The Tricky Thing About Tokyo’s Blackface B-Stylers

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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