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Hip-hop arrived in Japan in the early 1980s. Japanese hip-hop was originally influenced by its’ American counterpart from the same era. Japanese hip-hop was bigger than just the music they admired. It became a culture revolving around other important aspects like break dancing, fashion and imitating American rappers. Some believe that some Japanese fans were appropriating black culture by wearing exact outfits, speaking in a similar slang and having some instances of blackface. A reporter by the name of Joe Wood visited Japan in the late ’90s to study this cultural transformation and their fascination with African American culture in Japan.
The first couple of Japanese hip-hop artists performed in English because it was easier to rhyme due to certain grammar characteristics but over time artists were able to adapt and perform in Japanese. The whole genre of Japanese hip-hop had its share of challenges and controversy but today it is more mainstream and less provocative. When the hip-hop genre first arrived in Japan, many record companies were not interested in early tracks and did not think they could profit from artists.
This caused the original scene to be more underground and almost rebellious.
Many high school and college students enjoyed this underground characteristic and used it as a way to rebel similar to how teenagers in the United States responded with rock and roll. The majority of the music came from the United States and soon the fans wanted to be more involved thus hip-hop clubs were formed as a place to listen to this music with others.
Soon, many breakdancing groups were formed and competitions began to be held at these clubs. Eventually, hip-hop dancing was shown on live tv and more mainstream breakdancing shows were held in the late 80s. This was the catalyst for the genre to become more well known throughout Japan. Hip-hop dance culture today is very popular. Shotaro Kumano, A Japanese student, writes “Most (high)schools have dance teams and do various types of dancing which are originally from the U.S. It can be hard to identify the name of the dances but it’s generally divided into three types”, (Kumano 1).
The only type surrounding hip-hop and rap is the Old school which includes locking, break and punking. These old school styles are originated in the U.S but even today, teams are still found throughout most middle and high schools in Japan. Kumano continues to report that the dance and music began to get very popular in the late 80s especially with students at high schools and colleges. Wood writes about dance in his article called “Yellow Nigro” and how dance clubs change the kind of music and dance depending on the races of the guests and how many of the dances have African American influences. Smaller films about African American’s styles of dance and lifestyles came out internationally in the 80s and created the “blueprint” to become a real MC. A famous American movie called “Wild Style” came out in 1983 and this movie was all about hip-hop culture, breakdancing and what it is like to be an American MC. The movie producers knew how large the underground scene was in Japan so they flew many of the stars to Japan to promote the movie. This contributed to its’ international success.
The genre continued to grow, evidenced by the appearance of break-dancers at most Japanese parks competing and practicing. Around the start of the 1990s, American artists saw profit in Japan by touring and doing talk shows so many famous artists like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice toured extensively. This caused hip-hop to become very mainstream and hip-hop records began to sell more than any other genre. By the early 2000s, Japanese rap was selling more records than American rap and it became one of the top 3 genres in the country for many of years. The genre is not as strong today but Japanese rappers are still successful and other facets like fashion, are still dominant throughout Japan. Many artists and fans still wear clothing from the 1980s hip-hop scene and in Japan, you are not truly a fan unless you dress up in hip-hop clothing. Writer Eric Burton was visiting a Japanese Hip-hop club in 2015 wearing a blazer and khakis and a Japanese fan asked him why he was wearing that kind of clothes to the club. He responded telling her it was his own style and he was comfortable. Next, she told him “Well, you don’t seem very hip-hop,” (Burton 1).
Burton was taken away because he had extended knowledge on hip-hop and been a fan his whole life. He was just told he was not a fan just because of what he was wearing. This is how serious Japanese fans take fashion with regards to hip-hop. The style was to wear baggy clothing, chains that hang low and hoodies over clothing just like their American counterparts. A way for many of the Japanese teenagers to revolt against society and their parents was to identify with many African Americans living in the United States in the 1980s. These fans also adapted their own slang to the Japanese language and wore similar clothing features to African Americans they saw in hip-hop videos in the 80s. Few Japanese fans would go to tanning salons and attempt to darken their skin to imitate African Americans and to be more like these hip-hop artists. Fans got tattoos on their necks and faces as well as imitation dreadlocks or afros to look “cool” like their American idols. Joe Wood went in search of why some Japanese students wanted to look African American even when they got teased by their colleagues in class. “Blackfacers tend to party where natural blacks party, especially black American soldiers. Blackfacers are even proud of their assumed skin color,” (Wood 5).
It was odd for Wood to understand that they are proud of their skin color and only want to hang around other legitimate African Americans. This is the complete opposite of the history of blackface in the United States. It was almost a complement to African Americans when people black faced in this period in Japan. These hardcore fans of hip-hop and black culture were dismissed by other Japanese hip-hop enthusiasts but Wood says the strangest thing of all is that most African Americans do not care that some Japanese people are doing this. After the culture solidified a place in Japanese society through fashion and imitation, more Japanese DJs took control and began to produce songs and melodies to be played on the radio. The first group that tested this new sound was a group called the Yellow Magic Orchestra. The song called “Rap Phenomena” came out in 1981 and was heavily influenced by American hip-hop artist Mantronix.
This trial included heavy synths with hip-hop beats. They found out that this was not the most successful mix of sounds. Other artists were able to be more successful by dropping the dense hip-hop beats and add more bass to keep a steady rhythm. The songs and beats had no vocals and were very similar to techno and house music. This made great music to be played at clubs and for people to breakdance to. There was a large increase of DJs in a short amount of time but rappers took longer to come around because the Japanese language made it very difficult to rhyme and rap. In the Japanese language, it is very hard to rhyme the last word of the sentence because in Japanese almost every sentence ends with a verb. Another reason was the accents artists added to English hip-hop could not be replicated in Japanese so many decided to create slang words to put at the end of sentences and add accents to these words but this method was unreliable. The Japanese language is also spoken very quickly which makes it extremely hard to say the words correctly and rhyme while trying to take another breath to keep performing. Japanese artists eventually found a way to create “a “borrowed” notion of rhyme that has become incorporated in many of the lyrics of Japanese Hip-hop,” (Tsujumura and Davis 2).
Rap in the late 80s used word repetition and had little to no rhyming. The rapping techniques evolved to a different way to rhyme through a rhyme domain that has at least two moraic elements. So instead of rhyming whole words like can to ban, the Japanese language makes the words you end a line with have the same vowels and constants at the same place in the next line. Tsumjumura and Davis use the example of Japanese words satsutaba and sokojikara in their article called “Rhyme and the Reinterpretation of Hip-Hop in Japan”. You can still notice that the majority of rap and hip-hop songs still have the occasional English word or phrase in their songs. In the early 90s, Japanese rappers emerged at a time where the Japanese fans were waiting for their own songs and raps. Schadaraparr released a track called “Kon’ya wa bugi bakku” which translates to “Boogie Back Tonight” which became an instant hit with more than a million copies sold. This was the spark that was needed to encourage other rappers to learn this new style of rap and to create new music. Today, Japanese hip-hop has diversified to different aspects of rap and hip-hop and has become popular worldwide. If you search j-pop on the streaming service Spotify, it has around 40,000 followers.
The songs today have continued to mimic their U.S counterparts by having more of an R&B sound and using trap drums to create beats similar to many new rappers who are becoming more well known throughout the states. Certain Japanese rappers are also featuring on famous American artists like Frank Ocean and Travis Scott tracks and many people are predicting we will see more international features on more songs in the future. Many of these Japanese rappers are influenced and write about similar obstacles that they experience that many American rappers rap about like drug abuse, suicide and the tough life growing up poor and in the streets. The sounds are getting more similar and we could see Japanese rappers touring in the United States and creating new performance styles. As I listened to more modern Japanese rap and hip-hop, I can see how the two different cultures are becoming more alike with similar beats, influences, and topics. The controversy of the past was primarily forgotten but other facets that are used to express individual’s own identity is continually growing. Japan has gone from taking this genre from the states to creating their own sub-genre that is becoming more popular worldwide. This next generation of rappers and artists are becoming better known and creating inspiring music that people around the world can relate to. They are breaking through the language barrier through topics that everyone encounters and it is nice to know that the genre is in good hands.
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