Daniel Robson finds a derby with a difference
Violence on wheels. A pack of vicious angels glide in tight formation, their helmets and elbow/knee-padding a clear visual reminder that they are unfazed by danger and they are here to win. Weaving full-pelt through their pack comes a "jammer", the two stars on her helmet a mark of her status as a point-scoring bad-arse. Within two minutes there will be winners and losers. And hopefully no broken bones. Roller derby has come to Japan, and it ain't pretty.
"I used to have a part-time job as a roller-dancer at a skating rink, and that's where I heard about roller derby," says Yoko "Zu-Ca" Hasegawa, a jammer with Yokota Scary Blossoms who has been in the game since June 2012. "I was so impressed when I went to
see a live match that I joined the Yokota team. Roller derby isn't very well known at all in Japan, so we're doing our best to spread the word."
Roller derby is an American contact sport originating in the 1930s and '40s and revived around the turn of the millennium. Two teams of five roller skaters face off in a series of two-minute "jams" in which they skate in the same direction around a track, with four members of each team designated as "blockers" who must stop the opposing team's jammer from lapping them to win points. Roller derby is usually an all-female sport, and in the US it perhaps obviously has ties with feminism and punk rock.
The Tokyo Roller Girls league was created in 2010 as a way for young women on US military bases around the Kanto area to compete, spawning four teams: Yokota Scary Blossoms, Yokosuka Sushi Rollers, Zama Killer Katanas and Tokyo Bomber Girls. It is one of four leagues in Japan. Most of the players are American, younger military personnel at the bases and older soldiers' daughters. But the number of young Japanese women like Zu-Ca turning to the sport is growing.
"It depends on the person of course, but roller derby is a sport that requires a certain amount of guts to play, so the women who play it tend to be tough," admits Zu-Ca. "And it attracts women who are warm-hearted and who can cherish their teammates as they would their own family.
"Personally, I like the unity of teamwork as we help each other out and the depth of the rules. I also love the colorful uniforms and the socks – they're so cute!"
For Zu-Ca, roller derby is the perfect escape from her "normal" life as a housewife and part-time office worker. On weekdays she walks and on weekends she rolls, keeping in shape between Sunday practices with a daily routine of muscle-building workouts and upgrading her gear with imports from the States (roller derby equipment is available in Japan but since the sport is niche, selection is poor and prices are high).
Explaining the special skills required to be a jammer, Zu-Ca says, "You need to be fast, good at dodging and have good attack speed. Also, I'm lacking in this department but physical strength is helpful."
Since the general public are not allowed to enter military bases, there tend to be only around 100 people in the audience for matches. But videos are posted to YouTube and Facebook for anyone to watch, and Zu-Ca says live-streamed games on Niconico Douga draw up to 3,000 viewers a time.
Of course, a rough-and-tumble sport such as roller derby is not without its fair share of injuries. Zu-Ca says she once took a spill into the audience barrier and hurt her neck and back so badly that she was unable to move for a few days, though she hasn't sustained anything permanent – yet.
"At first my parents were worried and they were against it," she says. "But my mother came to see a game and she saw how warm and friendly my teammates are, and she told me I should cherish being part of such a close-knit team of people."
Roller derby is currently under consideration for the 2020 Olympics, a move that would boost the sport's cache immeasurably around the world. Who knows, maybe Japan could get a national team – and if it did, Zu-Ca says she would like to be on it. For now, her goal is to spread the word about the sport within Japan and to keep getting better. After all, there's always a new pack of vicious angels to crash through, and more points to score.
Check out the Tokyo Roller Girls League on their Facebook page.