It’s important for rappers to make a good first impression. Often, you’ll hear a rapper and instantly think “yeah, he’s the man” or something like that. It’s much easier to gain fans by having an instantly likeable personality than one that grows on people. Other rappers win you over with the quality of their lyrics and the best can do both at the same time. As with all other Japanese rappers, Tokona-X couldn’t impress me with his lyrics as I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand enough to make a decision based on lyrical content only. The first thing I noticed about him was his voice. Tokona has a deep and distinctive voice which is perfectly suited to rapping. He managed to combine this with a great flow and that’s what got me interested. But over time, my interest has moved on from what I first noticed to looking deeper and finding the cultural reasons behind his style.
The first song I heard him in was Muro’s Chain Reaction. Tokona’s verse was different, exciting and came just before the hook, which he introduced brilliantly. I listened and Listened more to the track, even making it the ring tone on my phone. I enjoyed trying to rap along with other artists trying to memorise their verses, then tried with Tokona’s and realised I could hardly understand anything he was saying. It’s fair to say I didn’t understand much of what any rapper said at that time, but with careful listening and slowing the track down, I could catch the syllables they were using. Frustratingly, all I could hear throughout Tokona’s verse on Chain Reaction was mumbling.
After hearing Bad Wakadanna In Da Club, I thought more about his style. I put this down to him being from Nagoya (perhaps more accurately him being based in Nagoya) and learned that he used the local dialect Nagoya-ben in his rhymes. Thinking about it, I realised that I also couldn’t understand Twigy, another rapper from Nagoya. I hadn’t given much thought to how much I could understand Twigy before that moment, so perhaps he’s just easier on the ear than Tokona-X who has a more abrasive style.
For other rappers, which are mostly from Tokyo, I could understand some words but not really get the complete meaning of what they were trying to say. I could at least try to memorise verses and look up words that I couldn’t understand. Tokona was the opposite of this because often I had no idea when one word finished and the next began. It was like he was mumbling, but I could still hear his flow was good, so I continued listening to him.
East vs West
After living in Japan for several years, I began to learn things about the country which started to explain Tokona’s rapping style. Internally, Japan is separated into east and west. It’s possible to get a train card which allows contact-less payments and it can be used all over the country with many (I think all or almost all) private rail companies as well as Japan Rail. I did say you can use the pass nationally, but actually, the problem is that the national train company is split into east and west (although the reasons for splitting and privatising the Japanese National Railways were not (at)all cultural). Around Kanto and Kansai at least, you can use a single pass throughout that area, but you need a separate pass for each side of the country. I’ve found that as well as the difference in rail cards, there’s also a difference in culture, names and language. I used to live in the east side of the country and had no problems understanding people throughout Tohoku and Kanto. In fact, I was really confident in my Japanese ability; until I visited west Japan. I found myself feeling lost and had difficulty understanding a lot of the people I met. I can only put this down to an east/west divide.
I feel there’s a noticeable difference in culture and a big part of hip-hop and rap music specifically is reflecting the culture you come from. Because Tokona represented Nagoya, a lot of his persona should also have represented this part of Japan. The first thing I noticed about him was his voice and then I’d say the second thing was his attitude; his persona. I attribute these things to his location and find this part of Japanese rap music culture very interesting. Learning about it is something that will take a long time to understand, but it’s something I look forward to doing.
N.B. The situation regarding rail passes in Japan is a little more complicated than suggested here, but I thought it best to keep things simple to illustrate the point.