Skip Navigation
Rapping About WarPhoto of Japanese hip hop group Rhymester, featured on the cover of Ian Condry's new book, Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization

Rapping About War

MIT anthropologist Ian Condry discusses the history of Japanese hip hop and Japanese rappers' commentary on the Iraq war and 9/11.

By Vincent Lim
Staff Writer

Most of the people I met in 1995 said, "Is there such a thing? I had no idea...You shouldn't study it because it's going to disappear in a couple years."

While living in Tokyo in 1994, Ian Condry found the topic for his dissertation by listening to rap music.

"I heard some Japanese rap albums, and I thought, what an interesting and strange perspective these rappers had on the country—a perspective that I really hadn't read in all the Japan studies I had been reading," said Condry at a June 6, 2007, lecture at UCLA. A cultural anthropologist and associate professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Condry discussed his new book Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, which explores language, performance, and politics in Japanese rap, and played audio and video clips for an audience of scholars, students, and hip hop fans. The lecture was sponsored by the UCLA Anthropology Department's Discourse Lab and the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

Condry, a fan of hip hop music since his undergraduate days at Harvard University, began studying Japanese hip hop in 1994 and did fieldwork in Tokyo nightclubs and recording studios for 18 months from 1995 to 1997. Although the early hits of American hip hop artists like the Sugar Hill Gang were already playing in Tokyo discos, Condry said, Japanese hip hop began in late 1983 when youths started breakdancing in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, where street musicians gathered every Sunday to perform. By the mid-1980s, deejays were performing behind breakdancers in the park and on the radio. In 1986, the first hip hop club opened in the Shibuya section of Tokyo, but few people then or even a decade later expected Japanese rap to grow into a larger phenomenon.

"One of the things that really struck me is that when I asked Japanese and said I was interested in Japanese rap music and wanted to study it, most of the people I met in 1995 said, 'Is there such a thing? I had no idea…You shouldn't study it because it's going to disappear in a couple years,'" Condry said. "That turned out to be dead wrong."

What's more, many in the music world believed that the Japanese language did not lend itself to rhythm and flow. Japanese lacks stress accents, and sentences end with one of a small selection of verb endings. However, Japanese rappers' experiments with cadence and rhyme quickly overcame the perceived limitations. By the early 1990s, new names in Japanese hip hop were emerging, and the scene has "just exploded in the years since" Condry finished his fieldwork, he said.

Politics of Rap

Japanese hip hop groups such as Rhymester tackle issues that are not openly addressed in society. Condry interviewed Rhymester member Utamaru, who talked about the motives for Japanese government support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Utamaru told Condry that he believes the government is always quick to support the United States in the expectation that it will be rewarded economically.

Condry acknowledged that not all Japanese rappers concern themselves with political issues, but he said that sweeping complaints about the commercialization of the music are not entirely justified, either. As an example of a Japanese rap performance that critiques the U.S. "war on terror," Condry played a clip of King Giddra's music video for the song "911," with his own English subtitles added.

そんなメディア戦略ゆらぐ善悪

うかぶ幻想は過去に落ちた原爆

the media’s strategy: push good and evil

and I see an atom bomb that fell in the past

夢に見た新世紀しかし

愚かな間違いくり返しゃ全員心停止

I dreamed a new century

but everyone dies if this stupidity goes on

* * *
* * *

いわゆる同時発テロ グラウンドゼロ

顔のない訴えは (パレスチナ) 出ろ

“multiple acts of terror,” ground zero

faceless appeals of the Palestinians will come

* * *
* * *

文明と正義、偽善、ごちゃまぜ

アフガン難民に吹く冷たい風

civilization and justice, mixed with hypocricy

as a cold wind blows on Afgan refugees

犠牲はいつも市民の方へ来る

今夜もブッシュはベッドで眠る

it’s always civilians who are sacrificed

even so Bush sleeps in his bed tonight

"Rap music is an important place where alternative voices are heard, and there are rappers in Japan and in the U.S. that are talking about 9/11 and the war on terror," Condry said. "You got people like Libro in Japan and you got people like Dead Prez in the U.S. thinking about how they can...use their positions as performers, as entertainers, as media personalities themselves to try to bring new perspectives on what is happening in media and politics today."


Visit Ian Condry's website to find out more information about the history of Japanese hip hop.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies