Live on stage - a duel between samurai MCs

Hip-Hop Japan
May 11, 2007

Hip-hop has in the past two decades come from off the streets and into the libraries: it is now celebrated in numerous academic texts and coffee-table books, not to mention all over cyberspace and in specialist fanzines.

Japan is not automatically associated with this seemingly American and black genre, but in this lively and fascinating volume, US anthropologist Ian Condry shifts the spotlight. "Japanese hip-hop is in no way simply 'yellow noise' because it is not so much the binding ties of Japanese cultural expressivity that hold hip-hop together as it is an unfolding history defined by shifting battles and widening battlegrounds," he asserts.

This metaphor resonates throughout. Hip-hop performances take place in martial arts halls, and the rappers are likened to samurai swordsmen.

While many see globalisation as a euphemism for Americanisation, the might of Japanese giants such as the Sony corporation upset such easy characterisations. As Condry points out, while Michael Jackson was signed to the Sony label no one saw him as a purveyor of Japanese music.

He also dismisses George Ritzer's McDonaldisation thesis. Statistics show that American music has occupied a declining market share of Japanese music sales over time.

The subtext of this study is "the Japaneseness of popular culture". Many aspects of Japanese hip-hop mirror vernacular versions that have emerged outside the US, such as in France. As with the early Blair "cool Britannia"

experiment, nurturing the cultural industries has been a Japanese governmental aim.

It is "genba" - the interactive dimension of hip-hop performance - that is seen as its defining feature in Japan. Condry paints some compelling pen portraits of spontaneous on-stage duelling between rappers. "The reserved, polite, soft-spoken culture of Japan contrasts with the image of an in-your-face, aggressive, loud and funky black culture of rap," he claims.

"But there is never a static notion of Japaneseness, nor a single meaning of hip-hop."

The black social commentary aspect of hip-hop in its original form seems to be at odds with comparatively homogenous Japanese society. Condry claims that social inequalities are dealt with in "underground hip-hop", although there is a "party hip-hop" stream that does not have the same political function.

Race is addressed in underground lyrics in terms of divisions within Japan rather than along black-versus-white lines. Conventional US hip-hop has been frequently attacked for macho tendencies. Women on the Japanese scene are expected to adopt a demure persona that Condry calls "cutisimo". At all costs, one must avoid being a "yellow cab" - a derogatory term for a woman who experiments with different partners.

What comes over most clearly is Condry's clear enthusiasm for his subject and dedication to his cause. He foregrounds his study with a detailed history of post-war Japanese pop from jazz via Beatles copycat bands through to the birth of hip-hop in the early 1980s. He admits to sitting through 120 hip-hop concerts and has included numerous interviews with major players. The result is comprehensive and highly readable.

Rupa Huq is senior lecturer in sociology, Kingston University.

Hip-Hop Japan

Author - Ian Condry
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 264
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9780822338925

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