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Yellow B-Boys, Black Culture, and Hip-Hop in Japan: Toward a Transnational Cultural Politics of Race
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My name is Yellow B-Boy      ore no namae wa kiiroi B-Boy
I'm all that, and number one      hanpa naku, number one

—Rhymester, "B-Boyism"

A Japanese rapper who calls himself Banana Ice released a song in 1995 called "Imitation + Imitation = Imitation," in which he ridicules young hip-hop fans who darken their skin as a sign of respect toward African American musicians. "Your parents, your grandparents are Japanese," he raps. "You can never be the black person you want to be." Although the percentage of Japanese rappers, break-dancers, and hip-hop fans who tan their skin or wear dreadlocks is quite small, such body practices symbolize a dubious two-sidedness to the uses of hip-hop in Japan. Kreva, of the group Kick the Can Crew, put it succinctly when he explained of the dreads he wore: "First, it's meant as a sign of respect towards black culture, but secondly, I want to stand out [medachitai]" (personal communication, 1997). Banana Ice, rapping more generally about skin-darkened hip-hop fans, sees above all the mark of conspicuous, mercurial consumption:

in summer, black at the beach      natsu wa umi de kuroku
in winter, black on the ski slopes      fuyu wa yama de kuroku
with free time, going to tan salons      hima arya hiyake saron itte
skin always black      itsu mo hada wa kuroku
take a half day to get dreadlocks      hannichi kakatte kamigata doreddo
then give it up to be a skinhead      yamete yoshite sukinheddo

(Shitamachi Kyôdai [1995] "Mane + Mane = Mane," Pony Canyon, PCCA-0084)

The spectacle of young Japanese spending lavishly on "dread hair" and tanning salons is perhaps the most striking expression of hip-hop devotion in Japan, and for critics both in the United States and in Japan it symbolizes a misappropriation and misunderstanding of black music, culture, and style. Yet regardless of whether overseas hip-hop is seen as superficial imitation or conscientious respect (or some of both), hip-hop is taking root in a substantial way in Japan as in many parts of the world. Not only are non-American rap groups gaining success in their national markets, hip-hop's influence is becoming increasingly widespread in the aesthetics of musical production, lyrical skill, fashion, dance styles, and graffiti art, in addition to influencing ideas of beauty in hair and skin. In urban centers throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, Australia, and beyond, hip-hop is performed in clubs and on the streets, prompting some artists and fans to proclaim the emergence of a "global hip-hop nation." But as hip-hop goes global, what happens to the cultural politics of race inherent in American hip-hop?

This essay explores the evolving role of hip-hop in Japanese youth culture to consider how the music, and especially the messages, of the rappers relate to questions of race. Some might wonder whether "race" is a useful lens for viewing hip-hop in Japan since, compared to the United States, Japan is fairly racially homogeneous, and because the Japanese rely on somewhat different notions of race, for example in considering themselves to be from a "single ethnicity" (tan'itsu minzoku) while tending to use the term race (jinshu) to describe white/black relations. But it is precisely such differences in setting and contrasting understandings of race that provide an analytical frame for thinking about the racial politics of global popular culture. In this essay, I discuss some of the limitations of viewing Japanese rap music from a hip-hop studies perspective (i.e., as emerging from black culture) and from a Japan studies perspective (i.e., as emerging from Japanese culture), and instead I propose considering how Japanese hip-hop contributes to a transnational cultural politics of race. In particular, I would argue that the projects of Japanese hip-hoppers can be usefully viewed in terms of what Cornel West calls a "new cultural politics of difference," which among other things rejects racial or ethnic essentialism in favor of a more complex understanding of how identity is constructed and enacted in diverse ways. A traditional kind of cultural politics, for example, might use positive portrayals of the black community to counteract negative...

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