Monday, March 9, 2015

The Outside Influences on Japan

Tokyo's Shibuya district at night.
Nobu—the lackluster rap cusser move buster food fusser passing muster in Master Koji’s Tokyo kitchen—isn’t the hip-hop anomaly he might at first glance in baggy pants appear askance to American eyes.

In yet another example (like sushi!) of cultural globalization, hip-hop and rap have been present in Tokyo’s Shibuya district’s streets, parks and clubs for more than three decades. After the millennium,  it bloomed into a commercial entity that the music and clothing industries had ignored, and entered Japan’s cultural mainstream.

As with electronics, cars, sporting equipment, games, graphic arts (Disney has bought billions worth of rights to Japanese images and stories) and other products that have fueled their astonishing economic recovery since WWII, Japanese artists, craftsmen and engineers have repeatedly imported new ideas, trends and objects from less traditional, more innovative societies. They have mastered them, then improved them and finally made them their own.

*  *  *  *  *

Hip-hop entered Japanese culture through the landmark film, Wild Style, in 1983. New York’s graffiti, subways, freestyle MCing, break dancing, and a segment of hip-hop godfather Grandmaster Flash putting out a revolutionary scratch-mix set on two archaic turntables were all to be seen, heard and marveled at. Scratching in clubs and break dancing in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park took hold immediately.

Simultaneously, recordings of old style rap by L.A. rappers were brought to Japan by men who became the earliest DJs/MCs in Tokyo. But rap took longer to catch on: it was in English; it was composed of melody, rhythm and rhyme, the latter two aspects being almost absent from spoken Japanese. The English pulse of the iamb (da-DAH) drives rap; Japanese accents all syllables equally (the spondee extended: dah-dah-dah-dah). Moreover, the auxiliary verb endings that often end sentences in Japanese are few in number, providing little opportunity for rhyme.

Early Japanese rappers began working in English, then began rapping their songs’ verses in Japanese and the bridges and choruses in English. Rhythm and rhyme, they recognized, were the staples of rap and hip-hop. Soon rappers began to rearrange their expressions outside the rules of Japanese, creating new strophes with more rhythm and rhyme. In effect, they were restructuring the traditional order of the language, something Japanese grammarians believed brought an additional maturity to its expression.

By the mid-1990s, two roads of rap diverged into Japan’s hip-hop world. One began to merge with Japanese mainstream pop: hip-hop pop. Its subject matter abandoned the violence-centric rap style of say, Public Enemy or NWA, in favor of lighter Japanese social concerns: romance, food, shopping and cell phones. The other path insisted on keeping in touch with rap’s African-American roots.

Japanese hip-hop fans.
Like almost all expressions that appear completely new and revolutionary, rap in fact had a firm foundation in what had gone before in black American culture. The “dozens”—a macho posturing rendered with verbal style, invention, rhythm and rhyme, and putdowns (“you so ugly you look like you been whipped wit’ a ugly stick”)—was a feature of street corner gatherings of black men and boys through the 1940s and ‘50s, and even found its way onto a few rhythm and blues recordings from that time.

Between 1960 and 1980, a strong current and necessity for individual expression emerged from black culture—for both genders. When this drive merged with a New York street culture that had homogenized the urban less well-to-do and poor into intersecting ‘hoods, hip-hop was born.

In Tokyo it found a home in the clubs frequented by black GIs, joining soul music as the preferred house musical fare. The more individual, rebellious and/or socially minded Japanese were club clientele who believed the black culture that had given rise to hip-hop and rap had to be respected. Some of these Japanese frequented tanning parlors and fitted themselves with bling, Afros or corn rows—and some performers worked in blackface.

Finally, this second strain of hip-hop took up Japanese social issues as subject matter for their songs: social welfare, jobs for youth, opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. But in both cases—hip-hop-pop and old-style rap—the globalization of that imported culture that had gone wide and come to Japan was localized and made personal by expressing Japanese concerns and tastes.

*  *  *  *  *

Thumpin' Camp 2014
A kind of hip-hop Woodstock called Thumpin’ Camp occurred in Japan in 1996, when more than 4,000 young Japanese, 80% male, attended a show featuring 30+ rappers, MCs and break dancers. There had been a couple of million-selling rap albums in the early ‘90s—not enough to engage the Japanese recording industry--but by 2003 hip-hop had proved to be one of the largest musical markets in Japan.

Not all young Japanese are in it for the raps. Many are ardent for the oversize shirts, baseball caps and Hilfiger jeans have proved an opportunity for unusual individual expression by Japanese youth—male and female. This clothing, too, has gone global: Japanese wear L.A. and NYC rags, and American rappers perform in Bathing Ape (or Bape) garb from Japan.

Hip-hop continues to evolve in the U.S.—even into theatre. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, one of the most unique and original musicals seen in decades, has just opened to wondrous reviews in NYC and is the city’s hottest ticket. It tells the story of the American Revolution in a rap/hip-hop/R&B/pop and even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan through-sung musical with actors of color playing all the Founding Fathers.

We’re not in Kansas any more.

Learn more and buy tickets.

No comments:

Post a Comment