From Sukiyaki to Hip-Hop: A Guide to Teaching Japanese Popular Music

From Sukiyaki to Hip-Hop: A Guide to Teaching Japanese Popular Music

Ed. Note:  See also Professor E. Taylor Atkins' Annotated Bibliography of Resources About Music in Japan.

When can we learn about Japan and global cultural flows by considering examples of Japanese music? A diverse world of sounds, ideas, and cultures is on display through the many genres music and their hybrid forms. Music provides a fascinating window into national history, the changing nature of recording industries, the dynamics of youth cultures, the complex politics of race and gender, and the diverse processes of international exchange. Let’s consider a couple examples, and how they can lead us to think about the kinds of questions we can ask of music.

Musical genres can be used as a way of thinking about what makes other cultures unique, or as a means to consider cultural influence beyond national borders. The challenge for us as teachers is to encourage students to come to terms with ideas of cultural difference while avoiding stereotypes of what it means to be “Japanese” or “American.” Part of this means thinking across historical eras and through a variety of genres in order to get a sense of the enormous range of Japanese music, and by extension the range of Japanese people who make up Japan. I have translated a few different songs on my website and made them available for educational and research purposes. See

Teaching about music means paying close attention to the kinds of questions we ask. For example, when we identify some music as “Japanese,” what assumptions are we making about language, history, the ethnicity of the artist(s), and the role of the recording industry? What does it mean for music to be “authentic” (in what ways or for whom)?

+ to enlarge.
Mike Patton (left) and Yamataka Eye (right) perform together as part of Japan Society's Tzadik Music Label Series: New Voices from Japan. Photo © Wiliam Irwin.

Enka: the heart and soul of the Japanese
For example, the genre of enka is known as the “heart and soul” (kokoro) of the Japanese people, in part because the singing style includes wavering melodies that echo the sound of the indigenous folk music min’yô. Also, the themes of enka lyrics tend to express a nostalgia for a rural Japan, for the ways enduring love entails difficult work, and generally, a sense of forbearance in the face of hardship, an attitude known as gaman in Japanese. Consider, for example, Japan’s most famous enka singer Misora Hibari singing about her loved one gone at sea in “Wharf of Sadness.” But do our assumptions have to change when we consider the new artist Jero? What can we observe about cultural mixing in the singing of Jero, an African American who grew up in Pittsburgh, who is now a rising star for singing a traditional-sounding popular music style called enka? He heard enka from his Japanese grandmother’s records, and gradually built a reputation in Japan with his debut album due out in 2009. Is it cynical marketing to reinvigorate the enka market, or a positive, multicultural acknowledgement that all cultures are mixed, and we can learn from anywhere? Or something else entirely?

With the explosion of resources online, such as Wikipedia for background information and the music itself on YouTube and elsewhere, students of Japanese music have unprecedented access to materials. We can now send students off on their own to research and listen to Japanese jazz, enka, pop, folk, rock, hip-hop, reggae, punk and more. In the past, we as teachers of overseas music were almost required to play the role of the expert who acts as a gateway to new musical worlds. Now we can explore along with our students an ever expanding range of musical mixtures and traditions. I have created a website with some translations of a variety of genres to illustrate some of Japan’s musical diversity ( Let’s consider some ways of encouraging students to think in nuanced ways about music and culture.

Sukiyaki #1 in the US, But Why?
In 1962, a light jazz Japanese song called “Sukiyaki” performed by Sakamoto Kyû reached number one on the US Billboard music charts, a feat that has yet to be repeated by any other Japanese artist. Remarkably, the song became a hit even though it was sung in Japanese (see images of Sakamoto singing the song). The music and lyrics were written by the record label’s in-house composers, and sung by a pop idol, thus representing an industrial approach to music-making at a time before the “self-made, self-performed” ethic of other genres such as folk, rock, and hip-hop took hold.

The Japanese title for the song is “Walking Ahead, Looking Up,” and the lyrics evoke a lonely, but optimistic soul looking ahead to his dreams. The song was a huge hit in Japan as well, capturing a sense of optimism tinged with sadness, and representative of an era in which the country achieved rapid economic growth, returning to the world stage after the devastation of the Pacific War. Yet clearly the meaning of the song changed when it traveled overseas to Britain and the US. It was renamed “Sukiyaki” (the word for a sweet noodle soup with beef) because the word was more well-known in the West. For audiences in Europe and the US, song was appreciated for its catchy tune and exotic, incomprehensible lyrics. Can we think of other examples of cultural flows where meanings change as a result of importation (e.g., Japanese animation or comic books?)?

We might also consider whether the song is still Japanese when it gets remade by Americans. The song was remade in the US with English-language lyrics by the group Taste of Honey, eventually reaching the top 10 again with them in 1981. In a music video, we can see the singer wearing a kimono. Does that make the song more Japanese? What about the remake by the R&B doo-wop group 4 P.M. (“for positive music”) in 1995? With contrasts such as these, we can encourage students to explore their own assumptions about what makes culture distinctive, and how to consider the connections across national boundaries. Some points to consider for discussion: Why was the title was changed, not translated? What kinds of connections are there between songs and audiences? Is this similar to the contrast between Taste of Honey and 4 P.M. in their versions?

+ enlarge photo
Pop-punk-trio ni-hao! perform as part of Japan Society's Tzadik Label Music Series II: Power of the New Japanese Woman. Photo © William Irwin.

Hip-Hop in Japan
Of course, music from the US travels extensively to Japan as well, often remade in local ways. My first book explores this phenomenon of music globalization through hip-hop or rap music. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006, Duke Univ. Press) discusses the ways Japanese rappers have interpreted and transformed rap music for a Japanese audience. Japanese rappers recognize that rap music is about who you are and where you’re from, and in that sense, they work almost entirely in the Japanese language. At the same time, they recognize that hip-hop grew is associated with African Americans and, at least in some of the music, racial struggles in the US. In that respect, many Japanese rappers argue that the lyrics of their songs should deal with political messages or express a consciousness towards social problems.

An interesting example to discuss is the song “911” by King Giddra. The three-person rap group is composed of the rappers Zeebra and K Dub Shine, both of whom have lived in the US and speak English fluently, and also DJ Oasis. The song is a reflection on the tragedy of 9/11, and also a questioning of the response of politicians and the media in the aftermath. A music video of the song might be good for discussion. I translated an excerpt of the song, and I’ve posted it here for educational purposes. The music video begins with a well-known photograph in Japan. It is ground zero Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bombing. In the foreground, you might be able to see the government building with a partially melted steel dome that remains standing today as a monument to the destruction of the bomb. By linking 9/11 and Hiroshima, the rappers draw attention to the suffering of civilians caught up in war, and the ease with which we identify enemies, without fully exploring underlying causes for grievances. In this, it seems to me that the King Giddra song can tell us not only about Japan, but something about ourselves.

In the end, music can be analyzed on many levels. I have tried to point to some resources, but above all, I wanted to draw attention to the range of questions that can be asked of music. By getting our students to think more deeply about how we ask questions, and what those questions assume, we can see more clearly not only other cultures, but also our own.

Ian Condry is associate professor of Japanese cultural studies in the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, Prof. Condry has publications available at He also runs the MIT-Harvard Cool Japan research project which organizes seminars, international conferences, and arts performances to explore the cultural connections, dangerous distortions, and critical potential of popular culture. More info: