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Hip Hop Culture in Japan

With such a large barrier of cultural understanding between America and Japan, do these fashionistas really understand what it means to be black?

By 4 min read 8

Hanging out at a Hip-Hop club in Roppongi, I was having a conversation with a Japanese friend of a friend while vibing out to Kendrick Lamar over the booming speakers.

“Why are you wearing this?” She waved up and down from my blazer to my khakis.

“I guess I just like this style. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you just don’t seem Hip-Hop”

Our conversation sort of fizzled out after that; I was speechless. A woman who I just met, looked me up and down and told me that I wasn’t Hip-Hop? I was borderline about to drop lyric upon lyric, historical facts and figures from the musical encyclopedia in my head, right on top of this girl. But there was no point in wasting my breath just to affirm my identity to a stranger. I knew I was Hip-Hop. And I didn’t need baggy jeans and a Yankees fitted-hat to prove it.

That brief exchange got me thinking about Hip-Hop: not just as a musical genre, but as a culture, too. A culture whose ideas have morphed and evolved long after it’s global pollination started on the streets of 1970s New York City. It’s much more than what I thought it once was. How Hip-Hop is expressed and interpreted changes depending on where you are in the world.

I’m reminded of the many occasions I’ve seen one of my young students rocking Baby Shoop; an increasingly popular women and kid’s wear brand in Japan. The “Black is Beautiful” slogan is often imprinted in graffiti lettering on their clothing.

When I ask my students what they think that statement means, they’re often at a loss for words. Honestly, I don’t expect them to have any knowledge of the slogan’s meaning. Especially since they’re still in the process of learning their own country’s history and culture. For them, Hip-Hop culture is almost entirely about the style. They may not be able to quote a Rakim lyric, but they are still expressing themselves freely through their appearance. Which one could say is quite characteristic of Hip-Hop.


On the other hand this could be seen as cultural misappropriation, in the same way you might find football fans wearing headdresses at a Redskins game. Or non-Japanese streetwear brands throwing an incomprehensible line of kanji characters on a T-shirt because it looks “different”.

Even adult Hip-Hop heads in Japan seem to use their style to represent themselves. At live shows with an old-school vibe, almost everyone there will be wearing clothes from that era. In a more new-school environment, both performers and audience members will be wearing the latest music video fashions. And then there are the very rare b-stylers (or B系/B-kei in Japanese).

Yet with such a large barrier of cultural understanding between America and Japan, do these fashionistas really understand what it means to be black?

Although they are a subculture within the already tiny culture of Japanese Hip-Hop, they seem to take appearance to heart when it comes to representing themselves. From tanning to hair braiding, B-kei’ers seem to have an obsession with what they believe to be black. Someone looking in from the outside might find their black aspirations to be in poor taste; harking back to the era of minstrel shows and sambos.

Yet these young Japanese women (and possibly men, too) would say that they are emulating the culture out of appreciation, not mocking it. Yet with such a large barrier of cultural understanding between America and Japan, do these fashionistas really understand what it means to be black?

Hip-Hop has grown from DJs scratching records at summer barbecues, to being a significant part of black culture, to being an idea of self-empowerment and individuality, which has spread around the world and infected many cultures in various ways. At first glance, Hip-Hop might seem like a purely visual trend in Japan. Which makes sense. In a homogenous society, appearance might take a certain precedence in affirming ones identity.

Yet if you take a stroll around Yoyogi Park on a warm Saturday, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find b-boys and b-girls breakdancing…rappers in a cypher with a boombox blasting. Graffiti fills up the walls when walking through the narrow, hidden corridors of Shibuya. Out by Sumida River, you might run into Kohh and the Riverside Mobb, who have used Hip-Hop as a means to escape their negative environment. At night, there’s DJs on the radio playing homage mixes of Nujabes. Japan has a way of taking existing things and making them uniquely their own.

So I have to say: even on this small island nation, the beat is alive and well.

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  • Ronnell Brown says:

    Hip hop has always been well respected in Japan. One thing I’ve noticed is that Japanese people tend to really study things they like, hip hop is no exception. They respect the culture and learn the history and figure out how to adapt it for Japanese sensibilities. Topic-wise things tend to be different than hip hop in the U.S. because they grow up with different political and cultural issues than people in the states. Nonetheless, Japanese hip hop has grown into its own movement. I remember in the 90’s when hip hop really started bubbling in Japan. DJs like Curtis Harmon and DJ Cash were helping Japanese people get acquainted with what Black America was listening to. (Curtis Harmon used to be a DJ in Los Angeles on the America’s first hip hop station, KDAY). I grew up in Los Angeles and used to listen to him. When I first moved to Japan (2007), I became friends with DJ Cash and met Curtis Harmon (his DJ partner) a couple of times. For me, it was surreal because I grew up listening to him. The Tokyo hip hop scene in the 90’s was thriving and many interesting Japanese artists came from that era, like Buddha Brand, Rhymester, Microphone Pager, etc.
    Although the flows are different than their English counterparts because of the differences in sentence structure, these artists definitely had their own flows and styles. Through the early 2000’s, I noticed a few underground MCs who would mix English and Japanese. This was a different feel because it really only catered to a truly bilingual audience (the only ones who could fully understand the songs). Japanese people couldn’t get the English parts and gaijin couldn’t get the Japanese parts. So there are three sets of hip hop artists trying to make their way in the current Japanese music scene: Japanese hip hop artists, gaijin hip hop artists, and bilingual hip hop artists. Foreigners may like Japanese rap without understanding the lyrics and that’s fine. But I think they wonder about foreign hip hop artists in Japan and if they actually exist! In searches for “hip hop in Japan” the results tend to only be Japanese artists who rap in Japanese. I don’t blame the artists, of course. But I guess there should be some way to increase visibility and awareness of the different subgenres of hip hop that currently exist in Japan. It can be a broad conversation that’s inclusive of a lot of talented people who speak English but still have Japanese influences in their flows (topic-wise) and their sounds.
    I would really like to see a post about hip hop in Japan that is in English. There is a thriving culture in Japan that is not represented much online. For example, The Hilt, is a group with some talented guys. Geno and his band Mellow Tonin’ found on Gray-Medium dot com are also very interesting. If you like English language hip hop and want to find it in Japan, that’s a good place to start. There are others but this reply is getting way too long already! Lol. Anyway, great post!

  • Whitney says:

    The Hip Hop scene in Japan is WEAK. But I’ve noticed some rappers stepping up like Kohh. I haven’t been to Japan in 5 years but I’m hoping to find out more about the underground hip hop scene when I go back.

  • Scha dara parr and East End x yuri did it well

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    At first glance, Hip-Hop might seem like a purely visual trend in Japan.

    Well there’s no denying that Japanese kids are very susceptible to visual culture. Be it Punk, Hiphop, Metal or any other style – the visuals seem to be the important part. I’ve often seen “punk” kids dressed from head to toe in a readymade “punk” costume bought straight out of the store. I’m pretty sure these kids have no idea what their look originally represents.

  • Dan Tanda says:

    Growing up listening to a fair amount of hip hop back when I was living back home, I always felt artists such as DJ Krush, DJ Kentaro, Nujabes, Shing02, to mention just a few, helped define what I would considered to be decent hip hop coming out of Japan. Also, a few years back, Ichigeki were rated as one of the worlds best b-boy crews and I’m in no doubt that there are plenty of amazing graffiti artist from Japan too, so I guess it all boils down to where you’re at and what you’re doing within the culture rather than where you’re from.

    Personally, I think in recent years, hip hop worldwide has lost the momentum it once had and has suffered from being diluted and mixed into other subcultures. The result seems to be this slightly confused misinterpretation that can be seen, not only in Japan, but all over the world. Japan just has it’s own bizarre way of interpreting it.

    Within Japan I’m sure there are b-boys and b-girls, DJ’s, MC’s and graff artists continuing to do their thing in the shadow of this mainstream image of hip hop.

  • Phil Charbonneau says:

    Hey, this is a really great post. It’s incredibly interesting to see this side of the subculture discussed in this way. I would love to see more posts about the hip hop culture in Japan. It’s surprisingly not a topic that I find discussed all that often.

    • Eric Malcolm Burton says:

      Thanks for reading Phil. I think the reason why it isn’t discussed often is because the scene, although very vibrant, is quite small and spread out; even in a big city like Tokyo. So it doesn’t really get much attention, because frankly it’s quite hard to find places that do open mics, live shows, etc.



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