By Jack Tarrant and Yoko Kono
ENOSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – Surfing makes its Olympic debut next year at Chiba’s Ichinomiya beach but for many Japanese it is the Shonan coast, 50 kilometres south of Tokyo, that is regarded as the birthplace of the country’s modern surf culture.
It is here that the modern style of surfing was first brought to Japan in the 1960s by American servicemen based at the nearby Atsugi military base during the Vietnam War, who would head to the coast with their boards during downtime.
Before that, locals would surf the waves using wooden boards known as ‘itago’.
“When I learned that American people can stand up on the board, not just lying down, I had to try it myself,” said 83-year-old local historian Yoshitsugu Naito, who was among the first to embrace the new sport.
“Soldiers based in Atsugi came and started to teach surfing to local boys.
“They used to make boards and teach people, (who are) known as first groups of surfers in Japan.”
American surfers would leave their boards with local families or in beach huts when they returned to base. Locals would often sneak into the huts, use the U.S.-made boards to practice, and make sure they were back in place before the soldiers returned, said Naito.
“In July 1961 there was a soldier called Tom … who was surfing and we approached him for a chat,” said Naito.
“He left his surf board with a local family and within a week several American soldiers came and they left more boards.
“The family let them leave the boards and we used them for our practice.”
Tenji Oda, known in Shonan as a local surfing pioneer, also remembers the feeling of wonder at the sight of the new, longboard-style American boards.
“Before the current form of surfing came, we used a washing board or a bath cover as a board,” said the 71-year-old, who now runs a surf shop in Enoshima on the Shonan coast.
Oda said that as a 16-year-old he spent all his money on a new American-made board on the black market.
“My first board cost JPY 150,000 ($1,376.40) then,” said Oda.
“There was no surf shop (but) someone told me there were two boards available, so I rushed to get one.”
U.S. soldiers no longer frequent the area but the legacy of American surf culture can still be found in Enoshima and other small towns along the Shonan coast.
Californian flags fly above surf shops, youngsters wear clothes from the biggest American brands and memorabilia from Hawaii adorns many storefronts on the town’s main street.
The area is an oasis of quiet and calm, a world away from the busy metropolis of Tokyo, with many commuters to the capital surfing in the mornings before heading to work.
Ichinomiya on the Chiba coastline was chosen by 2020 organisers as it promises more consistent waves yet Enoshima, which will host to the Olympic sailing events, has an atmosphere that surfers find special.
“I like that the time passes slowly in Shonan,” said Mai Orimoto, who is a recent convert to the sport.
“It seems that everyone is kind and peaceful here. I really like that.”
Shonan also hosts elite-level surfing competitions, such as the Shonan Murasaki Open, which concluded on July 14.
International boarders have been impressed with Japanese surfing and expect a top class event at the Olympics.
“The Japanese seem to be pretty passionate,” said Australian surfer Noah Stocca, who has competed twice on Japanese shores.
“They love just getting out there and enjoying the surf.”
“The last few days it has been small but whenever you get a nice wave there are 30 people out the back clapping so that’s kind of nice.”
Qualification for surfing at the 2020 Olympics has already started, with places available for those who finish in the top 10 for men, top eight for women, in the ongoing World Surf League Championship Tour.
The Olympic surfing competition is due to run from July 26 to Aug. 2, with the exact schedule dependent on wave conditions.
It has not been confirmed whether surfing will feature at the Paris 2024 Olympics, with its inclusion awaiting final approval by the International Olympic Committee Executive Board in December 2020.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)