Japanese Rap is said to have begun when Hiroshi Fujiwara returned to Japan and started playing rap records in the early 1980s. Japanese rap generally tends to be most directly influenced by old school rap, taking from the era’s catchy beats, dance culture, and overall fun and carefree nature and incorporating it into their music. As a result, hip hop stands as one of the most commercially viable mainstream music genres in Japan, and the line between it and jpop music is frequently blurred.
History of J-Rap
Although rather informal and small scale, the early days of Japanese hip-hop provide the history for the emergence of the cultural movement. Early hip-hop was not led by corporate interests, but rather was largely ignored by large record companies and performance venues. In this respect, Japanese hip-hop offers a representation of cultural globalization, as it expanded despite criticism on the part of record companies and major media outlets. The history shows that certain kinds of cultural exchange are not initiated through cultural understanding, but instead from some interaction that can incite a desire to learn, to participate, and to contribute individuality. In Japan, this motivation to represent individuality was breakdancing, which was one of the leading edges of hip-hop at the time. An important spark for Japanese hip-hop occurred in 1983, when breakdancing appeared in Tokyo through film and live performances even though American hip hop records could previously be heard in Tokyo discos. According to Takagi Kan, a first generation Japanese MC, “I couldn’t tell what was with the rap and the DJing…but with the breakdancing and graffiti art, you could understand it visually. Or rather, it wasn’t understanding so much as, ‘Whoa, that’s cool’ [kakoii]. With rap and DJing, I couldn’t imagine what could be cool about it.” Dancing has a visual impact that everyone can understand, when it comes to dance there is not a language barrier. Break dancing represented the foundation for the spread of Japanese hip-hop and served as a medium for globalization.
As in Germany, Japan was introduced to hip hop in the fall of 1983 in the movie Wild Style. The film is “the classic hip-hop flick, full of great subway shots, breakdancing, freestyle MCing and rare footage of one of the godfathers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash, pulling off an awesome scratch-mix set on a pair of ancient turntables.” The popularity of the film led to many of the artists involved in it to make a trip to Japan to promote the film and they even performed in some of the department stores while they were there. Shortly after, Japanese took up breakdancing in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, where street musicians gather every Sunday to perform. Crazy-A, now the leader of Rock Steady Crew Japan,” was one of the pioneers of break dancing in Yoyogi back in the early 1984″.Crazy-A organizes the annual “B-Boy Park” which happens every August, and draws a large number of fans and dozens of break dancing groups. This was all considered the Old School Era of rap in Tokyo. There was much of what they called Soul Dancing which helped the Japanese culture accept the street dance culture.
The rise of DJs was really the next step for the Japanese hip hop scene. Before 1985, there weren’t very many DJs on the radio, but with the increase in the number that year, it led to the opening of the first all hip hop club in 1986. But despite the fact that DJing caught on rather quickly, it was initially thought that rapping wasn’t going to have the same cache as it would be hard to rap in Japanese.
Street musicians began to breakdance in Yoyogi Park, including DJ Krush who has become a world-renowned DJ after arising from the Yoyogi Park scene. In 1986 an all hip hop club opened in Shibuya. While interest in hip-hop in Japan grew some during the 1980s and early 1990s, the rap scene remained fairly small and rather marginalized. One reason for the rap scene to remain so small and a little bit less popular compared to hip hop is because of the fact that the Japanese language does “not contain stress accents and sentences must end with one of a few simple verb endings.” Ito Seiko, Chikado Haruo, Tinnie Punx and Takagi Kan were rappers that emerged out of Japan at this time, and they proved to be rather successful.
The years 1994 and 1995, marked the beginning of hip-hop’s commercial success in Japan. The first hit was Schadaraparr’s “Kon’ya wa būgi bakku” (Boogie Back Tonight) by Scha Dara Parr and Ozawa Kenji, followed by East En X Yuri’s “Da. Yo. Ne.” and “Maicca,” which each sold a million copies. This sudden popularity of J-rap, which was largely characterized as party rap, sparked a debate over ‘realness’ and authenticity between commercial and underground hip-hop artists.
An example of an underground attack on mainstream J-Rap is Lamp Eye’s “Shogen,” in which rapper You the Rock disses the more pop oriented group Dassen Trio. Writer Ian Condry argues that the rappers on this track are closely emulating the traditional macho posturing of rap, citing influences such as Public Enemy and Rakim. The video reflects this image in its roughness and tone Dassen Trio, and other pop rappers, respond to such attacks with the argument that their subject matter is more culturally appropriate and accessible for Japanese fans, and question the standards of “realness” put forth by underground rappers.
With a lack of ghettos, Japanese youth consider hip hop the soundtrack to international fashion–baggy jeans, medallions, dread locks, etc. Actual Japanese rap lyrics have a tendency to refer to mundane subjects such as food, cell phones, and shopping. Since 2000, the hip hop scene in Japan has grown and diversified. Hip-hop style and Japanese rap has been enormously commercially successful in Japan. In a 2003 interview with the BBC, Tokyo record-store owner, Hideaki Tamura noted “Japanese hip-hop really exploded in the last two, three years. I never thought there would be a time when Japanese records could outsell American ones but it’s happening.” Additionally, a huge number of new scenes have developed. These include “rock rap to hard core gangsta, spoken word/poetry, to conscious, old school, techno rap, antigovernment, pro-marijuana, heavymetal-sampled rap, and so on.” Tamura points to a shift in Japanese hip hop, when artists began to focus on issues pertinent to Japanese society, versus previous styles and subjects that were copied from US hip hop culture. For Japan, the style of hip hop was much more appealing than topics popular in American hip hop, such as violence. Ian Condry, on the other hand, focuses on an interplay between local and global hip hop within the genba of Japan. For Condry, Japanese hip hop was born out of simultaneous localization and globalization of hip hop culture, rather than a shift between the two binary factors.