If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics would already have taken place. But in the now indefinitely postponed Tokyo Olympics, several sports are still scheduled to debut, including surfing, skateboarding, karate, and climbing. Within one of these sports, climbing, is a young female climber who is one of the best in the world: Ashima Shiraishi. Originally born in New York to two Japanese immigrant parents, Ashima is a dual citizen of Japan and the U.S. Since she was a child, she has captured the attention of the world, expected by many to become a top climber. And now, in a country still reeling from the tragedy of the coronavirus and racial tensions, how has Ashima been feeling and taking action? Her friend and Los Angeles-based photographer, Asato Iida, catches up with her.
What world-renowned climber and fashion lover Ashima Shiraishi hopes to achieve
My name is Asato Iida and I’m a photographer based in Los Angeles. My friend, Ashima Shiraishi, is one of the world’s best climbers. At age 14, she became the first woman to complete a V15-level climb, and since then, she has gone on to win numerous competitions with an impressive track record. Her climbing style is powerful, utilizing her petite frame in a way that sets her apart from other climbers who have longer reach. But those who see her powerful, yet calm climbing style might be surprised to find that in her personal life, she’s a girl still in her late teens who loves fashion and baking. When we talk, we sometimes get into current affairs, and I’m blown away by her candid and reassured way of thinking that isn’t typically expected of a teenager. I caught up with the charming Ashima to talk about her thoughts and projects related to climbing, as well as her book, “HOW TO SOLVE A PROBLEM.”
Masato Iida (hereinafter Iida): The U.S. is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. How have you been spending this time?
Ashima Shiraishi (hereinafter Ashima): From April to June, the climbing gyms were closed because of coronavirus, so I took a bit of a break from climbing. I took that time to educate myself about the issues happening in the world by reading a lot of books and articles. I was also able to see my relationship to climbing differently than I had before. For me, climbing is my passion and my job. But before that, I’m a citizen of this world. That’s why I need to be aware of what’s going on in the world and take action. I think that through climbing, it’s up to me to use my voice to reach people everywhere.
Iida: You’ve been proactive through ALL RISE CLIMBING, a project with your friends and sponsors that aims to give back to the local community. THE NORTH FACE, climbing shoe brand EVOLV, West-Coast creative collective Brain Dead, local Long Beach climbing gym LONG BEACH RISING, and climbing wall builder VERTICAL SOLUTION are all involved in the project. What’s the concept behind this project that so many people are a part of?
Ashima: The concept of ALL RISE CLIMBING is to make climbing more accessible for everyone, and to spread the joy of climbing. And through this project, with LONG BEACH RISING, we plan to start a program where anyone can learn to climb for free. I personally didn’t grow up in a wealthy environment where I could go to the climbing gym everyday, and there are a lot of people out there in a similar position. If we all take action for people in need, at an individual level, we can create a chain reaction and give back to the community. So I’m doing what I can to take action and create more tangible change.
Iida: How did the project start?
Ashima: The owner of LONG BEACH RISING, Grayston, really respected how Brain Dead was taking action against racial injustice, so he contacted the founder, Kyle. Kyle was impressed by Grayston’s idea for ALL RISE CLIMBING, so he agreed to get involved. Being a friend of Kyle’s, he shared his vision of the project with me and the domino effect was passed on to my sponsors who were enthusiastic to support our initiative.
Iida: What have you been doing through this project?
Ashima: Last November, Kyle and EVOLV were talking about collaborating on my climbing shoes. I’ve always really liked fashion, so I had approached Brain Dead about making a new shoe that was more stylish.The prototypes looked really good, but right around that time, the coronavirus was beginning to spread across the world, and the resurgence of the black lives matter protests was occurring. So instead of just selling the shoes we collaborated on, we took action to do something to address this issue. We put up a pre-order and raised about $50,000 to give back to the community. Then, we donated a portion of the proceeds towards 5 organizations, including ALL RISE CLIMBING, ADAPTIVE CLIMBING GROUP, YOUNG WOMEN WHO CRUSH, BROWN GIRS CLIMBING, and OWN YOUR MEDIA.
Iida: That’s amazing! So, what’s next?
Ashima: It depends on what’s happening with the coronavirus, but we want to set up a new climbing wall for ALL RISE CLIMBING in the front section of Long Beach Rising, so the local youth can enjoy climbing. I hope that we can create another new community from that. It’s unbelievable how naturally the project has evolved, and it really feels like everyone really wants to get together to do things for the community.
Iida: It’s really important for everyone to stand up for people in need, and you’re currently working on these kinds of projects. But what do you think about brands and companies becoming involved in social issues?
Ashima: It’s really complicated. For example, racial injustice and police brutality have been a big part of the conversation here, but speaking up on these issues isn’t easy because there are so many different opinions that come up. And there are so many other social issues too, like with the food industry or the environment. The change that’s happening may not be quick enough for us to see, but it’s still important for brands and companies to commit to it. Everyone can express their opinions on social media, but I believe change happens when we turn our opinions into action.
On inspiring children through books
Iida: ALL RISE CLIMBING is more of a local project, but you also previously wrote a children’s book, “HOW TO SOLVE A PROBLEM.” In this book, you write about how you’ve dealt with some of the problems you’ve confronted in your life as a climber. Could you tell me how this book came to be?
Ashima: Of course! It all started because a publisher approached me with the idea of working on a children’s book. Books have been integral to my childhood to help broaden my perspective of the world and have greatly influenced me to become the person I am today. Even to this day, I’m always reading, and I learn a lot from books. So when they approached me about this opportunity, I was really happy and excited because I wanted kids to get something out of books like I often did. There aren’t a lot of children’s books about climbing, so by writing a book about my unique climbing experience, I wanted to show that everyone has an equal opportunity to challenge themselves.
Iida: I see. So, here’s my last question. I like bouldering, but I feel like climbing is not only a physical sport, but a mental one, too. When you climb up the wall of a gym or a boulder–what they call a “problem” in climbing lingo–how do you prepare yourself for that? Is there anything you keep in mind?
Ashima: Climbing is a problem-solving sport. You have to be intuitive of your movement and have body awareness to figure out how your body will contort itself to get to the top of the wall. Especially when you’re climbing outdoors, it’s all about the mental and the emotional. It’s also important to connect with the physical, to keep your mind clear and confident. My dad has had a huge influence on me in this regard. He’s a Butoh dancer, and also my coach; I’ve learned really important mental skills from him. So before we finish, here’s one very important thing he’s taught me: To have a quiet but strong souI. I think that’s a really important attitude to have in climbing.
In this interview, I got the impression that through climbing, Ashima is able to learn and speak about fun, hardship, challenges, and all kinds of problems. I’m looking forward to seeing her climbing career grow and develop, and I feel inspired to do what I can to better the world going forward.