For some it would come as a surprise to learn that Japan has a thriving reggae scene in its streets of Yokohama and Osaka. That surprise is steeped in a forgivable ignorance. The facts are however that Jamaica has a large Japanese population living and working there while in Japan they are keen on a bigger presence of Jamaicans in Japan. There seems on the surface a mutual love and respect.
When that mask of ignorance falls it is clear: music is a universal language. While the words maybe lost, the emotional spectrum of the song (and by proxy the writer or singer) will on a basic level be evident.
Here at #itchysilk we wanted to understand Reggae's genesis in Japan. More important, we wanted to understand how their Reggae scene has transitioned from a musical fad which emerged circa the 80's to a scene which has not only crossed over but has become popular.
Of course there have been other publications in the West who have discussed Reggae music and its popularity within Japan but it remains a field of interest that we wanted to explore. In our little expose we talk to 43-year old Ras Kanto a Japanese reggae artist. His journey has run parallel with the ascension of the scene. From time spent in Jamaica to pushing his own music in Japan with his new album Roots and Steppas (2018), Ras Kanto takes us on an intimate journey into the Japanese reggae culture. We learn in this journey that far from an inferior imitation, Japan's scene is alive and well with artist like Pushim and sound system names like the globally renowned Mighty Crown.
Can you break down the roots of Japan's interest in reggae and dancehall?
In the 80's when I was a kid we only knew about names like bob marley, Third World or Jimmy Cliff. They were the names who were being pushed in our records shops. Even then however it was still rare to see and hear reggae music. At the time there were fans of afro music, blues and funk who were checking out the Dancehall scene. In the 90's a cross-over of club scenes and culture began. Reggae became very popular when acts like Diana King, Big Mountain, Inner Circle and Shine Head had huge hits. Those bands really paved the way for many Jamaican artists and bands in our shores. These acts actually came for our big festivals like-Japan Splash and Sun Splash.
When you hear Japanese dancehall/reggae bands they sound exactly like Jamaican records.
But reggae's popularity in Japan did not explode?
Reggae and its popularity in Japan is very cyclical. So even though there were massive hits in the 90's, it was only in the noughties when reggae witnessed an explosion in its popularity in Japan. At that time many Japanese artists released albums on the major labels. There were lots of huge festivals and parties by Japanese artists started springing up and they were hot. There followed again this cooling off period as it were. Now we have gone full circle again and reggae is hot. Possibly this time it will stay hot as it has now become part of contemporary Japanese culture.
Why do you think that dancehall has gained such popularity in Japan and why does it continue to have such success?
Many times I have pondered over the love affair that we have with dancehall in Japan. I think while our cultures are different we also have a lot in common. Back when things were kicking off, many Japanese sound systems went to Jamaica. They learnt so much about dancehall and importantly brought that knowledge of the culture back to Japan. But even those who didn't go to Jamaica loved the culture. Those instead studied the culture because one thing that we love to do in Japan is study things until we know them inside and out.
When you hear Japanese dancehall/reggae bands they sound exactly like Jamaican records. In truth, there are lots of sound systems which carry better quality than Jamaica's sound systems. While most of the reggae music fans don't understand the lyrics of the dancehall music they learn the manners, ways and dances of Jamaican dancehall. The thing is the Japanese Reggae scene developed as an original culture so people support the scene.
When young people go out to the club, dancehall and Reggae is always played at the events.
How important was Mighty Crown in the popularity of Jamaican Dancehall and Reggae?
Mighty Crown changed the whole concept of the reggae scene in the world and in Japan. Before, Japan was just a good market for Reggae and Japanese were just big supporters of Reggae music. After Mighty Crown won the World Clash 1999 people in the world realised that Japan can play good reggae music. They also won the clash on Jam Rock Cruise 3 times and they are the defending champions. Two members of their sound play U.K. steppas style sound and release records in Europe as well. Mighty Crown broke down the barriers to Reggae/Dancehall and introduced the music and the culture to Japanese people. They did more than effect the scene they changed the whole scene in all of Japan.
Now it is normal within the younger generation of Japan. Even the Japanese pop artists have a few Reggae or Dancehall tracks on their song lists. When young people go out to the club, dancehall and Reggae is always played at the events.
Of course, we have to talk about sound systems. Japan now has more sound systems than Jamaica. How integral is it to the culture?
Many Japanese people learned how to build great sound systems. These guys however don't make the systems as part of a hustle. Many work other jobs and they make sound systems to bring to their parties so they can have fun. There are so many sound systems and sound crews but there are only a few sound guys making a living with their sound system business.
Can you talk about J-Reggae and explain its genesis and how it differs if it does?
Names like Rankin' Taxi started singing reggae in Japanese but you also had Nahki and an outfit called Mute Beat. It was the 90's however when the scene really took off. You had labels like Jap Jam and V.I.P. They released many 7inch records and had many domestic hit songs in the reggae scene. Recently the J-Reggae artists have been having hit songs on the Japanese top 100 but they only get support from typical J-Pop fans but the real reggae fans don't support nor listen to them. Those who go on the top 100 play music that is a mix of J-Reggae mixed with J-pop. Today the major J-Reggae and underground J-Reggae scene is totally different.
Lastly who are the names we should be looking out for?
There are many old and new artists pushing the scene now. Dancehall artists like; Fire Ball, mighty jam rock, rudebwoy face, Pushim, are constantly pushing the scene. What is important to the on-going power of the scene in Japan are the artists who have stepped outside of Japan. They are making a name for Japan's scene and a name for themselves as well. Triga Finga joined popcaan and had the hit song Big Yacht (2017) in Jamaica. Then you have the producer Gacha who dropped tracks for names like; Popcaan, Aidonia and mashika. Their songs have gone on to top the Jamaican 100.
On the Roots side or the Rock Steady Side, the band call Reggaelation Independence and matt Sound play real authentic Jamaican Reggae. On Bass music and dub side, we got Part 2 Style and Bim One Production. They toured Europe and they were successful over there. We also have Mighty Massa. He is the originator of the Dub and Steppas scene and he is quite famous in the Dub Steppas scene in Europe. And me Ras Kanto and Itak Shaggy Tojo is trying to represent Rasta Movement here in Japan
To an extent, the Reggae scene is going through a bit of a survival stage but there are so many good sound systems and artists all over Japan so when the time comes it will become popular again. In terms of the people who do not know about our scene. Check us out. You will find out that here in Japan we can play good Reggae music.
Featured image courtesy of Mighty Crown Entertainment.