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. Click here to access the archive.
In response to an earlier [column entry, Zeebra generously offered JTB the chance to sit and talk about hip hop and history. What emerged was a fuller, but still troubling, picture of Japan's biggest rapper.]
A few months ago, I published in this space a negative review of World of Music, a recent album by Zeebra. Actually, it wasn't just negative. It was what might be termed a takedown or, less generously, a hatchet job, packed with unwarranted personal attacks, overgeneralizations employed for effect, and the only instance in which I personally have compared listening to a hip-hop beat to being forcibly fucked in the ass. You can imagine my surprise, then, when Tiny Mix Tapes received an email from Zeebra directed to me. It's kind of like making a drunken, ranting blog post about how much you hated Bangkok Dangerous and waking up the next morning to Nicolas Cage banging angrily on your screen door. Even more amazing, Zeebra said he wanted to talk to me, that we should do an interview “like Remix did to K-Dub.” I'm nowhere near as informed about the issues as was my friend Shin Futatsugi when he interviewed K Dub Shine for Remix magazine, but this was too good a chance to pass up.
So, on July 5, I met Zeebra in the lobby bar of the plush Westin hotel on the edge of the baroque Ebisu Garden Plaza, playground of Tokyo's elite. He met me with backup in tow – his manager and one of the producers of World of Music, who I was surprised to find out is an African-American gent from Virginia. We talked for about two hours, and it gave me a hundred different insights into the issues raised in my original review. It's clear we'll never see eye to eye, and in fact I left more sure than ever that Zeebra has some wrongheaded, downright dangerous ideas. But I have a profound respect for his willingness to talk to me directly, something that takes a huge amount of guts and generosity. Out of respect for that, as opposed to my earlier kneecapping, I'm going to do my best here to be fair and to represent his perspective.
But his main purpose in meeting with me was clearly to convince me that I was wrong about the positions that I took in my review, and in this, he wasn't very effective. He started off by giving me a pop quiz on my knowledge of Japanese hip-hop – had I heard Seeda, Thug Family, Scars, Norikio? These were mostly rappers who, to one degree or another, make blinged-out American-style rap that I'm not that interested in, either as a fan or a writer. As he ticked down his list and I admitted that, no, I knew most of them only as names, he and his crew giggled a bit. “You're talking about something you don't know... you should learn before you start saying this kind of thing. You can't judge me without the information.” His basic point seemed to be that if I liked music that I actually don't like, then I would like his music. Which, I suppose, is true enough.
At the same time, though, Zeebra made a point that I found to be more genuinely persuasive. As thriving as the underground might be, hip-hop in Japan still struggles for the kind of broad cultural recognition that's taken for granted in the States. Although there are pop groups like Dragon Ash and Orange Range that incorporate heavy elements of hip-hop, Zeebra is at or near the top of a very small group of artists making straightahead hip-hop to broad commercial success. So while underground acts in the U.S. have over the years engaged in a lot of bashing of sellouts and “the mainstream,” the division is a bit less stark in Japan. Zeebra emphasized that he wasn't somehow alienated from the artists that I personally prefer. “I've talked to Kan from MSC, and they don't really want to be labeled as ‘underground.' Everyone's trying to be successful... do you think that, if it weren't for the mainstream, the underground could even eat?” In other words, Zeebra sees himself as a champion for Japanese hip-hop as a whole -- for example, he's been working to start a hip-hop radio station, which currently doesn't exist in Japan. We're certainly in agreement that it would be great to see the country's taste for J-pop pablum shaken up by more hip-hop upstarts on the Oricon charts.
But what form should this hip-hop take? In my original review I knocked Zeebra for the predictable imitativeness of his music, and when we sat down for our interview, he both impressed and confused me by refusing to argue that he was more radical or novel than I gave him credit for. Instead, he argued that imitation let him tap into some fundamental, universal element of hip-hop. “It's like, if an American person wants to do sumo, you've got to wear the little belt. Without it, it's not sumo... like, if you look at the most successful American hip-hop, Jay Z or whatever, they're not, like, different, you know.” He regards this sameness as a sort of international status quo. “Wherever we go, it's just hip-hop.” This was also his argument for the heavy use of English catchphrases -- their universality. He used no English on the first King Gidorah album, but now that rap in pure Japanese has become widespread, he finds that his problem is different: “I go to a lot of countries around Asia, like in Korea, like in Thailand, Taiwan... and they don't understand shit [in Japanese].” By the same token, he doesn't understand the Korean rap that gets handed to him by young wannabes: “But if I hear any English line in it, I can just relate to it, like maybe this song is about something like this, or, you know? That's how I felt that I needed to like say some words in English.”
The most arresting moment in the interview came when Zeebra attempted to address my political points in the earlier column. Though I never actually tarred him as a nationalist, I did suggest a certain guilt by association with his proudly right-wing buddy K Dub Shine. He disagreed with this: “Why are you saying I'm right wing, dude?” But from there, he proceeded into a circuitous, cautious, but easily recognizable restatement of right-wing talking points, particularly about Japanese history. Although I tried to keep up a calm façade as he proceeded, I was metaphorically on the edge of my seat as I listened to Japan's most famous rapper rush headlong into confirming my worst suspicions about him. It's worth quoting him at length here:
It's pretty hard to correct the history. Something might happen, something might not. Like, okay, if somebody bumps into your car, maybe you wanna put some other scratches into the same [accident claim] budget. Maybe you say it's something that's not really happened. I don't blame other people or other countries who do that, because that's how it is.
[But] you gotta correct the history, one by one. Like not looking at everything like, maybe Japan did this, Japan did that – because [other countries] wanna say it, they wanna get more. I'm trying to be cool with those other countries in Asia, especially artists and [people of] the same generation. Because we gotta build it from zero, or maybe under that.
But at the same time, we gotta correct the history, one by one, because like, it has been so much... anything that has an impact, it goes around the world, because it's interesting news. But if somebody says it didn't happen, the news won't go around, because it's not shocking. Most people look at the news like entertainment, so if it don't have that shocking news, it don't go around. So maybe if somebody from, I don't know, like China or Korea, they come up and start saying like, ‘Japan did this,' and if that news is shocking, people will be like, ‘Oh my god, Japan did that?!” But if you come up with that like, correct history, and [you show that] that didn't happen, that news don't go around.
Where to begin... Most generally, Zeebra here seems to be referring -- indirectly, but quite clearly -- to a body of Japanese ultranationalist thought that seeks to minimize and undermine Japanese war crimes during World War II. I referred in my earlier review to the work of Kobayashi Yoshinori, a hugely successful author of right-wing manga, who has produced maybe the most internationally notorious example of just the sort of effort to ‘correct' history that Zeebra is supporting here. Through an elaborate and ultimately specious argument about inconsistencies in the dates and place names attributed to certain photos of the Rape of Nanking, when the Japanese Imperial Army killed something like a quarter-million Chinese in a few months of unrestrained pillage, Yoshinori attempts to cast doubt on the event itself. He argues, in essence, that photographs of piles of dismembered human corpses can't be pinned on Japanese invasion forces because they don't seem to have been taken in the part of Nanking they're labeled as coming from.
The thrust of these comments is controversial. But the fact that Zeebra expresses his position by comparing Chinese and Korean efforts to highlight Japanese war crimes to car insurance fraud should be profoundly offensive to all Koreans and Chinese -- to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Zainichi Korean-Japanese who remain second-class citizens in Japan, after being relocated there under the country's wartime forced-labor program. It's like explaining American slavery or the Holocaust through some elaborate analogy to food poisoning, as if these were just accidents of negligence -- and then accusing the victims of trying to take excess advantage of them. In America, we call people with equivalent ideas and rhetoric Holocaust Deniers, and the vast majority of us laugh at them. In Europe, their speech is banned outright.
I don't want to denigrate the need to be proud of yourself, or even of your country. Zeebra helped me understand a bit better the depth of the inferiority complex Japanese youth were mired in until very recently. “They didn't have shit. They just listen to U.S. music like it's some kind of God or something... they love outside the country. They love America, they love Europe... That's why we [Japanese] have to come up with the most updated hip-hop, image, and fashion and stuff – to make sure, to just have the feeling that we're not late.” “I'm trying to give them a dream,” he says, a symbol that Japan can compete on the world stage – a rapper to match the baseball and soccer teams that he also cites as recent sources of morale-boosting for Japanese youth.
Undeniably, much of this desire to be anything but Japanese has to do with the lingering taint of Japan's imperialist war. But is trying to suppress and deny the events of history the best way to work towards boosting the self-confidence of a nation? I can't necessarily understand the conflicted relationship Japanese people have to their nationality and history. But I can speak as someone who loves his own country – not in ignorance of the atrocities that have been committed in its name, but exactly because we have undertaken the hard work of confronting those dark moments. All white Americans must, even today, share in some guilt or responsibility for the crimes of slavery and genocide our nation is founded on. And as if George W. Bush just wanted to provide the dark obverse of the equality brought by the civil rights movement, in Iraq he has given us a national crime for which the blame lies with all Americans, regardless of color.
These were not errors or accidents. They were fueled by malice, greed, ignorance, inhumanity, and cowardice, undertaken or abetted by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents – and ourselves. Major contingents of our society would rather not consider the uncomfortable fact that much of our current prosperity is based on just such crimes – but just as many people, and perhaps more, are willing to face the bleak truth about our past, and try to learn from it. Moreover, many Americans have chosen to take responsibility for correcting those crimes – not by trying to write them out of history, but by correcting their consequences in the present day. It is this very acceptance of responsibility that allows America as a nation to progress -- and, especially lately, it is a major source of our own pride. Hell, hip-hop itself wouldn't be possible if we hadn't confronted and tried (and tried and tried) to reconcile with the single grimmest episode in our history. To the extent that this effort has succeeded in America, it has been against the resistance of people who, much like Zeebra, would have preferred to sweep history under the rug.
These divergent approaches to history were, interestingly, reflected in the responses of Zeebra and his crew to my initial attack. Zeebra's American producer – the guy who first saw the review – took the whole thing with good humor, even though I reserved some of my most vicious punchlines for my evaluation of his beats. Zeebra's manager, by contrast, was openly hostile, suggesting that I needed to be more “honorable” and making not-so-vaguely threatening comments in Japanese (which he apparently forgot I understand). Zeebra himself came off as deeply confused, as if hardly able to believe that anyone could dislike his music or disagree with his positions. These are just men, of course, individuals with their own individual makeup. But it's hard not to see in them the contrast between the American tendency to open, direct argument, even between people who profoundly disagree, and the frequent attempts by Japanese conservatives to shut down arguments by claiming that a topic is too disruptive or difficult. To be “honorable” is to keep contrary opinions to yourself, and failure to do so isn't the start of a discussion -- it's a profound existential disturbance.
Such appeals to harmony have frequently been used to forestall discussion of war responsibility, but neither Zeebra nor anyone else are doing Japan any favors by trying to ‘correct' history. Trying to argue, even in some limited and roundabout way, that the crimes of the past aren't as bad as they seem won't help Japanese people regain their national pride – it just keeps them mired in an alienating cycle of self-hatred. Denial, whether of drug addiction, spousal abuse, or historical crimes, doesn't solve problems, it only buries them, giving them a secret hiding place from which they can continue to haunt the present. The most concrete consequence of this for Japan has been the enduring enmity of its Asian neighbors. Compare this with Germany, where, despite inevitable lingering shadows, a resolute demonstration of the desire to reconcile with the past has allowed a much greater reintegration with Europe. Imagine the world's shock if Angela Merkel went to pay tribute to the grave of Joseph Goebbels – essentially what happened in Japan in 2006 with Junichiro Koizumi's infamous visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
Though Koizumi's visit was greeted with outrage, it was at the same time totally unsurprising, just another pathetic episode in the persistent undermining of the Japanese people's self-respect by war denial. Most Japanese don't support this sort of heinous symbolism – Koizumi is part of the ruling conservative LDP, a political party whose history and structure leaves it deeply implicated in past crimes and unwilling to come clean. For example, current LDP Prime Minister Taro Aso's family fortune is founded on war-era Korean slave labor, a fact about which he has refused to even comment. All of this is infinitely frustrating to progressive Japanese – including many of the hip-hop artists I've profiled in Japan The Beats. Average citizens, less likely to delve deeply into these issues, are even worse off, left with a national identity they would like to be proud of, but which remains tainted thanks to the very nationalists who claim to want to restore it. The LDP's disgusting antics couldn't have continued so long without the help of nationalist's cleverly evasive rhetoric, which provides at least some narrow justification for average Japanese people's suppression of their own desire to face up to the past.
In an indirect but deep way, Zeebra's attitude toward hip-hop is fundamentally similar to his take on Japanese national identity. His emphasis on the ‘correct' history, in which the inconvenient truths of the past are downplayed, aims to find a “Japan” that can be held up as an uncomplicated and wholly admirable construction, something that can be respected uncritically. Similarly, he unapologetically emphasizes the importance of doing hip-hop correctly, based on a model that's “not different.” It seems that for him, both hip-hop and Japaneseness exist in the form of Platonic ideals on some different plane, and we can and must continue to strive for a close approximation of their infallible, perfect forms.
But that's not how music, history, or identity work – all are a matter of imperfection, accident, and constant change. Sumo isn't sumo because you wear the mawashi belt, but because you struggle in the ring to come up with ways to defeat your opponent. You're not making hip-hop when you repeat the catchphrases of some guys in America; you're making hip-hop when you work within a tradition that you understand well enough to be willing to change, something that every truly great hip-hop artist, including Jay-Z, has done. And you're not Japanese, or American, or British because you were born on some particular piece of dirt and loudly proclaim that your people and government are innocent of all error. There's hardly a blameless person in this world, and attempts to scrub history clean only dirty our very idea of innocence. Instead, our real best shot at belonging to our own nations in a way we can legitimately be proud of is to do the difficult work of making it a brighter place in the present and future – and before we can do that, we have to honestly confront the shadows of our past.
[Note: This entry was written prior to the recent elections, which removed the Liberal Democratic Party from power.]