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Why Japan is a fitting stage for surfing's Olympic debut

Surfing makes Olympic debut
A look at the history of surfing, one of the world's oldest sports 03:18

ON THE SHONAN COAST, Japan — In summer, the action gets going at four in the morning. Men and women in black wetsuits begin to appear, lugging their boards on foot or tucked into special bike racks. 

Before the rest of the country wakes up, Kugenuma beach is already a sea of surfers, perhaps the most popular slice of seashore in the country.

Japan's island geography means a beach is rarely far away. So while Hawaii is the undisputed birthplace and global mecca of modern surfing, Japan has nurtured a fanatic wave-rider culture all its own — in many respects, a fitting stage for the Olympic debut of one of the world's oldest sports. Surfing is making its debut at the games on Sunday. 

Surveying the throngs that would put off surfers in other parts of the world, regular Masaya Uchida, who commutes here several times a week from his home in Kawasaki city, radiated chill. 

"It is crowded," he said, "but the ocean belongs to everyone."

"It's really laid-back here, and welcoming," he told CBS News. "Like being in California!"

By train, surfing destinations on the Shonan coast can be reached in about an hour from downtown Tokyo, allowing surf addicts to indulge their passion for a few hours before work. It's not uncommon to see office stiffs in the parking lot, quickly shedding wetsuits
for business suits.

Japanese have been body surfing since at least the 19th century, floating on small planks of wood called itago. The placards were often emblazoned with ads for stores or soap.

But after World War II, and the arrival of U.S. servicemen, longboard riding-GIs from nearby American bases like Atsugi and Yokosuka began to wave-ride at Shonan — and Japanese were instantly hooked, Tokyo author Kaori Shoji told CBS News.

"Because we're an island nation and ocean is just about everywhere, they looked at the GIs having fun with just a board and thought to themselves, 'Hey, you know, if they can do that, so can we.' I mean, boards are cheap, aren't they?"

Shoji said that for Japanese, still recovering from the miseries of war, surfing was much more than just a new sport — it signified liberation itself. 

"American guys at the time represented the strong sense of freedom and relaxation and the feeling that you are not being surveilled or under scrutiny or being forced to do something that you weren't ready to do, which is what World War II was all about for the majority of the Japanese," she said.

"The ocean up to that point represented livelihoods, represented maybe travel for the privileged few. But mostly the ocean was a place where you made a living. And now these GIs were telling people that, you know, it's a place to have fun and relax and catch
a wave or two. And I think that was really seductive to the Japanese."

Japan's hang-ten obsession — there are an estimated two million surfers here — supports a thriving local beach culture, from the cafes and gear shops of seashore mecca, Chigasaki, to a cottage industry of artisans. Soeda Surfboard caters to a notoriously finicky clientele, with boards fine-tuned to the surfer's skill level, body size and local wave conditions.

Over at Deuce Wetsuits, artisan Hiroshi Fukuzawa requires customers to submit a long checklist of body measurements — and pay nearly twice as much as for off-the-rack wetsuits. "Custom wetsuits were originally handcrafted for Japanese pearl divers," Fukuzawa told CBS News, amid his cramped workshop in the city of Odawara. "Then artisans branched out into wetsuits for surfers."

Japan's gentle waves are just right for total newbies. Redwood City, California, native and now-local surf instructor Gary Burkhalter showed me how to stay on my board, more or less.

"You can surf in Hawaii, you can surf in California, you could surf anywhere in Bali ... but surfing in Japan is like, wow, that's really special. To be actually in the water watching the sun set behind Mount Fuji, the water turns red and orange, it's glowing.
And these beautiful waves are coming in."

Hot dog surfers must bide their time, waiting for typhoons to churn up the big waves. But for the sheer joy of watery communion, Japan's surfin' safari is a real day at the beach.

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