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JAPANESE HIP-HOP

New b-boys and b-girls on the block

by Liane Wakabayashi

The hippest of hip-hop dancers perform pure magic. They do somersaults, cartwheels and flips. They’re dramatic, eccentric, funny and highly creative. They slide in any direction, send electric shock waves through their limbs, glide across the ground like moonwalkers and twirl into body-punishing spins.

At U-Pride dance school in Yutenji, hip-hop dancers start out young, real young. The preschool and elementary school children might not match their American contemporaries in the black communities of urban America for technique. But for these little dancers, the experience matters far more than perfecting the dance style. Hip-hop, for them, is all about having fun.

“Kids get tired easily. They expect it to be fun, like a game, and continue for that reason,” says Daisaku Kikuchi, one of the hip-hop teachers at U-Pride. “If we make an objective, they lose interest. The first priority is to have fun.”

“Kids just think it’s fun dance music,” says Emiko Motoyachi, who first read about U-Pride in a magazine and now travels from Kawasaki City every week so that her first-grade daughter Natsumi can attend.

Admittedly the hip-hop and rap boom that took off among Japan’s youth in the early ’90s was a far cry from the world of its origins. The prominent themes of black music culture, such as racial empowerment and inner-city realities, that fueled its spread in the United States have less relevance in Japan.

“[Early Japanese hip-hop] was lighthearted stuff, worlds away from American rap’s harsh depictions of ghetto life,” says Steve McClure, Tokyo’s Billboard bureau chief and author of “Nippon Pop,” a study of the contemporary Japanese pop music scene.

That fun image goes a long way toward explaining the appeal hip-hop holds for Japanese youngsters. Television has also helped expose hip-hop to younger children. Programs such as Nippon TV’s “Genki ga Deru Terebi” in the mid-’90s and, more recently, the international cable station Cartoon Network have popularized hip-hop among elementary and junior high school kids.

Today, hip-hop encompasses music, fashion, but especially attitude. And it’s everywhere. At classes such as U-Pride’s, though, where hip-hop is presented as a mixture of jazz, robotic movement and gymnastics, the focus is on the dance aspect of the scene. There are also free monthly classes for teens at the Tokyo Children’s Hall (Tokyo-to Jidokaikan), in Shibuya.

As they warm up to the electro-funk beat, a class of girls at U-Pride are working just as hard to stretch and flex as they would in a ballet or jazz-dance class. There’s an enormous amount to learn week after week, and, for some of these kids, year after year.

In Kikuchi’s Saturday morning class, four boys from the same elementary school take the class together. Kikuchi claps to the rhythm. The dance steps are heeded. The words — poetry to the beat of the music — go largely ignored.

At U-Pride, children aren’t taught the meaning of the words, nor the origins of hip-hop culture. They likely don’t know that the dance form spread quickly in the poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods of the South Bronx and Harlem.

They do not know that there on the mean streets, dancing helped bring former rival gangs together — or that the complex steps and synchronized dance of New York City’s b-boys eventually caught on in trendy clubs in affluent lower Manhattan. The raps could be violent and obscene — but, in the same breath, comprised of clever rhymes and teasing exhortations. Rap music and hip-hop eventually went global, and in 1993, Japan’s own unique rap sound took hold with groups such as East End × Yuri.

“The Japanese love of wordplay has found new outlet in the rap idiom,” says McClure. Not much of a rap fan himself, McClure admits that his 8-year-old son, Ryan, loves it. “When Ryan started to imitate black vernacular, I realized how mainstream and universal hip-hop culture has become.”

Ryan is not alone in his admiration for a music form that his parents cannot relate to. In fact, the awareness that this is something that Mom and Dad can’t understand only heightens the appeal rap and hip-hop holds for the younger generation.

Some, though, are inspired to take their interest in hip-hop that little bit further. When Lena Otsuka, a student at the International School of the Sacred Heart, in Hiroo, visited the Museum of Hip-Hop in San Francisco, it opened her eyes to its origins, the fashions, the graffiti and a lineage of music that goes back to breakdancing in the 1970s.

This past autumn, Lena and three of her classmates, all 16, formed a hip-hop club at the elite girls’ school. They received the blessing of school authorities — as long as the group refrains from using some of the less-wholesome lyrics of rap songs. The ISSH hip-hop crew says there are different dance styles in hip-hop, and theirs is more hip-hop jazz, more girlish.

“Part of the fun is that it’s a group thing. In hip-hop, you don’t usually dance alone,” says member Erica Benes, who began teaching herself hip-hop two years ago by watching videotapes.

Relative newcomer, Harukako Ikeura, took to hip-hop two months ago and was surprised by the difficulty. “Every step seems easy looking at it, but when you’re doing it, you don’t know which hand or leg to put out.”

Christine Lee has embraced hip-hop for a reason that surely holds appeal for all: “It’s really fun. It takes stress away.”