Drugs, Localism, And Sunrise Sessions: How Does Surfing Differ In Jamaica And Japan?

by Brendan Buckley August 11, 2021 6 min read

It’s easy to buy into the myth that surf culture exists in an absolute, non-malleable form. 

Your friends, your townspeople, and all the faces in your local lineup might all see it a certain way. And so that must be the way it is everywhere, all the time. Except it’s not. 

Earlier this year, we had surfers from eight different countries at Vans Stab High, Central America, presented by Monster Energy. Everyone got along great — which, for me, was one of the coolest things about the project. The fact that surfing can bring so many different people together is quite a delight. 

Surfing has been globally popular for long enough now that it takes on different shapes in different places. The most obvious point of difference, for good reason, is whether surfing is viewed as a sport or as an outlet for fun and creativity. But there are many subtleties and nuances that make up the fabric of surf culture. I mostly wanted to explore those.

So, I took time with surfers from two nations are 8,000 miles/13,000 kilometers apart — Kaito Ohasi of Japan, and Shama Beckford of Jamaica — and asked them the same set of questions.

I spoke with them separately, so that they would not influence each other’s answers. Here’s what they had to say.  

Here’s Shama!

Is the average surfer in your country focused on performance, or do they just want to enjoy themselves? 
Shama: There’s a mixture. The older guys are surfing leisurely, having fun. The younger guys like me are taking a more professional approach. But even though we’re taking that approach, you never get that serious ‘I have to grind, don’t talk to me’ vibe. It’s a lot more positive and happy. When you see someone do something sick, everyone gets excited — cheering each other on adds to the culture of surfing. We’re always laughing and smiling in the water, too. 

Kaito:Probably performance. You see people that look like they’re just trying to get six or seven points every time they stand up and trying to finish every wave. But there are some people who have more fun and are more into free surfing. That side is smaller, but it seems like it’s growing. That’s the type of surfing I want to inspire. 

What’s the vibe like in the water?
Shama:Easy-flowing. Everybody knows everybody — you’ve either grown up with them or watched them growing up. Surfing in Jamaica is only a few generations deep, so it’s a small, super calm scene. Most of the time, you have to call your friends to make sure you don’t surf alone. We have a group thread that we use to meet up for sessions. 

Kaito:It’s more serious. Some people are really serious, especially older guys. But people my age a little more happy. Our generation is changing it. 

And now, Kaito!

How do most kids get into surfing? 
Shama: Some kids show up and try to get us to take them surfing. Those are the kids who continue to surf and get good at it. You have to want it, because it won’t just happen naturally in Jamiaca. I used to stand on the shoreline and watch people surf, then borrow a board from someone for like three waves, then give it back. Eventually I was able to get my own board — but you have to earn that. It’s getting a little easier now, but kids still have to really seek it out. I try to make sure everyone has boards. 

Kaito:A lot of kids start with lessons, but I was lucky because my parents surf. My dad wanted me to surf well and have a nice style — if I lost a contest but surfed well, he’d still be happy. It seems like these days, most kids are introduced to surfing through lessons though.

What does a local Grandma think of surfing? 
Shama:A lot of local people who have never traveled or experienced foreign cultures are still a bit hesitant to try. In Jamaica, a lot of people don’t like to send their kids to the beach because they think it’s dangerous. There’s a fear of the sea.But things are changing and more people are getting open to it. 

Kaito:They think it’s a no-good thing to do, and that it causes trouble. But that’s starting to change as well. 

Shama used to have to borrow boards. Now, Hayden has him covered. Photo: Jimmicane

Would the average person consider surfing a sport? 
Shama:They think of it in a stereotypical way. Like, ‘Yeah dude, gnarly.’ But they also think it’s cool. They don’t view it as a proper sport that takes a lot of work to get good at. Companies in Jamaica wouldn’t take it serious enough to sponsor a surfer or anything. I’m probably the first paid professional surfer in Jamaican history. 

Kaito:I don’t think they’d think of it as a sport. With the Olympics, people might start seeing it as more of a sport. But most people think of it as a culture and some people are drawn to that more than a sport.  

Does localism exist? 
Shama:No. We don’t have to. The surf scene is so small. Every now and then, if someone comes and is a dick in the lineup, we’ll just tell them to chill out. But even then, it’s not like anybody’s gonna get beat up. 

Kaito:Not really. There are some places that are bad, where you might get in trouble just for paddling out. But it’s super rare. Sometimes you see people yell in the water, but they rarely ever fight. 

What’s the car park scene like? 
Shama:There’s one spot where it’s great. Everyone will come in and talk about the session, figure out where you’re going to surf tomorrow, maybe drink some beers. The energy is really good. 

Kaito:It’s hard because we don’t have a lot of beach parking there. You need to pay a lot to park. So we don’t really have that vibe where people hang out there. 

Kaito was happy to not have to worry about parking in Costa Rica. Photo: Jimmicane

Do most surfers watch the WSL? 
Kaito:Yeah, for sure. Every event. 

Shama:All of us. If something big happens, our group thread will go off. And then we’ll talk about it in the water after and get all excited about it. 

Do most surfers watch surf edits? 
Shama:We don’t talk about surf edits as much as a community, but we all still watch them. If it’s a really crazy one, someone might put it in the group thread. But the conversations are mostly around the competitions. 

Kaito:People don’t pay as much attention to that. That’s another thing I want to change. I’m trying to make more movies, and hopefully get more Japanese surfers into watching them. 

How are visiting surfers treated? 
Shama:If tourists come, we want to take you to the best waves and show you what we have. We’re super welcoming people. 

Kaito:I think the same as locals. Nobody gives you any special attention in a good or bad way. 

Are lineups crowded at sunrise? 
Shama:Man, if you get to any beach in Jamaica at 6:30 AM, there is a 99.9% chance you’ll be the only surfer in the water until 8. [laughs] There’s no rush. The wind doesn’t come up until around 11, and that ‘let me be the first one to get on it’ thing doesn’t exist there.  

Kaito:Super crowded, yeah. Everybody surfs in the morning before work. Sunrise is one of the busiest times to surf. 

Shama, in no rush. Photo: Jimmicane

Is partying considered part of surf culture? 
Shama:Well, we don’t consider marijuana is a drug. We grow up hearing it’s natural, it’s a plant. So a lot of surfers smoke weed recreationally and you’ll see people rolling one up before they surf. But if someone in the surf community is getting into harder drugs, it’s definitely frowned upon. 

Kaito:Not really. It’s more serious. If I partied, people would think it’s weird and think I should be training more. 

Any elements of traditional culture influence your surfing?
Shama:Jamaicans try to be unique in whatever we do. So, nobody wants to surf like anyone else. Plus, everyone who grew up surfing there developed their own style with little or no influence from the outside world—doing what felt good to us. 
Kaito:I think it helped give me a more detailed approach at first. But I’m trying to have as much fun as possible with it.

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