A lot of people have been asking me what the deal is with Japanese hip-hop1 is, I’ve been sort of meaning to do this for a while, so let’s get into it – a proper (sort of) review/breakdown on a Japanese rap joint (ps – “Nihongo” = Japanese for “Japanese language”).
So let me make something clear upfront.
First off, after being here for over a year, I think I can say with confidence that a large portion of Japanese hip-hop is not very good2. I would actually go as far to say that a good portion of it is actually completely unlistenable, and that any non-native speaker of Japanese who claims to prefer Japanese rap over, say, its American counterpart is either very very familiar with the underground scene here, or lacks musical taste.2.5
This coming from someone who only has Japanese rap in his mp3 player.
Second, I should also say here if someone asked me who my favorite Japanese rapper was, at this point in time I’d have to say Seeda. It is also
an undisputable fact my opinion that his last album is a landmark record in Japanese rap history, is the best Japanese rap record out right now, and is going to be a major force in what happens over the next couple years in the scene. So if you want to call me biased, sure, I’m biased. But then again, I’m not really known for talking much on this site about things I don’t like.
Second point five, people who have been following the show might recognize the Seeda from the mildly infamous Niggas and Bitches episode (Seeda isn’t the rapper whose lyrics I took up, though – that was Oki). Yes, this is the dude who shared a mic with that rapper in the video. Possibly something to keep in mind as you read this.
Third, I’m going to try to avoid making really broad generalizations about Japanese society/politics – partially because such generalizations aren’t possible, and partially because if you wanna know more about society/politics, there are better places to learn about that than from me. As good as I am at hiding it, I actually don’t know anything about anything, and encourage you to do your own research.
So, on to the track itself. This one is called Dear Japan, by Seeda, produced by Bach Logic. I actually heard this maybe four or so months ago when Seeda put it up for a couple days on his myspace, and actually liked it enough to want to drop it on the show. Didn’t happen, obviously.
Okay, let’s get to the video already:
Seeda – Dear Japan (prod. Bach Logic)
The first thing that you will notice is that dude stares at the camera for like fifteen full seconds before he even says a word. If I may be permitted to say something here about dude （Seedaさん、気を悪くしないで下さいね）, dude kinda has a crazy look in his eye. And he continues to make really skurry faces at the camera for the whole video. So if that makes you uncomfortable, yeah.
Lyrical breakdown, background, and wild, baseless speculations after the jump.
The video itself – there’s not really much to say about it. It’s simple, but I sort of like it that way, because it actually really fits with what dude is talking about pretty well. There’s actually another “proper” video in the works (shouts to ham-R) for another joint off the same album, but I’m not sure when that’s gonna be ready.
But what I’d like to focus on today really is the track itself. Aside from having extremely dope production (Bach Logic = favorite Japanese producer right now), the lyrics are kina interesting. Let’s get into the first section. First section is Japanese, second is transliterated into roman letters, third is my translation.
kurabu no beef ha rap yori kenka [β]
rajio no beef ha rap yori otona?
Beef at the club more fighting than rapping
Beef on the radio is more “adultlike” than rapping
As you’ll probably notice in a second, stuff that sounds cool in Japanese doesn’t necessarily sound good in English. Also, there are limits to my Japanese ability (read: I suck), so if anyone fluent out there wants to contribute more fluent/accurate translations, or if I’m just totally off in my interpretation on something, please, hit the comments section and correct me.
So contextwise, this track was leaked immediately after the airing of the last episode of Verbal’s (of Teriyaki Boys) podcast featuring Seeda. As I mentioned in Episode 117, after Seeda dissed Verbal, Verbal turned around and invited him on as a guest on his talk show, saying that “Japanese people can’t understand the concept of ‘beef’, so we have to educate them“. Seeda accepted the invite, but was disappointed with the, how do you say – non-hip-hop-ness of how Verbal handled things, and said as much on the show. At the end of the special, which somebody converted and posted up on youtube, the two freestyle “battled”, which resulted in Verbal absolutely embarrassing himself. But more of that on another day.
Point is, the first part of this song comes off as Seeda being pissed off about Verbal’s sorta holier-than-thou attitude. But then all of a sudden the track turns into a pretty violent criticism of the government.
dokozo no kanryou seijikadomo
omae no musuko ga sawaretemo sou
sofa ni fukaku kosikaru omoi koshi
imaka imaka matihito ha tosioi
is this what you do when your children are abducted?
sitting there on the couch
the people who need your help are getting old waiting for you
Okay, yeah, that was a terrible translation. Here, he’s talking about the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens during the 70s and 80s (Japanese version here). I won’t go into detail here, but essentially the NK goverment abducted at least 16 Japanese citizens, some say for use in training spies. North Korea didn’t officially admit it until the early 2000s, and only actually allowed a few to return. I’m not up enough on the issue to say much more, but suffice to say that a lot of Japanese people are still really heated about the lack of pressure the Japanese government is putting on to get people back to their families and to the bottom of things, and the issue is still being debated.
What’s interesting here is that Japanese rap isn’t really known for being directly political. When something does get “conscious” (ps – hate that word) or “political”, out here, it’s usually sort of ambiguous on some “television is bad, society is troubled” kind of tip, and it’s rare to see someone actually point fingers or get in someone’s face. But let’s move on –
I wanna I wanna I need dat I need that I need that believe that
I wonna I need dat believe dat
osoi nantemono ha hitotu mo nai
tiri mo heraseba yama ha kieru right?
I wanna I wanna I need dat I need that I need that believe that
saibankan, kenji, keisatu mo guru
hontou no koto wo oshiete kure aight?
It’s not too late
If you take enough specks of dust away, even a mountain will disappear
I wanna I wanna I need dat I need that I need that believe that
The judges, the detectives, the police are all in it together
tell me what’s really going on, aight?
Healthy distrust of the police/justice system here. Nothing really surprising for a listener of American hip-hop here, but you don’t see much of this in Japanese rap.
Or, for example, this:
YES WE CANさ
mawari kudoi futoumei ya dakyou
ore ha burenai, fakku asou
umi no mukou wo omae ga mireba
fukeiki ga nanda
YES WE CANさ
Obama to danketu si mukau asita
onaji yume mireru sonna riidaa
You probably recognized at least one phrase in there. Here’s the translation:
beating around the bush, purposefully unclear statements and compromises
“I won’t budge” – Fuck (prime minister) Aso!
If you looked over across the ocean – what “financial slowdown”?
“Yes We Can”!
They can collaborate with Obama and face tomorrow
Someone who shares the same dreams as the people – that’s the kind of leader we want
This section is interesting on a couple of points. First off, Seeda gets on and says, in public, “fuck the prime minister“.
This is massive.
Whereas we probably all know at least a few kids for whom “Fuck Bush” was practically a greeting, saying things like that over here doesn’t fly.
Not that you’ll go to jail or anything, but had Seeda tried to release this on a major label, or even a large indie, it woulda been censored or he would have been forced to remove the line. And that’s even considering that the word “fuck” isn’t even banned on the air (it is, after all, a foreign word) – it’s not uncommon to see people flipping each other off in children’s cartoons. But directly pointing out a particular political leader is not done – not even in hip-hop3.5.
I’m sure someone will get on here and correct me, but I can’t think of a single incident in Japanese rap, period, that precedes this.
Second, dig the Obama reference, and the absolute trust put in what the dude is doing. Seeda’s basically saying he wishes he had somebody like Obama instead of Aso, and that Aso should start taking notes and quit lying to the people. Regardless of what your opinions are on either of the dudes, it stands to note here that, as I said, Japanese rap is simply not very political – at least not in the way that most from the US or the UK for example would consider “political” – and that the young generation showing anything other than absolute apathy towards society is kind of rare.
Immediately after the previously quoted line:
シャッタファッかアップ I got bored on both
are jimintou, kore syumintou
syattafakkappu I got bored on both
fakku rikku rosu nami ni feiku na bosu
kutisaki yarou ni sadameru suko-pu
LDP4 this, Democratic Party that
Shut the fuck up, I’m bored of hearing about that
Fuck this dude, fake as Rick Ross
I line up these liars in my scope
Scope, as in sniper scope.
One thing you might notice is the “I got bored on both” line. Seeda’s known for talking an awful lot of English in his tracks – which isn’t really an uncommon phenomenon. I’ll talk about that some other time though, but I’ll say for now that I find a lot of it weird.
And, for those familiar with Rick “I-rap-about-selling-large-amounts-of-coke-but-really-I-used-to-be-a-cop” Ross, the comparison of a political leader to a “fake” like that should probably come across pretty clearly. And the sniper scope metaphor. Anything that even suggests violence – even in the abstract – is not something to be aimed at government officials out here. Can’t stress that enough.
dou nanda? tte kiiten da tada
dou natta? tte kiiten da hara-
ore ga disuru yatu
ore ga disuru mono
ore ga disuru beef
heito dake ja nai
kyuujou wo suteru
iryou wo kaeru
rinri wo suteru
sutairu wo suteru
ore no yonda kyoukasyo gomi ni naru?
donna kijun de kokumin wo mamoru?
jibun no ko to omoenakya nani ga seijika
neuti mo nei gossippu seiji ga
ore ha iken wo koko ni sirusitai
What’s going on? I’m asking you
What happened? I’m just asking you, holla
The suckers I dis
The things I dis
The beef I dis 6
This isn’t just me hating
You throw away Article 9
You change Healthcare
You throw away your morals
You change the style*
What, is the textbook I read in school trash all of a sudden?
On what level are you protecting the people?
If you don’t think of the people as your children, what kind of politician are you?
Worthless-ass gossip government
I’m not trying to start anything
I want to scribe down my opinion here
And here, we actually get into some specific issues. Article 9 is basically the article of the Japanese constitution that prevents Japanese from ever having a military:
ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
So, essentially, “throwing away Article 9″ means building an armed force with the intention of starting a war. And in Japan, this is actually prohibited by the constitution7. The text books you get as a kid in Japan teach you that war is a horrible, terrible mistake, and that Japan is forever a pacificist country. Seeda is accusing the government of breaking this promise, and lying.
The healthcare thing – I can’t say too much about this, but apparently the government is attempting to raise the prices of healthcare dramatically – as in like a lot – and that’s not going over well with some people. Contrary to popular belief, Japan has poor people too. Plenty of them.
The style thing – personally I read this as a double entendre on a rap level, but strictly in context, this seems more of a “everything was fine before you started trying to change things – the style we had before you came in was good” thing – possibly putting emphasis on the healthcare thing. You could call this conservative if you want.
So yeah, I’m getting hungry, so I’m going to wrap things up here.
断っておきますが、this is not intended as one of those articles that praises some artist for his or her bravery/makes them out to be more than they are/tries to set someone up as some sort of hero8 – and if it read like that, I apologize. Please attribute that to my ineptness as a writer.
I mean, come on. Distrust of the government bordering on paranoia, mixing of rap metaphors with political ones, outright slander, plus a kind of brilliant beat – this is a good rap song. A quite good one. Don’t respect Seeda for being some sort of deep political thinker, don’t respect him for starting some imaginary “movement” that only exists in somebody’s graduate thesis, respect him for making a dope rap song.
It’s also pretty interesting as a look at what is happening in the scene over here – musically, of course, but possibly even more so as a look at a small piece of the culture. This is a Japanese song, about Japan (and Japanese songs), written by a Japanese person for a Japanese audience. And like I said in episode 117, if you want to get what’s actually going on, it’s important to listen to the conversations people are having within the community.
Not whatever trash that outsiders that don’t know anything anyway happen to be running their mouths about.
 I mean, seriously. I’ve been out here for like a year and some change and said very very little about the music here. Sorry about that.
 A good portion of American hip-hop is also not very good.
[2.5] That is to say, if you were born in Japan and don’t speak English, then I can understand if you prefer to listen to music that you understand. But if you’re some sort of bootleg orientalist Pocky-munching yellow fever Japan anime fanboy/girl that professes love of anything from Japan just because it’s from Japan and mean to tell me that, oh, I don’t know, Rip Slyme is better than Kanye, or that King Ghiddra is better than Wu Tang, then you are clinically insane and need to have your head examined and get on a twelve step program immediately. Also you have no musical taste. Sorry. That said, though, there are plenty of Japanese rappers who I prefer – easily – to a lot of US rappers.
[β(sorry, thought of this in the middle and didn’t wanna renumber)] Note that he doesn’t say “ラップ” really, but “rap”, in English. If he said it in Japanese, it would break the rhyme pattern. Just something for the rhyme heads, I guess.
 He even takes a line that Aso is known for saying – “I won’t budge” (as in, I’ve made the correct decision and am not changing my mind) – and flipped it on its head.
[3.5] Not necessarily because it’s illegal or anything, but just because it’s considered “uninteresting”. There isn’t a large (perceived) market for “overly” political rap.
 LDP, the Liberal Democrat Party
 Not all of it is understandable though.
 I’ve no confidence in this translation at all.
 You could argue that Japan already has plenty of “war potential” – hello, SDF.
 Actually, I think anyone who expects too much of a man hollering into a microphone over some drums coming out of a box needs to get they head checked.