Rapping across borders: the culture and language of Japan’s hip hop scene

Japan is not best known abroad for its hip hop scene. But while rap devotees outside Japan have been focusing on the American hip hop tradition, a whole Japanese sub-culture has been developing for over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, Japanese rap, or ‘J-rap’, has become increasingly successful in the country, and is slowly beginning to get attention abroad.

All Japanese rappers have been influenced by American hip hop culture, and for a while, this influence extended to the language used for rapping. Initially Japanese artists rapped in English because it was believed that the differences between English and Japanese would make it impossible to rap in Japanese. For example, unlike English, the Japanese language ends phrases in auxiliary verbs, and whereas English ends in verbs or nouns, which are extremely common, Japanese rappers were limited by the small number of grammatically correct possibilities for ending a phrase. Japanese also lacks the stresses on certain syllables that provide flow to English rapping.

Slowly, with the increase in popularity of rap in Japan, more rappers began using Japanese. Rappers added stressed syllables to their music, altering the natural flow of the language to fit into traditional hip-hop. American injections were also used in raps to help the flow of the music and often homonyms were placed in raps, which appealed both to the global English-speaking audience and to Japanese speakers, who often would understand the double meanings intended. Japanese was found to allow subtle put downs in raps, which appealed to many audiences.

Japanese rap sensation Kojoe, is one artist who is interested in the cultural and linguistic borders of rap. Last month a crowd of hip-hop fans gathered at swanky Tokyo club Le Baron de Paris to catch a preview of the Niigata-born rapper’s new album, “Mixed Identities 2.0.” At this gig, Kojoe explained each track’s back story to the crowd in both English and Japanese. Though the songs on his album were recorded in English only, newspapers recorded that his bilingualism in addressing his audience really made an impression.

Kojoe has big ambitions for the role of Japanese hip hop in transcending cultural borders between America and Japan. “Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki had a big impact on Major League Baseball and now a lot of Japanese players are able to get over to the U.S.,” he told The Japan Times. “I’m convinced we can do the same with hip-hop. My goal is to connect the Japanese scene to the United States, since I’m already a part of the community in New York.”

“I want Japanese listeners to get interested in English. I’d be glad if the younger generation gets that English is necessary to survive in a globalized world. You might think it’s not cool to imitate U.S. culture, but this country is already immersed in English — many pop songs already have English in them. But I’m looking further. The Jamaican-English accent doesn’t have negative connotations, (native speakers) think it’s cool. I want the Japanese accent to sound cool someday. It’ll take a while, but I want Japanese to be proud of themselves and I want to be the spark that makes it happen.”

In one of his potentially controversial tracks entitled ‘My Naga’, Kojoe and his African-American friend Saiku rap about the relationship between Asians and African-Americans. The song explores both problematic issues in this relationship (Kojoe defends his use of racist terminology to refer to Saiku because his friend is “like family”, whilst Saiku’s black friend mistakenly identifies Kojoe as a Chinese man) and the common history that it is claimed is shared by Asians and Africans.  The entire conversation is in English, suggesting Kojoe intends for it to resonate outside of Japan. He adds that the context in which he and Saiku use the greeting is a familial one, and that the bond of family is strong in the ghetto — it’s a bond Kojoe feels is disappearing in Japan.

An absorption of African and African American culture is also evident in the work of other Japanese rappers. DJ Muro, for example, is another one of Japan’s most prolific and well respected hip hop artists. In 2010, Muro created a mix-cd called ‘Super Funky Afro Breaks’, a collection of some well known as well as completely obscure funky African tunes like Manu Dibango’s O Boso. Muro has also recently released an album of songs mostly from west Africa, a territory that many DJs have not really explored yet.

In Japan, hip hop is a sub-culture which seems to transcend national identity, and even native language, as is evident in Kojoe’s switching between English and Japanese. Japanese artists are absorbing other cultures in the music they create, and, just as hip hop grew out of the fusion of American and African cultures, this new mix, of Japanese, American and African traditions may be the beginning of a whole new sub-genre of hip hop.

Sources include: The Guardian, The Japan Times, Wikipedia


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