Cool Japan 2008

Music Multimedia for Teaching

What can we learn about music and lyrics for cultural analysis?

Japanese Hip-hop: A Primer

I've written a book called "Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization" (2006, Duke U Press), and I would like to provide a quick introduction to some of the ideas there in a free, online form. My research focuses on how cultural movements succeed, with a particular interest in globalization from below. Hip-hop is a fascinating example of the international flows of popular culture, in part because early on few people expected rap music to be the huge success that it has become, a success more in the cultural sense of becoming a part of our everyday lives, than a success in a business sense (though examples abound here as well).

I've been studying Japanese hip-hop since the summer of 1994, with intensive fieldwork in Tokyo nightclubs and recording studios for 18 months, from 1995-1997. I have returned to Japan each summer since then. A brief history of hip-hop in Japan can help us understand the processes of cultural innovation and the ways niche movements become mass phenomenon. To the extent that we are interested in how innovative ideas and practices go global, even without the push of major corporations and national governments, then things like hip-hop, anime, and social media can provide important clues to how that can occur.

The early hits of Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash had aired in Tokyo discos within weeks of their releases in New York in the late seventies and early eighties, but a watershed moment was the world premiere of the film Wild Style (1983) in Tokyo. The film’s director, Charlie Ahearn, brought young breakdancers from New York to perform in Tokyo department stores and the combination of film and live performances helped inspire young Japanese to begin breakdancing in Yoyogi Park, an area where street musicians gather every Sunday to perform. DJ Krush, now one of the leading world-class DJs started out performing behind breakdancers there in the mid-1980s. DJs were performing on the radio by 1985. In 1986, the first all-hip-hop club opened in the Shibuya section of Tokyo. Many in the music word doubted that it would be possible to rap in Japanese, that is, to be able to perform with the needed rhythmic nuance ("flow") and rhymes, because the language itself was viewed as deficient: It didn't use stress accents and sentences must end with one of a few simple verb endings. Nevertheless, from the late 1980s on, a variety of rappers experimented with different flows and rhyming styles, and a slow, but steady stream of CDs came out in the early 1990s by such artists as Tinnie Punx, Ito Seiko, Vibrastone (led by Chikada Haruo), and Takagi Kan.

In 1994, Scha Dara Parr, one of the must-hear groups out of Japan, created a sensation with a hit song called "Kon'ya wa Boogie Back" that featured pop guitarist-songwriter Ozawa Kenji (the nephew of famed orchestra conductor Ozawa Seiji). The next year East End X Yuri broke into mainstream consciousness with a couple of cutesy hits, "Maicca" and "Da.Yo.Ne.". With these million-selling singles, record companies briefly became interested in producing Japanese hip-hop, though there was much debate about what "hip-hop" should mean. Is pop-oriented "J-Rap," with its emphasis on party rap the best style for a Japanese teen audience? Or must hip-hoppers engage in protest as a way of respecting the struggles of African-American artists, and therefore create a "Japanese hip-hop" that is underground and hardcore? Which is more "real"?

In my publications, I discuss these and other issues of global flows of music. I also believe that it is important to hear and experience some of the music and words, so I have created multimedia translations of some of the important songs.

Underground hip-hop, circa 1995. This response to "J-Rap" comedy rap was viewed by many as the best example to date of "underground hip-hop" that could be both Japanese and respectful of African-American protest.

King Giddra "Shinjitsu no Dangan" (Bullet of Truth) (1995) The two Japanese rappers Zeebra and K Dub Shine criticize both the education system and the power of media and advertising for warping youth. At the same time, they are argue that youth need to speak out and fire their own "bullets of truth."

Japanese R&B and Hip-Hop Combinations. By the late 1990s, female "Japanese R&B" singers were dominating the charts, with singers like Misia and Utada Hikaru. The following example is by a singer who never became famous, but it was produced by one of the long-standing hip-hop producers in Japan, Monchi Tanaka and his fellow producer Como-Lee. The subject matter of the song, and Monchi's insistence that this song "is just like enka, even though it isR&B" make it an intriguing example of genre conventions and genre crossing.

Rima featuring Umedy, "Yoake no Skat" ("Skat at Dawn") (1999). This song is a remake of a 1960s pop song of the same name. Umedy adds some rap flavor at the beginning, then Rima with her enchanting vocals sings metaphorically of two lovers committing suicide. The head of Jupiter Project, Monchi Tanaka, describes this as R&B that is "really enka." The wavering vocals, the lyrics that refer to an ancient literary tradition of star-crossed lovers committing suicide, and then the updating with a rap track, all display the intriguing mix of old and new in the contemporary pop scene. The music illustrates the combination of live and programmed music that characterizes the current hip-hop and R&B scene: the drums, bass and keyboards are programmed on a computer, but the guitar is played "live." Although this song often receives, in my experience, the most appreciative hearing among foreign audiences, it got the least critical acclaim of any of the songs on this page, in part due to lack of major label distribution and marketing support.

Japanese R&B. In 1999, Utada Hikaru became the best-selling music artist in Japanese history, selling over 8 million copies of her debut album "First Love," which she made when she was 17-years-old. The following song was one of the hit singles from that album.

UTADA Hikaru "Addicted to You" (1999) This selection from the best selling album in Japanese pop music history was released by Hikki, as she is sometimes known. A leader in what's called "Japanese R&B," Utada is bilingual, raised in both NYC and Tokyo, and she stands as icon of transnational popular music. She has released several English language albums with Island/Def Jam (Universal) as well.

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Popular Songs from Postwar Japan: Pops, Enka, Folk, Rock, Children's

"Pops" or kayoukyoku is mainstream popular music, closely tied to youth consumer culture, often marketed through TV, and usually produced through collaboration among in-house writers, musicians, and singers.

SAKAMOTO Kyuu "Ue o Muite Arukoo" 1961. This song was not only an enormous hit in Japan, it is also notable as being the only Japanese song (to date) to reach #1 on the U.S. Billboard music charts in 1963. In the States, it became known as "Sukiyaki," a kind of sweet beef soup with noodles, though as you can see the song itself makes no mention of food. The song's melody is frequently sampled or used for English lyrics, as for example on Snoop Dogg's first album "Doggystyle."

Enka is also popular music using Western instrumentation (violins, bass, drums) but which has melismatic vocals echoing traditional minyou folk songs. Male singers dress in tuxedos, and women dress in kimono. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for male singers to sing from a woman's point of view, and vice versa. Enka is known as the "heart and soul of the Japanese people" (nihonjin no kokoro) and is the subject Christine Yano's (2002) remarkable new book Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and Nation in Japanese Popular Song (Harvard University Press).

Misora Hibari "Aishuu no hatoba" (Wharf of Sadness) (1960) This famous singer is discussed in the chapter by Alan Tansman in the volume Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture (John Treat, ed., U Hawaii Press) and in Christine Yano’s book Tears of Longing. You can hear the prototypical references to ports, tears, and sake.

Folk music introduced a contrasting way of making music from both pops and enka, one that ushered in the age of the singer-songwriter and emphasized the aesthetic of "self-made, self-performed." This "folk" music was based on the folk music of the U.S., such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and though imported through global streams of music export, it also came to symbolize a contrast to the mass consumer society and the business practices of large entertainment corporations. The music was often tied to student protest, or, as in the following example, criticizing some of the assumptions of new middle class society, such as the "educational arms race" of competition for slots in the best schools.

NAKAGAWA Goro "Jukensei Blues" (Exam-Student Blues)
This re-interpretation of the Bob Dylan song "North Country Blues" (Album: Times They Are A-Changin') highlights the uses of the American folk music form to express social issues in 1960s Japan. It concerns cram school students and is an interesting example of an emerging ethic of musical production characterized by artists who write their own lyrics and perform their own compositions.

Rock music is one of the leading genres of popular music and underground music in contemporary Japan. It has gone through many transformations, from the "Group Sounds" modeled on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to "New Music" of singer-songwriter-types with bands, to Metal, Punk, Hardcore, and on and on. One of the interesting aspects of Japan's rock scene is the continuing fascination with "visual-style" (visual-kei) or glam rock bands, especially on televised music variety shows. The following example is not visual rock, but rather in the "indies" style by one of my favorites, Cornelius, though earlier in his career he played with a lighter sound in the band Flipper's Guitar (which also featured Ozawa Kenji).

Cornelius "Blow My Mind" (1996) OYAMADA Keigo, guitarist, is known for his rock reworkings that draw on hip-hop, heavy metal, and film music. This song appears on his album "69/96," a work that refers frequently to the film Planet of the Apes. The moniker Cornelius is also drawn from the character played by Roddy McDowell. This type of music is often referred to as "Shibuya-kei" or "Shibuya-style" music, after the shopping and play area of Tokyo frequented by Japanese teens and college-age youth.

Children's music is, of course, big business. The following song caused a nation-wide sensation in the spring of 1999, prompting stores selling dango (sweet rice dumplings on skewers) to play the tune repeatedly. In fact, you could not walk through a shopping area, probably throughout Japan, without hearing this song, probably many times. It is catchy, but what are the factors that produce such an enormous fad? Shrewd marketing is part of the story. The song was heard for three-months on a popular morning children's program before it was released as a single, but then again, many songs are marketed this way that don't become hits. As you listen to the lyrics, you might consider some of the other attractions of this song. It is also a nice example of the way a foreign music (tango) can be used to express such "Japanese" nostalgia and yearnings.

Dango 3 Kyodai (1999) This theme song to a popular children's TV show called "Together with Mother" (Okaasan to Issho) on NHK's educational channel became a huge hit in the spring of 1999. Over 4 million singles were sold. "Dango" are meatball sized mushed rice balls on a skewer with sweet sauce. Here the combination of food, family, and tango make for an intriguing mix of cultural cues.

Some questions for discussion:

1) What different production styles can you identify between the songs? Do these differences suggest any questions about changes in media and entertainment in postwar Japan?

2) What are some of the links between the style of the song, the message of the song, and the song's intended audience?

3) Although each of these songs are different, they are all, in their own way, "popular music." How does this form of artistic expression differ from short stories or novels depicting similar (or different) kinds of issues for Japanese people in the postwar period?

4) What advantages or disadvantages might there be for using popular music as a window on Japanese history?

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Copyright notice:
These files are copyrighted material with the music and lyrics belonging to the artists and companies that published them. They are being used here solely for educational purposes in relation to writing assignments and face-to-face teaching in class. Any other uses are strictly forbidden Users found using these materials for other than educational purposes will be blocked from using this site. If you have any questions, please contact Ian Condry by email at condry AT