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Niigata, Japan — Japan is not exactly known for public nudity. So when a Japanese man stripped and danced naked among 40,000 on a ski slope after the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the Fuji Rock Festival here Sunday, July 28, some observers saw it as a symbol.

“This never would have happened in Japan five years ago,” explains Tokyo fashion writer Ami Nishimatsu, who’s decked out in a lip ring, topknot of dreadlocks imported from Jamaica and Thai hill tribe jacket. “We have more freedom now than ever before.”

Japan had few outdoor music festivals 10 years ago, when it was at the apex of its economic bubble. But despite the worst recession in Japan’s modern history, this summer is quickly becoming Japan’s own version of North America’s summer of love.

First, soccer’s World Cup brought massive crowds of raucous youths in identical team uniforms to the stadiums.

Then there was the three-day Summer Solstice party, where thousands of ravers slept in tents, consumed magic mushrooms and danced all night in a kind of shamanic aerobics in the mud on the foggy slope of Mt. Fuji.

An oversight in the law resulted in a wonderful abundance of legal magic mushrooms, and with a greater homegrown supply of Tha Herb than ever before, Japan is becoming JAHpan.

When I came here to learn Japanese in 1989, Japanese youth were still in a straitjacket of exam hell, arranged dates and marriages, a lifetime of employment and the threat of police breaking their arms for possessing a single joint, known locally as “taima.”

Since then, Japan’s youth culture has blossomed like a sakura flower at the same time as the economic collapse has caused uptight foreign and domestic banker wankers to move their 1950s corporatist mentality to China.

Instead of the military-industrial white shirts and grey suits of salarymen and the pinky, prissy uniforms of office ladies, today’s youth wear tie-dye, dreadlocks, tribal jewellery, tattoos, beards and sandals, man.

Ravers like Hana Trance support themselves by travelling to Thailand, Goa, Kenya and Bolivia and then selling imported clothing and jewellery at their own shops in Tokyo’s Nakano or Shimokitazawa districts.

Youth are creating a sub-economy of their own, moving their rave and rock culture from the underground basement boxes of the early 1990s to the mountaintops of 2002.

The cops, meanwhile, are nowhere to be seen — at least not at the Summer Solstice and Fuji Rock fests. Youth organized their own security, and all went off without a hitch. Yah, man, there were plenty of herbs, chems and ‘shrooms to go around.

But nothing like the bad-trip scenes of mass arrests, overdosing and hospitalizations witnessed at Thailand’s full moon parties or the muggings that occur at UK fests.

Japan’s scene has a positive, clean vibe, a kind of organic and orderly anarchy. Even the outdoor porta-toilets at Fuji Rock are relatively bearable. Thousands bathe in streams, a sight that’s reminiscent of pilgrims in the Ganges River, and separate their recyclable plastic bottles and garbage into burnable and non-burnable piles.

Food stalls serving cheap 500-yen Thai curries, tandoori chicken, Japanese noodles and even Ghanaian food bring back the kind of freewheeling food markets that were swept off the streets in the 1960s to de-Asianize Japan and turn it into a quaint English garden.

The overall effect is a kind of utopian new JAHpan. “This is no longer Japan,” guitarist Kato of Japan’s most popular band, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, tells me after opening for Alec Empire, Muse and Prodigy on Friday. “We have become liberated.”

Kenichi Asai, a Japanese rebel hero whose band, JUDE, arguably outplayed Get Up Kids, the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth on Saturday, adds later at an after-party near his tent: “I felt a wholeness being onstage in Japanese mountains, singing about nature and Japanese people. I am not interested in living in foreign countries any more. I love my own Japan.”

Foreign rock stars and DJs seemed to understand the sentiment, and took on the role of emissaries from the Western counterculture.

“Free the mind and the ass will follow,” was U.S. president Clinton’s message — George Clinton, that is, of Parliament Funkadelic, who continued singing without a mike during his set even after the organizers turned the power out to end the night.

“This is not a game. This is serious,” said the lead singer of Prodigy. “Open your mind and feel the shell shock.”

“Today has been a beautiful night,” said bassist Flea during the Chili Peppers’ festival-closing set. Added Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, “Now there are no televisions between us.”

My mind flashes back to the Canadian rave organizer in Japan who told me what U.S. hippie guru Timothy Leary taught a circle of ravers who would become Japan’s top DJs and artists a decade ago.

“People won’t trip out on their own — you have to make them trip out,” he quoted Leary as saying.

These days, Japanese youth seem interested in the journey. When they saw the naked man on Sunday, dozens of kids ran out of the mosh pit to dance in a circle around him and hoist him on their shoulders.

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