Interview: Daisuke Takahashi @daisuketakahashi
Photos: Nobuo Iseki @nobuoiseki
Translation: Nino Moscardi @theycallmeninobrown
For anyone who truly falls in love with skateboarding, there comes at least one time in your life when you think to yourself "I want to be a pro." But just as common once you've decided that is beginning to question just how you get there. This interview is for all those kids. All those young, hungry kids who are aiming to go pro. From the beginning, Kota was always the kind of kid who worked faithfully toward his own idea of what skateboarding is without sucking up to the older guys around him. And in recent years, his hard work and effort have allowed him to skate on an international level all over the world. So what does he himself think of his own path to international success and this new era of skateboarding? No longer limited by the weaknesses of the Japanese scene, he's currently one of the few professionals in Japan closest to the true definition of the word. For the first time in our magazine, hear what he's got to say in his own words.
So you said there's something you wanted to put out there?
Well, where do I begin? (laughs) I guess compared to when I started skating, there's a lot more skaters around. The environment has totally changed, and I don't know if it's just how this era of skateboarding is going or what, but there's a lot more weird dudes out there. You go to a contest now and it feels like some sort of sports event with a horde of parents making their kids participate. Even on a normal day, if you go to the park, parents are trying to make their kids skate and the kids are just crying... And the people in the industry are trying to raise up some of these talented ones too. I just see all that and really think about how much skating has changed, you know? If that's gonna be the case, then why make your kid skate and not play soccer or something? They could probably make more money that way, and those kind of kids aren't the ones that get sponsored anyways.
Speaking of which, how is it that you got that good at skating? Did you have some special training regimen?
Hanamichi Sakuragi (the main character from the famous Japanese basketball comic Slam Dunk) is 99% effort and 1% talent. I'm 99% talent and 1% luck. I don't really do anything particularly special.
(laughs) Seriously though. Did you play sports or something as a kid?
Really, I didn’t do anything. I played a little soccer in elementary school but I quit right away. I never really played sports that much. I was always a short kid, but whenever we’d do the high jump or something in gym, I’d always jump as high as the tall kids, and I actually was in some school track meets for the long jump. I think that’s probably where I started to get my jump strength. And it wasn’t like now where the kids get driven to the park by their parents or anything, so it was normal for me to push or bike everywhere I went to get around. I got around by moving, and I think that trained me a lot. I was doing that kind of stuff ever since I started growing so maybe it just naturally helped build some muscle? That might be it.
What was your first sponsor? How old were you and how’d you get on?
Well I started skating in about 5th or 6th grade. Nike SB was holding some event at the foot of Tokyo Tower that was like “the winner gets sponsored by Nike!” kind of thing and I entered. I think I was only about 14? That was in 8th grade. I didn’t win the contest but since I was skating with a Rock Slide sticker (a local shop in the Adachi district of Tokyo) on my board, Habuchin at Realize Distribution (currently owner and operator of Big Wing Distribution) saw it and the next day the shop hit me up saying they wanted to give me some shoes. I think that was the first.
What about going abroad for skating? When was the first time you got to go?
When I was about 18, (Tomokazu) Wura brought me with him on an Expertise tour to New Zealand, so that was my first time skating abroad. I was actually pretty late to go abroad. It still feels like that tour happened just recently. The first time I went totally solo was at 19 when I went to the States though. I just up and went to California for three months. At the time, I didn't even have a deck sponsor, so I was really traveling on a mission to get one.
Switch front three.
Where'd you stay and how was the life there?
I just went around staying at my friends' houses. I even stayed at the DC team manager's house. Also, there was a Volcom house in Costa Mesa at the time so I'd stay there sometimes too. It was over the New Year break so they let me stay there for as long as I wanted (laughs).
So skaters like you from all over the world would go and meet up in LA?
Yeah, there were a lot of us. From Europe and all over the place. I first met Sewa there too just on some good timing. When I was staying at the DC team manager's spot, we'd all meet up at the DC office in the morning and get in the van, and the TM would drive us to pick up the filmed so we could go out shooting. I'd try to speak or to listen to what everyone was saying, but if I didn't understand, I'd just ask. And that's kind of how it went for the whole trip.
What's the most memorable session you've had abroad? You have some good memories that weren't just skating?
Yeah, it'd probably be staying at Willy Santos' house in San Diego. I first met him when he came to Japan to do some business with 13mind Distribution, and he was like "Come stay at my place in San Diego," so I was like "Yeah, let's do it!" and actually ended up just going. I stayed with him for about a week, and he hung out with me the whole time. When he had to work at his shop, I'd go with him, and in the afternoon we'd go to the park and skate together. He even brought me to his family birthday party, and introduced me to all these people. I just saw how rad of a person he was. He's even got a deck of his hanging in the San Diego memorial hall or something like he's a city legend. I was really blown away by him.
Didn't you go on tour too? That DC tour was wild!
Yeah, last November we went on a tour around Asia with DC. I was the only Japanese dude. Er, actually the only Asian dude. It was a two week tour to Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Bangkok. I don't really want to say it was like some precious experience or whatever, but it really did feel like "whoa, I'm getting to experience some amazing stuff here..." while I was there. Getting in the van with these guys I watch in the videos, going out to eat together, and just hanging out. And then heading to the demo and getting hyped skating. Like the kids would come up to me asking for autographs just like they would to them. It was like I was really a part of the stuff I used to dream about. It was sick.
Who were you with on tour?
They were actually all dudes who I was already pretty close with. I knew Wes (Kremer) and Evan (Smith) from long before the tour, and we're pretty close in age so we hung out pretty often. I've know Matt (Miller) for a while too. Madarse (Apse) was there too.
And you obviously spoke in English with them just like we're speaking in Japanese now?
Of course. The language barrier was actually the toughest for me though. On tour, no one speaks Japanese, so I just never speak it (laughs). I thought so at the time too, but now I'm especially like "Damn, I wish I worked harder at studying English" (laughs). I've had a lot of opportunities to connect with foreign skaters, but I've never really worked at formally studying English, so I could never really have any substantive conversations. Even now, I still have that problem. I can generally understand what's being said and get my point across, but I can't converse with 100% of my feelings so it feels like the conversation doesn't get to the next level. If you can't speak, then you're really alone, and the other dudes don't know what's up, so that's a barrier that you really have to overcome. No doubt, you should study and learn how to speak English.
Did you always skate with the intention for things to turn out the way they did by thinking and planning for the future? Like by this time I want to do this or become this or whatever.
Yeah, that was always a problem for me. I mean my goal was to be a pro skater, and to get there, I looked for sponsors and skated in contests and shit. But sometimes I feel like maybe my situation and surroundings were just really good... Meeting Buchi (Hirotoshi Kawabuchi) and Nao (Naohiro Abe) who were both trying to get out of Japan and stuff. And I knew Trevor (Houlihan) and Wura too. It doesn't feel like I actually did that much to get where I am. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't say so anyways. (laughs)
Where to next?
I'm going to America before the end of the year. I want to film and shoot some photos. Now when I go to the States, I've got the support to get filmed and shot, so all it takes it going there really. Since I've got a contract with them, Filmbot, Volcom, and DC will film with me, and I've got some connections at the Berrics too, so all that's left is getting over there. I want to try and get more coverage in the US mags. Nothing will happen if you don't go. Everyone does their best to put their shit up on social media, but just that won't get you sponsored. If you don't go and make things happen yourself, nothing will. Just sending emails from Japan won't get you anywhere.
So what should the kids without those kind of connections or sponsors do?
Hmm, just work a job, save your money and go. I think skating with people over there is the most important thing you can do. And go by yourself. If you go in a group, it just turns into a vacation with your Japanese friends. If you're with a bunch of Japanese people, people over there won't give a shit about you. If you're alone, people will talk to you, and you stand out for being Japanese. You feel it a lot. It all starts from making those friends and connections.
Do you feel like your attitude towards skating or skating's value has changed since you started or no?
At first I think it started with just like it being fun and cool or whatever, and then it changed to wanting to go pro and gave me something to aim for. But I always still tried to keep it fun. Then I got sponsored suddenly and got some advice from one of the older guys who told me I gotta be careful now that people are watching, so I knew I couldn't just keep doing the same old thing. I might just be self conscious, but recently it does really feel especially like there are more eyes on me. That's why I don't really like going to the park on the weekends, and it's a little harder to have fun skating with shit like that around. There are a lot of times where it really feels like a job.
What is it about the older generation of skaters that you've recently been talking a lot about that you find so special?
They're totally different. It feels like the scene itself was much different too. I think the pro skaters that I grew up watching were way more interesting. Even in just their aura as people. I've been hearing behind the scenes recently that there are people in the industry that, at the time, they'd go to those AJSA (All Japan Skateboard Association) contests with only a one-way ticket so they'd have to skate hard to win the money for the trip home and if they didn't they were fucked. There were a lot of guys like that, but even though they were doing badass shit like that it never really got out because social media didn't exist and they wouldn't talk about it either really. To think about it now, like they were just sucking it up and doing their best..that's just fucking sick. It was all way more interesting in that way. They just had more of a sense of what being pro is than the dudes today. Pros don't come on trains, they come in their own cars. You know what I mean? Like if there's some event at a spot and they're advertising that this big pro is gonna be there, the pro isn't supposed to be riding to the event on the same train as the audience. The pros before just felt more like pros. They were rock stars. Even the guys who weren't at the top were each sick in their own way.
Maybe it was because of the videos? I feel like there were more guys trying to express themselves creatively outside of skating.
But those artistically creative video stars would come together all at once for those pro contests or events, right? I think that's why so many people would go see them. There's a lot of dudes out there now who are doing crazy shit, but they're mostly just kids going around from contest to contest. Anyone can get good at a trick by practicing, but it looks so textbook that the people watching don't understand how rad it is. Back then, you'd really feel that element of on the spot luck together with them when a pro would land something gnarly, and that's what made it fun. Now all you see is everyone just practicing the same thing over and over like it's just a procedure so it's not even interesting.
Is there a person that you aspire to be like? Skater or not.
Nah, I don't think there's really anyone that I think like "Ah, I wanna be like this dude." But I always thought Junnosuke (Yonesaka) and Wura and them were all so sick. But like a dude where I thought like "I wanna be just like that!"? I don't think I've got one. Even if I did, you don't ever become like them, right? I don't know, maybe I'm just losing interest. I also always liked martial arts so I was a fan of Joichiro Tatsuyoshi (former world champion boxer). When he was in his prime, his matches were always interesting. Now it's like it always comes down to a decision and people are still like "Ohhh, he's the world champion! He's the greatest!" but Tatsuyoshi would always get everyone's attention by calling his knockouts before the match and then actually execute, so people would get super hyped, you know? That kind of thing always had an influence on me too. Like "Oh, that's how it should be."
You ever do martial arts?
(laughs) No, but I want to.
What do you do when you're not skating? Be specific. Like you're really only here for half the year, right?
If I'm not skating, I really don't do anything. I'm not interested in anything else. I like cars but I don't do more than wash mine. Even if I'm not skating though, I'll still go to M's Ramp Lab and just hang out with the homies at the park, eat some yakiniku and pizza, get wasted.
I thought you didn't drink?
Yeah, I don't generally drink too much. But I drank a shitload at the Volcom New Year's Party three years ago (laughs). It probably agrees with me too much. Once I start drinking, I drink enough to totally ruin my entire next day. If I kept drinking more often, I'd probably just become a total fucking pile. I have a car that I drive often too, so I try not to really drink that often. I think I'll have to make up for all the booze I'm not drinking now when I'm older. (laughs)
I'll ask again in five years then (laughs). You're able to live off only skating right? I know you probably don't want to go too into it, but how are you living right now?
It's great. You can move around all over the place pretty carefree, and you can get as much of whatever you need from your sponsors, you know? Decks, shoes, clothes, accessories, whatever. I've even been getting mineral water recently (laughs). That being the case, I don't have to spend my money on stuff as much as other people so I don't even know what to spend it on.
So do you have money saved up?
Yeah. Honestly, now I probably make more than the businessmen that live around me. When I first started, I was only living off only a part time job, but when I was like 19, I was able to get a salaried contract with my sponsors, so since then I've been able to make more even without the part time job, and by the time I was 22 or 23 I was able to live normally just off skating.
What's the best way to make a living off skating?
Hmm, I really think going to the States is the quickest way. Like everyone's doing their best to make it so pros can make a living off skating in Japan, but nobody even knows how many years it'll be before the Japanese skate industry is big enough to allow the pros be able to live off it, right? I feel like nothing will have changed even after ten or twenty years. Probably nothing's gonna change while you're still able to skate. That's why, for now, I think it's just way faster to go to America. You won't be able to make a living with just Japanese sponsors. There's a lot of talk about the Olympics recently too though, so you never know. But I also think it's not enough to just get famous. Just having skill, name recognition, and online views doesn't mean you'll be able to make a living. You'll need more than that. It's just common sense. Even if they make a bunch of parks and there's a bunch of skaters who can get on the same skill level as the US, it's all about how you stand out. How you stand out and how you work with your sponsors. You've got to be able to use your head. You can't just know the riders in the spotlight or center stage. You can't forget the filmers and photographers and media guys. Otherwise you can skate as much as you want, but people aren't going to follow you.
What is it that gets you hyped to skate? Has there ever been a time where you think like "Ah, thank god I skateboard..."?
I feel like that whenever something good happens. Like two years ago, I quit DC Japan, right? But just quitting kind of put me at all sorts of disadvantages. I wasn't getting paid anymore, and I wasn't really hyped on skating. And then DC hit me up directly from the US and was like "Sign with us then!" That was one of those times where I was really like "I didn't make a mistake after all!" Like it really made me thankful that I skateboard, and got me super hyped to skate. Nothing but positives came out of it. That's why it's always the good things that get me motivated. Like it makes me think I gotta get out there and get it. It really puts you at ease and gets you hyped at the same time. When I heard you guys wanted to do a feature on me too, Koshin (Japanese distributor) had some footage of mine from that old video "REZN SUN" so they hooked me up with it and watching that again got me so stoked. Just seeing my favorite skaters at the park too, you know? Skating together with good people is just so much fun and it gets you hyped.
Ollie over to front lip through the kink
Do you go out and skate solo at all?
Yeah. I haven't really been able to recently, but if I wanna skate I'll just go out and skate. But there's always so many people whenever I go that I can never really concentrate so I'll just bounce after a couple laps around the park. I wish I had a private park where me and the homies could skate by ourselves.
Do you get stressed out from skating at times?
Recently it's like almost every day. I don't want to lie and be like "Yeah, it's always fun." so I'll just be honest and say that yeah, right now, I don't really want to skate. Now it's becoming more like I have to skate, so I can't really enjoy it at all.
It's more fun to just bring your iPhone to a parking lot somewhere and skate around with the homies anyways.
I totally get that. Those are the most interesting sessions. Whenever I go to a park, I just feel like everyone's watching me, and even if they're not, it still messes with me. Now whenever you're anywhere there are a lot of people skating, they'll just upload whatever you're doing to Instagram. Like I'll just get tagged skating around or practicing a trick or something. It's dangerous. Like because I know there's always a camera rolling, it takes all the fun out of it.
Sounds like you're shitting on social media, huh...(laughs). It takes a lot of balls to say something like that when you know people are listening. What is it that's making you hate on it like that?
I just want to be honest. If I didn't say it, I'd just be stressing that I didn't get it off my chest. When you're pissed about something, you want to talk about it. And when you talk about it, it means you have to do something about it too. I think that's a really good way to do it for me. I actually got yelled at by Shinpei (Ueno) about this the other day (laughs). I'm thankful for the older dudes like him who still yell at me.
Yeah, you don't get much criticism, do you? What're you doing that keeps everyone satisfied?
Maybe it's just what we're talking about? It's not like I'm modest. And don't you think it's weird to be this like super well behaved guy? Like "what's this dude hiding?," you know? If I'm not into something, I'll say it, and if you ask me something, I'll answer whatever I think about it. I don't want to be this proper dude. It's not like I'm some super hero or something.
What'll you do if the whole Olympics thing is decided?
I won't participate. It's lame. Up until now, normal people used to get all pissed at us and think we were all bad kids and that skating is dangerous, didn't they? They always judged us like we were criminals. So now it's a fad and there's more people starting to skate so they're going to jump on the bandwagon? You don't think like, "what the fuck, dude?"? Now all of a sudden there's this big business opportunity for all these giant companies, and the ones who've worked hard building the scene up from nothing get kicked around. All it looks like is stupid people who know nothing about skateboarding trying to hijack it from the core. I'm not interested no matter how much money it brings into the industry. Don't want to help it, don't want to support it. I'm pretty much against skateboarding in the Olympics. In the remote chance I ever participated, I'd keep my hair blond and my pants sagging (laughs).
You watch Street League?
Aside from when Ryo (Sejiri) was in it, I never really watched it. I just never thought it was that cool.
tall order front nosegrind
Was there ever anything you wanted to do or achieve once you got old enough?
Of course. I just don't know what exactly. Now I still feel like I haven't done too much myself, so there will definitely be things to come, so I'll probably know what I want to do when it happens. But there's a lot. Now it's just a matter of doing everything you can to market yourself, you know? If you don't market yourself right, starting a brand or something is pretty pointless.
So what do you think a pro skater should be? What's the difference between you and the US pros that are in TWS Pro Spotlights?
I think the difference is overwhelmingly name recognition and whether or not you're releasing signature models. I really felt the difference in name recognition on this last DC tour in Asia. When you go to demos with those guys, the whole crowd is just going crazy, but not even half of them know who I am. It felt like the difference almost had nothing to do with skill.
I see. So for you, Kota, having sessioned with the real top level pros, you probably want to show them this, just like on the tour you were able to say "I'm a pro" in front of all those people?
Yeah. I'll probably bring this issue with me to the States too, but if I was in a Pro Spotlight now, it'd be like "Why me?! No way!" like they were just bluffing or something. And even if it happened I wouldn't be able to explain anything. They'd probably ask me all about the Japanese industry. The pros in Japan like to call themselves pros, but it's like "If you go anywhere outside of Japan, who really knows who you are?" But recently it's just annoying in Japan, so sometimes I just say I'm a pro skater anyways. (laughs)
There's still a lot more I want to ask, but it's just too bad we're limited on pages...Anything else you want to say?
What expectations does everyone have that they're all waiting for? If Japan just copies America, then no matter how much skating sells here, the riders will never do well. I'm skeptical it will ever change. Like no matter how long you wait, it'll just stay the same. If you think you want to be in an event like Street League, you might as well just gun for Street League itself. What's the point of just making another America? Skaters are already working for too little money. What do you think will happen if the industry gets bigger and skaters can live off it? All the dudes at the top will just be competing for paid contracts, team mates won't talk to each other, and you'll go to the park and people will just be practicing tricks without even having fun. The bigger the merit, the bigger the shadow. You can't just be dreaming it's all good all the time.
So your point is to break out by connecting with the rest of the world?
I think so. The young kids out there now don't have any common sense, and even if they're good, they're kinda weak-kneed. If you go out like that, no one's gonna help you out! But anyways, I guess the one thing I can say is that going to the States is the toughest road to becoming pro, but it's also the best. Charisma always works alone (laughs). Yo kids, don't just stick with each other!
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