Reconceptualising Political Participation in Japan - Intersections of Political and Rap Worlds
The question of widespread political apathy within Japanese civil society is one that permeates much of the scholarship that seeks to evaluate the nature and quality of the nation’s democracy. It is an ongoing debate rooted in the myth that the Japanese electorate, predominantly its youngest members, are largely indifferent to or uninterested in playing an active role within political life and takes dwindling turnout levels at both the local and national level as its core piece of evidence that such a phenomenon exists.
But this is a myth that must be tackled, and to dispel these generalised stereotypes surrounding the political appetites of Japanese youth, we must cast light on vital changes in political participation and seek to establish a more nuanced evaluation of the health of Japanese democracy. Observing through the lens of recent developments in the Japanese rap industry, a much-needed expansion on the understanding of political participation arises, one that includes creative and sometimes deviant activities that are often dismissed as unpolitical or counterproductive. Japanese rap music and its ramifications for political participation also challenge the tendency within scholarship to designate new modes of participation as hyper-individualistic. Instead, the galvanising potential of rap deserves attention. Without an understanding of the organising power of seemingly personal artistic acts, we simply cannot expect to understand instances where everyday politics, consumerism and public action collide.
Traditional political participation in Japan
Studies surrounding political participation are often a site for much debate, but one aspect remains consistent: the conception of participation adopted will significantly alter investigation into electorate engagement and democratic health in a nation (Hay, 2007). A more traditional definition of political participation focuses in on private citizens engaging in (typically institutionalised) activities to influence the composition, decision-making and actions of government. In this case, conventional electoral, partisan and protest acts are given more political value. Consequently, recent trends surrounding these modes of engagement in Japan will most likely be of concern. Elections at both the national and local level have suffered from underwhelming levels of turnout, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) membership levels are on the decline, and studies paint a picture of a politically-detached youth; key words regarding politics that appeared frequently in interviews with Japanese youths conducted by Tsukada in 2015, for example, included “difficult”, “negative” and “ugly”. A functioning democracy should involve an engaged and politically active electorate, and many commentators thus point to public disillusionment with traditional forms of participation as a threat to democratic legitimacy in the Japanese system.
However, there are those who are questioning this trend, consequently expanding preconceived notions of politically active engagement. Historians such as Daliot-Bul (2014) have provided important insights into the development of subversive, radical youth subcultures and their contributions to the Japanese political sphere, arguing that such movements were inherently political as “manifestations of power struggles”. These evaluations grant greater insight into the seeming disparity between the interest in political issues and the lack of engagement amongst Japanese youths. And it is here that Japanese rap music becomes an intriguing analytical framework.
Rap Music and dispelling the “Apathy Myth”
To many, rap music is synonymous with protest. Emerging as a subgenre of hip-hop from the marginalisation and oppression of the 1970s African American community, the genre is often described as a sort of “creative synthesis”. Blending traditional hip-hop culture and currents of black nationalism, it created a musical experience that transcended generational and national barriers and acted as a conduit for the political energisation of black American youths.
However, just as important as the origins of rap music is the complex process of localisation it has undergone. The genre first found its roots in Japanese music culture in the 1980s, when cultural imports from the US generated great interest in American hip-hop. By the 1990s, artists such as Scha Dara Parr, East End and King Giddra brought rap into the mainstream, granting it unprecedented commercial success. In recent years, with the creation of pan-national groups such as 88rising which seek to aid Asian rap artists in making inroads in Western markets, Japanese rap music has gained even greater visibility.
However, rap music as a legitimate form of political participation has often been a notion overlooked or actively mocked. Japanese rap music has often been described as overly commercialised and divorced from its political roots. In other cases, the less palatable sides of rap have been rejected as constructive political expression. However, these stereotypes overlook the rich variety and political potential of the Japanese rap industry and prescribe to the notion that participation must be responsible and for the good of the nation.
Rap, far more than other forms of music, relies heavily on the power of words. The process of writing lyrics is often a demanding challenge and involves a degree of emotional investment to maintain the authenticity of the artist’s message. Rap musicians often use lyrics to articulate their lived experiences as those effected by top-down government policies and decisions. This either manifests as a nihilistic analysis of how their futures are determined by forces out of their control, or as attempts to reclaim agency. Those on the periphery of political life often have no choice but to turn to non-institutionalised acts that operate outside the locus of the state and provide alternative avenues for political expression (Theocharis & van Deth, 2018). The glocalisation of rap music however allows artists to engage with local issues on a personal level and provide criticism and support for government responses from a grassroots perspective.
In a Japanese context, this aspect of rap music often manifests in poverty-stricken communities, particularly those in which ethnic tensions are high. In recent years, the high-profile debate surrounding youth crime in such areas has seen citizens and politicians voicing support for tougher punishments for younger offenders, with a Yomiuri Shimbun poll in 2015 showing that 83% of respondents were in favour of excluding 18- and 19-year-olds from protections under the juvenile law (Osaki, 2020). However, rap groups who operate in these environments, such as Bad Hop from Kawasaki, use their music to discuss topics such as the cycle of poverty, youth alienation and gang culture, providing a more nuanced interpretation of issues which are often prey to sensationalised narratives. Their song Kawasaki Drift references the 2015 killing of Ryōta Uemura, a schoolboy from the Kawasaki area, alongside lyrics that emphasises their troubled childhoods in areas with high gang activity. In Suicide, the group also discusses reasons behind Japan’s high youth suicide rate, alongside discrimination against mixed-race and foreign-born citizens.
Consumerist participation and collective acts
If the political motives of rap artists can be identified and classified as participation in political culture, then what can be said of those downloading, consuming, and resonating with their music? Can a person’s personal music taste be seen as a political act? Music undoubtedly plays a vital role in the formation of identity across many cultures, as listeners identify something inherently political or subversive in identifying with certain artists. In the context of Japan, where youth cultures have become almost inseparable from consumer practices, rap music has built a space within consumerist circles in which Japanese youths participate in symbolic political communities that encourage virtual ties through social media and forums. This can generate real-life action in the form of collective protest. Rap has always possessed a collectivising power, and this can also be identified within Japanese youth movements.
Commercialised political participation has often been depicted as the bogeyman of contemporary politics, with youths depicted as only interested in surface-level ‘slacktivism’ that can be accessed with a click of a button. However, some Japanese rap artists haven taken advantage of their commercial success to reach a wider audience-base, fostering a sense of community that can facilitate political action. The recent reaction in Japan to the worldwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is one such example. Some Japanese rap artists have acknowledged the roots of the genre as a vehicle to amplify black voices and have used their platforms to encourage their listeners to participate in anti-racism protests that took place throughout Japan in 2020. Artists have also used their music to reconceptualise the issue of racism in a Japanese context. Again, in Bad Hop’s Suicide, member T-Pablow raps the lyrics:
“There’s equality and no discrimination? The answer is no.”
T-Pablow addresses his listeners and challenges them to reconsider similar issues in Japan, such as police violence and discrimination against foreign residents. This a collectivising political act. It draws a community (a fanbase) into discussion and increases the political potency and visibility of the issue.
Okinawan rapper Akiko Urasaki also participated in the protests, giving a speech to a crowd at a BLM march. Her EP Partition, much like her speech, is an exploration of the superficiality of codifying human nature and the power of musical protest to transcend cultural, gender and class barriers (Buyanovsky, 2020). Self-styled “immigrant rapper” Moment Joon also discusses in his music the racism he faced as a Korean-born immigrant in Osaka, with his song Home/Chon using a Japanese slur against Koreans as part of its title (Hadfield, 2020).
Although it is difficult to measure the exact impact such rap artists had on the BLM movement in Japan, it is clear that these artists are using their positions as commercially-successful musicians to spread awareness on the lack of official response to these issues. Listeners are responding not only by sharing this content online, but also participating in rallies and marches, bridging the gap between online communities and real-life action.
Rap and everyday politics- redefining the “political”
Rap often blurs the line between political and non-political acts, and it is in this liminality that the politics of the everyday thrives. Admittedly some artists are more personalised in their work and aloof towards overtly political messages and official institutions. This can be attributed to the political limbo Japanese youths often inhabit. Faced with the consequences of top-down politics, they are disillusioned by inadequate grassroots channels of participation. In contrast, the sphere of micropolitics is more accessible. Issues such as conception of identity, anxiety over the security of one’s future, and negotiating one’s place in the world are thus prolific amongst popular Japanese rap.
Examples include Chanmina, whose father is Japanese, and mother is South Korean. Her linguistic dexterity reflects how many artists use different languages and dialects in their music to negotiate questions of ethnic and national identity (St. Michel, 2019). Popular groups such as tofubeats operating in the genre of “lofi hip-hop”, with their slower pacing and jazz-inspired instrumentals, also saw a surge in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic as a source of relaxation for those stuck in isolation, intertwining the music tightly with rising issues of stress, depression and loneliness amongst Japanese youths (St. Michel, 2017). Although these examples may not seem explicitly political, they address issues which dominate discussions about government. Racism in Japan has been on the rise, with anti-extremist groups such as Zaitokukai and even politicians being seen to use racist rhetoric targeting Korean and Chinese citizens. A government white paper approved by the cabinet in October 2020 also showed that suicide rate amongst under-20s had risen to a record high in 2019 (Kyodo & Jiji, 2020). Young people have found in rap music a channel through which to reflect these larger political issues through a personal lens. It symbolises the creation of a youth territory outside institutionalised politics in which young people can engage with wider political debates but through the micropolitical, allowing them to express themselves through their lived experiences and personal opinions.
In The Unheavenly Chorus, Scholzman, Verba and Brady (2012) question whether new modes of digital participation will “dilute the meaning of politically engaged citizenship.”
But there is something wrong with this picture: It assumes that traditional forms of participation constitute purer forms of political engagement, whereas digital, creative, and personal modes are inadequate. Such a narrative is dangerous; it promotes the idea that falling numbers of Japanese youths voting and becoming party members must indicate that they are disengaged, lazy and uninterested in current political matters.
The word “enrich” is far more appropriate. Young Japanese citizens are in fact highly engaged with political questions which affect them in their daily lives, and seek out forms of participation they deem are better suited to grant them agency, broadcast their concerns, and create like-minded communities. These new modes, like rap music, add to current avenues of participation to create a system that caters to the needs of a wider range of citizens.
Not all societal groups are represented fairly and effectively within the Japanese political system. After all, it is due to problems with official, more respected forms of engagement that youths are turning to other channels in large numbers. Nevertheless, by expanding our conception of political engagement, we can diversify our understanding of how citizens participate in a democratic system. The issue lies with traditional forms of participation, not with the appetite of young Japanese people.
Hay, C., 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.
Tsukada, J., 2015. Examining Japanese youth’s perception of political citizenship. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 15(3).
Daliot-Bul, M., 2014. The Formation of 'Youth' as a Social Category in Pre-1970s Japan: A Forgotten Chapter of Japanese Postwar Youth Countercultures. Social Science Japan Journal , 17(1), pp. 41-58.
Theocharis, Y. & van Deth, J. W., 2018. The continuous expansion of citizen participation: a new taxonomy. European Political Science Review, 10(1), pp. 139-163.
Osaki, T., 2020. Growing up in poverty and broken homes, Kawasaki youths find savior in rap. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/19/national/social-issues/kawasaki-youths-savior-rap/
Buyanovsky, D., 2020. Okinawan rapper Awich rejects your constructs. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/09/04/music/okinawan-rapper-awich/
Hadfield, J., 2020. South Korea-born rapper Moment Joon details immigrant experience in Japan on debut album. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/06/05/music/moment-joon/
Kyodo & Jiji, 2020. Juvenile suicide rate in Japan hit record high in 2019. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/10/27/national/social-issues/japan-juvenile-suicide-rate-record/
St. Michel, P., 2019. Rapper Chanmina is blurring the lines of genre and nationality. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2019/02/08/music/rapper-chanmina-blurring-lines-genre-nationality/
St. Michel, P., 2020. 'Lofi hip-hop- beats to study to' genre also provides an escape from coronavirus mania. [Online] Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2020/04/17/music/lo-fi-hip-hop-beats-to-study-to/
Schlozman, K. L., Verba, S. & Brady, H. E., 2013. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
This article represent the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.