The Tricky Thing About Tokyo's Blackface B-Stylers

Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
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."
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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
Where do B-Stylers go to shop for clothes, get their hair done, darken their skin?
"Hina works for a hip-hop-inspired clothing brand called Babyshoop. I met her at work, and I just saw lots of gold jewelry and photos advertising the clothes on black models, or Japanese models [made to look like] black models. The T-shirt I photographed that said 'Black for Life' shocked me and had me wonder if they knew what they were saying. I think the language barrier plays a big part in this. Japanese people don’t speak English very well in general, so they probably have no clue of the implication of the word 'black' in this context."
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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
How did this photo series develop? What did you want to capture?
"I saw a really short documentary with Hina and a few others on YouTube a couple of years ago and tried to Google 'B-Style.' I couldn’t find anything else besides the documentary, so I made a note, like I always do when I find something interesting I want to know more about. When I moved to Hong Kong, I decided to try to get in touch with B-Stylers, because a ticket from Hong Kong to Japan isn’t that expensive. As soon as I managed to speak to some B-Stylers — through a Japanese friend of a friend who was so kind to translate everything for me — I booked a flight. I didn’t have much time, so everything happened pretty last-minute. But I even managed to meet Hina, so I was really excited. We mostly talked, and I took those photos, because I hadn’t seen any of them yet and wanted to share their looks with the world. I could imagine there would be people like me that would be interested to see this and wondered whether I could make people think about expressions of identity and its limits."

How and where do B-Stylers gather? Online? In-person?
"They gather in person at hip-hop events or at break-dance battles, from what I’ve been told. But, of course, there must be forums on the internet where they can discuss the latest trends or share the latest videos, like everyone nowadays."
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Photographed by Desiré van den Berg.
How do B-Stylers use fashion as a medium of expression?
"They copy the fashion in hip-hop videos, so that, of course, develops over time as well. Hina said she used to be really into 50 Cent, but absolutely loves A$AP Rocky right now. She admires the girls in the videos and actually told me she really wished she had black skin. 'It’s just more beautiful,' she told me. And that pretty much summarizes it all. She doesn’t consider the history that comes with black skin and the links with oppression and discrimination, but she means well. I’m not sure if we can blame her, since Japan has a lot of catching up to do on this subject. Hearing something like this from a Japanese person makes it even more surprising, actually, since the Japanese are generally known for wanting to be as pale as possible. Lots of facial creams in Japan contain 'whitening' essence, and as soon as the sun comes out, people everywhere pull out their umbrellas. Besides dressing like the people in hip-hop videos, some of them get their skin tanned in tanning salons as well. They also told me they get their hair done by African hairdressers, because they’re more specialized in the way they like to wear their hair — like what they see in hip-hop videos."
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