Thanks to a mix of language barriers and cultural stereotypes, most ‘heads think Japanese hip-hop is derivative, silly, or downright racist. But the emerging Japanese underground is pumping out excellent, innovative tracks that deserve to be heard around the world. Japan The Beats highlights the best of these releases and tells the stories behind them.
We all like to think of ourselves as open-minded, but there’s always something truly unexpected out there waiting to stretch our minds even further. It turns out that I, for instance, wasn’t quite ready for Japanese people who are ethnically other than Asian. I wasn’t quite ready to hear black men — or white guys, or Indian women — speaking fluent Japanese and vigorously defending their own Japanese identity. This is what I got late last year, at a small event put on by the group Mix Roots Japan, featuring two roundtable discussions on the topic of multiracial Japanese identity and some live music. The group’s main purpose is to raise the profile and acceptance of Japanese people of diverse racial roots, a goal I couldn’t support more. But at the same time, like most really head-shifting moments, this one had a certain smack of the surreal, something bordering on actual discomfort. Maybe particularly for an American, seeing a black man with dreadlocks who considers himself Japanese is pretty world-shifting.
The event followed a more official discussion session at Waseda University, organized and led by Professor Koichi Iwabuchi. The later event was where the hip-hop was, though — two of the live performances were by MC Beto, a nisei Brazilian, and Genez, a group made up of several mixed-race folks. The whole thing was hugely informative, though perhaps not in an entirely upbeat way. Rain didn’t help, but I was shocked by how small the event was — no more than 20 people, participants included, showed up to the small café in Shin-Okubo. Multiracial identity is a miniscule part of Japanese consciousness, even in Tokyo, which shows both how important this sort of discussion is, and how far advocates, and Japan as a nation, have to go. It was so intimate I honestly felt a little like an invader on a private event, especially since some of the discussion was so personal.
Several consistent themes emerged. The first discussion was between three women, one of whom was half-Indian, the other of whom was (I believe) zainichi but had also lived in Peru for a time. They were the first to raise the problem of terminology. In Japan, “Half” (Haafu) is the catch-all term for people whose lineage is mixed with Japanese and pretty much anything else. This has two strange implications: (1) that these people are somehow less than complete, and (2) that the Japanese half is the only one that really matters. It was suggested that “Double” would actually be a more accurate term than Half — these folks carry the cultural heritage from every part of their background.
Japan, particularly its political and social elites, learned all the wrong lessons from Western racist imperialism.
It was at least a bit sad to hear the stories of all these people’s difficulties in a culture that consistently refused to accept their complexity. Beto’s story was the strangest of all: in addition to being born into the large population of expatriate Japanese in Brazil (Nisei), he was half-Brazilian himself and described how he felt marginalized even within the Japanese-Brazilian community because of his racial background. David Yano, a Ghanaian-Japanese pianist, contrasted the attitudes of Ghana, where having come from a foreign country means being treated as an honored guest, with those of Japan, where difference leads inexorably to suspicion and discomfort. This meant that, while he considers himself Japanese and not Ghanaian, he felt he was treated better in a foreign country than at “home.” The fundamental closed-mindedness of Japan can often seem like a cultural stereotype itself, but the more I hear stories like these, the more comfortably correct the judgment seems.
David Yano also gave me one of the really surreal moments of the evening when, after all the discussion, things transitioned to a somewhat informal live performance. After MC Beto, who wrapped up his set with a plaintive chant of “I am Japanese, I am Japanese,” Yano took the stage to perform some inoffensive ballad-y piano tunes. Yano’s Japanese heritage is not immediately obvious. Like most of those of mixed African and East Asian heritage, the African half dominates his appearance, so he looked, more or less, like any brother walking down the street in America. It was jarring to hear, on some of the songs where he took a shot at writing English lyrics, exactly the same sorts of grammar problems that plague other native Japanese speakers. Not that I was really his intended audience, but he sure convinced me of who he ‘really’ was — there’s nothing more authentically Japanese than broken English.
The last performance was from Genez, a hip-hop trio who are their own smorgasboard of ethnic variety. The MC/singer Michael is, like Yano, Ghanaian-Japanese. The rapper-dancer Curt is from Okinawa, and half-white. Most unusual is the group’s singer, Gow, who is half Irish and half Philipino — in other words, not ethnically Japanese at all. But she had lived in Japan since the age of 13 or so and clearly considers herself to belong in the culture. During the preceding roundtable, Curt talked about his fear of foreign tourists, who always expected him to speak English, even though he speaks none. As sad/funny as the story was, it’s good to know I’m not the only one constantly expecting these people to speak English.
The fundamental closed-mindedness of Japan can often seem like a cultural stereotype itself, but the more I hear stories like these, the more comfortably correct the judgment seems.
Genez’ shiny pop-rap wasn’t really up my alley musically, but they have a lot of energy and Gow is clearly a pretty gifted soul belter. Both they and MC Beto are pretty explicit about their political mission: to spread awareness of the diversity of Japan and make it more acceptable to have a complicated identity. Despite the rapidly broadening horizons of many Japanese young people, this is a tall order. Ten or fifteen years ago, multiraciality was still a confusing concept for most Americans, and to the extent that it has become more everyday, it’s because there are simply so many Americans who fit that description (our President, not least of all). In Japan, the numbers are simply much, much lower, and ethnic diversity is unlikely to increase greatly anytime soon; that would require immigration liberalization, and despite some recent shifts, that’s still a non-starter in Japanese national politics.
Political musicians like Genez and MC Beto, then, are hoping to make up for how rare people like themselves are by being more visible — something that music is great at accomplishing. In the Japanese landscape, there’s definitely an appetite for difference and variety, at least at the media level. Recently, the half-white television announcer Becky is a huge sensation, and I have to shout out the musician/actress Anna Tsuchiya, star of probably my single favorite Japanese movie, Kamikaze Girls. There’s also the recent success of Jero, the 1/8 (or something) Japanese African-American who has made a career out of dressing like a rapper while singing enka, a nostalgia-driven Japanese pop form dominant in mid-century.
The question is whether figures like these can go from being oddities, attractive because they’re different, to actually seeming like an everyday part of the fabric of Japan. At least in the short term, I can’t say I’m optimistic, mostly because there really isn’t any widespread concept of ‘multiculturalism’ in Japan. In this, Japan compares poorly not just with the US, but to other Asian countries like China and, as David Yano pointed out, to welcoming countries like Ghana. Japan, particularly its political and social elites, learned all the wrong lessons from Western racist imperialism, and while the West is slowly coming down from the heights of white self-delusion, Japan remains haunted by myths of purity and uniqueness. People of mixed heritage are a very real threat to those ideas, and while Genez and others are fighting a good fight, it’s almost certain to be a long one.