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In 2001, longtime hardcore reggae fan Hidetsugo Haji faced a dilemma. He wanted to be a part of the "real thing," but he lived in Japan, which lacked some basic pieces: a ghetto, for example, and the everyday struggles that come with such blatant economic disparity, not to mention the extraordinary opportunity to look such inequality in the face and overcome it. But thanks to dancehall reggae's vibrant cassette-tape circuit, buoyed by live dancehall sessions and soundclashes between famous sound systems like Stone Love, Bass Odyssey, and Killamanjaro, he knew where to go.
"In Japan, I grew up listening to Stone Love cassette tapes," says "King" Haji, the alter ego he uses when deejaying with his now-Brooklyn-based sound system, King Jam Unlimited. "We listened to soundclash cassette tapes and knew the Biltmore in Brooklyn and other famous clubs. We knew many famous West Indians lived there. In New York, when you think of reggae, you think of Flatbush-Church right away. Tourist books say New York and Brooklyn not really safe, but it is a place I know we can get more close to the Caribbean community."
So that's where he went.
While a 6,000-mile move to Flatbush based on a cassette tape may seem incongruous with traditionally cautionary Japanese culture, King Haji's pilgrimage out of Babylon East and into Brooklyn's promised land actually echoes the footsteps of thousands of young Japanese. Since Bob Marley performed in Tokyo in 1979, reggae has not only become one of the country's most lucrative musical genres, but has also matured to the point where local Japanese acts receive as much, if not more, respect than the Jamaican equivalent. Japanese artists borrow Jamaican riddims freely, and will even travel to Jamaica to record music, but the lyrics are sung in Japanese and the message doesn't merely mimic more traditional reggae (you still won't find Japanese artists protesting about life in the ghetto, for example). It's a particularly local style in which Japanese DJs who spin Japanese artists singing about Japanese issues are often at a premium over their Jamaican and even hip-hop counterparts.
Not only does the music work, it sells. Fireball, a Japanese dancehall reggae group, had 2,500 fans turn out for a show in Tokyo this past spring, a number any Jamaican reggae star would aspire to, in New York or otherwise. And in August 2008, 40,000 Japanese reggae fans converged on Yokohama Stadium for the Yokohama Reggae Sai ("Sai" meaning "Bash"), an annual event hosted by Mighty Crown—a top-tier sound system internationally, and the pride of the Japanese reggae scene. The event included just three Jamaican acts alongside 14 Japanese headliners, like Fireball, Ryu the Skywalker, and Rankin Taxi. Dancehall star Mr. Vegas was one of the three Jamaican invitees and said afterward that it was "indisputably" the largest crowd he'd ever performed for. Yokohama Reggae Sai 2009 is set for September 5, and will again feature only three Jamaican acts.
But simply listening to reggae is not enough. Experiencing the culture firsthand, either in Kingston itself or Brooklyn (home to upward of 600,000 West Indians), has become a required rite of passage for denizens of the underground Japanese reggae scene. Minako Ikeshiro, a Japanese freelance writer, also made the move, publishing D.R.B: Di Reggae Book in 2006. Known as a "mook" in Japanese publishing—published like a book but edited like a magazine—D.R.B. included news, interviews with Jamaican artists like T.O.K., tastemakers like the late Vibe magazine's Rob Kenner, and even a closing "How-to" section for Japanese interested in "making it" in the reggae industry. "New York and Jamaica provide genuineness," Ikeshiro explains. "If you never been to Jamaica or New York, you don't really know reggae."
"Bass is heavy in Jamaica," adds veteran Japanese dancehall artist Ken "Boy Ken" Matsumoto, who is currently in Kingston to record an EP at one of Jamaica's most respected studios, Big Ship. "In Japan, bass is soft, very soft."
Japanese tourism to Jamaica originally took off in the '90s, primarily catering to the honeymooning crowd: all-inclusive, white-sand-loving folks loath to leave their private, locals-free beaches. Reggaephiles, by contrast, bypass the exotic tranquility of the North Coast in favor of the capital city's most notorious areas: Tivoli Gardens, Fletchers Land, and Raetown, all sought after due to the ghetto mystique and open-air neighborhood dance sessions they host nightly—the "real thing" Japanese reggae fans are looking for.
"No gun in Japan—no thief in Japan," explains Kazuki Osaka, a 23-year-old DJ from Kagoshima who is in Kingston for the first time. "I want to go downtown to Tivoli. Tivoli scary, but maybe I want scary. Get a vibes like old-time Japan, when people have no money but many friend." Given that attitude, his parents' warnings of danger and violence must have seemed quite encouraging.
While safety concerns are predominantly a case of pressing the panic button prematurely, Jun (pronounced "June") Tochino, a guesthouse owner in Kingston and a 16-year Japanese ex-pat, quickly dispels the notion that Japanese travelers are immune to trickery, and has guest anecdotes to prove it. The language barrier, for example, does create certain trials (like getting charged $70 for what should be a $3 cab ride to the Bob Marley Museum), and a native inclination to trust complete strangers can cause painful tribulations (like being left on the side of the road in rural Jamaica after getting robbed at knifepoint by the taxi driver who was supposed to take you to Montego Bay).
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."