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The Tricky Thing About Tokyo's Blackface B-Stylers

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    Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.

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    Walk into Baby Shoop, a stylish metropolitan boutique, and meet Hina. A saleswoman at the store, the 24-year-old is its best advertisement. Like the mannequins that surround her, Hina favors baggy clothes, gold chains, and heavy combat boots. She has dark skin and braids. As it happens, she is Japanese. A devotee of what the Japanese call “B-Style,” Hina is determined to approximate American hip-hop culture in Tokyo. For her, that means she wants to look as black as possible.

    Dutch photographer Desiré van den Berg went to meet Hina and other B-Stylers in Japan, wanting to better understand what motivated such a controversial and complex mode of expression. She discovered a small subculture that is unaware of the social boundaries it has violated. Over coffee, a former B-Styler showed van den Berg pictures “of the time when she used to break-dance and wear cornrows” and told the photographer that she used to be called “Big Momma.”

    “That’s when I realized she must have had no idea how painfully stereotyping that is,” van den Berg told us. “In her innocence, she just copied what she saw and heard on TV, in music, and on the Internet.”

    For van den Berg, the powerful photos of this cultural collision gives viewers a chance “to think about things like cultural appreciation and appropriation — and the border between them,” especially in a homogenous nation where ideas of non-intra-Asian race relations is literally a foreign concept.

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    What sparked your interest in subcultures?
    "I guess, just being a teenager. I grew up in a town with people from many different nationalities that used to really dress differently, have their own slang and haircuts, even their own hangout spots. It was always very obvious who belonged to which group. Ever since I went to high school, I’ve been interested in those groups of people who were alternative in their choices, looks, and interests, and proud of it. I was always that girl in high school that didn’t belong to any group, but was friends with all of them. I was intrigued by the dedication of some people to those groups — maybe because I couldn’t really understand how you could have so much in common with so many people at the same time."

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    What is a fashion subculture? What separates it from a trend or a fad?
    "The difference between a subculture and a trend or a fad lies in that last part of the word: 'culture.' Cultures include things like language, values, and norms, but they can also express themselves through material things — fashion, in this case. Before, when societies were more isolated and on their own, they used to be culturally more uniform. Nowadays, because of things like globalization, you can see the effect this has on communities — they divide themselves. Societies have become more culturally diverse, and people are forming groups based on their beliefs and/or lifestyle. Subcultures go deeper than trends. They last longer and they require a kind of mindset."

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    How did B-Stylers discover American hip-hop? Why do they want to emulate it?
    "From what I understand, they see America as some kind of Promised Land. I can understand that. The same thing happens in my own small country, where American music is by far the most popular kind. These Japanese kids listen to American music, watch American videos, and admire American artists. They idolize what they see on TV and want to be, look, and sound just like that."

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    Do they realize the implications of cultural appropriation? Are they criticized for how they dress and look?
    "It was obvious that they absolutely don’t realize the implications of cultural appropriation. Japan is a very isolated country with laws making it very hard for foreigners to settle there. In Japan, just 2% of the population is foreign or foreign-born. The dialogue of cultural appropriation just doesn’t exist there. In their own country, B-Stylers are probably only criticized for how they dress and look by people that don’t like it, as a matter of personal taste — like goths or hippies, for example, in other parts of the world. It was only through my photo series that people around the globe started accusing them of cultural appropriation via the internet."

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    How did you react to them when you met them in Japan?
    "I was very surprised when I met Hina. She didn’t look Japanese to me at all. I must have stared at her so many times. But even though she looked pretty tough and 'cool' from a distance, she was so typically Japanese in the way she behaved. She had a soft voice and she was super-polite. When I went to the event Hina described as a place where many B-Stylers gather, I was a little disappointed. It was just a hip-hop evening, with lots of people in baggy jeans. Nobody looked as distinct as Hina, but Hina told me B-Style used to be much bigger about a decade ago. She said lots of people sort of 'calmed down' in their looks because of getting serious jobs and a more mature lifestyle, but she was one of the few left that’s still very dedicated."