FEATURE 39 Back in the Day

In the 90s, actor Yosuke Kubozuka and WTAPS® director Tetsu Nishiyama met in Harajuku, where the swells of street culture were starting to take form. The two that have spent the same time, sit down and think now about Harajuku back then, and where it is at in 2023. 

Meeting in Harajuku

Nishiyama (N from this point on) “I started WTAPS® in 1996, and I feel the original intention I had back then still continues to exist regardless of it changing form. Kind of like it was put in a Ziploc bag and left lying around.” 
Kubozuka (K from this point on) “Like, you left in a sanctuary?
N“Yeah. It’s not getting opened though. But, I don’t think there would be the now without those personal relationships in Harajuku of the 90s. I thought it would be interesting to hear about stuff like that.”
K“Speaking of the 90s, it was 1998 when I moved out from Yokosuka.” 
N“Yokosuka’s your hometown?”
K“Yeah. I was working as an actor from 16, and came out when I was 18 or 19 like ‘I got to make in Tokyo’.”
N“So when I met you, you just moved out to Tokyo.”
K“Yes indeed. I also met Magachin (Naotake Magara) like that, you know, like is that the founder of HECTIC that I always saw in magazines!? It all started with ‘why don’t you stop by the store tomorrow,’ and I was all ‘For real?’” 
N“Harajuku back then was fairly underground, right? I think it was something that strayed off to the side of main culture; so, what did it look like for the teenage Yosuke?”
K“I just came out from Yokosuka, and it was a time where I was looking at a Map of how to walk Ura-Harajuku from a magazine…like NOWHERE is here, BOUNTY HUNTER is here. Since I met Magachin at such a timing, it was sort of revolutionary. Like that, I connected with you and Takishin-kun (Shinsuke Takizawa), and my circle expanded. From there, for around 2 to 3 years I didn’t even go back and visit my parent’s place [laughs]. It was too fun to the point of not having time to sleep, in a state of always wanting to do something or go somewhere. You know, constantly excited like, I love it, I’m devoted, this is where I belong!”
N“It was like every day was the weekend. That’s where you also found music, right?”
K“I think so. Up until then I also liked standard Japanese pop music, listening to stuff like THE BLUE HEARTS, THEE MICHELLE GUN ELEPHANT, and also melocore. I started to like Hip Hop after finding Urahara.” 
N“What kind of songs were you listening to specifically?”
K“Back then I really didn’t know Western music, so a lot of it was Japanese rap and reggae. Like, K DUB SHINE, RYO the SKYWALKER, RHYMESTER, etc. Also, TERRY THE AKI-06 from Osaka who was a guy that really had a freedom of expression that kind of straddled Hip Hop and Reggae. I was really digging and listening to a lot of things.”
N“I was kind of biased, so for Japanese Hip Hop it was only up to Kan Takagi’s first unit, and other than that it was all overseas Hip Hop. Probably from your generation is when the golden age of Japanese Hip Hop started. I was already older age-wise then.”
K“Wait, how old are you now?”
K“I will be 44 this year. Wow a 5 year gap.”
N“Yeah. Since there is a slight age gap between us, what we absorbed is slightly different. But, we lived in the same era so I totally get what you’re saying.”
K“After I started going to Harajuku, I start going to Shibuya’s Harlem (CLUB HARLEM). I looked forward every week to Tuesdays with Hasebe-kun (DJ HASEBE) and Saturdays with Masterkey (DJ MASTERKEY).” 
N“I remember that. Like go home once, and come back again [laughs].”
K“Yeah I was going straight to the movie set from Harlem, and back to Harlem after the work was done [laughs]. The clubs were fun, but also really easygoing for me. I was the youngest, so everyone was like an older brother; anything and everything was fresh for me like how they talked, what they spoke about, and their views on stuff from overseas. Treasures all over the place, and all of it were things that nourished me.”
N“In my case, where I had fun and where I worked was in the same area, but you had a separate community then, right? I think you were a really unique existence, where you experienced Harajuku culture, but also put yourself in the environment of shooting movies and dramas.” 
K “Yes, it was unique. Because of that, I fell into the contradiction of not being able to like the industry I was in. Especially back then, Hip Hop was strict against fakes, so I went against myself acting all hard on my own like ‘I’m not fake’. I think I was just acting tough.”
N“You go through a process like that, don’t you, especially when your young.”
K “Regardless of all that, everyone around treated me like family. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of the night or in the morning, they would let me in their house. I still have that feeling of wanting to be like that; it was one of the driving forces that led me to be here now. Exactly like what you said with ‘in a Ziploc bag and left lying around’.”

Freedom and consistency shown by the Harajuku people

N “Do you think how you spent those days are linked to your creativeness?”
K“No doubt. My foundation is the energy that seeped into something like a foundation, so I think it shows in all aspects of my attitude. It’s always lurking regardless of if I’m eating or doing pottery. Really fortunate being able to find that culture, at that age, during such a timing known as the 90s. Some stuff was hectic, but I can say I feel anything and everything from back then has become my energy now.”
N “So what was the biggest thing?”
K“Freedom, but with an unwavering core. You are especially like that; a WTAPS® waist bag from back in the day, also goes well with the latest items. I really think that’s something amazing. For me, work-wise it’s natural to change like ‘my next role is such a role, so I am changing like this,’ since that’s what comes with the profession. Of course things don’t change fundamentally, but things created change from time to time, and honestly I feel there is no consistency in it.”
K“I’m kinda asking for too much, but I wish I had it since I don’t. Like for you and for also Takishin-kun, I really feel the strength of those first windings of your springs. As if you guys really cranked down full strength winding it up before taking off.”
N“From my perspective, I see you changing yet staying consistent.”
K“Of course the way I live doesn’t change, and I think I probably can’t change it. All of you have shown me the mentality of ‘living true to yourself,’ and still show it. It’s as if I see your backs like a signpost that guides me, an existence like a lighthouse.”
N“I feel you are really doing your thing. I kind of watch from a distance, maybe hitting you up every once in a while, not really close by all the time.”
K“Even that distance you keep is something I feel that’s consistent too.”
N“Ah, got it [laughs].”
K“It was like that back then too, and I thought it was unwavering. That’s why I am super stoked when you hit me up like this every once in a while. Pretty much the same as when I did the shoot wearing the bucket hat.”
N“I totally remember that. That was for ASAYAN.”
N“But, it’s interesting how someone that really experienced the underground and counterculture scene in the 90s is doing different roles as an actor. More like, you really don’t see many. I think that you are an actor with a unique background.”
K“Maybe. Sometimes I get called overseas something like an ‘icon of the streets.’ But, I really never lived in the streets; I just met Magachin at a club and came to this future. But, I don’t want to say ‘hold up, I’m not all that!’ I actually did experience many things and understand you guys’ pride and also lifestyles, so saying ‘hold up,’ kind of seems like denying it all.”
N“Being called an ‘icon’ and not being all humble about it, is because you really did see many things. You were on the side that was making the culture. I think that’s really unique. Also, you are an actor so it helps and shows in the variations of expression.”
K“Yeah, there is a reality to it when I get a role like.”
N“And, that culture is also really quite specific. I think it’s impossible to create that atmosphere. You got to know that vibe.”
K“You’re right. If you were to relate it to a fire, the wick, the core part that is burning the most, would be like you, Magachin, and like the Harajuku culture. Around that would be the flames that surround it lightly, like apparel or the streets; I feel like I have been watching that fire from close by. That is why if you look at it from far away it looks like one fire, but the wick, the flame around it, and the fire extending beyond, are actually all different. While I was feeling the heat from the distance I was at, it was like before I knew it, I ended up inheriting that style, pride, strength, and kindness that all of you had.”
N “I think the culture of the 90s, was a kind of counterculture that was so-called anti-establishment. It was prevalent around me as a subculture; not something mainstream. If I look around now it’s gone, but there has to be a different group of people starting it. I feel like it goes around in cycles.”
K“I feel that the times come around and go around. You know, it seems like there is a 90s revival thing going on now.”
N“Do you feel it?”
K“Yeah. Ikebukuro West Gate Park (*IWGP  from this point on) was a drama shot in 1999 and broadcasted in 2000 that started to stream on Netflix from New Year’s of this year, and Gen Z and even younger kids have started to watch it. Right around that timing, I got 70,000 to 80,000 more Instagram followers.”
N“That’s like a riptide. You were already in Harajuku when IWGP started right? That’s why there’s a reality to it. I think it’s really entertaining.”
K“I have this feeling that the energy I poured into IWGP at the end of the 90s has gone around and come back after 20 years. That’s something really interesting for me.”

What experiencing counterculture has done

N“Do you feel lately that you have gotten old?”
K“I do. After 40, I feel like it is harder to just somehow pull things off. More gray hair isn’t really helping either.”
N“So, that’s physically. How about mentally?”
K“Hmmm, maybe mentally I am stronger than back then. I used to be more naive; when 2ch came out, I was the type that got ragged on hard. And, since I was beat down so hard then, I know now it’s a total non-issue. Maybe like how you said, ‘I am unique,’ I feel like the world recognizes me that way, even if I kind of screw up. The relationships I have with all you guys play a huge part in why I am able to be put into that category of lucky you always get a pass, or damn he always has a get-out-of-trouble-free card.”
N“You are maturing, and the environment and times are changing too, so the motivation when approaching something is different from back then. You know, at what kind of place can I start something new? For example, you can’t just cruise over to Harajuku and meet someone. There aren’t any people like that anymore. So, I wonder about what kind of place I will be doing stuff at from now on.”
K“Ahh, got it. That’s why just a while ago you said to me ’Golf’s good. So you found something to really get into.’”
N“There’s that too. After bouncing around hitting things all over the place and becoming round like a stone; you know, we now have a new mentality. That’s why you can start playing something like golf. Having such mentality kind of makes you feel a sense of nostalgia for the sharp edges.”
K “It’s like I’m kind of not being conscious about counter (culture) anymore.”
N“Right. But, at the same time, when I see young people starting something, I can honestly think ‘yeah that’s cool’ because we too have that strength. That’s when I think about what to do next. I wonder if there’s anything I can leave behind; do you think of stuff like?”
K “Since I’ve been able to come this far with this way of life, I plan to have fun believing that all of the expressions and output I create contain my essence and vibes. You can say it’s kind of just going at it and see how it goes, but the variety of stuff I can do has broadened, and that’s why I think there are things like pottery in the mix.”
N“I sort of have a habit of wanting to add meaning to what I start doing. Because, I know in the end this habit becomes a form of energy or experience within me, so I unconsciously add meaning to things. I don’t know if it’s a good habit or bad habit, but then again there is the fact it leads to the work I do, so…”
K“That balance is probably what’s really good. Maybe there are people out there that collapse mentally trying to add meaning to things, but in your case, that gets outputted and become clothing, creating a balance from circulating like that. Sort of like why the key phrase LONG LIVE WTAPS® keeps on living.”
N“Indeed. It could be something like that.”
K“In my case, I used to think more back then. It was like, search for the reason and do or don’t based on that, and as I kept working, I gradually became more intuitive. At what point does design come about when you are thinking of adding meaning to something?”
N“I don’t know; when talking like this, you know how there are influences you get from the other person. I hold onto those influences, and there are times when they take form when I think of things. I can’t just retreat off to a mountain by myself and make things. Even playing with my kids can get me inspired. Like, okay, so that’s how you see things. Searching for a different angle might be how to find the seeds of design.”
K“That mentality and consistency; I think you got an incredible balance going there.”
Yosuke Kubozuka Born May 7th, 1979. From Yokosuka, Kanagawa. Debuted as an actor in 1995, and works mainly in films along with theatre. Actively pursuing roles also overseas, he made his Hollywood debut in 2017 with Silence directed by Martin Scorsese, and also played a role as part of the main cast in the 2019 released BBC x Netflix drama series set in London, Giri/Haji. Asides from acting in many hits domestic and overseas, his versatile talent also shines in music, modeling, and writing. Further focuses include the production of his YouTube shows and a golf apparel brand.
Editor: NEO IIDA