The first mystery is why it became big in the first place. When listening to U.S. hip hop records, most Japanese listeners probably understand little of the rapid, slang-filled, rapped English words. They are missing out on a lot of the poetry of rap. Yet, in spite of this, the music inspired some guys enough to rap themselves, and to create a scene. Why was that? Was it just the sound, beat, attitude, fashion, etc.?
Then there's the question of what they want to achieve with the music. They need to rap in Japanese, because you can't handle rap's verbal, poetic acrobatics in any language other than your own. But that means most people abroad won't know what the Japanese words are about, and they won't listen, because, again, understanding the poetry is key. So, Japanese rappers won't ever really be able to go back to the U.S. artists that inspired them and pay homage by saying, listen, this rap was inspired by you.
Japanese hip hop artists are internationalists, in that they absorb music and fashion from all over the world. But they are domestically-oriented in that they can only hope to have Japanese audiences for their music (assuming there's rap involved, and it's not just DJ music).
Probably someone out there can explain these issues, though I assume the answers to what motivates these guys will be murky and complicated, as questions of motivations often are in Japan.
In any case, hip hop is big in Japan, as you see when walking through the streets of Shibuya and witness the unending stream of kids in over-sized, primary-colored tanktops, baseball caps, and sagging jeans. I've been wanting to check it out more, but haven't had much chance to, partly because the hip hop scene occupies a different part of Tokyo life than the rock and pop scene that I frequent. Hip hop events are at dance clubs and are all-night affairs, whereas the rock shows I go to are are live houses and end by around 10PM. (One time, however, I did go to an event that was billed as a female rap battle and was called Kokudo No Onnatachi—a pun on the movie series, Gokudo No Onnatachi, about the wives, Onnatachi, of the yakuza, a.k.a. Gokudo. 'Kokudo' was rendered as 'the way of the Black'. It didn't quite live up to my expectations, and I left after a couple of hours, because there was little rapping, and mostly DJing.)
I haven't been that into the J-hip-hop tunes I've listened to, but then, on a recent visit to Tower Record Shibuya, I ran into an album that excited me: it's by a one-guy unit called Lantern Parade, and is named Zessan Zessennchyu (translated to something like 'The Praiseworthy Battle of Tongues').
Lantern Parade isn't in the Japanese hip hop mainstream, and the music has an independent feel (and indeed, the album is released by Rose Records, Shimokitazawa luminary Keiichi Sokabe's label, rather than a hip hop label). The sound is different from 'normal' J-hip-hop's sampled R&B, reggae, etc.: there's some of that in Zessan, but the sound sources seem more eclectic (using acoustic guitar and strings, for example), and dark. And whereas the typical Japanese rapper imitates the delivery of his American counterparts, Lantern Parade's rapper doesn't so much rap as chant poetry without an excess of emotion. But what's really striking about Zessan are the lyrics—vivid, disturbing, nihilistic and, yet, at the same time, life-affirming (or, at least, life-exploring).
Here, for example, are some of the words to the song “Hana” ('Flower') [translated by me]:
People who come up to you at train stations and offer to tell your fortunes
People who get friends into network marketing schemes
People who cut off their arms and legs for fashion
People who drink golden 'holy water' with delight
School principals who give girls enemas
Ambulances that run over people
Yes, each of us is a single flower in the world
That last line is a reference to a saccharine but hugely popular pop song by the unavoidable SMAP. In Lantern Parade's case, however, the individuals who are extolled as flowers are involved in cults (the part about train stations is talking about the obsessed-eyed cultists who come up to you outside of big stations and offer to read your hand-fortunes) or have sociopathic fetishes.
In that first part of the song, Lantern Parade sounds cynical about optimists who paint the world in colors of goodness; but then in the second part, the lyrics turn more introspective, and the rapper sounds unsure about who he is and what he wants to do.
Not many can say, “I have nothing to lose”
I know I can't
He concludes this part of the song again with the declaration that each person is a flower, but this time the meaning changes: he seems to be saying there's beauty in the fact that we're uncertain beings, who might very well become degenerates rather than respected citizens.
And so go all 15 songs in Zessan, combining dark, dreamy, adventurous music tracks with the rapper's word-play, rhyme and vivid poetry that explores unlit corners of the psyche and society. It's an exhilarating ride, but, to return to the original topic, the words are in Japanese, so I'm not sure how much a non-speaker will get out of it. Another sad consequence of the destruction of the Tower of Babel...