Week 14 / 2015 06 01 – Hip-Hop in Japan

Yellow B-Boys, Black Culture, and Hip-Hop in Japan: Toward a Transnational Cultural Politics of Race, Ian Condry, excerpted and abridged. From positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 15, Number 3, Winter 2007, pp. 637-671

To consider when you’re reading: We’ve learned from Frantz Fanon that nations, particularly colonized nations, must make their own culture as part of their national liberation struggle. What happens when nations create a culture that includes elements from other cultures?

A Japanese rapper, who calls himself Banana Ice, released a song in 1995 called “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.” As hip-hop goes global, what happens to the cultural politics of race in American hip-hop?

The projects of Japanese hip-hoppers can be viewed as what Cornel West calls a “new cultural politics of difference,” which rejects racial or ethnic essentialism in favor of a more complex understanding of how identity is constructed. A traditional kind of cultural politics, for example, might say that positive portrayals of the black community counter negative images of African Americans. For West, a cultural politics of race means showing the realities of African-American life: the structural, historical and personal problems of drugs, alcoholism, consumerism, while also showing solutions.

“Black culture” means a range of practices, ideas, and discourses, never one single thing. Similarly, highlighting the “local” features of hip-hop in Japan creates an image of the Japanese people, while ignoring how Japanese emcees criticize mainstream ideas of what it means to be Japanese.

Many Japanese rappers fetishize of blackness as hip, sensual, and rebellious, and de-emphasize blackness to make Japan’s traditionally lighthearted and inoffensive pop music. Mainstream hip-hop combines an outlaw stance with brand-name consumption. Japan now boasts its own gangsta rappers, complete with gold teeth and platinum chains.

The problem is that media portrayal of blackness does not guarantee greater equality. As writer Greg Tate puts it, “what do white people take from black culture? Everything but the burden.” Writing on Japan, one scholar says, “‘Blackness’ became a fad to be consumed [for Japanese youth], without the obligation of learning about or understanding Black people.” We should learn about other people’s cultures before consuming their styles, but should everyone read a book about Japan before eating sushi or watching an anime movie? Where is the line between appropriation and respectful borrowing?

Japanese rappers are expected to respect the African-American roots of the music while also producing something authentic and original. Yet one rapper, Dabo, uses a gun, platinum chains, and prison walls on his albums, relying on “globally recognizable” markers of hip-hop style. But if Dabo imitates American racial images, what about the American hip-hop crew Wu-Tang Clan? They use kung fu imagery and sound samples in their songs, and make shirts with gibberish Japanese writing. Calling these rappers Orientalist or racist suggests there is an authentic ‘culture’ that doesn’t actually exist.

How should we interpret the charges of “imitation” directed at Japanese hip-hop musicians? If we define imitation as working within a genre of music, with sampled and programmed tracks over which emcees rap, then all contemporary hip-hop, in Japan and anywhere else, is imitation. Second, if hip-hop is just a form of storytelling about black Americans, then there is no place for Japanese, French, or even black South African rappers. Yet these emcees exist, and they are part of an emerging global movement taking up issues of economic oppression, government injustices and racism.

The August 2002 cover of Vibe magazine, a monthly American magazine, featured the following headline: “Wanna-Bes: The Weird World of Japanese Dancehall Fanatics.” The article discusses the popularity of both reggae and hip-hop in Japan but questions their significance: “Any Black-music fan knows about the ‘Elvis effect’. . . Black folk make music, and whites remake it and make big bucks. . . . Where is the line between cross-cultural influence and cross-cultural theft?” The author acknowledges that some Japanese hip-hoppers pay homage to the original artists but asks, “what if their fans never do their homework1?” To be fair, the spread of Japanese hip-hop is leading to a deepening appreciation of American hip-hop in Japan. But the larger question is more poignant; are Japanese fans “doing their homework”?

Those who ‘do their homework’ face another problem. Zeebra, one of the leading Japanese rappers, quotes a fan letter: “No matter how much one likes Black music and culture, both were born from the situations Blacks faced. It was a brutal process (resistance against whites, the need to be proud of their own identity, their labor in the midst of poverty, etc.) Considering this, I question the shallow imitation of us Japanese.”

Some use hip-hop to form radical opinions about Japanese society and the healing powers of popular culture. Rapper ECD dropped out of high school at age seventeen, got involved with a motorcycle gang, but “graduated” when he turned twenty. He worked in temporary jobs like construction and moving, while pursuing his musical career. His first release in 1992 included songs that detailed the ancestors of U.S. Hip-hop. He noted that the idea that “the Japanese are simply Japanese” misunderstands history. His record company censored his lyrics that points out that the Ainu were the original people of Japan, and that the original emperor came from Korea; the Japanese are foreigners on Japan’s soil.

From Appreciation to Racism

In Japan, as elsewhere, hip-hop’s origins are traced to the South Bronx, New York City, in the mid-1970s. Hip-hop soon began traveling overseas. In 1979, the hit song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang played in Tokyo discos, and in 1983 the film Wild Style introduced the four elements of hip-hop — rapping, deejaying, break-dancing, and graffiti art — to Tokyo audiences. This, along with the break-dance scene in the film Flashdance, inspired some Japanese youth to start break-dancing in early 1984 in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, and before long Japanese DJs, rappers, and graffiti artists began to appear as well.

Since the late 1990s, Japan’s hip-hop scene has criticized single notions of “Japan”, instead criticizing aspects of Japanese society. For example, when Japanese artists and fans adopt the catchphrase “keep it real” these days, they are often responding to what they see as the emptiness of consumer culture. In contrast to pop celebrities (tarento) who dominate television, Japanese emcees write about contemporary failures of middle-class ideals (e.g., hard work in school will lead to a good job), especially after a decade-long recession, which began in the early 1990s, left many in the younger generation struggling to find satisfying work and forced them instead to become part-time, temporary workers.

For most of Japan’s history, all foreigners were regarded as “barbarians” (yabanjin) regardless of their skin color. In Japan’s early history, whiteness in skin color (of Japanese) was associated with high birth, while darker skin tended to be associated with farmers and others who had to work outside in the sun. Even so, in some cases the color black had positive connotations: in the 19th century, blackening the teeth and having the blackest hair was a sign of beauty. Even the Buddha, when not depicted in gold, was often illustrated with a dark, sometimes even black, skin tone. Nevertheless, by the late 1880s, as Japan began modernization, it imported the ideologies of Western imperialists, and prejudices toward blacks were imported as well.

Race is fake

From an American perspective, the Japanese are clearly “Asian.” They share physical characteristics that Westerners associate with “the Asian race,” mainly straight black hair, eye features and skin color. Yet Westerners don’t understand the significance of these differences. The racist Western notion that Asians have “slanty” eyes, as depicted for example in the Disney animated film Mulan, is foreign to Japan, where eyes are evaluated based on the number of folds in the eyelids. This reminds us that “race” is, scientifically, meaningless. There is more genetic variation within so-called races than between them.

Race was invented in the eighteenth century as a new way to categorize human differences, to justify the conquest of Native Americans and slavery for imported Africans. Today, capitalism uses the continuing inequalities of race to maintain divisions among populations. In the United States, some visible examples include drug convictions (black people are 12 percent of the population, consume 12 percent of illegal drugs, but suffer nearly 70 percent of the convictions. Put differently, black people are 7 times more likely to go to jail than white people for drugs). One out of every five children in the United States lives in poverty, but for black children, the rate is one in two.

Kosaku Yoshino describes how the Japanese have a strong tendency to perceive of themselves as a distinct racial group, a notion he traces to the late-nineteenth-century ideology that viewed Japan as a “family state”, in which the Japanese are related to one another and to the emperor by “blood.” In Japan, less than 2 percent of the population are foreigners. This includes over 600,000 “Koreans” from both North and South Korea, many of whom were born in Japan. There are also roughly 2 to 3 million burakumin, that is, descendants of an outcaste group of butchers, leather tanners, and executioners.

The burakumin face terrible discrimination when getting jobs and getting married. The rapper You The Rock describes seeing the plight of burakumin as one reason he was deeply moved when he first heard the U.S. groups Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy, who describe the struggles of African Americans. Recently, Japan has also witnessed the appearance of an artist, namely, Jin Back, who raps about living in a burakumin neighborhood in Osaka, as well as a rap duo called KP who are “resident Koreans” (zainichi kankokujin) and who rap in Japanese, in some cases about relations between North and South Korea.

In the United States, slavery is the context the current debate on racism, but in Japan the imperialist aggression of World War II provides the key moment for questions of race. Japan allied itself with other Asians against the white, European colonial oppressors to build the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But this sphere was based on the belief that the Japanese were destined to rule over a fixed hierarchy of people and races, and which involved massacres and forced labor.

Hip-hop can educate listeners about this history, showing us a transnational cultural politics of race. For example, a collaboration between the rapper Utamaru and DJ Oasis is called “Shakai no mado,” an expression meaning “zipper on one’s pants.” This is a song about opening the zipper, which hides the rotting Japanese political system. Utamaru criticizes impotent politicians, compliant journalists, and a public that simply “nods in unison.” Utamaru also blasts the Ministry of Education for approving history textbooks that downplay the atrocities of the Japanese military during World War II:

the rusted zipper on the fly of the pants completely rotten, in there it’s big
if left alone, it’s a cancer on the world do you want to make such a strong stench?
I can’t understand you, you shitty old men entrusted with the textbooks, you make up a smoldering fantasy on the pretext of representing Japan’s “pride”

For Utamaru, pride in Japan depends on acknowledging Japan’s history, including learning from other cultures and acknowledging the enduring anger, especially in China and Korea, regarding the textbooks’ portrayal of history.

This represents an affiliation with African American struggles but focused on critiquing the enduring racism among right-wing Japanese toward their Asian neighbors. In another song, Utamaru accused Emperor Hirohito of being a sex criminal, a reference to the “comfort women” from Korea and China who were raped by Japanese troops during World War II. Fearing the lyrics could provoke Japan’s right- wing extremists to set up enormous sound trucks (tractor trailers with huge speakers) outside corporate headquarters, Sony refused to release the song. Corporate Japan acts controls what is and what is not acceptable to consumers of popular culture. But this represents a transnational politics that promotes action on racial issues that cross national borders. What is still uncertain, however, is whether such political messages will be transformed into political movements.


From the nineties on, the rise of black music and culture in Japan demonstrates that outside cultural influence can no longer be seen of as coming from national cultures. “Black culture” and not “American culture” is the object of desire for fans. So hip-hop is not an example of “Western” cultural hegemony, and is open to everyone who likes its four elements: rap, deejay, break-dance, and graffiti. A growing number of hip-hop artists, fans, and writers point to a fifth element of hip-hop: “knowledge”: understanding the history and political promise of the style, to protect hip-hop from commodification. Cultural borrowing is possible. We need to move the discussion of world hip-hop away from “What’s authentic – local versus global?” to what transnational cultural politics can accomplish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s