‘Yes, yes, yah- ya doan stop’ booms a thickly accented voice through a crackling mic. One thousand hands wave in unison to the japanese rap music beat. This isn’t a scene in South Central LA, rousing a crowd of restless inner-city youths. This is an event in Japan — one of the wealthiest, racially homogeneous countries in the world.
Since its inception in the early 70′s, rap music has become the most prominent genre of music in America today. JRap culture, comprised of rap music, graffiti art, break dancing, ‘b-boy’ fashion and a rebellious attitude, has blown from it’s cradle in New York City across the globe. Hip hop culture is cool now, even in Japan. But how does the chaos of black life in the ghettos translate in a highly regulated society where racial conflict and urban poverty barely exist? The diluted message of Afro-American oppression has washed up on Japanese shores in a cracked bottle. Hip hop culture has been repackaged for trendy teenage consumers. Though language barriers will always prevent a full understanding of the hip hop word, the prevalence of Afro-American culture is sprouting a greater social awareness in Japanese youth.
Japan has a tradition of infatuation with Western jpop culture. Baseball is still notoriously popular, and Levis used to sell for exorbitant sums. Today, blue jeans have been replaced with baggy khakis. The basic American street outfit of hooded sweatshirts, extra-large sport team T-shirts, expensive sneakers and flashy gold jewelry is ubiquitous in Japanese cities. Two branches of Spike Lee’s retail store ‘Spike’s Joint’ have opened to enormously enthusiastic crowds, selling sweatshirts with English slogans like ‘Stay Black,’ and ‘Ya-Dig Sho-Nuff,’ for $67 a piece. The autobiography of Malcolm X was published in Japanese shortly after the release of Lee’s Malcolm X film. Less than three weeks after the books publication, it topped the nonfiction best-selling chart, even with a tag of $25 -twice the price of the average serious non-fiction book in Japan. Lee’s Malcolm X film sold out in over 60 theaters in every Japanese city, every night of the first four weeks it ran. In the trendy Tokyo neighborhood of Shibuya, a narrow shopping street has been renamed ‘Malcolm X Boulevard,’ and shoppers in the district can buy a silver X logoed team jacket at Spike’s Joint for a mere $794. Hard-core supporters of black culture invest in dreadlocks, spending from $314 to $1,215 and up to seven hours at a hair salon. Those with time constraints can simply purchase a Jamaican-style hat with fake dreadlocks attached, and charge it on their JapaSupu cards- the credit card printed on the rasta palette of red, gold, green and black, with the perk of reggae concert ticket discounts. Japanese Hip hop fanatics frequent tanning salons with names like ‘Neo- Blackers.’ A one month supply of skin darkeners, particularly ‘African-Special’ can be mail-ordered for $315. For the Japanese teenager, exploring the alleys of b-boydom can be quite a pricey endeavor.
But anyone can consume the inherent rhythm, energy and excitement of rap music. However, its popularity in Japan is mostly attributed to the fact that hip hop culture is cool in America. Western hegemony has proved to be a troubling issue for older generation Japanese. Japanese teens are beginning to refute the ‘straitjacket society’ in which they live, where their lives are predetermined by the time they are 13 years old. The destructive ways in which teens are negating their Japanese identity is a problematic result of the hip hop trend. Not only are Japanese youth becoming increasingly Westernized, they are missing the significance of Afro-American experience in the United States.
‘I like Black people and their music because they’re cool,’ says Keichiro Suzuki, clad in Air Jordans with a bandanna wrapped tightly on his head like an LA gangsta.
Hip hop culture gives the underprivileged a voice in America. It is one of the only vehicles through which life in the ghetto can be articulated to a widespread audience. For many urban youth, rap is salvation from the strife of the slum. In the early 70′s, playground rap concerts were organized to divert teens from gang life, and today many artists are convinced that they would be in jail if they weren’t rappers. The energy of rap music is derived from hustling in crime-ridden areas; kids must keep alert to skirt trouble on every corner in the ghetto. Rap music has heightened the awareness of white domination, poverty, drugs and crime in America, and the aggression in the music reflects resentment in the black community. Even the fashion trend of baggy clothes has been traced to two circumstances of poverty. Destitute parents could afford only one set of clothes for their children, so kids roamed the ghettos sporting extra large outfits until they grew into their clothes. Then, graffiti writers adopted baggy pants to facilitate stealing spray paint.
In Japan, on the other hand, consumerism and ‘hip’ materialism is encouraged. It is a country with one of the lowest reported crime rates in the world, and the Japanese pride themselves on their cultural homogeneity. With a foundation concretely embedded in the urban poor, the commodification of hip hop culture is ironic, especially in Japan where the message of rap music can not be understood.
“I don’t think [Japanese teenagers] get it,” says Yuka Fujimoto, a Japanese student living in America, ” They can’t understand the significance of the words, they just say them in a superficial way. Themes of oppression and rebellion are irrelevant. If Alaskan Eskimos were cool and in the top 40, teenagers in Japan would think they were cool too.”
Even if the Japanese don’t understand all the political aspects of hip hop culture, the interest in black culture is loosening the insular fiber in Japanese youth. Stereotypical images of black Americans are disseminated throughout Japan, primarily through the media, but racism in the country is typically directed at gaigin or foreigners, regardless of skin color. Americans, in general, are seen as violent.
“I think that the media has given us such wrong information,” says Yugi, a rap concert promoter in Japan, “When the rap artists get here they are different [from what we expected]. They are much nicer.”
The exposure to Afro-American culture has prompted young Japanese to explore injustice within their own society. Discrimination against minority groups like the Ainus, a northern aboriginal tribe, and Koreans living in Japan, have recently been acknowledged thanks to the message of Malcolm X. Also, a growing number of Japanese rappers are writing rhymes, in Japanese and English, focusing on cultural-specific topics. Takagi Kans song Hip Hop Fork addresses MSG companies making money in Asia. And despite the extreme differences between the Afro-American and Japanese experience, many Japanese feel a vague sense of kinship with American blacks. “We are a yellow race. We know about discrimination too,” says Yuka Matsumoto.
The novelty of hip hop culture may pass, but the message of social awareness may have significant impact on the younger generation of Japanese. Despite the inherent contradictions of Japanese hip hop, a knowledge has been gained that could never be reduced to a trend.