I remember the first time I saw a Japanese dancehall queen. Her name Junko Kudo and she was crowned Dancehall Queen in 2002. She was the first non-Jamaican to beat out locals for the coveted title and went on to solidify herself in dancehall history. I was impressed at Junko’s mastery of dancehall moves. Her butterfly was flawless and her head top winding was nothing short of acrobatic. I wondered if she won the title because Jamaicans wanted to show their appreciation for her taking the time to learn our culture. To some extent, that is the question that permeates the strong influence that Jamaican reggae and dancehall culture has had on Japan.
It is now a common sight to see a contingency of Japanese tourists at inner city street dances copying the latest dancehall moves from their tutors. Is it exploitation or appreciation?
Choreographer, Latonya Styles said in television interview, “The people who come here to learn dancehall don’t do it for hobby purposes. They do it as a career. They go back [to their countries] and they teach classes that people pay for, they become celebrities and they get booked for shows.”
To date, Japan has over three hundred sound systems. The heavyweight among them is the award -winning Mighty Crown. Mighty Crown was formed in 1991. Decades, later they are still the sound to beat on the World Clash stage. They have an enviable repertoire of dubplates, which are customized dis songs against other sound systems. They know how to get the crowds to sing along and their mastery of the Jamaican language is impressive.
In 2012 Mighty Crown had their own custom sneaker lines with Nike and New Era, the only reggae sound system to achieve this to date. Clearly, the business benefits of owning a reggae sound system can be lucrative, but, ironically the local Jamaican systems which Might Crown mimics, haven’t been able to achieve this success.
Japan’s obsession with reggae music dates back to the 1970’s when Bob Marley held a series of concerts there. Author and music journalist, David Katz contends that screenings of reggae movie cult hits The Harder They Come and Rockers helped to spark real interest. In 1985, Reggae Japan Splash was founded and some of the biggest names in the genre hit the festival stage performing for tens of thousands of people.
“Japan is a beguiling place in many ways, and although it may seem contradictory that reggae would be so highly embraced in a nation with so few Black people, Japanese devotees obviously take reggae very seriously—perhaps more seriously than any other non-Jamaican audience on earth.” Katz writes in www.factmag.com
Japan has a growing number of reggae clubs, with the largest concentration in Tokyo.
Travel journalist and Travel Channel host, Oneika Raymond recounts her first experience at the Garam reggae club in Tokyo on her blog. Raymond and her Black friend were treated with a mix of curiosity and reverence. “I loved it. It was very cool and funny to see Jamaican culture and music be adopted in such a way. It was also funny to be sized up and subsequently ‘revered’ by these Japanese culture adopters,” she told Griots Republic.
To use Raymond’s term, the Japanese culture adopters come to Jamaica and immerse themselves into the culture. Many speak little or no English but can communicate in Jamaican what they learn from songs. They stay for a few months and find lodging in the inner city. This makes perfect sense because the music that they idolize was born in the bowels of the ghetto. Reggae and dancehall aren’t the music of upper-class Jamaica. In fact, there is a history of post-colonial repression of Jamaica’s indigenous music that still exists today. References to sleeping on floors, cooking on coal stoves and eating boiled dumpling and curry chicken back are lyrics taken from real life experiences of Jamaican artistes. The Japanese who visit Jamaica actively seek out these experiences. They want to live inside the music.
Jamaica’s diverse music and culture has taken a firm grip in Japan and shows no sign of slowing down. Japan is still one of the biggest consumers of reggae music worldwide.