Hip Hop in Japan

Hip Hop introduction

Let’s start with the basis.
You heard about hip hop and rap, two names that seem to be the same but aren’t. They actually have very much in common and it’s no coincidence. Krs-one, one of the most famous hip hop pioneer (and probably the most quoted emcee* when it’s about hip hop history by the way), said in the early 90’s (1993 to be exact) “Rap is something you do, Hip Hop is something you live”. Indeed, hip hop is a movement, and even more it’s a culture that includes five main disciplines, including rap.

Since its creation in the US at the end of the 20th century (DJ Kool Herc and Coke la Rock, 1973), hip hop has expanded on every continent. Then the movement has tailored to fit different cultures and languages, and quickly became a source of inspiration to different cultural and artistic fields.


When hip hop started 

If you feel that you want to know more about hip hop, I recommend that you read that “exhaustive, indispensable and completely irreverent bible of true hip hip knowledge” (careful, comprehensive book, editor’s note) :
Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists
Regarding hip hop history, here’s another reference book :
The Vibe History of Hip Hop

Hip hop in Japan

Hip hop culture grew in Japan in the early 80’s.


Hiroshi Fujiwara in his young days

From this time until the early 90’s, hip hop wasn’t really broadcast over the country. It will be progressively introduced around the mid’ 90’s. Pioneers such as Toshio Nakanishi (aka Tycoon To$h) or Hiroshi Fujiwara – to name but a few – contributed to highlight the culture in Japan. H.Fujiwara brought it to Japan from the vinyl collection he made up during his journeys in NY in the early 80’s, and became one the first hip hop DJ in the country.

Moreover, Wild Style VHS film’s release in 1983 made an important contribution to the popularization of the hip hop culture over Nippon archipelago

Grand master Flash’s Kitchen Scene (from Wild Style)

Hip hop first found its place in Tokyo mostly through breakdancing. Dancing was a good way for young Japanese to express their own vision of hip hop and get round the language barrier created by rap. Then DJing, and later rap started to grow. The first Japanese emcees drew their inspiration from the performances of American hip hop pioneers. They incorporated their language into rap music, and told the living conditions of Japanese youth in their lyrics.

DJ A-OP’s routine for Tokyo Dancers B-Rock Crew (1989)

But don’t be mistaken, it doesn’t mean that Japanese emcees merely copied what emcees were doing across the Pacific, nor that hip hop in Japan formed a bond to Americanization. However emcees and producers found their inspiration from American hip hop, musically, mostly their lyrics more often leaned towards societal issues in relation to Japan (future of Japanese youth, racism, salary man blues, consequences of WW2, the place of Japan by comparison with the rest of the world etc.), but also street life, hip hop, musical influences, ego trip… and many other topics. Then, behavioral and appearance mimicry is another debate.

Conscious Japanese hip hop from the 90’s era (Shing02 & Yakkle)

Japanese party hip hop from the 90’s era (Rhymester)

However, this should be put into perspective, considering that at this time although the musical genre was booming, the hip hop movement remained quite undisclosed and struggled to find its place within the national cultural landscape. Underground hip hop stays in the background while the occasional blockbusters sounded more of J-pop and commercial music lyrically. From that moment on the distinction between independent hip hop and commercial hip hop became increasingly accurate.

Commercial Japanese hip hop from the 90’s (Dassen3)

Non commercial Japanese hip hop from the 90’s (Lamp Eye)


Since this time (90’s era), the Japanese hip hop sphere widely evolved and gradually became more and more luxuriant, rich by the diversity of its talented emcees and producers of all ages, who became popular and influent over the international scene.

To be continued…

*emcee : Derived from the original abbreviation “MC,” now used as the generic term for anyone who speaks over a beat, or performs songs that could be termed “hip-hop.”
– Cover photo of this article: DJ Mitsu the Beats, Hunger, and DJ Mu-R. Former members of hip hop group Gagle from Sendai, Japan.

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