Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Hip-Hop Connection: Sumo, Drugs, and Those Darn Rappers.

Last Thursday I was talking to my friend Terada of Deep Throat X, and the subject of marijuana came up.  Despite the notorious severity of laws against marijuana possession in Japan (supposedly, a third of a gram can net you five years hard labor), it's nearly as much a part of hip hop culture here as it is in the States.  What Terada told me, though, is that this nefarious influence is spreading throughout Japanese culture - most notoriously, into the world of sumo.  Even non-Japanophiles might remember the round of 2009 busts that brought down a handful of Russian and Mongolian sumos - but what you might not have heard about if you, like me, weren't reading Japanese papers at the time, is that it was hip-hop that brought low these proud scions of Japan's national sport.

We must preserve the dignity of sumo . . . whatever the cost.

This article (Japanese, but I recommend the useful/hilarious/surreal Google translations provided by Chrome) recounts the claim of Shinichi Kirin, one of the low-ranking sumo arrested in 2009, that he got interested in ganja because he started listening to hip hop and, moreover, spending a lot of time in a hip hop store in Shibuya. The article has a passage worth quoting because it says so much about Japanese perceptions/knowledge of pot:


Regarding the investigation thus far into the circumstances of the suspect's involvement, [the police] explained, "[The suspects stated] they emptied out the contents of a cigar, then mixed those contents with pot leaves and put them back into the cigar."  The police have said that because "it is impossible to inhale marijuana and cigars in the same way," they believe this affidavit to be false.

Yes, we all have a lot to learn from the Japanese police.

Anyway, good old Japanese wikipedia (drawing, I'm sure, on the tons and tons of blogs out there to document this sort of thing) names names, connecting these events to the relatively unknown rapper D.O, leader of the crew 練マザファッカー [Fancy Motherfuckers].  Also implicated was the much more prominent You the Rock, who was already quite a celebrity, appearing in commercials, series, and variety shows when he was convicted to nine months in prison.  As a result (and showing just how dramatically different Japan's hip hop world can be from America's) he announced his retirement from music, and at least as of last April was planning on living in Nagano and working as a hospital attendant (though even here, I doubt that's what has actually happened.

I haven't seen any mention of the name of the Shibuya hip hop store where this all went down. But even more than the details, what's arresting is the reinforcement of some ideas about hip hop that are probably still hazy at best in the minds of the older generation.  Hip hop is widely seen as dangerous, edgy music, but the generation most invested in sumo - largely, those over 60 - are much less likely to be attuned to youth culture.  People are more likely to know that hip hop is American music and, moreover, black music, so we're left here with some pretty basic math: black American culture is ruining sumo. Duh.

But in fact, far from being a nefarious foreign import popularized by negative images brought over from American inner cities, hemp was cultivated in Japan starting in 10,000 BC.  Cannabis is burned in many Shinto ceremonies as a means of cleansing spaces of bad influence - much as salt is used to cleanse the sumo ring before each bout.  Moreover, all of the paraphernalia (ahem) of the sumo match, such as the rope bounding the ring and the wrestler's mawashi belt, are traditionally made of hemp.  And this is just hearsay, but apparently, at least at the amateur level, marijuana is treated as a kind of performance-enhancing drug for sumo, smoked immediately before a match.

Industrial-grade hemp is still legal to grow in Japan, and Hokkaido seems to be ripe with volunteer marijuana plants, but there seems to be little or no momentum for legalization of psychoactive marijuana.  And why, you may ask, is this such a big deal?  It's got nothing to do with hip hop, but like so many things in Japan, it turns out it is America's fault.  Under the administration of Douglas MacArthur (aka Tha Dougfather), Japanese drug laws were made to square with their American counterparts.  America had criminalized marijuana in 1937, but Japan hadn't quite caught up yet.  MacArthur changed that, and now (again typically), the Japanese government remains doggedly committed to upholding the rules forced upon them by a nation that has, in the meantime, begun to figure out that those rules weren't exactly right to begin with.

1 comment:

Alex said...

Hey man, my names Alex. I live in Sappporo but I still haven't had much luck finding a decent hip hop place up here. I tried to download your hip hop mixtape (second volume) but the yousendit link has expired. Is there any chance you can put it back up?

I'm sick of listening to b-boy enka in my girlfriend's car but she refuses to listen to western hip hop so the only answer is to get her into good Japanese hip hop.

Thanks a lot