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article // hip hop influences Japanese culture

Picture a hip-hop club: the speakers’ thumping bass is loud enough to knock items off shelves and MCs has the audience with its hands up. The dress code consists of baggy pants, over sized sports jerseys, and the optional baseball caps and the air is thick and humid. One thing that is different is that the crowd is consisting of mostly Japanese youth, which is now a common nightly scene in Tokyo, Japan. Hip-Hop music has become America’s fastest growing genre of music (Bennett 1), the music tells stories of poverty stricken life and struggle, and the music and culture have spread from the basements of New York City to a worldwide venture. In Japan, a wealthy nation and where 99% of its citizens are of Japanese nationality (World Fact Book 1), hip-hop (known to Japanese as hippu hoppu, nip-hop, or J-Rap) is currently one of the most popular types of music. One wonders how Japanese youth embraced the tale of American’s ghettos and racial struggles, for Japan is a high-regulated society where instances of racial conflict and urban poverty are incredibly minuscule.

            Hip-hop music was proven to be a one-way street in Japan. Music from America travels to Japan and into the hands of Japanese youth, but Japanese hip-hop does not make it across the ocean to be bought by Americans. In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, Hiro said to Da5id, “I wonder if anyone’s told him yet that Americans won’t buy rap music from a Japanese person” (OSRIC 1). Being unknown to the world does not seem to bother Japanese artists, nor does it bother the Japanese fans of American hip-hop. The fans continue to make American hip-hop part of their culture and take every precaution to make certain they are being viewed as true hip-hop lovers.

Hip-Hop was created hidden in basement parties in New York City; hip-hop’s creation is attributed to DJ Hollywood who is the fist DJ to mix rap lyrics into Disco beats, DJ Herc who is the inventor of the break beat, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa who is also known as the grandfather of hip-hop, being there at the very beginning (Blow 2-5). DJ Herc was the earliest DJ to purchase two of the same records for just a 15-second break, but by mixing the two records that 15-seconds could last forever (D, Davey. 1). Attendees of the party would regularly use new boom box technology to record the DJ Herc parties and the tapes were circulating and created numerous amounts of similar acts. A hip-hop group called the “Sugar Hill Gang” originated the commercialization of hip-hop. The group released the exceedingly popular single entitled “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. The song rose to popularity and became number 36 on Billboard Magazine’s popular music charts, although this was a great accomplishment many people thought hip-hop was a passing phase and would have the same fate as disco (Folkerth 1).

            As time went on, hip-hop began to achieve great respect and was being widely listened to across the United States. In 1986 hip-hop infiltrated the top ten of the Billboard pop charts with “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” by the Beastie Boys and “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith. Run-DMC was also the first hip-hop group to be regularly featured on MTV in the mid-80s. Gangsta rap appeared with the group N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude), consisting of presently famous members Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and deceased member Easy-E, in 1988. The group was subject to immense debate for their violent behavior and protests of many organizations, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Japan has always sought what was popular at any given occasion in America. Japan’s love for baseball is still thriving quite well and Japanese people used to spend massive amounts of money for a pair Levi’s from popular jeans company. Consequently when a movie featuring New York City’s graffiti artists, MCs, DJs and breakdancers entitled “Wild Style” was shown in Tokyo, the hip-hop documentary made Japan very interested in hip-hop. The “Wild Style” stars made a debut to promote the film in Tokyo department stores. DJ Krush a world-renowned Japanese DJ comments on how the Wild Style crew influenced him, “They [Wild Style] came to Japan and took over an entire floor in a department store. I was just amazed by them” (D, Spence. 1).

Shortly after “Wild Style’s” showing, Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park became a breakdancer’s and DJ’s convention every Sunday. Crazy-A, an original Yoyogi park breakdancer is nowadays the leader of the Rock Steady Crew Japan and arranges the annual B-Boy Park each August at Yoyogi, bringing more than 10,000 spectators and dozens of breakdancing groups. Crazy-A found hip-hop as a way to stay away from violence, as he states:

After all, hip-hop has an aspect of battle in it. So instead of fighting, I started with hip-hop, and quit the violence. You can fight and get stronger...but how can I put it... in the end, nothing of substance remains inside you. It's not as if there are brawling tournaments or anything, so nothing lasts. But with dance, there are competitions and a sense of accomplishment stays with you. You can say, I'm number one, and appeal to an audience. And that gives you something lasting. (Condry, “The Social Production of Difference” 170)

The next phase of hip-hop came from Japanese DJs, spinning vinyl from American hip-hop groups regularly on the radio by 1985. After the radio, the first all hip-hop club unlocked it’s doors and opened in Shibuya in 1986 (Condry, “Japanese Hip Hop” 1).

Although much progress in hip-hop, Japan was unable to produce a successful rapper until the late 1980s, for the music world thought that Japanese sentences were not capable to form the rhyming effect that American rappers contained. A few early Japanese artists experimented with different flows and rhyming styles and a slow stream of CDs were available by artists like Takagi Kan, Tinnie Punx, Ito Seiko, and Vibrastone. In the current time, Japanese rappers are still relying heavily on American influence, but are also adding new styles and twists to make hip-hop music closer to their own culture.  Still, DJing is the most popular hip-hop venue in Japan, more popular than DJing is in America, for if you are a DJ, then there is no language barrier. A popular Japanese hip-hop group called “King Giddra” recently released an anti-war track entitled “911” which reflects on August 1945 (when the Atom Bomb was dropped on the Japan cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima) and September 11, 2001 (where terrorists drove hijacked planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers in New York).  The same group also had their singles “Unstoppable” and “F.F.B” was taken off the shelves. “Unstoppable” for indicating that it was acceptable to kill homosexuals and “F.F.B.” which the lyrics are allegedly offensive to women and the HIV infected public (Mainichi 1). The group can be compared with the American rapper Eminem. For Eminem’s lyrics were protested for they were sexist, described killing homosexuals, and enacting violent material. In his video “Without Me”, Eminem also dabbled in war, for showing someone dressed as Osama Bin Laden dancing to Eminem’s song and later getting chased with his group D-12 following after him. Eminem is tremendously popular in Japan and is touring in Japan having concerts to be held on Friday, May 23 and Saturday, May 24, 2003 in Tokyo. The Saturday show for Eminem’s tour sold out the same day as the tickets went for sale.

Another aspect of American hip-hop culture that has floated to Japan is graffiti, graffiti is defined by Dictionary.com as “drawing or inscription made on a wall or other surface, usually so as to be seen by the public”. Graffiti can be as big as a whole building from an artist with exceptional artistic talent or the scratch of initials on High School classroom desks. Graffiti came about in the late 1970’s in New York when a young teenager named Taki wrote his name on subway cars that traveled thought the surrounding neighborhoods. Quickly after Taki’s debut, many other graffiti artists began painting their names on trains and subways such as Zephyr, Futura, and Seen. (JapanZine 2) The Japanese word for graffiti is rakugaki, and just walking by Yokohama’s Sakuragicho train station the whole wall running several hundred yards is almost completely covered with graffiti. At every Japanese public bathroom or park, one expects to see a scribble of a Kanji written quickly with a permanent marker.

 Japanese fans of hip-hop are extremely into fashion and changing their appearance to imitate the hip-hop stars they adore, as seen on imported American music videos. Take any day and walk through the crowed Harajuku street where you will notice Japanese people have thrown out the once adorned Levi’s and adopted gigantic sports jerseys, hooded sweatshirts, baggy pants, and unlaced sneakers. The hip-hop look is suspected to originate from American prison life where belts and shoelaces were confiscated to prevent suicides or to be used as weapons. Spike Lee, a famous film director and hip-hop supporter, opened two retail stores to lines of people, selling sweatshirts with English catchphrases like “Stay Black” with a price tag of $67.  In Shibuya, a Tokyo neighborhood, a narrow shopping street has been named “Malcolm X Boulevard”; where you can find silver X jackets at one of Spike Lee’s retail stores for an outrageous $794 (Altman-Siegel 1). Similar to American teenagers, Japanese teenagers would prefer a pair of Nike’s $200 a pair Air Forces Ones to any other, with one exception while Americans prefer a clean pair and are constantly going home to scrub our new shoes, Japanese teenagers want them to be dirty and are disappointed of clean white shoes. Airs Force Ones were made famous recently by American rapper “Nelly” and his chart-topping ode to the sneaker “Air Force Ones”. A hip-hop essayist described his trip to Japan in 1995. As follows “My friend saw a Japanese teenager with a Snoop Doggy Dog cap on – the teenager could barely speak English but he was fluent in street slang” (Reese 2).

            Clothing is not the only fashion statement made by Japanese youth; they are also changing their skin color and copying the hairstyles of their idolized rappers. Many hip-hop devotees repeatedly burn their body to a darker color with tanning salons, although the result is similar in color to a dark orange instead of the light brown color that was desired. If the hip-hopper decides not to go a Salon, then they can purchase a one-month supply of skin darkener for $315 and up. Wealthy fans can have the Jamaican hairstyle of dreadlocks for a seven hour salon appointment with a price of $314 to $1,215 and upward. If they are not wealthy or are not able to spend the seven hours in a salon, they can purchase a Jamaican style hat with fake dreadlocks attached to it.

            The best place to witness hip-hop culture in action would be to visit one of Japan’s all-night hip-hop clubs (clubs are usually an all-night event, while discos are required by law to close before 1 am) mostly located in the Kanto area in hidden Yokohama districts and the world famous red-light district, Tokyo’s Roponggi. The scene is alive at midnight where Japanese hip-hoppers struggle to catch the last trains headed to the hip-hop club of their choice. The time of arrival for most club goers is around 1 am, and once club goers are on the train there is no turning back for anything for club goers are stranded at the club or surrounding areas until four-thirty or five in the morning when the trains resume. Most hip-hop clubs are basically bars with music, the purpose of a hip-hop club is to get drunk, listen to music, dance, and meet new people, so twenty-years-old (Japan’s legal age for drinking) or older is usually the age required to enter the establishment for Japanese nationals, although in many instances foreigners to Japan seem to be an exception to the under-age drinking law. Many clubs will have a DJ who will play the newest music and usually do several quick turntable tricks in the middle of his session. One favorite of club goers is when the club offers freestyle competitions where rappers from the audience compete for a small sum of money and for the enjoyment of the crowd. The club usually closes at four-thirty and the club goers drag themselves sleepily and drunk to the train station and return home to sleep into the afternoon.

            Japanese fans of hip-hop culture can tune in daily for their dose of American hip-hop from America’s music television giant MTV which is available on any basic Japanese cable plan and there are currently many Japanese music channels rotating American and Japanese hip-hop videos. Fans of hip-hop can also turn to hip-hop in print form which is available in an American hip-hop magazines The Source, Vibe, and Rap Pages, with a quite expensive import price, and Japanese hip-hop magazines Blast, Black Music Review, and Remix. As for buying the exactly same twelve-inch American hip-hop records themselves they can be bought in specialty stores in Tokyo in weeks of their United States release (Condry, “The Social Production of Difference” 176).

            Japan is greatly influenced by hip-hop culture. Marketers knew that the Japanese youth were hungry for anything with a taste of American hip-hop, so they designed a game about American hip-hop. Sony Play station released “Parappa the Rapper” in 1998. The game presents America’s gangsta rap with a kid-friendly array of colors and cartoon appearance. The hero of the game is a dog dressed in the stereotypical American hip-hop fashion of baggy jeans and a stocking cap. The set is deigned to depict Japanese views of America’s streets with trees lining the street and unreal blue skies. The purpose of the game play is for person playing to make the main character rap (in English) by pushing directed buttons on the controller. The goal of the video game is to be lectured about rap from a teacher within the game. Japanese youth bought the game with fury and spent hours at home trying to master America’s style of hip-hop from their chairs with their fingers moving from button to button. The same game was later released in America.

            Furthermore, hip-hop from America has a great impact on the Japanese and the Japanese have held tight to the culture and have incorporated the many aspects of hip-hop into everyday life. In Japan DJs are still spinning popular songs from America, rappers overcame what many thought was impossible, breakdancers are regularly seen practicing on street corners, graffiti artists are making names from themselves and becoming increasingly popular, Japanese hip-hoppers almost put America to shame on how much effort they use to be fashionable, and the clubs are still attracting maximum capacity at an average entrance fee of 3,000 yen (about $25). Hip-Hop has unexpectedly turned what was once thought of as a phase into something that has had major impacts on different cultures not forgetting our how our own has changed. The language barrier that one imprisoned hip-hop has been broke down for the love of culture and most people forget that words are only a fraction of what hip-hop contains. Japanese hip-hoppers can have a favorite single and not understand a word, keep in mind many times the speed that rappers spit out verses cannot be comprehended by any language.

Works Cited

Altman-Siegal, Vanessa. “Raw Like Sushi: Hip Hop Culture in Japan.” Online.Internet. http://eserver.org/zine375/issue1/living5.html  (26 April 2003)

Bennett, Geoffrey. “Hip-Hop: A Roadblock or Pathway to Black Empowerment?” Online. Internet. http://www.black-collegian.com/extracurricular/entertainment/hiphop2001-1st.shtml  (6 May 2003)

Blow, Kurtis. “Kurtis Blow Presents: The History of Rap, Vol. I: The Genesis.” Online Internet. http://www.rhino.com/features/liners/72851lin.html  (6 May 2003)

Condry, Ian. “Japanese Hip Hop.” Online. Internet. http://web.mit.edu/condry/www/jhh/  (27 April 2003)

Condry, Ian. “The Social Production of Difference: Imitation and Authenticity in Japanese Rap Music.” Transactions, Transgressions, Transformations: American Culture in Western Europe and Japan. Ed. Heide Fehrenbach and Uta G. Poiger. New York: Berghan Books, 2000. Pp. 166-184

D, Davey. “The History of Hip Hop” Online. Internet. http://liveinthemix.com/history_of_hip_hop.htm  (28 April 2003)

D, Spence. “DJ Krush Interview.” 1995. Online. Internet. http://www.geocities.com/krushter/interview-spence.htm  (26 April 2003)

Folkerth, Bruce. “The Sugarhill Gang: Delightful.” January 1997. Online. Internet. http://www.flagpole.com/issues/01.15.97/sugarhill.html  (3 May 2003)

HeadBob. “The History of Hip Hop.” Online. Internet. http://www.headbob.com/hiphop/hiphophistory.shtml  (28 April 2003)

JapanZine “Hippu Hoppu” July 2002. Online. Internet. http://www.bobbykim.com/japanzine.html    (19 May 2003)

Mainichi Daily News. “CD recalled after gay slur.” April 2002. Online. Internet. http://mdn.mainichi.co.jp/news/archive/200204/20/ 20020420p2a00m0dm011001c.html  (27 April 2003)

OSRIC Univeristy. “Japanese Hip Hop Studies.” Sept. 2001: Online. Internet. http://www.osric.com/univeristy/japesehiphop.html  (26 April 2003)

Prideaux, Eric “Who Copped My Hip Hop?” The Japan Times 13 April 2003: 10

Reese, R. “From the Fringe: The Hip Hop Culture and Ethnic Relations.” Feb. 1998: Online. Internet. http://www.csupomona.edu/~rrreese/hiphop.html (26 April 2003)


Written by Caleb Kinney


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