About ten years after the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, the art form found its way to Japan when young Japanese artists encountered the music and saw breakdancing in New York, taking what they saw back to Japan.
In 1983, the film Wild Style, a seminal hip-hop documentary capturing the four pillars of the culture (graffiti, breaking, emceeing and DJing), screened in Tokyo. The kids who saw the film—though few—lost it, immediately embracing the colorful, unfettered, athletic expression of triumphing outside of a social system of conformity, illusion and oppression. A young man named Hideaki Ishi saw the film, and, in a matter of time, the world would come to know him as DJ Krush. DJ Krush, Toshio Nakanishi and Hiroshi Fujuwara are mostly credited with establishing hip-hop in Japan after Wild Style and during trips to New York in the early 80s.
As it did in the United States, hip-hop exploded in Japan, especially in the Harajuku neighborhood, ushering in a new generation of baggy-clothes-wearing, rapping, blinged-out kids speaking truth to power and exploring this urban, urgent expression of creativity.
“Many people assume that Japan is too ethnically homogeneous to provide a meaningful home for hip-hop,” said Dr. Ian Condry, a professor of Japanese culture at MIT who wrote Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, via email with us.
“When I began my research in the mid-nineties for what eventually became my book, many Japanese elites in the recording, radio and music magazine industries expressed similar doubts that young Japanese emcees would ever succeed,” Condry explained. “However, in nightclubs throughout Japan, local hip-hop artists proved that the seeming homogeneity of Japan in fact disguised deep-seated divergences among economic opportunity, gender inequalities, and even racial discrimination — for example, against Korean-Japanese and so-called ‘outcaste’ groups who continue to be stigmatized. In the end, hip-hop in Japan developed in the local language and taught local audiences about new ways of thinking about how to ‘represent’ one’s ‘hood, battle for one’s posse and speak in thoughtful, entertaining ways about struggles that people of all stripes in Japan face.”
Since certain breakdancing moves borrowed from Asian martial arts moves, b-boying (breakdancing) was already somewhat recognizable in Japan. Breaking took off as the first major influence of African-American hip-hop. Japanese b-boys and b-girls got really good, really fast.
For a look at b-boys in Japan now, here’s a compilation of Issei, who won the Red Bull BC One in 2016:
Emceeing and rapping caught on after breaking and DJing, and really extraordinary graffiti once lined the Yokohama Graffiti Wall, which, sadly, was painted gray in 2010 by the Japanese government.
Want to check out current Japanese political rappers? “You might consider Anarchy and Shingo Nishinari,” said Dr. Condry. “For women, try Rumi, Miss Monday, Co-machi, and Hime.”
The influence of Japanese hip-hop conveys in the upcoming performance of SIRO-A in Ferguson Hall on Oct. 19. SIRO-A merges dance crew moves with technology and DJing to create a multi-media, special effects spectacle. Want a sneak peek? Check it out: