Three weeks ago when my latest Tokyo Weekender piece, “A Shut Door: ‘Japanese Hip-Hop Has Sectioned Itself Off’” was published online, it got more attention than I anticipated. I got to talk on The BBC. The article was to expose an extension of Japan’s xenophobia and its rejection of multiculturalism, even while it is straining western influences through a Japanese filter. To avoid talking about it is like braving a sand storm. Taping one’s windows, doors, and air vents still won’t keep the sand from getting into everything.
Through writing, my interest has always been to investigate, understand, and mirror people, not to navigate their morality. But living in Japan is positioning me to do otherwise. Ain’t a vacuum cleaner big enough to suck up all this sand.
My initial intention behind “A Shut Door” was to big-up Tokyo’s foreign pillars of hip-hop. There’re some committed heads out here that are reppin’ the culture. When I talked to them, their motivation for starting their own scene was to import the essence of a music that shaped them. Some people that I interviewed like rappers Shad AD, Cal Combs, and dancer Brooklyn Terry felt alienated from Japan’s local hip-hop community. How can an African-American culture that was used to unify gangs, empower the disenfranchised, and battle racism, be turned into some privatized idea that excludes the very people from which it comes?
Legendary dancer and choreographer, Brooklyn Terry toured as a backup dancer for the likes of Mariah Carey and Will Smith. He’s been familiar with Japan since the 90’s. Though he’s lived here for the past ten years, that hasn’t blunted the scalpel edge of Japan’s insular perspective. “The most difficult part of living in Japan is the culture. As a dancer, the world that I live in, the one that I helped to build, that people are feeding and making money off of… when I go to things that are considered hip-hop in Japan, I feel like an absolute outsider. I’ve never felt like that before,” he said.
Here, black people are scary (kowai), but the black aesthetic is as popular and as profitable as bottled air would be if the earth’s sky cracked. In Japan, like America, they want black culture, but not black people (unless used as an advertising mascot for authenticity). Online videos enable people to adopt hip-hop and bypass the racial implications of its origins.
Invention’s mother are plumbs of color
exploding out of the darkness
Like slaves freestyling Biblical verses
to see whose God is closer,
they prearrange their heavenly spot,
knowing their story’s arc
lives outside the lines of Willie’s plot
that Burnell discovered
was just one of the many styles
that we rock,
back when you was
lying about Vietnam
and all those bombs you dropped
Before the atomic holocaust
you wanted to be like
your future oppressor
who would go on to be
your constitution’s author
but my masters
tis of thee
committed exaggerated rapes of Nanking
This island is just another sentence
to an American narrative
Your Manchurian government is a noose
that strangles its own people
-similar to the rope
that lynched my great-grandfather
The lie is a god
We are phony worshippers
and the act of pretending has
made us true practitioners
Japan’s invasion and exploitation of Southeast Asia was a Japanese version of Manifest Destiny and a firewall against western colonization. The victims of Japan’s conquest were getting decapitated, raped, and tortured. Bound men, women, and children were used as actual targets for military exercises. Japan’s aspirations to become an empire bolstered their divine and racial superior mythology. If viral videos were global powers then Japan wanted to reinvent itself as one of them.
The craving to do so, evolved out of their clashes with American Navy commander Commodore Matthew Perry, whose squadron forced the island to open its ports for trade in 1854. Up until then, with few exceptions (Holland and China), Japan had, for two centuries, cut itself off to foreign trade. But Perry had guns and he wasn’t trying to hear it, even if Japan had pigtailed samurai with swords whose blades were as familiar with blood as America was to slavery. Perry’s offer that Japan couldn’t refuse pressured them to compete with the technologically advanced-West, spiraling the island into an imperialistic addiction and along the way, aligning itself with Adolf Hitler.
Looking at Japan’s history makes an awesomely compelling argument to call this country racist, but I can’t confidently say that. From my experience, xenophobia and the western media fuel their fear of blackness. Those two combined factors foster ignorance. They’re like the substitute teachers of racism. They aren’t familiar with the class. They just go by the notes that they were given. And here, the students are commanded to listen and obey the sensei (teacher). They do as instructed without challenging the motive, which supposedly becomes evident over time. Considering Japan’s shrinking work force, their reluctance to adapt has stagnated their growth. The rigid conformist culture of Japan has disillusioned its youth. Between the ages of 10 and 19, suicide is the leading cause of death. For some youth, death has become a trending part of their fashion. To fight against their prescribed paths of working long hours for Japanese companies, kids who are inspired use hip-hop as a form of freedom or a weapon for change. Here, I’ve met a teenage Japanese woman that didn’t speak English, but knew all the words to Nas’s “One Mic (2002).”
Others commonly treat the culture like an accessory. Like some white Americans, unaware of their privilege, they repurpose hip-hop, thereby subjugating the marginal views of a culture that they are presumably representing. Hopefully, my article, “A Shut Door” helps to converge native progressives and their foreign counterparts to kick the door down. Japanese, like American artists, have greatly contributed to hip-hop.
Yellow Magic Orchestra are considered to be as influential as the German electronic band, Kraftwerk. Globally renowned producers DJ Krush and DJ Honda brought new soundscapes to the game. Krush’s “Vision of Art ft. Company Flow” and “Meiso ft. Black Thought and Malik B (1995)” was my shit. Honda’s “Travelin Man ft. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) (1998)” was bumping out of boom boxes at my neighborhood basketball court. Last year, 12-year-old, DJ Rena, was the youngest turntablist to ever become a DMC world champion. On Saturday nights, in Tokyo, across the street from Shibuya’s Manhattan Records, there are crews of Japanese kids in the alley with portable speakers, cyphering to boom bap. They’re doing old and new school flows in Japanese. It was inspiring to see. Under the darkness of night spitting rhymes, they were looking to escape. They could’ve been some Orlando kids at a bus stop, freestyling.