Yo Ohashi says he loves black music, but doesn’t quite get the lyrics. With his baggy pants and a knit cap pulled down over his ears, you know he’s striving for the inner-city look.
“I like rap music and I wanted to look like the rappers,” said Ohashi, 26, checking out the sneakers at a clothing store opened in September by Spike Lee, the black American movie director. “I think their fashion looks really kakkoii .”
In Japan these days, the truly kakkoii , the closest Japanese word to “cool,” wear the fashions and listen to the music of black America. The fad began a few years ago as basketball stars Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Lee’s movies and rap musicians Ice Cube and Public Enemy found audiences in Japan.
Young Japanese dressed like Ohashi, who is a video director, can be seen everywhere. In Tokyo’s teen-scene Shibuya district, youngsters stroll about in the latest after-school uniform: a knit cap or backward baseball cap, baggy jeans and basketball sneakers.
In a popular television commercial, members of a Japanese pop group, in dreadlocks and dark suntans, imitate Michael Jackson.
Lee’s operation, called Spike’s Joint, expects sales of at least $2.4 million from its two Tokyo stores this year.
Malcolm X also is being marketed as a result of Lee’s latest movie, which will be released in Japan this spring. Sales of Malcolm X-related products, primarily clothing, are expected to soar as the release date approaches.
The autobiography of Malcolm X, out of print in Japan for more than 10 years, is being reissued.
Not everyone has joined in.
“How can we be blacks?” Views magazine, a widely read general interest monthly, asked the Japanese in a rhetorical headline.
It certainly seems an odd trend in a country where politicians make racist remarks and companies sell toys and books featuring denigrated black characters.
Two years ago, Seiroku Kajiyama, then the justice minister, compared prostitutes to American blacks. He said they “ruin the atmosphere of the neighborhoods they move into.”
Young Japanese may feel black is beautiful, but that does not necessarily make them more sensitive to blacks or other ethnic groups, said Kenichiro Sembon, a journalist who specializes in minority issues.
Although the Japanese avidly adopt many foreign customs and fashions, as part of what Sembon calls the “import culture,” there is virtually no racial diversity in Japan.
“The Japanese tend to simply copy things without taking crucial cultural background into consideration,” he said.
Chief editor Yasutomo Matsubara of Boon magazine, which specializes in black fashion, said Japanese fads are “like eating Chinese food served on a Lazy Susan.”
“Many Japanese just want to try a little bit of everything that looks attractive,” Matsubara said. “So they can become anything, even the Irish, the Chinese, or whatever. Right now, they’re interested in American blacks, but soon people will get tired of it and jump on to something else.”
Young Japanese also may feel friendlier toward blacks than whites because, since the late 19th Century, Japan has competed with predominantly white countries.
“I think young Japanese imitate blacks out of friendliness instead of feeling obliged to learn something, like the majority of Japanese have tended to feel toward the whites,” Sembon said.