Wandering through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya City in August last year, I found myself following the thrum of a bass drum in the distance. At its source, flanked on one side by a graffiti mural of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ and a mixing station on the other, was none other than an under-15s’ freestyle rap competition. This southern section of the aptly-named Yoyogi Park hosts regular freestyle rap and breakdancing battles and is in many ways a watering hole for Tokyo’s hip hop acolytes, boasting a sound system and live DJs in the Summer. What I didn’t realise until later, however, was how this experience could be neatly summed up in the packet of salmon jerky I had in my backpack.
Modern Tokyoites are well-known for their diverse and devoted tribes to various sub-cultures but perhaps one of the least expected is the outright portal into hip hop’s Golden Age that I stumbled on that day. Whilst the British and American scenes have long-since split off from b-boying and graffiti (or, in the case of freestyle battles, practically died out), all four founding elements of hip hop culture can be found alive and well in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. For a country strictly governed by norms of politeness and that, up until 2015, still required venues to have a special ‘dance license’ in order to host party-goers, this unconditional embrace of the hip hop spirit seems particularly out of the blue.
Historically, however, Japan has perhaps more than any other foreign scene been closely associated with hip hop’s inception. Coinciding with the country’s burst global economic chains, many Japanese businessmen settled in New York in the 1970s and there are records of these rather out-of-place businessmen would inexplicably finding out about and turning up to some of the earliest hip hop gigs. Nonetheless, it was in the early 80’s that the native Japanese scene really got going, with legendary DJ Hiroshi Fujiwara being inspired to bring DJ culture back to Japan after a trip to New York in 1982 and the global airing of ‘Wild Style’ in 1983. Celebrating the early hip hop block parties that kickstarted the movement, ‘Wild Style’ has been credited by artists from around the world as their first encounter with the subculture and, in Japan, it found the ears of Hideaki Ishi (soon to become DJ Krush). One of the pioneers of hip hop in the country, DJ Krush was part of the initial group that began congregating in Yoyogi Park and soon rose out as one of the most prominent DJs in Japan.
Indeed, perhaps due to the easily-translatable nature of DJing and mixing, some of Japan’s biggest contributions to the hip hop universe have been on the decks, from DJ Krush’s immersive soundscapes that incorporated local samples to, later on, Nujabes’ trailblazing creation of the ‘Jazz Hop’ sound. Even the equipment in these early years was Japan-led- already being positioned as a high-tech global manufacturer, Japanese firms led the world in audio technology in the 70’s and 80’s and contributed multiple innovations that paved the way for hip hop itself. Not least of all was the release of Sony’s Technics 1200 in 1972, which, noticing early American DJs practically destructive use of turntables to mix records live, created the Direct Drive Motor- a belt-less system that didn’t stretch over time and thus allowed these DJs to spin tunes without damaging the equipment.
All this is not to say that Japan’s appreciation for hip hop only extends to the golden age, however, with grime (see Japanese MC Pakin’s early cross-over with GrimeReport TV or Catarrh Nisin’s feature on Risky Roadz), trap (such as Tokyo rapper KOHH featuring on Keith Ape’s pivotal ‘It G Ma’ track) and various other corners of the genre enjoying dedicated followings. Nonetheless, it is in contrast to hip hop’s recent mainstream attention in China and South Korea with the national broadcasting of rap talent shows Show Me the Money and The Rap of China in which production elements of grime and trap feature more frequently that Japan’s hip hop scene seems markedly less dominated by commercial trends and more focussed on ‘traditional’ hip hop representations.
Perhaps reflecting the nature of cultural exchanges globally, Japanese culture has consistently featured in hip hop representations as well. Artists right through from Wu Tang’s RZA to Sahbabii have cited anime as significant sources of inspiration, so much so that recent years have seen commentators attempt to explain exactly why hip hop is so fascinated with anime (for starters, check out Genius’ brief discussion below). Regardless, suffice to say that this relationship between rap culture and Japan appears to be more of a cultural dialogue than a one-sided directional flow- signified not least by the fact that one of the first hip hop acts to tour out East were the Wu Tang Clan, whom were both famously swamped by crowds upon touching down in Tokyo in 1994 but had also borrowed much from Eastern and Japanese culture themselves.
Returning to the beginning of this article, as the Yoyogi Park street party began to wind down I wandered to a club about 15 minutes away where yet another freestyle tournament was commencing- this time in the under-22s category (for the record, to this day I don’t know of any other country that organises rap battles in this way- it seems that even Japan’s underground hip hop scene is reluctant to disrespect their elders). Hosted by Japanese hip hop legend 漢 a.k.a. Gami and with half the crowd also turning out to be contestants (something that I do recognise from rap battles in England), it was surprising to see such excitement surround freestyling. While we may not be able to ever put our finger on all the reasons why these classical hip hop traditions have survived and thrived in Japan, what is clear from this brief exploration is how some combination of circumstantial and cultural factors in Japan have led to a dedicated following that, in turn, provides contributions back into the hip hop universe. This reciprocal exchange speaks directly to the beauty of art and music in the global age- although the Western cultural product of hip hop was first emulated by Japanese fans, the scene has matured to a point where it offers even initial fans of the culture novel experiences, much like what that packet of salmon jerky would be to Western beef jerky. More widely, this relationship seems to support the cultural studies notion of ‘cultural hybridity’ (or what James Christie and Nesrin Degrimencioglu refer to as ‘Cultures of Uneven and Combined Development’) in that it is through these imitations and innovations that the world as a whole has grown an uneven and dynamic cultural geography, with all its fascinating niches to explore. I only wish that salmon tasted a bit less fish-y, maybe then I would be writing about global jerky innovations rather than hip hop.
Despite very little mainstream and commercial attention, Japan has managed to grow a dedicated and flourishing hip hop scene nationwide that far out-spans the small corner of Yoyogi Park that I stumbled upon last Summer- for a more detailed tour through Japanese hip hop check out the accompanying IORI Guide to Japanese Hip Hop: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzpiN0UzprEwDkwgMmnZL1iZIg1xlGrVQ
This article has been written as part of longer series exploring hip hop scenes around the world, to find more check out our guide to Chinese hip hop here: https://ioriworld.wordpress.com/articles/