TOKYO — Miki Matsui explodes onto center stage, a spinning, jumping whirlwind in baggy clothing. With the music pounding, she and her troupe of five, called Run D Crew, leap, strut, and do the odd back flip as hundreds of Tokyo's hippest roar their approval.
The funky young audience, along with much of Japan, is entranced by dance these days. While Japanese adults are floating through hula, samba, and cha-cha steps, their children are kicking their heels up with a brash American import: hip-hop.
The 1980s creation of rap stars and break dancers in the Bronx in New York City, hip-hop is an ebullient mash of music, dance, and fashion that has become one of America's most popular exports.
It has taken more than a decade to get to Tokyo, but today hip-hop defines youth style here. Observers of the trend say dance offers Japan's stressed adults a release, while hip-hop's black-culture roots give younger people a way to express their individuality in a place more known for toeing the line. "Hip-hop is a culture," says Yasuyo Honjo, whose Fitness World studio is a mecca for Tokyoites interested in hip-hop. "It's young black Americans' answer to prejudice and society's reluctance to accept them. It's really about freedom, and I think younger Japanese relate to that. Here they just want to express themselves as individuals, but society won't accept them unless they conform to fit a certain mold."
A Tokyo fitness club offered the country's first hip-hop class in 1993. While there are no figures available on the growth of its popularity, the number of hip-hop events at clubs throughout Tokyo has risen sharply in the last two years, participants say.
On warm days in Tokyo, it's common to see youngsters honing their moves in front of mirrored buildings and in parks.
Hip-hop has even spilled over into video arcades with the immensely popular new game "Dance Dance Revolution." The game features music, a video screen, and a floorboard with lights, and requires players to put their foot in the right spot to win points.
Increasingly, fitness clubs are offering hip-hop and other dance classes. "Aerobics is too limited, you have to follow the instructor exactly," says Masahiko Ogita, the fitness chief at Crunch fitness club. "But dance is looser, it lets people abandon themselves and their worries for a short while."
For Ms. Matsui and her cohorts, hip-hop is less a temporary diversion than a career opportunity. They specialize in double dutch - hip-hop dancing combined with jumping rope.
They first saw a video of American double-dutchers in 1993 and set about teaching themselves. By the spring of 1994 they had learned enough to land a spot entertaining the crowd at a special National Basketball Association game in Tokyo.
In 1996, they traveled to New York to compete at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night and won first prize. They went back this year and did it again. Now Matsui's troupe is trying to find an American agent so that they can perform in the US more often. "We love the whole hip-hop culture," says Megumi Sayama, who assists Mitsui.
They wouldn't be Japan's first hip-hop export. A young Japanese named Tamaki Toriyabe has become one of the most sought after dancers in Paris. French theaters and dance companies are using hip-hop to draw younger audiences, and government cultural grants back urban dance festivals that showcase it.
Hip-hop's international quality is definitely part of its appeal in Japan. Young Japanese like to look like their counterparts elsewhere, and hip-hop clothing - baggy jeans and certain athletic gear - is fashionable from Pasadena to Paris.
Advertisers capitalize on that here, as elsewhere. In the US, The Gap and Pepe Jeans are among the firms that use hip-hop music and artists to sell products. In Europe, Adidas sponsored performances by two hip-hop crews during the 1998 World Cup in France.
Rika Iwama, an instructor at Crunch fitness club, often took trips overseas when she first started doing hip-hop. "I would go to New York to get a feel for the dancing there," she says. "Now it's so popular, I don't have to leave to get a feel for hip-hop. So now," she laughs, "I go to the States to stay one step ahead."