Words by Kristal Roberts
When you think of patois-speaking people slow grinding or fast whining to dancehall grooves, you most likely picture Jamaica, but you may be surprised to learn you can find a similar scene in Japan.
While genres like J-pop and Visual Rock are extremely popular in Japan right now, the East Asian island nation has established a long, slow burning romance with Jamaica.
Japanese girls can now learn how to “wine” their waistlines like a Jamaican dancer by taking local dancehall classes or buying dancehall tutorial videos inspired by Junko. A Japanese dancer, Junko was the first non-Jamaican to enter Jamaica’s Dancehall Queen competition and win in 2002. (Check it out here, and warning, NSFW: )
There are avid Jamaican fans who follow the latest trends, from music to fashion, but Japan has developed a pseudo-Jamaican subculture that’s all its own.
There are at least 300 sound systems modeled after the original Jamaican sound systems, with DJ selectors and MCs piping out new, spirited tunes for an enchanted, “tun’ up” audience.
Visitors and locals alike can visit reggae spots like Love Jamaica in Kochi, showcase their dance moves at bashments, and create dancehall records—all inspired by Jamaicans—but in many cases, created independently.
To understand Japan’s affinity for dancehall, you have to trace it back to dancehall’s father, reggae.
Japan’s musical love affair with Jamaican music can be traced back to the 1970s.
Marvin Sterling, an Anthropology professor at Indiana University and author of Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan, knows a thing or two about the story of Japan’s cultural relationship with Jamaica. As he interviewed a number of Japanese people for his book about their interest in reggae music, he found a recurring theme. Many of them learned of reggae through the 1973 film, The Harder They Come, with Jimmy Cliff. The soundtrack included music for the Rastafarian characters that resonated with the Japanese. They were particularly partial to roots reggae and lover’s rock.
In an interview with Afro Pop, Sterling also explained that the social climate in Japan made way for the reggae music and message. “A lot of practitioners of reggae were hippies. In the 1960s, there was a counterculture movement in Japan, as was in the United States. They recognized the connection between reggae music and Rastafarian culture in terms of…this concern with nature, this protest against political oppression in its many forms,” Sterling said.
However, the biggest milestone credited with Jamaican music really making its mark on Japan was when reggae legend Bob Marley performed in Japan in 1979. In the late 80s and early 90s, as Jamaican reggae music artists rose to international fame, the Japanese following would also grow.
If you know where to go, it’d be rather easy to find a number of Japanese people who range from modest admirers of Jamaican culture to those who are fully immersed in what they’ve discovered to be the Jamaican experience—building massive record collections, dreading or braiding hair, embracing Rastafarianism and even eating ackee and saltfish, for those who take a pilgrimage of sorts to Jamaica.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is Itak Tojo, a Japanese-born musician who has fully embodied the reggae and Rastafarian lifestyle; walking the walk and talking the talk.
“[At 15 or 16] Mi used go to [the] used cloth shop, buy second hand clothes imported from U.S., and dem type a shop always play reggae music that time, 30 years ago…and mi loved those music—Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Yellowman…” he said.
He fell in love with the music for the rhythm, tempo, meditative sounds and the lyrics. He also loved the people. After meeting Rastafarian “bush” doctor Dr. Bagga, he also became intrigued with Rastafarianism and eventually went to live in Jamaica for six months. After studying the Rastafarian faith and authentic sound systems up close, he went back to Japan and continued his work as a musician and selector, while practicing Rastafarianism with fellow Japanese and Jamaican friends who embrace the faith.
Development of Japanese Artists
Japan’s own sound systems developed in the 1980s, and Japanese reggae leaders like Rankin Taxi and DJ Nahki began making reggae music that the Japanese embraced.
Almost 20 years later, a Japanese sound system by the name of Mighty Crown made a huge splash in the music scene when they won World Clash in 1999, a major sound system competition in Brooklyn.
(Watch them perform here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_8S8fG04xQ)
Much like Junko opened up a door for other aspiring Japanese dancehall queens, Mighty Crown’s win gave Japanese dancehall and reggae artists the confidence to attempt Jamaican music styles legitimately. Since then, they’ve been one of the leading music groups in Japanese dancehall.
Pushim is a female artist with a strong, soulful voice who made her first blip on the Japanese reggae music scene in 1997. To date, she’s released five albums and is a frequent headliner of reggae shows in Japan and her smooth, rock steady stylings are known to really move a crowd.
There are countless more acts who have made names for themselves in the dancehall and reggae genres, including Rankin Pumpkin, Rankin Taxi, MinMi, Fire Ball, Dozan 11, Home Grown Band, Shonan, No Kaze, Moomin, Munehiro, Fireball (whose compared to T.O.K) and the list goes on.
As the appetite of this music grew, so did the venues and shows for hosting these events.
In 1985, Japansplash, a music festival modeled after Jamaica’s Reggae Splash, was created.
This fest brought a wide range of artists to Japan, from Skatalites to Beenie Man, and it contributed to increasing awareness of the Jamaican music movement up until the 90s, then the event disappeared for a few years before reappearing again in 2010, and has since faded into oblivion.
While the Japansplash now appears to be defunct, events like the annual One Love Jamaica festival continue to draw crowds that are 40,000 strong. You can find a mix of people; from those casually taking in the experience, to dancehall queens and “rude boys” practicing their patois, with emphasis on phrases like “nuff” “ya dun know” and “respeck”. You may hear some Jamaican-style songs in both English and Japanese. Dancehall and reggae fans alike can enjoy Jamaican food, vibes and music from Jamaican artists and local Japanese artists who perform dancehall and reggae music. These acts are often referred to as Japa reggae artists.
However, you might find a lot less actual Jamaican artists at the Japanese events these days.
Some feel that the authenticity of the Jamaican experience in Japan stops short of involving actual Jamaicans, especially when it comes to opportunities where financial benefit is at play.
In fact, the following statement was published in a 2010 Time Out Tokyo article spotlighting the One Love Jamaica Festival in Japan: “[festival publicist Ryohei Kikuchi] who spent two years working in Jamaica– admits that while young Japanese may make pilgrimages to Jamaica’s roughest neighbourhoods just to learn the latest dances or how to master sound systems, in the end, most (but not all) of these intrepid souls end up creating reggae for other Japanese. Kikuchi even points out instances where profitable reggae ventures have been launched that exclude Jamaicans.”
In a documentary on YouTube, called “Asian Invasion of Dancehall: Cultural Exportation or Exploitation?”, Latonya Styles, a Jamaican dancer and choreographer, said that there are many Japanese people who aren’t visiting Jamaica as a hobby, but with business in mind. “They do it as a career; they do it as a job. So they go back [to Japan] and have dance classes that they teach, they go back as celebrity dancers so they get booked for shows, to do appearances in clubs and big stages with over 50,000 people,” she said. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABYA7J_Z7Pc
The film’s creator, journalist Kaneal Gayle explained that once the Japanese master the moves, they no longer need to hire actual Jamaicans for performances. The same can be said of the sound systems and reggae artists.
Styles says it’s also about access and the Japanese having what they need at home instead of going through the hassle and expense of flying in Jamaican acts and covering their fees.
A Jamaican artist who works in Japan, and wishes to remain anonymous, also alluded to the diminishing need for actual Jamaicans.
“What I can add is this…They want the product but don’t necessarily want the people that come with the product,” the artist said.
Blogger Marcus Bird of JamaicaninJapan.com lived in Japan for two years and worked as a teacher, as well as some work in photography and public relations. In an interview with us, he said it’s interesting that the Japanese have a fascination with reggae music, but so do many other countries around the world. In essence, the subculture is globalization in action.
“When culture spreads beyond your shores, once it’s gone, it’s out there.”
As far as reasons why fewer Jamaican artists are working in Japan, Bird learned from promoters that a couple instances of unprofessionalism, such as Jamaican artists getting paid and not showing up, could have also soured some relationships in the Japanese music scene.
“You have to be professional. Sometimes people bring you somewhere and if you’re not professional…[they don’t want to bring you again.] That was a problem for a while,” Bird said.
Making a Living
When it comes to money in general, identifying the financial benefits and the beneficiaries of Jamaican culture in Japan can be a bit difficult to pin down.
There are certainly outlier business opportunities that have formed as a result of the genre, such as dancehall classes, competitions, DJing, fashion-related stores and Caribbean-themed bars, for instance. Being Jamaican has such cache, it’s been rumored that people who aren’t necessarily Caribbean but Black, pretend to be Jamaican to get additional credibility.
While some artists appear to be largely successful, DJ/Selector Tojo points out that many of the Jamaican-inspired artists aren’t doing as well financially as they did once upon a time.
“Some of dem made quite good money…used to be like 10 years ago. But not now,” he said. “The Japareggae scene got smaller. It was very popular at one time among the young Japanese generation,” he explained, before comparing it to the fashion industry and the music falling in and out of vogue.
Tojo says very few of these artists are currently successful enough to make a living solely from their music. “Most of the artists [who] belong to Mighty Crown even have a next job. That is the reality,” Tojo said.
As of today, there may not be as much money as there once was in dancehall and reggae sound systems, but Tojo says the scene will remain. The music and culture provides different things for different people.
“Nuff people love Jamaican culture. For some of us, it’s a way of life,” Tojo said.
In other cases, it’s a hobby, or a fun form of expression.
“Some people just like the release of the dance. Some people love escaping from their lives and that’s what dancehall provides for a lot of them. Being more aggressive, more sexual, especially for women. It’s very empowering for some of them” Bird said.
Regardless of how the admiration for genre is expressed, it’s clear that Jamaica’s music has had an incredible impact spanning decades of influence on the East Asian island. It has spawned business, new music, and new awareness of a people half way around the world.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this Japanese subculture is one serious homage to Jamaicans. Nuff Respect!