From Japan to Jamaica With Love


By: Claude Mills
Photo By: Carlington Wilmot

There is no denying it anymore. The Japanese have a yen for all things Jamaican.

There are more ska and ska-punk bands in Japan than Jamaica at this time. In addition the number one international reggae sound, Mighty Crown, is from Japan and not so long ago the number one dancehall queen was Japanese.

So why do so many Japanese love reggae?

"From a Jamaican perspective, I believe it has to do with Rastafarianism. It came out of learning about what they stand for. Because reggae is associated with rastafarianism, I think that is how they became interested in it," Megan Barrett, assistant to the cultural officer at the Japanese Embassy, told YardFlex.Com

However, the fervent Rastafarian religious belief displayed by many reggae musicians is alien to the experience of the largely non-religious Japanese. Plus, marijuana is strictly verboten in Japan. And while there are plenty of Japanese kids wearing dreadlocks these days, it's more about fashion than culture or religion.

Some people think that the festive vibe of reggae, especially in terms of its historical roots in mobile DJ units, resembles the atmosphere of Japan's local festivals, or "matsuri." Others see similarities between the highly stylized "skanking" dance style associated with ska music and Japanese "bon odori" festival dances.

Not everyone agrees. Just ask Keiko Yasuda, a Japanese national who came to Jamaica at the age of 19, and got married to a Jamaican man, just because of her love for reggae.

"However, Jamaica has more upbeat riddims, I used to dance bon odori as a child, but it is not as similar. In patois, we have very similar, in Japanese, we call oyster in Japanese, kaki, but it patois, you know what that means, so we always laugh, oh my god, we eat oyster for stamina, we say kaki tonight for dinner, that's so funny and weird," Ms. Yasuda, who is a member of the administrative staff of the Japanese Embassy, said.

The similarities don't stop there.

"We have a lot of similarities, and it is interesting and weird at the same time, our countries names begin J-a. We are both islands, Japan played Reggae Boyz in World Cup, we have JDF, no army, but a body to protect our country, Jamaica has a JDF as well. We love Blue Mountain coffee, we buy 99 per cent of Blue Mountain coffee made in Jamaica in Japan," the thirtysomething year-old divorcee with 'one pickney' said.

She added: "In Tokyo, it is hard to find a coffee shop to sell straight Blue Mtn Coffe, they send it as a blend with Brazilian, because it is too expensive, but my mom buys Blue Mtn blend, 100 grams is US$20. If you order a cup of blend, it is US$15."

Some schools of thought believe that Jamaica's notoriously difficult-to-comprehend patois

"The consonants and sound of our patois and their attempt at speaking English is similar," famed 'Coolie Dance' producer Cordel 'Skatta' Burrell said. "That is part of the attraction, it just seems we have a lot of things in common. We love karate movies, and they love our reggae."


Reggae's syncopated rhythms are said to echo in the rhythm of Okinawan music -- so much so that Okinawan music is sometimes called "Japanese reggae."

"I personally came to Jamaica at 19 because of the reggae music. I fell in love with Bob Marley music while living in the countryside of Japan, where I could only find Bob Marley and Cliff records in shop. It was very strong music when I was in high school at age 17. I read translations and felt strongly about them," Ms. Yasuda said.

"No other black music has that message, rap not as strong as reggae's message. I learned about Kenya, Tanzania, Jamaica is different from other black society, it has more offering to me, the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, it was very new. Most Japanese love roots reggae," Ms. Yasuda said.

She believes that a lot of young Japanese want to come here to work and live, but cannot do so because of the lack of job opportunities and the language barriers.

"The young people like to correspond on fashion, music via Internet, and there are a few Japanese owned guest houses for Japanese only, most in Kingston, Mandeville and Montego Bay," she said.

According to statistics from the Jamaica Tourist Board, Japanese nationals, especially young adults, have rediscovered the magic of Jamaica in the last couple of years, after a decline in the late 90s.

The number of Japanese coming to Jamaica peaked in 1995 when there were 23,673 visitors, but then in Asia, the economic downturn affected travel outside of Japan.