I was recently able to visit the 052 Nagoya area on holiday. The trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about Tokona’s home first-hand and a desire to return for a longer stay some time in the future. Continue reading
Although Tokona-X was born in Kanagawa, he moved to Aichi, where he built his rap career. There are small parts of his history available online which make interesting reading, but don’t actually tell us much; especially if we’re not so familiar with Japan. In his lyrics, I understand part of the message about his hood from things I know to be true in English rap music, like Tokona talking about his hood must mean the area he grew up in. But in this case, it’s an area he moved to, so I have to question if that’s really his hood. I guess because he feels connected to that area, then that is his ‘hood’.
The Move from Kanagawa to Aichi
Born in Yokohama, a large city with a big population. He lived there for several years before making the move from Kanagawa prefecture towards West Japan. I presume he moved there before his teen years, but I’ve not been able to find any information about that yet. Kanagawa is a part of the Kanto region and is quite built up for the most part, but has some areas that are quite rural. It’s a place with huge populations near to Tokyo, but also has towns with much smaller populations. Yokohama itself has the largest China Town Asia and is well worth a visit.
He moved because of family reasons, but there is not much information available that would tell us what those reasons were, so it remains a mystery. I think there are clues to be discovered in his song ‘Where’s My Hood?’, but that’s just a guess from the title of the track. Hopefully I can find out more about both Tokoname and why he moved there by listening to the rap lyrics in that song. I still think there will be many questions unanswered because if it really did provide a lot of answers, they would have been made available in Japanese language sources already, but I haven’t found many details yet.
Tokoname – Tokona’s New Home
He moved to Tokoname, a coastal city south of Nagoya which is the reason he chose the moniker Tokona-X. When written in Katakana (Tokoname = トコナメ), the characters can be read as Tokona (トコナ) and the letter ‘X’ (メ) since the character ‘メ'(me) looks like the letter ‘X’. In his songs, he mentions the area by number on many occasions. Tokoname has an ‘052’ telephone dialling code. At first, I thought this may be in reference to a postal code, but the ‘052’ postal code, for example 〒 052-0100, refers to Hokkaido. I’m not familiar with rappers talking about their phone code as they usually mention the area they have lived and grown up in, but he’s still talking about a specific area. Tokona-X bot on twitter lists its location as 052. Clicking its location link doesn’t take you anywhere, but 052 is definitely where Tokona is from; it’s just not his postal code. This is why I think he must have been young when he moved to Tokoname because he spoke about it so much to make sure we associated it with him. It also must be the place that formed the character we know and love.
His Hood is 052
At the time of his popularity, there weren’t many rappers from West Japan or the Nagoya area, so to be as popular as he was, he was somewhat of a novelty. With the exception of Twigy, he pretty much had free reign over the area. Tokona-X clearly took great pride in the city of Tokoname, which is why he made sure he told us that he was from that city and regularly mentioned it when he rapped. In some ways, it’s as if he realised that because he wasn’t really from the area, it was necessary to express his love for it on a regular basis.
A rapper’s ‘hood’ forms an extremely important part of his image, so it was important for Tokona to choose his hood and stick by it. We can assume that he must have moved to Tokoname at a young age because he shows how much he is attached to it and Tokoname formed a lot of his rap persona. I don’t think it would have been as easy or realistic for him to represent Yokohama if he hadn’t been living there during his teenage years when he developed into a man. I’m sure that Tokoname and the city of Nagoya are proud of Tokona and thanks to him, the seemingly endless list of rappers from the Tokyo area could be broken and one of Japan’s best rappers is known as a resident of Nagoya.
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.
I was recently reading a site that mentioned Tokona had beef with Sapporo’s finest, Boss tha Emcee. I have to wonder how a situation like this came about if it’s even true since the two cities of Nagoya and Sapporo are so far apart. But I guess anything is possible in the world of rap music.
I’m not even sure which tracks Tokona used to diss Boss, but I can remember that Tha Blue Herb (TBH) have a song on an album called Rap Wars Donpachi upon which Tokona-X also appears with two members of M.O.S.A.D; Akira and Equal. I’ve listened to TBH’s song which is called Hokubu Sensen Ijō Nashi (北部戦線異常なし) many times and clearly remember Boss saying ‘rap wars’, but didn’t really think anything of it until I came across white sweater’s live door blog. I must question why I didn’t think Tokona had really dissed other artists.
There’s one clear diss track that Tokona-X made before he died which is called ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW), but I thought of this more as a one off. In the song, he talks about someone in the industry; someone who knows nothing about show business at all. The subject of Tokona’s attack is also a ‘playa hater’. Could that really be Boss tha Emcee?
As someone whose Japanese isn’t the most advanced, it’s hard enough to keep up with the general content of each song without paying very close attention most of the time, so it’s possible I’ll miss a lot of complicated wordplay which is just as much a motif of Japanese rap music as it is in English. That makes finding the tracks and specific lines where Tokona-X disses Boss even more difficult. My best option is probably to read as much as possible on blogs to find the clues needed and put the pieces together.
In one way, it’s disappointing to discover that two artists I like had beef, but on the other hand, it’s quite exciting. One of the most exciting things about rap is listening to the diss tracks. If Tokona did beef with Boss, then I aim to find out where they beefed and ultimately the reason for their beef.
I’ve discovered a treasure trove of information about Tokona on a social media site called Mixi. It’s like the Japanese version of Facebook and many people gather there to discuss things, plan events and meet new friends with similar interests.
I found a group called Tokona-X, which seems to be quite active. It’ll take me a while to get into it, but I should be able to learn more things about Tokona by firstly reading as much as possible, then by asking a few questions myself.
I think it’ll be hard going at first as I get used to reading Japanese again, especially as it appears that most of the language will be some form of dialect/ non standard Japanese. Hopefully it will become easier after a while. In any case, this should be a real help towards my goal of showing the English speaking world who Tokona was.
I often find I need to correct myself about Tokona. You see, the problem is, I forget that he’s dead. I always first think ‘he is’, ‘he does’, ‘his performances are’. I don’t seem to be accepting that he’s no longer with us and often think about ‘what makes him such a great performer’, rather than what made him such a great performer.
I think it’s partly because Japan is a world away. With other dead rappers like the Notorious B.I.G, Tupac or Big Pun, there’s no forgetting because of how high profile they are in English speaking Hip-Hop culture. There are also a horde of other rappers that constantly mention them. This isn’t the case (or I’m not aware of it being the case) with Japanese Hip-Hop culture and Tokona-X, so I don’t get that constant reminder.
While there are a lack of reminders (for me at least), in my own small world, it is his music that keeps him alive. Recording a voice and digitising it now means that even once the person in the recording has passed away, their voice is preserved perfectly. I can hear every breath he took throughout his songs and see how he acted in videos. This is the same as even living artists that I haven’t and may never be able to see in real life, so without those constant reminders, I find it easy to forget that he’s not around any more.
I often forget Tokona is no longer with us, mostly because of the what he left behind. The most important thing to remember is that if we can do good work on this earth, it will live on after our death. As the 10th anniversary of his passing approaches, I wonder what will happen to mark the occasion in Japan? I’m sure I’m not the only person in the UK that remembers him, but I can’t see there being any events happening here. In Japan, I hope there will be parties and club events in Nagoya at least. No doubt, there must be thousands of fans and artists alike in Japan who still have fond memories of him.
If you know of any events or are organising any, please let me know in the comments. Japanese is also okay.
There are three versions of events surrounding Tokona’s death, asking the question ‘did he die, or was he murdered?’ All versions leave us with more questions than we had to begin with. The only true conclusion we can get from each version is that his death was untimely. It wasn’t the right time for him to die, in the prime of his life and at a promising stage of his career, but in each scenario, a set of factors came together and lead to his passing. There’s a public or ‘official’ reason for his death, a second, potentially more honest account and an a third reason involving Yakuza and murder.
The Official Story
As anyone that has lived in Japan will know that the summer months can be very uncomfortable. They are unbearably hot, extremely humid and have the power to sap your energy completely. In the north of the country, the hot, humid months come and go reasonably quickly, preceded by the rainy season known as Plum Rain or Taiyou (梅雨) in Japanese. The far south in Okinawa is perpetually tropical, but towards the middle latitudes of the country, the heat of summer is prolonged and the hot, humid months seem that much more intense because of that.
It’s often a good idea to stay indoors as much as possible, enjoying your air conditioning. One summer, I was deep in conversation with an old man who runs a restaurant I love to visit and he said he hadn’t gone outside all summer. I asked him ‘why haven’t you been outside all summer?’ and he responded ‘because I’ll die!’ We shared a laugh together, but the serious truth is that the heat really can drain your energy.
Officially, Tokona died of heart failure. He’d been struggling all summer with heat stroke, then in November, he suffered a cardiac arrest from which he did not recover. While still quite a warm month in Nagoya, I wonder why it was this, much cooler and less humid month that he passed away.
Cocaine seems to be a popular drug with stars in the West and despite their strict drug laws, it way also be popular in the East. Drugs seem to be readily available in Japan if you can find the right person, as every few months, a celebrity becomes embroiled in a drug scandal; usually related to marijuana.
It is said that Tokona had links to the Japanese underground and if this is true, it’s likely that he could have gotten his hands on cocaine. Certainly, videos like ‘I Just Wanna’ and at the beginning of ‘Densetsu’ (伝説), meaning ‘legend’, a video that appears to have been put together by a fan and shows a live performance of ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW) mixed together with part of a promotional video, Tokona can be ‘clearly’ seen preparing something and taking that something.
He may have had an overdose or taken too much of a bad batch, which ultimately lead to his downfall. If this was the case, it’s highly unlikely that it would be made public as I’m not sure his family or the record label would enjoy that kind of publicity in Japan.
Of course, his drug taking could have been all a show; a show that may have taken him into the firing line of the Japanese Mafia.
Murdered by Gangsters
The last scenario, that Tokona-X was killed by Yakuza, is the most intriguing. the theory behind an underworld murder is that Tokona’s personality clashed with what is expected in the underworld. Tokona was an extrovert, which is what made him such a good performer, but it’s this persona that could have put him at odds with the underground.
As is the case in the rest of Japanese society, one should be humble and not draw attention to oneself or ones activities; unless those activities cast you in a wholly positive light. This is in direct opposition to the gangster rapper persona which Tokona did so well. Being a ‘loud-mouth’ serves no purpose but to put you onto the radar of people who didn’t want the spotlight to fall on them should something go wrong.
It has been said that there are some Yakuza who helped him get into the position he was, but his showmanship and big mouth put him at odds with them. Tokona was happy to talk about his sexual exploits and make reference to his drug taking habits. This is the kind of thing that might have annoyed those who had been backing him. With Tokona out of line, the best way to shut him up could have been to supply him with a bad batch of drugs and allow him to indulge himself.
So What’s the Truth?
Of the three probable scenarios, it’s not possible to come to a definite conclusion as they’re all logical and entirely possible. As with most things, the official reason probably contains some of the truth, though not all of it. The truth is most likely to be a combination of the official story and the drug overdose. Many stars in the west have been a victim of their own drug habit and there’s no reason why the same couldn’t be true of a Japanese star.
On the other hand, if he did do something wrong or make a mistake, did he deserve to die? If there’s truth behind the suggestion that he moved in Yakuza circles, he would have been aware of what he should and should not have been doing. The problem could have been his youth; young men often believe that they’re invincible. Instead of doing what was expected of him, it’s very possible that he instead did whatever he felt like doing to enjoy his fame.
Whatever the reason for his death, be it murder, an accident or simply of natural causes, only those closest to him will know the truth. The only things we can be sure of is that 26 is too young to die and in 2004, we lost one of the great Japanese rappers who was yet to show us all of his potential.
We all dream of meeting our heroes in the flesh and sometimes dreams are all we have. I recently re-discovered a few of Tokona’s live videos. I’ve seen some before, several years ago, but got interested in a few of the suggestions at the end of another Tokona video I was watching and decided to check them out.
My favorite one is actually three songs mixed together with the live audio and video, then the live video and studio recording. ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW) is followed by ‘I’m in Charge’, then ‘Nexxxt Big Thing’. For me, hearing him on a track is a powerful experience. The thought of seeing him live would be one of the greatest things I could do; but unfortunately, that will never be possible.
When he takes to the stage, he seems to be in a new place, up there doing his own thing to entertain the crowd without worrying about anything else. He’s quite aggressive and yet relaxed very happy in his own skin to be doing something he enjoys and that’s the way to get the crowd going crowd going. It’s got to be the excitement he generates by his gestures and the way he looks at the crowd. A big part of Hip-Hop is entertaining the audience and that’s the reason rap music came about; a way to entertain the crowd. It’s as though the relaxed way he goes about his art is because that was his calling and that comes through in his mannerisms. That’s the original reason I began listening to him. He was doing something different from the other Japanese rappers, but in a way that felt natural and as though he was making a contribution to the art form.
Of the rap and non rap music artists I’ve seen, he is more aggressive and that’s what you’d expect. Even so, everything he does is controlled and calculated The brand of rap music Tokona performs is one that relies even more on having the attitude that you’re the best, you’re on top and nobody comes close. He pulls this persona off really well, having a stage presence to match the content of his lyrics.
Props also come into play with the performances. The sweat towel is his strongest prop, being there to wipe his brow and whip the audience into a frenzy. The second weapon he makes good use of is the crotch grab. I’m not sure what he’s trying to find in his pants, but he seems to find it and whips it out to the delight of the audience. Perhaps it’s the sweat towel he’s looking for? The third prop is the use of hype men. They’re perhaps the weakest part of the display in that sometimes, it looks as though they’re just there to make up numbers in this particular video. However, it’s not possible to hear everything that’s going on and they don’t do any rapping in this particular montage, so
Recorded, Tokona sounds so energetic and passionate. Of course, I’ve only seen and heard recordings of his live performances, but he really comes to life as if he was right in front of me performing. Being able to actually see someone do something they clearly enjoy and were born to do is a great feeling. From the change in excitement I feel from his recordings to the live performances, I think he’d be a sight to behold in the flesh. All I can do now, is seek out more of his live shows and dream of what could have been.
After a bit of messing about, I’ve finally finished my first translation of T-X’s work.
It’s the skit from Tokai X Teio, where Tokona calls up some of his female friends to invite them out to the club. It’s just the usual conversations one would have with friends before a night out, but presumably, Tokona has a few more calls to make than most of us would.