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Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization

Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization

by Ian Condry

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In this lively ethnography Ian Condry interprets Japan’s vibrant hip-hop scene, explaining how a music and culture that originated halfway around the world is appropriated and remade in Tokyo clubs and recording studios. Illuminating different aspects of Japanese hip-hop, Condry chronicles how self-described “yellow B-Boys” express their devotion to


In this lively ethnography Ian Condry interprets Japan’s vibrant hip-hop scene, explaining how a music and culture that originated halfway around the world is appropriated and remade in Tokyo clubs and recording studios. Illuminating different aspects of Japanese hip-hop, Condry chronicles how self-described “yellow B-Boys” express their devotion to “black culture,” how they combine the figure of the samurai with American rapping techniques and gangsta imagery, and how underground artists compete with pop icons to define “real” Japanese hip-hop. He discusses how rappers manipulate the Japanese language to achieve rhyme and rhythmic flow and how Japan’s female rappers struggle to find a place in a male-dominated genre. Condry pays particular attention to the messages of emcees, considering how their raps take on subjects including Japan’s education system, its sex industry, teenage bullying victims turned schoolyard murderers, and even America’s handling of the war on terror.

Condry attended more than 120 hip-hop performances in clubs in and around Tokyo, sat in on dozens of studio recording sessions, and interviewed rappers, music company executives, music store owners, and journalists. Situating the voices of Japanese artists in the specific nightclubs where hip-hop is performed—what musicians and fans call the genba (actual site) of the scene—he draws attention to the collaborative, improvisatory character of cultural globalization. He contends that it was the pull of grassroots connections and individual performers rather than the push of big media corporations that initially energized and popularized hip-hop in Japan. Zeebra, DJ Krush, Crazy-A, Rhymester, and a host of other artists created Japanese rap, one performance at a time.

Editorial Reviews

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“I found Hip-Hop Japan fascinating. Ian Condry writes with both authority and intimacy. Taking on the movement of musicians, CDs, soundtracks, graffiti, breakdancing, fashion, racialized culture, style, musical genre, lyrics, and history from the United States to Japan, he offers a groundbreaking transcultural study of popular culture explored through an ethnography of the local.”—Anne Allison, author of Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination

“Ian Condry’s book moves masterfully between ground-level observation of the Japanese hip-hop scene and sharp insight into the global flows of cultural influence. His analysis of the urban spaces in which Japanese hip-hop culture unfolds is fascinating and smart. So, too, is the book’s careful mapping of hip-hop’s place within the complex history of Japanese popular music since World War II. Condry is one of the handful of writers breathing new life into popular music ethnography with lively, evocative writing and a firm grasp of contemporary cultural theory.”—Will Straw, author of Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50s America

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By Ian Condry

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3876-5

Chapter One


In a 1998 single, when the rapper Mummy-D of the group Rhymester calls himself "Yellow B-Boy" and "number one," he draws attention to the complicated racial matrix at the heart of hip-hop's worldwide diffusion. What does it mean to be a yellow b-boy in Japan? What is hip-hop doing in a supposedly homogeneous society like Japan's in the first place? Questions of race and hip-hop are a good place to begin thinking about the music's cultural politics in part because racially charged imagery constitutes such a conspicuous feature of rap's presence in Japan. Indeed, the racial underpinnings of hip-hop are also at the center of vibrant debate among Japanese artists and fans. A Japanese rapper who calls himself Banana Ice released a song in 1995 called (in Japanese) "Mane + Mane = Mane" ("Imitation + Imitation = Imitation") in which he ridicules young hip-hop fans who darken their skin as a sign of respect toward African American musicians. "Your parents, your grandparents are Japanese," he raps; "you can never be the black person you want to be."

Although the percentage of Japanese rappers, break-dancers, and hip-hop fans who tan their skin or weardreadlocks is quite small, such body practices symbolize a dubious two-sidedness to the uses of hip-hop in Japan. Kreva of the group Kick the Can Crew put it succinctly in a personal communication with me when he explained the dreads he wore in the mid-1990s: "First, it's meant as a sign of respect toward black culture, but second, I want to stand out [medachitai]." Banana Ice, rapping more generally about skin-darkened hip-hop fans, sees above all the mark of conspicuous, mercurial consumption:

in summer, black at the beach natsu wa umi de kuroku in winter, black on the ski slopes fuyu wa yama de kuroku with free time, going to tan salons hima arya hiyake saron itte skin always black itsu mo hada wa kuroku take a half day to get dreadlocks hannichi kakatte kamigata doreddo then give it up to be a skinhead yamete yoshite sukinheddo

-Shitamachi Kyôdai (1995) Mane + Mane = Mane maxi-single (Pony Canyon, Japan, PCCA-0084).

The spectacle of young Japanese spending lavishly on dread hair and tanning salons is perhaps the most striking expression of hip-hop devotion in Japan, and for critics both in the United States and Japan it symbolizes a misappropriation and misunderstanding of black music, culture, and style. Hip-hop comes to Japan above all as black music rather than American music, that is, with racial connotations emphasized more than national origins. Over time, this blackness has been interpreted and used in a wide variety of ways (e.g., hair styles, skin tanning, rapping, body language, ideas of self-expression, clothing, musical taste, etc.). This chapter focuses attention on the ways race is debated, commodified, performed, and contested, arguing that race indeed constitutes a critical component of hip-hop, even in Japan. Nevertheless, I would argue that it should not be the only lens through which to view the music. One aim of this chapter is to shift attention away from questions of how American understandings of race are interpreted in Japan to focus instead on how Japanese conceptualize and embody ideas of hip-hop and race. As we will see, there is no single answer, but rather a contradictory range of discourses linking music, race, and Japaneseness.

Within the diversity of hip-hop's racialized meanings, I discuss three interrelated themes. First, I ask, what do the criticisms of Japanese rappers tell us about assumptions linking music and race? Interestingly, critics who complain that rap in Japan is primarily superficial imitation or misguided appropriation can be found in both the United States and Japan, and both rely on similar logics. Thus debates about hip-hop overseas encourage us to think about cultural politics of race across national boundaries, not only in terms of criticisms but also of alliances. This leads to my second theme, which, drawing on Cornel West, aims to map what might be called a new cultural politics of affiliation, that is, ways in which Japanese hip-hoppers draw inspiration from African American art forms and struggles. This analytical thread draws together different rappers' approaches to using hip-hop and race in their lyrics. I also briefly consider the diversity of black music forms in Japan (e.g., jazz, doo-wop, reggae) for comparison. Third, I examine the ways Japanese ideas of race arise from different conceptualizations (e.g., based on "blood," rather than appearance) and a different history (e.g., World War II in Asia). If we know that race is constructed, the question becomes how can we learn from different patterns of construction in different places, serving different ends? In the end, I argue, moving beyond global-versus-local (or black-versus-Japanese) debates allows us to explore a more pressing question related to globalization, namely, "What can transnational cultural politics accomplish, and how?"

Race and Keeping It Real

One place to begin considering race and hip-hop is with the idea of "keeping it real." The rhetoric of realness in American hip-hop encompasses a wide range of concerns, including debates over whether the negative images in gangsta rap actually just reflect reality,-thus distinguishing pop, commercial rap from real, underground hip-hop-and over whether a white rapper such as Eminem can be "real" because he comes from a working-class background. Of course, being African American does not in itself confer realness. Claims of realness, or lack thereof, become weapons in debates about who is black enough among African American rappers as well. But what would it mean to know hip-hop, and what would be required to participate in the production of hip-hop, in a language other than English and for people with little (if any) historical connection to the largely African American communities that gave birth to the style? How can a Japanese artist "keep it real"?

Consider the artwork for two albums released in 2002 (see figures 4 and 5) and ask yourself which one could be considered more real? For many Americans, Dabo's body language, clothes, and accessories are likely to reinforce the idea that Japanese hip-hop is merely imitation, superficially copying the styles seen on MTV and in music magazines, missing the deeper significance of hip-hop and reinforcing stereotypes about African Americans. Does not Dabo's cover suggest that what Japanese youth learn from hip-hop is that black Americans, if they are successful, are most likely gun-toting gangstas, microphone-wielding emcees, or professional athletes? On the other hand, when Japanese rappers like Uzi incorporate conspicuously Japanese elements, are they not ignoring-or, worse, disrespecting-the origins of hip-hop culture?

Note the double bind that tends to shadow all foreign emcees. Japanese rappers are expected to respect the African American roots of the music while also producing something uniquely authentic and original. Their success in achieving this balance thus depends very much on the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Uzi represents a model of local creativity by relying on recognizably exotic markers of Japanese ethnicity-namely, samurai imagery-and, in fact, he claims descent from a samurai family. He also prints the title of his album in the kanji characters for kotodama, an archaic concept roughly meaning "the spirit of words." In contrast, Dabo uses a gun, do-rags, platinum chains, and prison walls topped with concertina wire as signifying elements, thus relying on supposedly globally recognizable markers of hip-hop style.

But if you ask the average Japanese hip-hop fan to choose between Dabo and Uzi and to identify the more authentic (honmono) or "real" (riaru) artist, most would choose Dabo. Why? Because he performs with a more skillful flow, better musical production, more provocative lyrics, and a stage presence that commands the crowd. Dabo's performance skills in a club thus provide a measure of authenticity despite not having a particular racial heritage. Rather than seeing his style as imitative, Dabo's supporters are more likely to see him as competing directly with the best (i.e., American) hip-hop performers in the world. At one level, Dabo can be seen as trying to participate as an equal in a shared world of hip-hop iconography, a more respectable stance, he would likely say, than relying on clichéd images of Japaneseness. Indeed, from a Japanese perspective, samurai have become overdetermined by media representations on par with those of US gangstas. Moreover, Dabo's uses of Americanized imagery constitutes only one side of a kind of mutual borrowing and remixing that happens in American uses of Asian imagery, as when the Staten Island-based hip-hop crew Wu-Tang Clan uses kung fu imagery and sound samples in their videos and songs or produces Wu Wear shirts with gibberish Japanese writing. Dismissing such gestures as orientalist or racist implicitly invokes notions of cultural authenticity that may prove ill-suited to such transnationally oriented productions. If anything, a transnational cultural politics should encourage the perspective of locating the meaning of gangsta or samurai or kung fu rappers in broader contexts, not simply in terms of the visuals of album covers. How then can we understand the politics of these cultural gestures?

A New Cultural Politics of Affiliation

I would argue that the projects of Japanese hip-hoppers can be usefully viewed in terms of what Cornel West (1990) calls a "new cultural politics of difference." West illuminates the advantages of conceiving of racial politics in nonessentialist terms. West's new cultural politics of difference contrasts with artistic projects that represent positive images of a singular black community, representations, he notes, that can be biased toward heterosexist, patriarchal, middle-class norms. Instead, he applauds critical interventions of African American writers and artists who draw attention to the diversity of black lives and struggles. This new cultural politics aims to inspire alliances without essentializing, by, in his words, "projecting alternative visions, analyses and actions that proceed from particularities and arrive at moral and political connectedness" (35). West's perspective emerges from a different context, but the lessons for a study of black culture in Japan are profound. In particular, the application of his ideas exposes the limitations of searching for the local or the Japanese in overseas hip-hop. Indeed, although I use the term black culture, we should bear in mind that the term is shorthand for a complex range of practices, ideas, and discourses, never meaning any one single thing. Similarly, highlighting the local features of hip-hop in Japan risks reproducing images of the Japanese people while underplaying the ways in which Japanese emcees are engaged in critiquing mainstream standards of what it means to be Japanese, among other artistic and political goals. As we will see, some Japanese rappers address racism in their own society by drawing inspiration from the racial underpinnings of hip-hop, as when Mummy-D calls himself a yellow b-boy. In this, I would argue, Japanese rappers, by allying themselves with African American rap, engage in what might be called a new cultural politics of affiliation. By this I mean that the gestures toward alliances across racial boundaries demand analysis in terms of their multiple frames of reference. I would argue that many uses of hip-hop in Japan attempt to produce a kind of political affiliation, but that the politics must be situated in the spaces and contexts in which they are performed. This reorients our attention away from questions of whether the Japanese "get it" or "don't get it" when it comes to race and hip-hop, and instead draws us toward questions of what Japanese hip-hoppers are doing with the music in their own worlds.

I would add a caveat. While there exists great positive potential for hip-hop in Japan, both as a space for articulating alternative visions of Japanese identity and for providing a comparative context for thinking about hip-hop's border crossings in the United States and elsewhere, it would be misleading to suggest that the hip-hop reaching mainstream Japan is only, or even primarily, a vehicle for progressive change. Generally in Japan, corporate support has flowed more quickly either to those who accommodate the marketing world's fetishization of blackness as hip, sensual, and rebellious or to those who deemphasize blackness in favor of aligning themselves with Japan's traditionally lighthearted and inoffensive pop music realm. If one's exposure to Japanese rap music comes from television, radio, or the mainstream music press, one is likely to see the edginess of hip-hop promoted through racially coded imagery, often combining an outlaw stance with conspicuous, brand-name consumption. Hip-hop is not only "cool" (kakkoii) but also "bad" (yabai, meaning of course "good"). It surely is a sign of globalization that in addition to McDonald's, Disneyland, and Starbucks, Japan now boasts its own self-styled thug (saagu) rappers, complete with gold teeth, "ice" (diamonds), and platinum chains. Alternatively, J-pop versions of hip-hop that appear on the charts tend to be stripped of any racial nuance.

Because my research focuses on genba, that is, key sites of cultural production (mainly nightclubs and recording studios), I witnessed a wider range of musical expressions and in general more politicized messaging than is commonly found in major record labels' offerings. Examples of superficial, imitative, and frankly racist uses of hip-hop abound in Japan, but a balanced look at Japanese hip-hop can nevertheless help us understand the stakes and the promise of the music's cultural politics. The blackness of hip-hop in Japan is central to its cultural meaning, and yet it is a blackness that operates somewhat differently outside of mainstream US culture where white, patriarchal modes of dominance remain a standard for judging oppositional stances. Some of the debate about race and hip-hop from US hip-hop studies provides an important context.


Excerpted from HIP-HOP JAPAN by Ian Condry Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Ian Condry is Associate Professor of Japanese cultural studies in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Visit Ian Condry’s website.

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