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Japanese hip-hop: Imitation or art?

A Harvard boffin put his gray matter to work analyzing the emergence of the genre in a country with no comparable milieu and found a unique repertoire of talent

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

HIP-HOP JAPAN

By Ian Condry
249 pages
Duke University Press

For the last 12 months, Ian Condry has been organizing a research project at MIT and Harvard on Cool Japan: Culture, Media, Technology. So on the surface he may appear to be one of those young academics who desperately wishes he was even younger, and seeks to redeem himself from the staid image university life often attracts by immersing himself in the culture of the markedly and trend-settingly young. But this would be to do him an injustice. This new book, his first, shows he has the merit of plowing his own furrow in research, of being able to read and speak Japanese fluently, and of being able to write clearly and forcefully about contemporary Asian life.

He spent 18 months on intensive research for the book between 1995 and 1997 and, on this and other visits to Tokyo and elsewhere, has probed pretty much every aspect of the Japanese popular music business. He's talked to rappers, DJs, record company executives and fans. He's even talked to Japanese rappers' parents, which must be something of a world first.

Japanese hip-hop, he relates, encountered considerable skepticism, even opposition, when it first emerged. Critics said the Japanese language was intrinsically alien to the conventions of rap lyrics, and in addition insisted the Japanese experience had nothing in common with that of Afro-Americans, the originators of hip-hop. Japanese rappers, these skeptics continued, were merely following an American fashion without being able to add anything of their own. Moreover, they were probably puppets dancing on the strings of record companies eager to emulate anything American and reap the profits of any new US musical style.

Condry, who has spent many long and smoky evenings in Japanese genba ("actual sites," or more simply clubs), not surprisingly disagrees. He's made friends with the stars and is clearly keen to see things from their perspective. One of his main arguments is that the music grew from the grass-roots upwards, and that recording executives were at first reluctant to take it seriously, or to believe Japanese youth would take to it in significantly profitable numbers.

At the heart of this book is the issue of globalization. Does the spread of hip-hop to Japan mean that everything American, from Wal-Mart to McDonald's, is destined to cover the globe with a uniform and stultifying sameness, or does the exchange of cultural influence quickly mutate into local variations that blend the imported with the inherited and create valuable new cross-bred "species" in innumerable locations?

Of course Japan, almost more than anywhere else, has for long been considered to have a veritable culture of imitation. Anyone my age remembers laughing at TV images of Beatles look-alikes peering out from under their long fringes and singing songs about UK locations such as Liverpool's Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane. Condry will have none of this. To him Japanese pop music, certainly of the hip-hop variety, is nothing if not distinctive and original. Far from copying American originals, it takes the form and develops it into local and often remarkable Japanese styles.

One of the most striking instances of this that Condry cites is a Japanese rap lyric composed by King Giddra in response to the 9/11 attacks. Of course radical, and especially anti-government, opinions are strongly characteristic of the genre in America, he admits, and the same is true in Japan. But where else, he wonders, would the video footage accompanying 9/11-related lyrics feature the post-atomic ruins of Hiroshima, with an image of the one emblematic building that remained in tact there duplicated to make it look like twin Hiroshima towers? The attacks on New York and Washington were terrible, it implies, but they were not the only examples of murderous assaults from the air.

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