Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Japan is currently undergoing a subtle but pervasive social upheaval, a period of broad structural reform and soul-searching triggered by the rigors of the collapse of the hyperinflated "Bubble Economy" of the late 1980s. As the nation confronts the irretrievable loss of that economic mass delusion, it is turning instead to the reclamation of a quality of life sacrificed for much of the 20th century to national ambition for first military, and then economic pre-eminence. Historian Jeff Kingston has claimed that the ongoing changes, ranging from the reduction of working hours to the institution of freedom of information laws, have been equal in magnitude to those following the Meiji Restoration and Japan's defeat in World War II. Arguably, they represent the long-delayed fruition of postwar democratizing reforms.
This dissertation examines the role of American popular music, and particularly hip hop, in reflecting and shaping these changes. Starting with the 1920s and 1930s, when jazz-loving "modern girls" stood for the alluring and threatening decadence of urbanization, the influence of American music on Japan has been strong for decades. This influence came to full flower during and after Japan's surrender and subsequent occupation, as exemplified by successive trends for everything from rockabilly to country and western to folk. Though obviously the condition of occupation enhanced the exchange of musical texts, and did exercise particularly economic pressure on Japanese musicians to adopt American styles, it is not simply a case of cultural adaptation motivated by domination of force. The central testament to this is the eventual role African-American music - not just jazz, but rock, funk, and soul - took on as the 'music of resistance,' initially in connection with the student protests that marked Japan in the 1960's. Such an articulation shows the powerful role of Japanese desire, particularly on the part of youth, for the America represented by popular music.
Most recently, hip hop has shown the continued attraction African-American music holds for Japanese people, and youth in particular. Hip hop reached Japan in the early 1980s and entered the mainstream with East End X Yuri's million-selling pop-rap singles of the mid-1990s. Its prominence continues to this day, in many cases embodied in Japanese artists who imitate African-American styles and sounds wholesale. Such imitation has been roundly criticized by international critics and commentators, condemned as contextless cultural theft and a testament to Japanese insensitivity on matters of race.
In my study I examine a cadre of contemporary musicians who, while equally dedicated to hip hop, firmly resist such uncritical imitation of blackness, instead emphasizing their own unique musical and cultural innovations. I argue that this transition from imitation to innovation mirrors a broader cultural shift away from widespread deference to authority and towards a greater openness to innovation and change, and is just one way that the work of Japan's underground hip hop artists resonates with the ongoing 'quiet revolution.' Hip hop has encountered a few particularly important ongoing social changes: that from a lifetime employment system to one increasingly characterized by temporary and part-time labor; from a self-declared homogenous society to a multicultural one; and, more generally, from one defined by elite emphasis on social compliance and loyalty to a wider acceptance of iconoclasm and individuality. It is tempting to classify this as the transition from an 'oppressive' system to a 'free' one - from bad to good. But there are complexities and ambivalence inherent in the emergent situation. For example, while the new employment model provides much greater flexibility for individuals and frees them from the past tyranny of the corporate system, it also exposes them to much greater financial uncertainty. The rising sense of self-worth among minorities, for which hip hop is an important channel, simultaneously threatens to transform these identities into objectified fetishes. Individuality is not without its costs. Meanwhile, hip hop is also being deployed in ways that reinforce the old model of deference and authoritarianism, particularly by artists who promote revisionist histories and the revival of militarism.
The significance of hip hop for social change derives from a long history of interaction between Japanese and African-American culture. This history resurfaces in hip hop recordings, as well as in the lifestyle of urban musicians and fans. This dissertation follows the daily lives and viewpoints of hip hop artists in Tokyo and throughout Japan, from some of its most successful to those just starting their careers. It tracks their music-making processes and their practices of cultural adaptation, and places them within the larger context of Japanese society. It ultimately describes how an art form derided as imitative and derivative has come to reflect the very unique contours of the new soil to which it has been transplanted.
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Copyright 2010 David Z Morris
Morris, David Z.. "Minzoku madness: hip hop and Japanese national subjectivity." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2010.