The question: What is Shibuya Genba? The answer: It’s clear and easy to understand, but the background to it needs a little explaining. Before writing a load of articles, essays, transcripts of lyrics and cultural analysis, it would be useful to explain what Shibuya Genba is, and how it came about.
Why I Became Interested In Japan
It all started around 12 years ago in 2001. I am a football fan and enjoy catching the latest Champions League game whenever I can and playing in matches whenever I can. As all football fans will know, the World Cup comes around every four years and the next tournament was due to take place in 2002. It was the first time the world cup would be held outside of Europe or the Americas. In fact, USA 94 was the first time in its 64 year history that the tournament was held outside of either Europe, or South America. It was João Havelange that began a change of attitude within FIFA that saw the World Cup hosted on another continent for the first time. This change of attitude continued under the stewardship of Sepp Blatter, in stark contrast to the reign of Sir Stanley Rous. This has both positive and negative aspects, as Tim Vickery alludes to in his blog post, which is essentially a recent history of attitudes in FIFA and the impact FIFA’s changing attitude is having on the game.
The first tournament I could remember was USA 94, but my memories of that summer are not that vivid. I remember the golden locks of Valderrama and the theme tune I later realised was from West Side Story. World Cup France 98 is the first one I remember very well, so 2002 in Japan and Korea was one I could really enjoy. I had always been interested in the world and its people, so this was a great opportunity to learn about the Far East. I was open to learning about both Japan and Korea, searching out opportunities to find out more about their languages and cultures. At the time, however, there was more information available about Japan. I was able to attend a few classes at a local language school as well as participating in a few cultural events related to Japan. I studied Japanese with some great people and had a teacher who fed my growing interest in Japan. While studying, I became aware of the JET Programme through one of my fellow students, and there began my journey to Japan.
Interest in Japanese Music
My interest in Japanese music was helped by the fact that in comparison to Korea, there seemed to be a lot more material and information available on the internet. I was yet to gain an understanding of Japanese and I had no interest in Anime, so music was my way of becoming closer to Japan. At first, I began searching for Japanese rock music. Rock is quite ‘mainstream’ while still being a little underground to me (at the time), so I thought it would be a genre that would get me a lot of results if I searched for it on the internet. I did try to look for some Rap, but I couldn’t find anything, so I had to think of another strategy. It was Rock that threw up a lot of results and I found a short clip of X-Japan’s hit “X”, which is a tune I still love today. My search for more of their material continued and by chance, I came across musicwhore.org, which gave me a window into the Japanese music scene. Musicwhore looks a lot different today than it did back then, with a darker skin and decked out with Japanese music. After a short while, I quickly realised that there was a lot more to Japanese music than Rock, or X-Japan.
I started looking at more pop artists, as they were quite abundant on Musicwhore from what I remember of that time. They all had an angle, such as sounding more traditionally Japanese, R’n’B, or Soul. Perhaps that was the way Musicwhore could introduce people to something as off the beaten track as the artists reviewed are to a western audience. I can remember Chitose Hajime, Riina Shingo, Utada Hikaru and ACO quite clearly. I never really got into Chitose or Riina, but I became a fan of Utada and ACO. At first, it was Utada Hikaru who I listened to religiously. I would say my interest was fuelled by her albums and her back story, trying to get a record deal in America for an album she had written before she was even 18. I enjoyed her vocals and the melodies were catchy. Yes, her work is very Pop, but at the time, I think the fact it wasn’t in English is what made it interesting. For example, two of my classmates, who were from Hong Kong, recommended me the group Cookies. They are a girl group similar to Morning Musume (as many familiar with Japanese music in the early 2000s will know about), and I quite liked their music. Although straight pop, I think the different language is what made Cookie’s music interesting to me. I was also listening to ACO at that time and came to prefer her to Hikaru. I remember surmising that Utada was the better singer, but ACO was more interesting; I preferred her vocal style and the Jazz melodies. A very capable singer, I got lost in ACO’s voice and deep beats for hours on end. I remain indebted to ACO, because it is she who introduced me to Japanese Rap music.
Introduction to Japanese Rap
I always liked the way ACO allowed me to drift off into another world, so naturally I was always on the lookout for her stuff. One day, I came across the track “Grateful Days” by Dragon Ash. It’s quite a happy, poppy, mellow tune, but with a nice, strong beat that pushes it towards the Rap music side of the scale. The only reason I listened to it was because ACO was a featured artist, but when Zeebra came on the track, it changed the game forever. Little did I know then how the words 俺は東京生まれ Hip-Hop 育ち (Ore wa Tokyo umare Hip-Hop sodachi – I was born in Tokyo and grew up with Hip-Hop around me) would have an effect on me. Another track ACO featured on was “Tragicomic” by DJ Krush. This track also featured Twigy, who quickly became one of my favourite Rappers; regardless of nationality. DJ Krush is a great producer, known to underground Rap fans through his affiliation with artists like Mos Def. I’m sure DJ Krush worked on the Def Jam (or similar as he was signed to the Mo’ Wax) label, where he met Mos Def and Black Thought. This is an area I’ll be exploring when I write about DJ Krush as I remember it from my extensive research when I first heard of DJ Krush. At the time, I was excited by Krush more than any other artist because I could go to the shop and pick up his albums. I bought every last one of them and held his work in high regard. DJing is an integral part of Hip-Hop culture, so he formed an integral part of my interest in the Japanese Hip-Hop scene, introducing me to several other artists. These three conduits moved me in three very distinct directions owing to their collaborative efforts with other artists.
Zeebra moved me into a more commercial area, where the beats were there to be popular and the flow was the product of something that had been refined over time. He moved me towards the Tokyo side of things and I was able to get into the popular acts of the 2000s, including those signed to Atomic Bomb recordings and members of the Ubarian Gym (UBG). That “party rap” commercial side revolved around the Shibuya area of Tokyo. Twigy, hailing from Nagoya, was also quite commercial, yet more closely connected to the underground in my eyes, because his music wasn’t so “bling bling” clean lines in comparison with the Tokyo based rappers. Twigy strikes me as being more old school, purely because of the style he adopts. Yes, Zeebra and his group King Giddra were also around in the 90s and have produced more old school sounding tracks, but they have also crossed into more modern zones, something Twigy has not. Perhaps my feelings are influenced by the fact that Zeebra’s material was becoming more mainstream at the time I began listening to him?
DJ Krush got me listening to more underground music such as Tha Blue Herb and alerted me to various other DJ’s with whom he collaborated. I initially heard Tha Blue Herb’s song “Chie No Wa” on Crush’s Code 4109 album and was fascinated by Boss Tha MC’s flow. Their work is really hard to come by and I was eternally grateful to a Japanese guy I used to know for introducing me to one of their albums. He gave me a copy of their album, Stilling, Still Dreaming, which is one of my most coveted albums. Tha Blue Herb are truly underground and though Stilling, Still Dreaming should also be considered as such, it is extremely commercial in comparison to their other offerings.
The Emergence of Genba
I did a lot of reading into the history of Hip-Hop culture in Japan, learning many interesting things along the way. It really did become my window to Japan and the way I came to understand part of the country. Many people are excited by its history and other things they would need to be in Japan to learn more about. I was interested in Japan because of things that I already liked in my home country and used my interests to build up a stronger connection with Japan. For me, Hip-Hop is a culture close to my heart and I learned that it’s a culture close to the heart of many other people across the world. Because I learned a lot through Zeebra, due to the availability of music associated with him, I came to look upon Tokyo as the centre of things in Japan. At this time, I was also studying hard so that I could one day participate in the JET Programme and actually live in Japan. I had decided to write a piece of coursework for English in the form of an article, the topic of which was Hip-Hop. I found some work by Ian Condry, which outlined the rap scene in Japan and was written in the early 2000s. In ‘Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture’, he speaks of the place young people go to experience Rap music. Clubs in the Shibuya area of Tokyo that are known as genba, serve as a focal point. I could really relate to that and imagine myself, enticed by the beats and flows, going to enjoy nights out in Shibuya.
I was well known for being the person in college who was always listening to Japanese music and talking about how great Japan is. I guess I was the go to guy for everything Japan at that time. I always used to encourage others to listen to the great music I was just discovering as well as sharing new things I was learning in Japanese lessons. Very strange I know, but I began answering the phone in Japanese at some point. “Moshi moshi”, I would say, and my rather unorthodox telephone manner resulted in banter from some of my classmates. Probably because I spoke about it all the time, I also became associated with music and the “genba”. Genba being the place where something happens, I guess I was the “genba” of Japanese culture around those times. I decided to go with this moniker and took it to my heart as an outward expression of my love for Japan. Ever since that time, many of my friends call me Genba and I’ll often introduce myself as such.
Using Shibuya Genba
I looked for opportunities to use the name as an alias when signing up for things, but the word “genba” is actually quite popular, as I discovered when deciding to sign up for Twitter a few years back while still in Japan. To use genba in a realm such as Twitter, I’d need to be a little more creative. Numbers and underscores don’t really do it for me, so I decided to think back to the origin of the name. I thought back to those years I had been listening almost exclusively to Japanese music and the way it made me feel. I had pinpointed Shibuya as the place I had to be near to so that I could explore the place I’d constantly heard about through the lyrics of Japanese rappers. For my application to JET, I’d asked to be placed in Kanagawa and specifically in Atsugi or Hirsatsuka, the home of my favourite football team, Shonan Bellmare. My reasoning was that I was never going to be placed in Tokyo, so I may as well be close enough to go every weekend if I wanted to. From what I know now about being placed in “Tokyo”, I could have ended up on an island in the middle of the ocean over a thousand miles away from Shibuya. In the end, I didn’t end up as close to Shibuya as I would have liked, but I thought back to that time and remembered that my genba is Shibuya. Remembering especially Dabo’s lyrics on “Kemuri Tatsu Tokyo” (煙立つ東京), one of my most listened to songs while I was still studying, he declares at the beginning of his first verse that “this site is Shibuya” (Kochira genba tte Shibuya – こちら現場って渋谷). For me, it became obvious; I had to align myself with the reason I came to Japan. Thus, ShibuyaGenba came into use.
Shibuya is the genba, Genba loves Shibuya and the name shibuyagenba is the expression of that. I do what I do because of the love I have for Shibuya. Upon arrival in Japan at Narita Airport, all new JETs were immediately taken to our hotel in Shinjuku. As exciting as that was, the first thing I wanted to do was see Shibuya. Sure enough, I escaped from the hotel on that warm summer’s evening to visit the genba. It was a magical time, when I enjoyed my first adventure in Japan. I enjoyed my first meal, my first time using chopsticks (properly) and my first train journey alone in Japan. I always look back on that time as probably the happiest night of my life.
That feeling is Shibuya Genba.