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But the experience has paid off. In recent years, Japanese entertainers have reached the pinnacle of Jamaican dancehall-reggae culture. Junko Bashment became Japan's first (and so far only) Dancehall Queen in 2002. Mighty Crown, who first came to New York in the early '90s from Yokohama and still divide their time between the two, have been considered one of the top sound systems since their surprise victory at World Clash 1999 (which took place in Brooklyn, of course), and can still win over even the most skeptical and hardcore fans, as they did this past April in Montego Bay, defending their 2008 title at Death Before Dishonor, also part of the World Clash series. Mighty Crown's string of victories is almost unmatched in the business, and comes only after spending years riding the dollar van from their one-room apartment on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue up to Flatbush-Church to scour record crates at Superpower Records, attend dance sessions at the Biltmore, and record reggae artists at Brooklyn's Don One Studio. The "Far East Rulaz," as they're sometimes called, have been such a constant fixture in the city that even Jamaicans consider them a New York–based sound.
In Japan, where a carefully cultivated sense of national identity influences everything from what you eat to where you go to school, Jamaican culture has provided an attractive, asymmetric alternative to the strict script of everyday living for two consecutive generations of Japanese youth. "Every day was a drama," Mighty Crown's Simon "Master Simon" Tse Jr. says of the days when he first toiled the streets of Brooklyn. From last-minute, late-night calls that a favorite artist, like the immortal Dennis Brown, was at Don One recording dubplates ("Yo, he's there! He's there!") to winning over the city's hard-to-please live crowds, subjecting oneself to the New York experience is "like going to street school," Simon remembers. "We were really happy. Every day was different. All the time we were saying, 'What the fuck is this?!' "
Like Jamaica, Brooklyn isn't an easy place for newcomers to live. But that's the point—particularly if you're looking for the real thing. "If you go hard, New York people respect you," Tse continues. "And if you don't, they say, 'Get out.' Everything went natural though, and we now have the biggest influence in New York and in Brooklyn."
Then there's Yumiko Gabe, a 16-year Kingston resident and owner of Aisha House, a Japanese-only guesthouse. Yumi also holds the unique position of being Kingston's sole female car-clash champion: Just like the sound clash, the car clash is a male-dominated competition based on enormous car stereos with which contestants seek to "kill" their rivals through a combination of an acute sense of the artists a crowd wants to hear and ammunition derived from a customized arsenal of dubplates. Judging by the trophy shelf at Aisha House, Yumi has murdered dozens, though things have slowed down recently. "Not many big ones this year," she says. "I've killed too many already."
But none compare to the Japanese DJ duo Ackee & Saltfish. Upon arriving in Jamaica directly from Yokohama in the early '90s, they tore up their return tickets and planned to stay indefinitely; unfortunately, they were forcibly removed, and after spending some time in a Kingston jail for overstaying their visas, they traded out an apartment on Kingston's lower Waltham Park Road for a spot on Mighty Crown's floor in Brooklyn. Today, Ackee & Saltfish are two of the more successful reggae promoters in Japan and are celebrated among younger generations of Japanese for their rags-to-riches life story.
Still, most reggae fans in Japan take the more traditional, legal approach: Spending months or years in either Jamaica or New York, they take advantage of student visas that English-language training provides and aim to find jobs or marry locally. But this does not guarantee happiness—and certainly not safety: Yumi's husband, a native Jamaican, was shot dead in Kingston a few years ago, a tragedy she simply describes as his being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." But when asked if she would trade the relative danger of Jamaica for the relative familiarity of Japan, her answer is nonetheless emphatic. "Nooooo," she says. "Japan is just for visiting. Boring. No excitement. Too safe to live."