At first glance, they look like students attending an ordinary high school. Their backpacks carry the same books and pens, plus the odd gum wrapper and lone paperclip. For lunch, they pull out a sandwich, squished under the weight of a water bottle.
But in their scabbed arms, they carry one thing few other pupils in Japan do: a skateboard.
At Vantan Design High School in Tokyo, Japan’s only secondary school for skateboarding, “student” is synonymous with “skater.” Skateparks are their classrooms. When they’re not cruising, students take design classes, paint their boards, and learn how to edit skateboarding videos. Here, arriving on time is often optional, but baggy jeans are the uniform.
Since 2017, a year after skateboarding was designated an Olympic sport, the school has been helping students hone all necessary skills to make it in the skateboarding world.
In doing so, it’s seeking to reshape Japanese stereotypes of skateboarding as a rebellious sport. Public spaces around Tokyo, the host city of the 2020 Olympics, still heavily restrict skateboarding. Getting around on a skateboard is unusual and frowned upon. Skateparks were scarce until new facilities were built before the games.
But at Vantan, changing public perception is just one step in the plan to make skateboarding a nationally recognized sport—and a viable career.
"It’s still hard to live just off skateboarding. It’s not like soccer or baseball here,” Nobuhiro Hosoi, skateboarding director at the school, told VICE World News. “That’s why we’re teaching them classes on design, music, and video—it’s like an added weapon. We want all aspects of skateboarding culture to connect to their future.”
In less than four years, his efforts have already paid off. Some students as young as 17 already carry big-name sponsors like Primitive and Erased, two skateboarding brands. And in the years leading up to the sport’s debut at the Tokyo Games, the school received more applications from students seeking an unconventional education.
The skateboarding push dovetails reforms that began in recent years in Japan’s education system aiming to emphasize creativity over grueling hours spent studying academic subjects to meet the challenges of a changing economy.
First conceived in 2016, Vantan is also riding on a skateboarding boom in the country, fueled in part by skateboarding fashion. According to a 2020 report by Japan’s Urban Sports Tourism Association, the country is home to about 4 million skaters, ranking only after Brazil and the United States.
Kyonosuke Yamashita, a 17-year-old amateur-professional skateboarder and a student at Vantan, started at the ripe age of three. “I won a toy skateboard in a crane game. I tried skateboarding and it was fun, so I’ve been skating since then,” he told VICE World News. He reckons he spends on average three to six hours on the skateboard every day.
For Yamashita and his classmates at Vantan, typical Mondays and Wednesdays include a five-and-a-half-hour class of skating. Tuesdays are for videography, and Thursdays are split between design and English classes. On Fridays, students take required courses needed to graduate high school, like math and science.
According to Hosoi, the skateboarding director, Vantan teaches a range of subjects in addition to skateboarding because it’s difficult to make a living in Japan simply from riding.
“In general, the sports industry here is much smaller than it is in the United States—about four times as small. There aren’t many commercial opportunities. When you watch an NBA game, there are so many commercials and famous singers coming on. You don’t see that in skateboarding,” he said.
Yamashita, who recognizes the sheer difference in profit between the Japanese and American skateboarding industry, said he hopes to work abroad one day.
“In order to be considered a real pro, you need to put out a skateboard in your name. Most board brands are in the U.S., Canada and Australia, so I want to go out there,” he said. Last month, a sponsor flew him to Los Angeles for two months to film a skateboarding promotional video.
Yamashita’s classmate, Rinka Kanamori, also sees professional value in crossing oceans. “I know it’s a lot harder to make it overseas, but my deck sponsor is in the U.S., so I’d like to go see them,” she told VICE World News.
Skateboarding is stereotypically a male-dominated field. But this year’s Olympic contenders, many of whom are women, could help the sport amass a larger female following globally.
At 13, Momiji Nishiya became the youngest gold medalist in the Tokyo Games last week, in the women’s street competition. 13-year-old British skater Sky Brown, who’s known for her incredible skill and charisma, has over 900,000 followers on her Instagram and has already published a book.
Aori Nishimura, 20, who competed in women’s street skateboarding in the Tokyo Games on July 26, started skating when she was eight years old, after asking her father one day whether she could ride on the old skateboard he had in the house.
In an interview with VICE World News, she recalled being often asked, “You’re skateboarding even though you’re a girl?”
“But I want women to remember that no matter how hard skateboarding can feel, the sense of accomplishment when you overcome that wall is indescribable. I want them to keep trying,” she said.
She came eighth in the women’s street event last week, struggling to land some tricks during the final. Nishiya, her teammate, secured gold for Japan.
But though skateboarding is enjoying growing recognition in Japan, students at Vantan aren’t all that impressed with the sport’s debut in the Tokyo Games.
Yamashita and Kanamori have some friends competing this year whom they’ll support, but the two students don’t plan on following the skateboarding events. Yamashita was actually invited to compete in an Olympics qualifying competition held earlier this year in the U.S., but the prospect of competing in the world’s biggest sporting event didn’t entice him.
“I thought about it, but I didn’t really feel like it. Besides, there were things I wanted to do in Japan,” he said.
His nonchalance reflects a widespread ambivalence in the skateboarding community about the Olympics’ inclusion of the sport. Some critics worry it’d threaten skateboarding’s identity as counterculture and anti-establishment.
Park, the final event for Olympic skateboarders, will take place on Wednesday and Thursday. In the women’s event, on Wednesday, medal hopeful Sky Brown from the British team and Kokona Hiraki, a 12-year-old skateboarder from Japan, are set to compete.
Although the Vantan students are adamant that they won’t watch the competitions, they said they appreciate the perks the games have brought to the skating community. For one, there are more skateparks for them to try new tricks.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the Olympic result of Aori Nishimura in one paragraph. We regret the error.