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Reggae/dancehall popularity in Japan rooted in similarity

Published:Tuesday | July 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Dr Noriko Manabe, assistant professor of musicology at Princeton University, during last Tuesday's public lecture 'Locating the Japanese and the Jamaican in Japanese Reggae/Dancehall', held at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus. - Photo by Mel Cooke

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The immense popularity of the now defunct Japansplash, consistent tours by a number of performers (including Voicemail) and specifically Japanese releases by the other prominent dancehall all-male group TOK, are evidence of reggae and dancehall's good standing in Japan.

Deejay Rankin' Taxi, sound system Mighty Crown (dubbed 'The Far East Rulers') and Dancehall Queen Junko are familiar to many Jamaicans attuned to popular Jamaican music culture, showing that some Japanese have learnt the genre very well.

Last Tuesday, Dr Noriko Manabe, assistant professor of musicology at Princeton University, explained cultural similarities which have led to the two-way flow in a public lecture, 'Locating the Japanese and the Jamaican in Japanese Reggae/Dancehall'. It was held at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus.

Manabe moved through the chronology of reggae/dancehall impact on Japan, starting in the early 1970s with the movie Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, The Wailers album Catch a Fire and The Clash's London Calling album. The Japanese reggae decade closed with Bob Marley's 1979 concert, then the 1980s saw the Japanese adaptation - the opening of the reggae kissotem Black Hawk, a reggae magazine in 1981 and a record label in 1985. All that led to the Japansplash, which peaked in 1997 with an attendance of 50,000 persons in Tokyo.

Then there were the Japanese performers who came to Jamaica, Naki staying with Sugar Minott in 1984 and Rankin Taxi visiting in 1983.

Manabe noted that most of the Japanese reggae/dancehall performers are not from Tokyo and explained that there are aspects of Jamaican culture which resemble regional/rural Japanese culture. Among those are humour and warmth, directness and unpretentiousness. Even 'Jah', the invocation of deity in Jamaica, has a phonetic equivalent in Japan, though the meanings are entirely different. Manabe played the 2008 Jah Jah by Papa U-Gee to illustrate.

Further, many of the Japanese reggae/dancehall standouts are from minorities in Japan. The brothers who run Mighty Crown have Chinese heritage, performer Pushim Korean. Minorities face discrimination in Japan and Manabe quoted Mighty Crown's Master Simon, responding to questions about minorities, saying, "I see it as a sign that race and ethnicity do not really matter in reggae." Manabe speculated if the minority experience causes those performers to gravitate towards reggae, rather than that of the hegemonic culture.

Melodious languages

She also explored the similarities between Jamaican patois and Japanese, both melodious languages and patois' grammar, she said, is more reminiscent of Japanese than English.

However, Japanese have 'lighter', higher voices than Jamaicans. Manabe explained that these characteristics are associated with high class in Japan. The Japanese deejays, therefore, try to make their voices coarser. Japanese songs' topics are typically partying, dancing, romancing and summer fun, with sex, guns and urban crime getting much less attention.

Manabe also spoke to attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan, where sexuality is thought of in terms of pleasure and not morality. The taboo is against violent sex, not necessarily homosexuality. "A minority of artistes make homophobic comments in performance. Some artistes openly disagree with such commentary ... Most Japanese fans object to gay bashing," Manabe said.