Friday, February 8, 2008

At the Kennedy Center’s “Japan! Culture + Hyper Culture” festival (going on through Feb. 17), highbrow arts are certainly not the only thing on the bill. In fact, several events are illuminating the island nation’s street culture — one of the richest and most vibrant in the world right now.

Are you ready to learn how to be hip, Japanese style? If so, we’d like to introduce you to a few of the instructors that the Kennedy Center will have on hand and the lessons they’ve got in store for you.

Shin Tanaka: Play with Toys

Unless you have young children or are a closeted collector, toys are probably something you gave up long before you wrote your first rent check. In Japan, however, things are different: Toys are trendy, closely linked to street culture, and definitely not just for youngsters.

Shin Tanaka is proof of this. The 28-year-old holds down a full-time job as an engineer, but his name has become quite renowned in certain circles because of the paper toys he crafts. Combining the ancient Japanese art of origami and the edgy influences of hip-hop and sneaker cultures, he makes critters and full-size sneaker models from paper. One of his most popular lines is the “T-Boy,” a series of dolls that hide beneath big T-shirts decorated with graffiti- or other street-style graphics.

The Nike design library has exhibited Mr. Tanaka’s work, and countless street-wear brands and artists have embraced his designs through collaborations.

If the toys remind you of something, it might be the “designer” or “urban vinyl” toys that have surfaced in this country. These collectible, artfully designed, cartoon-esque figures originally came from Hong Kong in the late ‘90s, and the trend soon spread to Japan and eventually the U.S.

Here, where toys are still generally considered child’s play, designer vinyl has stealthily crept into chic sneaker boutiques, forward-looking gift shops and hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco’s music videos; however, it remains largely the stuff of subcultures.

In Japan, says Mr. Tanaka, toys are mainstream. They’re celebrated. They’re art. They’re canvases upon which people can paint their own artistic visions (quite literally — Mr. Tanaka, for example, often gives away blank templates of his designs).

T-Boy’s creator thinks that Japan’s biggest toy fans are in their 20s and 30s, often because they finally have the money to buy all the cool things they previously wanted but couldn’t afford. However, he notes that his paper crafts “are loved by many different generations, from kids to elders.”

“I think that in the U.S. and Europe … at some point, you have to become an adult,” says Taeko Baba, president of the event media communications company New York-Tokyo and a festival consultant for Japan! “In Japan, you can forever be a kid.”

Evidence? How about all the adults in Japan who read manga (comics) and watch anime (animated programs)?

Mr. Tanaka was in the District on Tuesday for a demonstration and workshop. If you missed him, you can still see his wares; they’re now on display in the Kennedy Center gift shop.

Kenichi Ebina: Kick It

Hip-hop may be an American original, but it’s now a language heard round the world, including in Japan, where DJing, MCing, graffiti and break dancing are staples of street culture.

Japan’s hip-hop scene sprang up shortly after early-‘80s films like Charlie Ahearn’s seminal “Wild Style” hit the Eastern nation. Since then, Japanese artists have feverishly studied the American art forms and injected them with flavors of their own.

The culture has grown so much in Japan that its hip-hoppers are now beginning to influence the American and global hip-hop scenes. For two out of the last four years, Japanese DJs have won the coveted DMC World DJ Championships Battle for World Supremacy, and Japanese dancers took the World Locking Champions title at last year’s U.K. B-Boy Championships World Finals.

Enter 33-year-old Kenichi Ebina, a self-trained, Japanese-born break dancer who now lives in New York City, where he became the first and only two-time grand champion in “Showtime at the Apollo” history.

Mr. Ebina’s first exposure to hip-hop dance came from watching Japanese TV shows as a youngster. He also says that in Japan, dancers are a common sight on the sidewalks, whereas in the U.S., they’re relegated largely to touristy street corners and parks in major cities.

“Some people in Japan resist hip-hop because of its nature, especially people in the older generations,” Mr. Ebina says via e-mail. With its aggressive posturing, it does stand in stark contrast to traditional Japanese standards of behavior, but as hip-hop heads would say, you “can’t stop, won’t stop” this cultural tidal wave.

Mr. Ebina performs Monday at 6 p.m. at the Millennium Stage.

The Harajuku ‘Hood: Dress for Success

If you’ve been listening to Gwen Stefani lately, then you already know about the Harajuku neighborhood in Tokyo and the wild fashion styles that it’s given rise to. As the pop star sings in “Harajuku Girls,” the streets of this locale teem with clothes hounds donning everything from high-fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood to homegrown, high-end street-wear brands like A Bathing Ape to homemade “Gothic Lolita” and manga-inspired costumes.

“It was sort of frightening for me the first time I went there,” says Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center. “There are just throngs and throngs of young people dressed in all kinds of unique clothing. I was fascinated by it. It almost seems like you’re in the theater.”

While planning the Japan! festival, Ms. Adams knew she wanted this vibrant, innovative segment of Japan’s street culture represented — thus, the final night event: a Harajuku evening. At 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, visitors are encouraged to dress in their favorite Harajuku style (check out the book “Fresh Fruits” by photographer Shoichi Aoki for ideas). In turn, they’ll be rewarded by a DJ spinning an eclectic mix of Japanese club sounds, video mixers presenting a visual slice of Japanese street life, and a parade of fashions from some of Harajuku’s hippest designers.

That’s about as far as our instruction goes, so if you think you’re ready to take your learning to the next level and up your Japanese street-culture quotient, get out there and study up. The festival ends soon, but coolness is forever.

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