Travel Plan: How to See Rockabilly Dancers in Tokyo
Despite Japan’s notoriously buttoned-up culture, Tokyo is known for its eccentric characters. From cosplaying teens to anime-addicted adults, there are plenty of quirky sub-cultures to indulge in. Of them all, only one draws a dedicated weekly crowd along the streets of Tokyo, the rockabilly dancers.
The young innovative district of Harajuku plays host to this wonderfully unique spectacle that has become an institution, and one that attracts visitors from the world over. So in that case, let me show you everything you need to know about the rockabilly dancers of Tokyo.
Table of Contents
What’s Special About Harajuku?
The district of Harajuku has long been the centre of Japan’s abundant sub-cultures and most eccentric fashion styles. The iconic avenue of Takeshita Street has been the home of trendy fashion boutiques for decades and acts as a safe space for those with an alternative lifestyle.
The area is lauded for its pioneering ways, even creating many of Japan’s newest fashion trends thanks to its unique “Harajuku Culture”. The distinctive styles range from modest accessories to sensory extremes. Morbid, black-clothed goths and heavily pierced skinhead punks rub elbows with rainbow-clad puffy dresses and cotton candy wigs. It’s a free-spirited alternative paradise!
Has Harajuku’s Heyday Passed?
Sadly, over the last few years, Harajuku’s shine and iconic kawaii (cute) culture has begun to fade as the sub-cultures migrate and expand across the city. Scores of observers brought with them unwanted gentrification and slowly brought the area into a more mainstream and less innovative appeal.
That being said, the alternative cultures still live strong in the hearts of the hardcore. From groups of anxiety-ridden teens rebelling against society to passionate activists and aspiring musical artists, the streets are still home to plenty of characters.
Where Is Harajuku?
Harajuku is the general term given to a district in the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo. The geographic area of the district stretches from Harajuku Station all the way to Omotesando.
To get there, head to Harajuku station on the Yamanote Line. You can also get to the general area by taking bus number 81 or the yellow or blue Hachiko buses.
When Should You Visit Harajuku?
Harajuku is bouncing every day of the week, though if you want to see the district at its best, then you should come here on Sundays! That’s the day all of Tokyo’s most eccentric characters gather around the station!
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Though Harajuku has seen a few sub-cultures come and go over the years, one has lived strong for the past 30 years and has now become a local attraction. Every Sunday, the main square of Yoyogi Park gathers a large herd of onlookers who come to witness a very unique spectacle.
It’s this unique corner of Tokyo where dedicated groups of rockabilly dancers dressed in their personalised jackets and their finest denim jeans gather to dance to their heart’s content to some classic 50s rock.
Each group takes their turn in the middle of their gathered audience before rocking out with some extraordinarily elaborate dance moves. Exaggerated air guitars, jumping splits and moves Presley himself would have been proud of are all part of these rockers’ repertoire.
The dancers are a very diverse group of individuals! Acne-ridden teens dance in unison with their middle-aged counterparts. Even old age doesn’t stop some of the more seasoned rockers from dancing to the verge of a heart attack.
What Is “Rockabilly”?
Rockabilly music was one of the earlier styles of rock and roll. Dating back to the early 1950s in the US, particularly in the South, the genre combined the upbeat styles of Western music with the more soulful blend of rhythm and blues. The revolutionary musical style created countless legends, including the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and most iconic of all, Elvis Presley himself.
The name itself is a combination of “rock” (shocking right?) and the not-so politically correct term “hillbilly” in reference to its country roots!
The genre is commonly believed to be the birth of rock as we know it today! So even the likes of Metallica, Led Zepplin, Nirvana and even the Beatles themselves have this funky music to thank!
The Rockabilly Cliques
Turns out that these rockers don’t just look like they’re straight out of Grease, they lived the greaser life too! These rockabillies are separated into their own respective groups, though thankfully there isn’t any animosity between them!
Each crew has their own name, which is usually imprinted on the back of their personalised leather or denim jackets. Some groups even match their uniforms completely!
Some of the catchy titles include the Harajuku City Gang, the Strangers, the Lebels, the Bamboo Shoot Tribe and the Rollers to name a few. Many of these groups have been around for the last 25 to 30 years,dancing in this same spot in Yoyogi Park!
What Do the Rockabilly Dancers Do?
Simple, they dance, a lot! With speakers blaring 50s classics, deck chairs set up with freshly cracked open beers and an eager crowd of onlookers, the rockers have everything they need to dance to their heart’s content.
And we’re not talking a couple of tunes here, these dancers go for HOURS! Even the greying grandpas and grandmas in the group put their younger counterparts to the test! Once one group has had their time in the spotlight, they step back and let another group have their turn to rock Harajuku to its core.
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Though it seems odd that a few Japanese people have attached themselves to this obscure piece of American culture, the West is guilty of it too! Japan has given birth to many sub-cultures that have become an obsession for Westerners. Anime, manga, extensive amounts of video games, and all manner of martial arts… Japan has put plenty of the world’s cultural stage.
Individual rockabillies have been inspired by numerous cultural icons. Famed rockstars inspired and even a young Johnny Depp fueled many’s passion! Others simply fell in love with the unique culture and expressive outlet of Yoyogi’s dancers!
Needing a Release
Japan is a very buttoned-up, conservative society. The typical Japanese salaryman and salarywomen work their fingers to the bone for ungodly numbers of hours and continue to do so until the day they keel over. This culture of overworking leaves very little time to let one’s hair down…and so any free time must be taken full advantage of.
As such, Japanese creative and emotional outlets can be a bit on the extreme side. Whether it’s excessively playing video games, an unhealthy obsession with anime characters or even enjoying some highly sexually charged leather-bound sexual encounters, there are more than a few ways to release the tension. The same is true for the rockabilly dancers.
More importantly, during its inception, the culture became the perfect creative outlet for young restless teens wanting to rebel against Japan’s notoriously conservative society.
Rockabilly Influence in Japan
Though many were captivated by the unique music genre when it first hit the radio waves, rockabilly music was first popularized in Japan when the Japanese singer Chiemi Eri covered Billy Haley and His Comets’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955. Around the same time, a local motorcycle gang known as the kaminari zoku also popularised the slick “Greaser” look that was so iconic at the time.
The post-war 1960s sadly brought a lot of anti-American sentiment in the country which sadly saw much of its culture resisted. Despite that, it soon saw a revival during the 1970s and 1980s as bands brought the look back in style.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the rockabillies had started gathering in Yoyogi Park, which invariably became the perfect setting. As Harajuku always was a culturally influential part of the capital, it helped massively in fueling the rockabilly fire and established the sub-culture as an iconic part of Tokyo. Long live rock and roll!
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.