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Hip-Hop and Aesthetic in Japanese Culture

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 3 months ago

Hip-Hop Culture in Japan

James Anderson


    Hip-Hop, since its conception in the South Bronx borough of New York City during the early 1970's, has grown from block parties in a few impoverished neighborhoods to a multi-billion dollar industry with global economic, social, artistic, and cultural implications.  Though mostly known as a musical genre, hip-hop culture encompasses all mediums of artistic expression, represented in the four "elements" of hip-hop: Rapping, DJing, Break Dancing (or B-Girl/Boying), and finally graffiti.  Tokyo, along with Paris, Rome, London, Johannesburg, Capetown, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, is generally recognized as one of the primary cultural centers of hip-hop outside of the United States within the global community.  Hip-hop's induction to the hip-to-know Japanese circles is largely credited to aestheticist, musician and designer Hiroshi Fujiwara upon his return to Japan from the United States in the early 80's, but the rest of the Japanese communities was introduced to hip-hop culture upon the release of 1983's "Wild Style," the quintessential hip-hop film, which chronicles the plight of an elusive and talented graffiti writer through New York City's basements, train stations and block corners.



Hiroshi Fujiwara


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    Wild Style, as in the United States, would be the first exposure to Hip-Hop culture for many Japanese, engendering a demonstrable influx of cultural participants.  Wild Style being a large-scale release increased appreciation and participation in hip-hop culture all over the planet, precipitating the emergence of local hip-hop culture in various countries.  So in the same way that Wild Style opened hip-hop culture to the mainstream in the United States, Wild Style had a "crossover" effect for future Japanese artists as well.  However, there was one difference that is at once obvious and incredibly important to the development of hip-hop culture in Japan:  the language barrier.  That is to say, while many Japanese purchased hip-hop albums and watched hip-hop cinema, they simply could not relate to the content as they could not understand what people were saying.  Therefore, the two visual elements of hip-hop culture, b-boying and graffiti, became extremely important to the Japanese hip-hop scene, as visual artistic expression speaks a universal language.


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Japanese B-Boys


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Japanese Graffiti Artists


    As the visual aspect of hip-hop culture became more important, so too did hip-hop fashion.  Due to the inherent language barrier and the subsequent inability to relate with hip-hop music thematically, individual expression in Japan often heavily relies upon fashion (just as in the United States).  In terms of ability to relate, much of the original hard knock life violence, ghetto narrative, and polemics and politics in the discussion thereof are quite simply lost in translation.  Japan does not have any amount of poverty remotely comparable to the inner cities or rural south of the United States, nor does a society as racially homogenous as Japan have the same degree of interracial conflict as the United States.  That is to say, there is no basis for the thematic elements of hip-hop during its polemic golden age to be recognizable as an objective reality in Japanese society.  At a surface glance, it would appear that Japanese hip-hop artists have circumvented this issue in a couple of ways: fabricating criminality, rapping about nothing or avoiding rap altogether for the sake of the other elements. 


Of course, the previous statement is both diminishing and myopic, making value judgements about the sincerity and "realness" of Japanese hip-hop misses the point entirely.  The fact of the matter is that these artists are working mostly off of the visual aspect of the culture as linguistics plays a confounding role in the musical production.  In other words, Japanese artists are informed by what they see and what they can understand, and thus imitate (and I am not using that word in a pejorative sense) what comes in.  However, as the culture matures in Japan, there is a new push to find a true Japanese voice in hip-hop, to use the music to establish one's "Japanese-ness"  Here's a couple of examples of Japanese hip-hop music:


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The Nitro Microphone Underground, one of the premier Japanese hip-hop groups, seems to have a fairly firm grasp on American mainstream hip-hop aesthetics, sound and content (One of the MCs refers to himself as an "Original Gangsta" and talks about how he "Shot him down"..."Muthafucka").  There is certainly a disconnect between what they are saying and what has actually happened to them, and the video comes off as... insincere.  As previously mentioned, evaluative judgements should be discarded when addressing Japanese hip-hop as much of this production is simply absorbed from the States, and quite frankly isn't really all that much more vapid that a lot of hip-hop music out nowadays.


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I have absolutely no idea what's going on here, but Steady & Co. obviously have a well cultivate sense of hip-hop aesthetic (even if it's more Diddy than De La Soul).  I assume he's talking about girls.  Probably.


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    In an interesting example of the previously mentioned "Japanese-ness," King Giddra (not to be confused with the American project of the same name) creates this anti-war examination that compares 9/11 with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Other Japanese rappers have attempted to make the music more Japanese by tackling Japanese themes, such as interpersonal alienation, philosophical quandries, and a society that values collectivism over the individual.



    Hip-hop culture in Japan presents an interesting dilemma, as it illustrates the simultaneously foreign but subjective nature of cultural production in an increasingly globalized world.  It seems to at once attempt at establishing hip-hop culture's place in Japan, as well as Japanese culture's place in hip-hop.







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