The Era of the Japanese Surfer

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Riku Yoneyama

What springs to mind when you think of ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’? Whether it’s the misty summit of Mount Fuji or the blaring neon lights of Tokyo, everyone’s preconception of Japan is that of a place so different that it borders on the other-worldly.

Although it isn’t a strictly kept secret by the Far-Eastern country, one side to Japan which doesn’t quite make it into the travel guides is its surfing culture. Understandably, people tend to think of the US, Australia, or even Brazil when asked about great surfing nations, without even considering the potential of Asian coastlines.

However, this is something which is starting to change.

As time has passed by, professional surfing has undergone stages of what might even be labelled as evolution. To begin with, surfing was dominant in Hawaii, after having been revitalised by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, and, as a member state of the USA, surfing’s popularity quickly spread to mainland North America.

This initial phase in professional surfing can be dubbed as ‘the American Era’, which soon gave way to ‘the Euro-Australian Era’ when tourists began to take this new pastime back to their home nations. Naturally, with the country having great exposure to the Pacific Ocean, surfing soon took off in Australia, whereas European tourists from France, Britain, and even Germany carried surfing to the infamous breaks of Hossegor and Fistral.

A long time later, our beloved sport filtered its way down from North America and Europe to Brazil and South Africa, marking the start of a new ‘South Atlantic Era’, blessing the World Surfing League with talents such as Jordy Smith and Gabriel Medina.

And so this brings us to our current point on the timeline, where it can be argued that Japan is pioneering its own surfing era. The presence of Japanese professional surfers is being felt evermore intensely on both the WSL Championship Tour, through Kanoa Igarashi, and the Qualifying Series, where talented female surfers like Shino Matsuda and Natsumi Taoka are garnering a great deal of attention.

Natsumi floats over the top of a short wave at Torami Beach, Japan. (Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)

Now, I should specify that Kanoa Igarashi was actually born in Huntington, California to Japanese parents, but he has recently changed his competing nationality to Japan ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. On the flipside, Shino and Natsumi are both Japanese-born athletes and where recently called upon by the WSL veteran Laura Enever when she visited the Japanese break of Miyazaki last year.

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Natsumi and have a chat about the growing surf culture in Japan, and how this is set to be influenced by the Olympic Games (when they can eventually happen).

When I asked Natsumi about the changing surf culture in Japan, she said: “People are getting interested surfing. I think it’s becoming popular because of the Olympics. Female surfers were a rare sight a few years ago, but now women are starting to try surfing, so I’m just happy surf with them.

“I’m sad that there are no longboarding categories in the Tokyo Olympics, but it’s a good opportunity to show everyone how wonderful of a sport surfing is.”

One of Natsumi’s most recent appearances on the QS Tour was actually in the UK for the Roxy Pro Boardmasters tournament in Newquay, Cornwall. Natsumi finished seventeenth at Fistral, getting knocked out after the second round, but she later went on to win the first ever Asian Surfing Championships in China three months later.

Natsumi drags her longboard to the shoreline at an unknown location. (Photo by Riku Yoneyama)

Recalling her experience at the Roxy Pro, Natsumi revealed: “It was a great surf trip with my mum in England. The waves were slow, and the wind was strong all of the time, so it was hard to find good surf. I love competing in England because the people are so friendly, watching the contest and cheering me on.”

Turning the conversation onto the professional surfing ranks, and Japan’s place amongst them, I then asked Natsumi who she believed the best upcoming surfer in Japan was. She replied: “I believe the best upcoming surfer is Amuro Tsuzuki. She’s the second Japanese woman to qualify for the Women’s Championship Tour. I’m looking forward to watching her surf on the world stage.”

Competing on the WSL CT Tour, Amuro is set to face the likes of tour veterans such as Tyler Wright, Carissa Moore, and Laura Enever who, as previously mentioned, met up with Natsumi and the number fifty-three ranked surfer on the QS Tour, Shino Matsuda.

When I asked Natsumi about her best surfing experience in Japan, she talked about her time with Laura and Shino, saying: “I went to Miyazaki to shoot some video for ‘Know the Feeling’ with Laura Enever, Shino Matsuda, and the rest of the Billabong crew. ‘Know the Feeling’ is a travel documentary where Laura goes to different breaks around the world and dives into the lives of female surfers.

“We were hunting a typhoon swell. The waves were pretty big, and I broke my board, but I have good memories from the experience.”

While the waves were great at Miyazaki on this occasion, it is actually the local break of Shino and not Natsumi, who is a regular surfer of Taito Beach in the Chiba Prefecture of Tokyo. Exposed to the full force of the Pacific Ocean, Taito Beach has only a narrow strip of greying sand, which curves sharply on the right hand side as it meet the Taito Port.

Natsumi cruises along a short right-hander in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)
(Photo by Riku Yoneyama)

Going into more detail, Natsumi described the surf at Taito, stating: “It has perfect waves for longboarding, especially when a swell is coming.

“I started surfing there when I was ten. My parents are surfers, so they used to take me to the beach every weekend.”

Last year, Natsumi travelled to eight countries and competed in twelve heats over a grand total of six surfing tournaments. This year, as you can probably expect, things haven’t quite continued with the same momentum. However, Natsumi remains confident that she can one day become the number one ranked surfer in the world.

Considering the number of life-plans that have been put on hold this past year, I for one would love nothing more than to see Natsumi breaking her way into the Longboarding Championship Tour, and to have her chance at achieving her dream of becoming the best surfer in the world.

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