For the b-boys of Japan, perfection is as sacred as it gets.

Hip hop historians are big fans of ‘soul’ – that mythical inner state that makes you realer than real. But what happens when ‘spirit’ is packed in a box and shipped out to every corner of the globe? Can anyone learn what it means to ‘feel’ the beat? For the lockers, poppers and b-boys of Japan, perfection is as sacred as it gets.

Studio Coast is a grey warehouse in a sea of grey warehouses on Tokyo’s waterfront. On a blistering September day, I squint at the club’s facade through waves of midday heat and feel sure that I’ve got the wrong place. The parking lot is deserted and a skinny guy with an earphone guards one unassuming door. But then the door opens slightly and the low, chest-rattling rumble of heavy bass slips out. I pay 3,000 yen (£24), walk in, and as soon as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I find myself waist-deep in throngs of mini hip hoppers. They are children, apparently, dressed like every hip hop archetype from the last twenty years. There are track-suited b-boys shining their Adidas shell toes; zoot-suited poppers and lockers; enough Crips and Bloods to make a vice squad nervous; and a couple of kids straight out of Snoop Dogg’s What’s My Name? video. Then there are the parents – mothers and even grandmothers – doting, adjusting outfits and fixing hair. And what hair it is: crimped, braided, dyed and permed into various amalgamations of African-American styles, from Afros to cornrows and dreadlocks, too.

This isn’t some sort of fucked-up beauty pageant. It’s DANCE@LIVE FINAL 2011, one of the biggest hip hop battles of the year. Many of Japan’s best dancers, kids and adults alike, are here to prove themselves. The main dance floor is situated in a room larger than most cathedrals with a stage for the deejays flanked by twenty-two giant speakers, stacked on top of one another until they reach the forty-foot ceiling. When the music stops, an emcee greets the crowd and explains the setup. Then, with a cry of, “Ikimashooooo!” (“Let’s go!”) the beat thunders down on us like a revelation and MC T-Pain belts out: “Take your motherfucking shirts off!” The kids form circles around groups of judges and begin to enter one by one to dance. The grandmothers go bananas.

Japanese hip hop, like most present-day Japanese cultures, really starts with ‘Little Boy’ – the thinly veiled codename for the atomic bomb that landed on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and sent a mushroom cloud of destruction up into the air. In the largest ‘you broke it, you fix it’ deal of all time, America rebuilt Japan and like most things Americans do, they did so in their own image. Economically, it was a success. But these types of deals always carry some ticklish fine print.

“A pseudo-Japan manufactured from US-produced material is now the only thing left in our grasp,” writes social scientist Hiroki Azuma in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. “We can only construct an image of the Japanese cityscape by picturing family restaurants, convenience stores, and ‘love hotels’. And it is, moreover, within this impoverished premise that we have long exercised our distorted imaginary [sic].”

Enter hip hop – a combination of imperialism and artistic expression, stirred together and left to percolate in a teeming, cultural Petri dish. When urban beats and funk from New York – one of Japan’s most revered cultural reference points – infiltrated the country in the eighties, the kids in Tokyo and Osaka started dressing in Hammer pants and listening to Bobby Brown while doing the New Jack Swing on street corners. The first distinctly hip hop dance styles came over in 1983, when New York b-boys the Rock Steady Crew toured the country and the seminal dance movie Wild Style premiered.

But hip hop didn’t catch on as a full-blown trend until the early nineties with the arrival of American music videos. More popular than any of these was Dance Koshien, a weekly TV show that aired on Sunday nights featuring embryonic Japanese dance crews showcasing different styles of dance, from New Jack to popping and locking. Like Soul Train in America, it was the fashion and stylistic benchmark for an entire generation of dancers. By 1996, Stefan ‘Mr. Wiggles’ Clemente, one of the most respected popping and locking dancers in history, declared that Osaka had one of the best popping scenes in the world.

The four most popular street dance styles – b-boying, hip hop, house and freestyle (a combination of all three) – have been exported to nations around the world. But arguably no one has adopted them with the same meticulous attention to detail as the Japanese. Take for example Tokyo’s godfather of hip hop, Masayuki ‘DJ Mar’ Imanaga, one of the men behind the decks at Studio Coast. Mar grew up in the South of Japan and moved to Tokyo in the New Jack era specifically to study hip hop. He now travels the world deejaying, collecting and cataloguing all that is hip hop. In Tokyo, he runs a shop located in a basement in Harajuku – the bleached-blonde, fake-eyelashed, designer-bedecked capital of Tokyo youth fashion – called Dancers Collection [sic] that is a one-stop street culture outfitters-cum-shrine to hip hop paraphernalia. It’s what you might expect Afrika Bambaataa’s attic to look like: old-school high tops, most of James Brown’s musical catalogue, day-glow spray paint, seventies’ blaxploitation films, John Singleton flicks, turntables, autographed DVDs of famous breakdancing battles, giant medallions and three-fingered rings – doo-rags, caps, instructional videos and god knows what else.

“I’m into soul and funk beats from the sixties and seventies because I really don’t think they’ve passed their sell-by-dates,” he says, with a fan-boy grin when I interview him in the shop. Like many enthusiasts, Mar relishes the forgotten and obscure. “People don’t always like it, but I tell them, ‘This is what the masters played, this is where it all comes from.’ If I don’t take what the people who came before me have learned and try to pass it on, then hip hop will die out. I want people to make new music and progress, but I want them to do it knowing all the classics. So I see it as my job to pass it on.”

Respect for what has come before is repeated like a mantra in the Japanese dance community, much like Western dancers talk about ‘freshness’ or ‘originality’. It allows a deejay at Studio Coast to drop a little-played classic like Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ without any hint of irony. Initially I want to sneer, but I end up bouncing along instead.

***

Battling is a game of improvisation – taking skills learned in practice and linking them spontaneously in a way that will hopefully please both the crowd and judges. In Japan, technique is learned in classes that teach just about every dance form imaginable. The schedule outside a tiny basement studio beneath the eternal neon twilight of Shibuya lists: LA Style Jazz, Jazz Hip Hop, Hip Hop, Waacking, Commercial Hip Hop, Locking, Popping, Punking, Creation, Power Moves, Seto and Rhythm Tap, among roughly fifty separate classes taught every week. After class, dancers practise what they have learned, sometimes all night long, in front of train stations and in parks like Yoyogi Koen, until they are impeccable.

Impeccable is a pretty good adjective for the dancers battling at Studio Coast today. Many are so technically proficient that personal style almost disappears. The notable exceptions to this are the foreign dancers scattered throughout the room, who seem eager to bust out never-before-seen moves. But while they progress through the prelims, most fail to crack the semis.

British dancer Michael ‘Bagsy’ Oladele has come to Japan specifically to dance. “The scene in Japan is incredible compared to London. Where I live in Osaka, there are parties where you can just go and throw down almost every night. One of the joys of dancing is being part of this big group,” he says, motioning around the room. “One thing I really admire about the Japanese is the mentality they bring to things. They focus on something and follow through with it. That’s why you have all these parents here. They put both money and time into it – they bring their kids from Osaka [three hours away] just to battle at these events. The downside of the group is that sometimes it encourages people not to try different things because they might be disrespected. It’s not as much about creativity; it’s about finding out what others are doing and following it.”

This dovetails with a trend DJ Mar explained to me: often, when a Japanese dancer becomes famous and makes a pilgrimage to an established dance capital, like Paris or LA, other dancers may follow him, seeking to emulate not only his style but his life experience, as well.

“Originally, kids in the ghetto developed some of these dances as a way of breaking out, of distinguishing themselves,” says Bagsy. “I wish the Japanese wouldn’t mimic so much; don’t just make it Mickey Mouse.”

After the adult prelims, a group of foreign dancers gather in the VIP room. They are part of the second generation of Western dancers to come to Japan as a way of increasing their personal stocks as performers and teachers. The practice dates back to the beginning of the decade when a crew of Michael Jackson’s backup dancers, called Elite Force, toured Japan teaching classes. As ‘well-known’ Western dancers – and black men to boot – they found a large audience hoping to soak up both their knowledge and supposed authenticity. Foreign dancers, especially those of African descent, still enjoy a sort of ‘magical negro’ status among some Japanese dancers as people who get hip hop on a level that is impossible for the Japanese. It hasn’t helped anyone today though. They are in foul moods after losing. Their criticisms range from xenophobia to judging favouritism, and most damning: soullessness.

A dancer named Kareem ‘Ten’ Glover, who has taught in Japan for three years, sums up the opinion. “We’ve got this aggression in America. It’s what we feel. Crazy beats will just trigger you; they’ll turn you on. Here in Japan, their dancing is more of a showcase. The kids are often better than the adults because they haven’t had style stripped out of them by teachers. These dancers can technical their lives away, but the feeling and soul are missing.”

Ten is adamant that learning to dance has nothing to do with race, but his words touch on that loaded (and ignorant) Western question: do the Japanese have soul? The academic E. Taylor Adkins, in his essay Can Japanese Sing The Blues?, calls it a symptom of “the illusion that Japan is a ‘nation of imitators,’ psychologically incapable of originality and socialised to devalue creativity.” The stereotype has famously haunted Japanese jazz musicians and is the particular bane of Japan’s dancers due to the international nature of the battle scene. Unlike say, rappers, they are defined by how they rate against their counterparts in other countries. And the ‘soulless’ stereotype is so wide-spread that many Japanese believe it about themselves.

“Japanese people really love to dance and of course, they have a lot of feeling, but they don’t know how to use it or express it to people,” says Hiroyuki ‘Hiro’ Suzuki, in soft, idiomatic English. We’re sitting backstage at Studio Coast where the walls are so well soundproofed that only the bass from the music is still noticeable. Suzuki is widely considered to be one of the best house dancers in the world. If he has a hard time expressing himself through dance, it doesn’t show. Tonight he’s judging. “We are trying to communicate with people from other countries in order to try to understand ‘feeling’ and ‘spirit’,” he says. “American dancers always seem to have a lot of flavour because they are the originators. Other countries are getting good now, but still they [Americans] have something, like, you know… original flavour.”

When I suggest he stop looking to the exterior and simply create something new, he smiles ruefully. “As a dancer I can innovate, but I have to respect what came before. I have to understand everything about the history of house dancing and bring all that on board with me. So I make something new, but not really original. That’s more comfortable for me as a Japanese person – we always respect the originals. We are sort of in-between in this way, but making something original is very difficult because of the Japanese people’s identity. We are always innovating something but never making something new.” He pauses for a second to think, then says: “We are very good at making one to ten, but we can’t make zero to one.”

I ask if he feels that way about himself. “Yes. Sometimes I do. Some people have said that my style is really innovative, but it wasn’t… from me. Remember how we were saying that we have a spirit, but we don’t know how to express it? I think it’s because if we stop to think, we think too much.”

***

James ‘Cricket’ Coulter sits on a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Like Suzuki, he’s one of the most respected house dancers in the world. Unlike Suzuki, he’s from New York. Although he’s already lost, he’s more philosophical about it than some of the others. “I’m almost forty years old, so I grew up in the freestyle era. These kids on street corners were literally changing the world every time they came up with new moves,” he says. “Back then, it was all about taking concepts and making them into your own style. Now these kids are learning the style.”

This isn’t just a Japanese issue, he clarifies – YouTube has single-handedly homogenised the entire dance world. “It used to be that the LA kids danced like this, the DC kids danced like this, the Boston kids danced like this, the French kids danced like this. Now, if you have your own style and it’s embraced globally, it won’t be your style for long.”

Below us, a girl of perhaps twelve, dressed in Kanye West-inspired preppy clothes, is systematically dismantling a teenage jazz dancer in the kids’ final. She goes by the dance name MU-*. No one is able to clarify how that is pronounced. She knows the steps her opponent is using and copies each one as soon as they’re thrown down. It’s a crushing display of disdain. Her parents are thrilled.

Colter adds: “I’ve always looked at it as a blessing to have been born in America with the culture that we have, but it isn’t being passed down here the way it should be. It’s partially our fault for the way we have sold and shipped hip hop to the rest of the world. I mean, dancers come here to teach, but a lot of them can’t give much of the culture because they can’t speak the language. I watched a documentary in the States the other day that called Russell Simmons one of the founding fathers of hip hop. Russell Simmons isn’t one of the founding fathers of hip hop; he was just the first to figure out how to sell it.”

The music changes and two new dancers enter the centre of the room, which everyone has circled around for the final battles. It’s the b-boy semifinal and a short kid dressed in black takes the floor. “Woah, hold up. See that kid there?” Colter points. “Beast mode.”

The dancer is Taisuke ‘Taisuke’ Nonaka. In roughly four years, he has battled his way to the very top of the international breakdancing scene and shattered many of the preconceived notions about Japanese dancers along the way.

If dancing is an international language, battling is a dialect that is only concerned with saying one thing – “Fuck you” – and the tiny twenty-one-year-old speaks it like few others. He glares, he taunts, he imitates – he looks like he might just smack his opponent in the head. It’s enthralling to watch, but what really makes him stand out are his sets. In a one-on-one battle, dancers typically get two sets apiece to show their abilities. Taisuke’s are among the shortest in the world. This is a ballsy and rare strategy in the international b-boying scene because it leaves no room for error: a long set gives the judges more to think about, allowing for small errors and fumbles; a short set has to be perfect.

“I kind of Jekyll and Hyde when I’m dancing,” he tells me later, in a dance studio located in the basement of a nondescript apartment building in the fashionable neighbourhood of Roppongi. “I guess it’s because it’s the one thing that really allows me to express myself. A battle is like a fight or an argument. If you are going to fight someone, you have to do it properly, you can’t take any half measures, you owe it to yourself to do it properly.”

Like Mar, who mentored him when he moved to Tokyo, alone, to dance while still in his teens, Taisuke is an unabashed hip hop nerd. “In the beginning I was learning a lot of different moves, but it wasn’t until 2007, when I was sixteen, that I realised I’d been getting it all wrong; in order to be a real b-boy you have to learn all the hip hop culture and history,” he says. It’s worth noting that “the beginning” for Taisuke was the first eight years of his dancing career. This little anecdote is not unique in Japan: a person can practice a discipline for a long time, but it’s only when he applies himself to the deep study of said discipline that he truly becomes a master. In fact, Taisuke’s words are strikingly similar to the introduction to The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on swordsmanship written by the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi in 1645.

When I ask him if more traditional Japanese culture can be mixed with hip hop dancing, he’s unequivocal. “In Japan, we totally have culture we could draw on and pour into hip hop. We have the bushido spirit – the code of the samurai. We’ve been a fighting people for years and years and, if we wanted to, we could put that into our dancing. But say a Japanese person put a ninja-inspired move into their dancing. In Japan, people would be like, ‘That’s really wack.’ But abroad, people would be really into it. In Japan people are worried about what others will think about them, which is a shame.”

The strange paradox of being less Japanese in order to be ‘authentic’ and therefore ‘more Japanese’ defines many of this country’s current cultural pursuits. But at the highest levels, it’s a fallacy, says MIT professor Ian Condry, one of those rare and wonderful people with both a PHD and a working knowledge of Jay-Z’s music catalogue. “It’s a mistake to think there is some place you can come from and be deemed authentic,” he says. “I’ve always felt that when it comes to good dancers, if they are really talented dancers, they’ve spent a lot of time working on it. If you’re good, then on some level you have paid your dues, and that’s part of the authenticity question.”

Taisuke, along with Hiro and dancers like Osaka-based popper Akihito ‘Gucchon’ Yamaguchi, have the rare ability to literally send chills down your spine. Whether that ability is a product of intense study, innate soul, or some combination of the two is ultimately irrelevant. When they dance they become like all great improvisers who, in the words of Jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, are “thinking only of their God”. Taisuke wins the semi easily and goes on to take the final.

When I call Takeshi ‘DJ Tee’ Yamamura, Osaka’s go-to-guy for all things dance, to ask about authenticity, he laughs and says, “Yes, we Japanese are good at copying everything,” then he quickly turns serious. “It’s also a matter of respect. When you really respect the originals you want to dance like them. Gucchon, for example, is one of the best here in Osaka, and there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest on earth right now. He’s got so much passion and expression in his dance… maybe he’s too special to be Japanese?”

In his joke lies the catch twenty-two: a derivative Japanese dancer proves the Western stereotype, while an innovative Japanese dancer, instead of breaking it, is somehow not Japanese.

The West cherishes the concept of ‘universal languages’ because it reinforces the ideal that Westerners are somehow benevolent, cosmopolitan types. The truth is that we lecture and command very well in our ‘universal’ languages, but we aren’t very good at listening in them. “People call hip hop in Japan inauthentic because it doesn’t reinforce our Western image of Japan,” says Condry. “When you meet these dancers who say hip hop dancing in Japan is derivative, you should ask them what they think about how hip hop is being transmitted in the West. I think a lot of them will criticise that too. I’ve been to a lot of bad hip hop events in the United States; we tend to forget that not everyone is Jay-Z or Kanye. These same American cats say plenty of Americans aren’t really doing it right. The difference is that in Japan, they coat it differently; in Japan they say it’s because they are Japanese. It’s harsh to call this kind of opinion racism, but it’s a misunderstanding of the way race shapes our world. Americans don’t like to talk about race and class, so in the case of hip hop, these notions get filtered through the language of authenticity.”

***

It’s around ten at night when I step out of Studio Coast, back into the claustrophobic bedlam of Tokyo. The kids are still buzzing about the finals, making moves they saw and memorising them for later. The older dancers are more subdued, back on their mobiles, arranging rides or heading for the train. There are no fights, no spontaneous battles, no one rolling by in cars with loud sound systems. I stand in the train station and watch the dancers disperse into the crowd. In about ten minutes, the baggy trousers, expensive Afros, and sideways baseball caps have all dissolved into another balmy Tokyo night. If you hadn’t been inside Studio Coast, you wouldn’t have known this world even existed.

What I’ve seen today is hip hop alright, just not as I know it. As I wait for my own train on the crowded platform, something that Taisuke said floats through my head. “I’d like to be able to identify with American hip hop,” he says, “but I can never know all the lyrics and get all the meaning. To put it another way, if foreigners were listening to Japanese songs, they could probably understand some of it, but they are never going to get all of it. You can only go so far, really, in identifying with another country.”