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.
This installment of JTB is authored by guest writer Brett Fujioka.
Hip-hop has never shied away from the underrepresented, the oppressed, the marginalized, and especially not the controversial in any location. The Land of the Rising Sun isn’t an exception, as one of the country’s most controversial issues was tackled head-on in Liyoon’s single “Japanese Killerwhale,” a song in defense of the commercial whaling industry.
The song’s music video debuted on September 11, 2010, an appropriate date given the song’s anti-American slant. In its intro, a gunshot resounds against an American flag followed by scenes where Liyoon dowses The White House in molasses and devours it. Other segments depict Americans voraciously clamoring after animal mascots like junkies chasing down drug dealers. “I’m a whale killer,” Liyoon sings in the chorus. “Cruel murderer will kill anything and spread blood all over the sea.”
The song was clearly written in response to anti-whaling activism in America. But what supporters and detractors don’t know is that its lyrics are neither an affirmation nor an ironic parody of the issue at large. Liyoon emphasized in an interview with Tiny Mix Tapes that he’s not an activist and doesn’t advocate a pro-whaling agenda. Rather, the goal of the song was to simply represent the mood of Japan. “I knew about this topic for years and people in Japan were frustrated over the Whale Wars, Sea Shepherd, and The Cove, etc.,” Liyoon said. “I’m not sure if it’s an attack on Japanese culture, but no one in Japan feels good about it.”
Commercial whaling in Japan remains a sensitive topic of discussion both within and outside the country. Anti-whaling activists abroad object to the practice, citing environmental issues, health safety, ethics, and conservation. The controversy is further exacerbated with activist Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation Society at the forefront, an organization engaged in forms of piratical eco-terrorism to put an end to the trade. However, Japanese politicians, consumers, and fishermen defend the practice, saying its abolition would be an assault on their culture. Liyoon echoes this sentiment in the song: “Forcibly change [our] culture, how? Before you say, you better bend your back and bow.”
Despite the fervor of his tone, Liyoon says he’s impartial to the trade, using the song instead to represent Japanese opinion rather than to call for political action. “I wanna change the image of Japan and Asia, and as I said in the outro: ‘Don’t think that [Asians and Japanese] are all quiet and polite.’ I hope the Asians living abroad or within Asia will be proud of themselves, especially Japanese people as we seem to look up [to the] USA.” And indeed, the song does seem to reflect the majority of Japan’s national opinion. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, 65% of Japanese support continuing the whale program, and 56% of its people also backed eating its meat. Compare this to a poll conducted by the Nippon Research Center, which concluded that 95% of those surveyed have never eaten or rarely consume whale meat. This disparity could suggest that a majority of Japanese support it as a cultural practice, despite never actually partaking in it. Even Japanese hip-hop artist Zeebra, contrary to his own diet, expressed his approval of Liyoon’s delivery on the topic: “Damn! I’m a vegetarian, but still I dig ur skills, homie! U THE BEAST!” he tweeted.
But Liyoon may possess some ulterior motives as well. He raps the entire song in English and was notably excited by the Asian American rap group Far East Movement’s success with their single “Like a G6.” He has also said that he’s very curious about the reception that he receives from Americans. In fact, one of his goals is to cross over to the pond and possibly change the game of Japanese hip-hop, too, which he says in Japan is too “pop”: “The trend is very peaceful and more into dancehall music,” he said. “But that’s not my style, so I want to make a new wave. Kind of similar to US hip-hop… but not as big.”
So far, Liyoon is pleased with his video’s reception — both positive and negative. It has incurred over 99,000 views so far, with a combination of accolades and jeers in the comments section. But regardless of where people stand on the whaling issue, he defies a stereotype many have attributed to Japanese rap. While critics, fans, and even fellow Japanese rappers have occasionally deemed the genre as nothing more than a shabby imitation of its Western counterpart, at least here it’s about something specific to contemporary Japanese issues, and it’s even sung by an ethnic minority to the country, as Liyoon is a third-generation Japanese-born Korean.
Fans have demanded that Japanese hip-hop mature, grow up, and step outside of the childish meat-mashing replicas of the West and reintroduce the controversial political issues pioneered by King Giddra. While “Japanese Killerwhale” may not have signified this desired progression, it’s clearly a step in the right direction.