Japanese hip-hop is a relatively new phenomenon and it’s history is short compared to hip-hop in the west. In fact, most people in the west have never heard of japanese hip-hop and if asked whether this genre is popular there are likely to say “no”. But it exists and has a loyal following. The success of this genre in Japan was by no means overnight, and quite a few obstacles were in the way of japanese artists looking to explore hip-hop.
Hip-hop entered the Japanese radar in the mid 1980’s. Initially it wasn’t the music that peaked the interests of some japanese youth. 80’s hip-hop came with a very distinctive presentation and visual presence. It was defined not only by the music but also the style of clothing and the whole culture of breakdancing, which was stereotypically portrayed as happening on a piece of cardboard somewhere in an abandoned industrial area with a couple of guys battling it out as the group watches. The hip-hop fashion caught on first, perhaps because it did not demand the music and the breakdancing to come along. The average japanese person had no understanding of the context, while in the west the style had a specific identity. Break dancing came after, with early enthusiasts exploring the discipline with some level of organised attention. But even then the music was secondary.
It was around the mid 1990’s where the music was really beginning to penetrate the market. American rappers and hip-hop artists began touring Japan after discovering a bit of a following there. This fueled the desire for aspiring japanese artists to create their own hip-hop. Clubs began to fill up with hip-hop more and more, at which point the large music label executives in Japan realised the commercial viability of the genre. But it was not that simple. With the style of music the Japanese adopted some of the themes that hip-hop explored, which were oftentimes political and critical of the establishment. The youth in Japan found plenty to criticize about the Japanese government at the time. Much of it was with how the government gradually re-writes history in the history books to downplay Japan’s role and crimes during WWII. Large label execs wanted their product to be more politically neutral and milder than the underground stuff, because they feared to get on the government’s bad side and lose their business.
When the 21st century rolled up, hip-hop was spreading into other media, such as films and videogames. It was then when artists such as Dj Krush and Nujabes began making names for themselves and began to develop a Japanese hip-hop identity rather than an emulation of the western style. Mimicking the west proved difficult due to a clash in intellectual property laws that governed the sampling of tracks. Major japanese music labels didn’t quite know how to navigate these legal waters, and just stayed away from artists who sampled western tracks. Today the scene is much more relaxed, and Japanese hip-hop is alive and well, but it has a more melodic element to it, with much less focus on the lyrical side.