’ll miss a trick.”
Horigome was happy to send his first major local crowd home with a smile.
“I feel relieved. I’m really happy to be able to compete at home in Japan, with all my family watching. I skated well, and I’m really glad I was able to come away with the win.”
Uprising: More than just a contest
Following the finals, the crowd was treated to a Best Trick contest, giving the skaters an opportunity to show off their skills outside of the 60-second format. The trick that impressed the most on the women’s field came from 18-year-old Hina Maeda, while 16-year-old Taisei Hamamura took the men’s prize.
But the event extended beyond competition, with a number of events celebrating skate culture. In between the contests, spectators were treated to several performances from local dancers such as award-winning troupe Miyu Crew and duo BetRay.
A special open market zone gave visitors a chance to experience skate fashion and culture firsthand. Visitors could also enjoy free skateboarding lessons from Olympic gold medalist Momiji Nishiya and pro skater Sora Shirai at the Skateboarding Clinic, while an ongoing fingerboarding contest on a recreation of the real Uprising course attracted all-day crowds.
Adjacent to the course was a museum of skateboarding, tracing the sport’s origins to when it was little more than makeshift wheels on a block of wood. Meanwhile, the event venue was decorated with Japanese flair in the form of calligraphy from event organizer and artist KENSHIN.
The scale of this homegrown event wasn’t lost on women’s finalist Nanaka Fujisawa.
“It’s the first time I’ve been at a skateboarding event with this kind of festival atmosphere in Japan,” she said. “Events here are usually held at regular skateparks, not on custom-built courses like this one. We don’t get regular spectators, or MCs and DJs – it’s never this impressive. It’s such a rare occasion to have such a lively, fun event like this.”
An uprising skating nation
Runner-up Ribeiro needed just one word to describe the recent upsurge in Japanese skateboarding talent.
“Crazy. I feel like Japanese skaters as a group have progressed a lot in a short amount of time lately,” he remarked. “I remember seeing major events like Tampa Pro, where you’d see like 5-6 people from Japan, then the next year it’s like 10-15, and they’re all good skaters. It’s amazing to see.”
Contest director and veteran skater Ryan Clements had more praise for Japan’s homegrown talent.
“In the past few years, it’s impossible not to notice the level of Japanese skateboarding,” he told journalists at the event. “Skateboarding is a very difficult activity… it takes a tremendous amount of discipline. What I find most interesting is that Japanese skateboarders – out of any group of skateboarders that I’ve been around in all my experience – they’ve achieved that level of expertise faster than any other group.”
Former pro skater and Uprising head judge Jason Rothmeyer had a similar perspective.
“All of a sudden – I’d say within the last four years – you can’t not notice that it’s dominated by Japan. I think in Tampa, of the twelve finalists, seven were from Japan, which is a shocking amount of people. It’s awesome to see.”
Another major star in town for Uprising was American skater Jamie Foy.
“Skateboarding in Japan has really boosted the level in the whole competition world, so it’s just pretty sick to see and be a part of it,” he remarked. “There’s so many amazing skaters around, and so many people that are capitalizing on their amazing ability.”
Sparking new love for a new sport
Despite overwhelming success on the global stage, the sport of skateboarding still faces a long road to acceptance in Japan. Nevertheless, men’s champion Horigome is optimistic about the impact events like Uprising Tokyo can have.
“I hope this event will give the sport momentum and communicate how fun skateboarding can be,” he told journalists. “The skating at this event was at a really high level. We had pro skaters from around the world, like Shane [O’Neill], Ishod [Wair], and Jamie [Foy]. They weren’t all at the Olympics, but they are real, authentic street skaters, and I think a lot of people including myself are inspired by them.”
While the contest was the main dish, Horigome hopes that visitors take home a slice of the broader skate culture from Uprising.
“There were a lot of people attending, and they got to see some of the top pros skating their best. It’s great to be able to see that,” he said. “I hope I can continue to work to show everyone skate culture beyond the competitive aspect, and show them how fun skateboarding can be.”
American star Ishod Wair summarized the Uprising vibe in just a few words.
“The culture of skateboarding is very deep, and skateboarding is very unique,” he told journalists. “It brings a lot of cultures together like music, art… It’s like an action sport and art at the same time because everybody’s interpretation of skateboarding can be and is different. That’s what makes it really cool.”
All photos are credited to Rakuten Sports.