Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hip-hop Japan--First Japanamerica Guest Post

Writer Evelyn Anderson won the jackpot by becoming the first guest contributor to the Japanamerica blog. Herewith, her take on Japanese hip-hop.  Move over, PSY.

Hip-hop in Japan: Carbon Copy of America or Japanese take on an American Movement?
Hip-hop is arguably one of the most influential subcultures in the world. It has caused teenagers all over the globe to don baggy clothing, wear their caps back to front and slip pieces of urban American slang into their conversations. It is therefore no surprise that the youth of Japan has been heavily influenced by this movement, with young people emulating the fashion, vernacular and musical tastes of the US ghetto. There are now over three hundred shops selling hip-hop clothes in central Tokyo alone and it is commonplace to see young men dressed in the ‘b-boy’ style that was popular amongst American rappers during the ‘80s. However whereas in the past, Japanese hip-hop fans imitated their American counterparts without adding any elements from their own culture into the mix, over the course of the last few years, hip-hop culture in Japan has transformed into its own unique movement.

From Gangster Rap to Reality Rap
In late 2003, the owner of Tokyo hip-hop record shop Hideaki Tamura noted that a major change was occurring within the Japanese hip-hop scene. When interviewed by a BBC News reporter, he commented that Japanese rappers had started doing their own thing as opposed to emulating American rappers. Instead of rapping about things like guns, violence and drug culture in New York, which there is little of in Japan compared to the United States, they were beginning to rap about everyday life in Japan, focusing upon peaceful topics and structuring their lyrics in a poetic manner. 

One of the factors that had originally held Japanese rappers back and caused most Japanese youngsters to listen to American hip-hop instead was the perception that the Japanese language is not suited to this form of music. Sentences must end with one of a few simple verb endings and the language does not contain stress accents. However after the success of several pop-rap artists during the mid 90s, Japanese language rap gradually grew in popularity. Now that the lyrics are also becoming more reflective of Japanese life, it could be argued that the Japanese have taken an American style and made it Japanese.

Exploring Discrimination
When hip-hop first became popular in Japan, the majority of its fans were detached from the fact that it was originally the soundtrack to an underprivileged minority. Themes of oppression and rebellion went over the audience’s heads, partly due to the language barrier. Enthusiasts were mainly drawn to the fashion, with female fans even darkening their skin and braiding their hair in order to pay homage to black Americans. As Japan’s hip-hop fans became more and more in touch with the roots of the music that they listened to, some minority rappers began to use the genre to explore their cultural identities.

In 2007, Reuters reported that an indigenous Japanese ethnic group known as the Ainu were turning to hip-hop in order to spread awareness of their customs and traditions. Reuters gave the example of a group called the ‘Ainu Rebels’, who had made a rap song in the language of the Ainu about ancestral heroes and totemic gods. A reporter for The Guardian suggested that the emergence of Ainu rappers was playing a part in Ainu culture becoming popular as opposed to being stigmatised and an article in USA Today stated that it was helping the Ainu to ‘rise up from the margins of Japanese society’. 

Japanese rappers have also been responsible for creating songs speaking out against discrimination against Koreans, as well as a number of other issues affecting minorities in the country. This is further evidence of Japanese hip-hop artists tailoring their music towards the unique set of problems that exist within Japanese society as opposed to merely copying the messages of American rappers.

Japanese the New Jamaican
Japanese rappers are even beginning to take pride in how different their rap scene is to that of America. Japanese hip-hop artist Kojoe explores the differences between the Japanese and African Americans within his songs. He has a collaboration with a black American rapper on one of his albums, which features a joke about Americans not being able to tell the Japanese from the Chinese. Kojoe has previously emphasized the importance of rapping in a Japanese accent when performing to English speakers, pointing out that citizens of non-Jamaican countries have come to enjoy hearing a Jamaican accent in reggae songs and expressing a desire to create a similar situation with regards to the Japanese accent and hip-hop. He is one of a growing number of Japanese hip-hop artists who wish to emphasize their Japanese nationality as opposed to adopting an American way of speaking in an effort to fit in with what is popular in the States.

The Future of Hip-Hop in Japan
The question is, ‘will hip-hop continue to be popular in Japan throughout the years to come?’ It has managed to break away from America’s shadow and become something original but that does not necessarily mean that it will still exist ten years from now. Cultural commentator Carlo Niederberger believes that Japanese hip-hop is a fad and that it will soon fade out. He has commented that the Japanese have a habit of getting passionate about things and then quickly forgetting about them. 

However his words bring about a sense of déjà vu to anybody who is familiar with the history of hip-hop in America because this is was exactly what journalists said when the genre first became popular in New York. Whether he is correct or not remains to be seen but one thing is for certain: the blending of black American and Japanese cultures within the Japanese hip-hop scene has certainly created an interesting hybrid.


Evelyn Anderson is a music aficionado and perpetual nomad, having lived in Japan and Korea during a lot of her early twenties. Now more rooted back home, she is a freelance writer and covers everything from personal finance to celebrity trends.

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