Q&A: Marvin D. Sterling, The World's Foremost Scholar Of Japanese Reggae

Based at Indiana University Bloomington, Marvin D. Sterling in an anthropologist who owns a piece of ethnographic study so truly specific that it excites the brain just saying the words: Japanese Reggae. For many readers, it may be news to you that the genre exists at all (no shame there, it was news to this writer, too). But for Sterling, it’s been an area of hardcore study for over a decade; in 2010, he published Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan (Duke University Press), and his research is ongoing. Sterling was in town recently for the Penn Humanities Forum, and we couldn’t resist picking his brain about this wild combination of music and culture.

What was your first exposure to Japanese Reggae?

I first learned about Japanese reggae while doing M.A. research on African-American military personnel in Yokosuka, which is some distance from Tokyo. Some of these guys used to hang out under Yokohama Bay Bridge, where back in those days there was a pretty vibrant scene of Japanese kids who were into hip-hop, lowrider culture and so on. I thought about pursuing that scene in some way as part of my dissertation research, but an advisor of mine told me she’d heard that there was also a very vibrant roots reggae and Rastafari scene in the country. I was curious, followed up, and I guess have been following up ever since. 

This is probably a question you could expand on much more than this little Q&A, but briefly, what is it do you think that's shared between Japanese and Jamaican cultures?

I think one of the key things they share is that they’re both islands that have been very open to mainland and continental cultural influences. In the Japanese case it was largely China and Korea, later North America and Europe. In the Jamaican case it was initially Africa, Europe, North America again, later Asia and elsewhere. So I think one of things that might connect these two is that there’s a degree of openness to influences from places that are geographically bigger than they are, even as both countries work to create something new out of that global mixture. So maybe it’s appropriate that they found each other, largely through reggae music.

You also study the Japanese community actually living in Jamaica — how large of a community is that, and what is the typical story of a Japanese-Jamaican?

It’s a pretty small community:  maybe a few hundred. But they’re pretty noticeable, especially at the dances that take place in Kingston, where they mostly live. Most are young people in their late teens, twenties, maybe thirties, who are fans of reggae music and who feel they have be in Jamaica to really get what reggae’s about. Even though they might be relatively well off compared with many Jamaicans, these are often young kids without much in the way of financial means, but love the music enough to commit to it in this way.

Who is the Bob Marley of Japanese Reggae?

I don’t think there’s a Bob Marley of Japanese Reggae. Maybe it’s Bob Marley! A lot of folks I talked to said they first learned about reggae music through him. But there’s definitely one group of Japanese guys, who belong to a sound system called Mighty Crown, to whom the boom in reggae music really has to be credited. They won a major sound clash against all Jamaican rivals in New York back in the late 1990s, and ever since word of that got back to Japan, the music just took off.  There are definitely respected veterans DJs like Rankin Taxi, who started one of very first sound systems in Japan, and Nahki, among others. In terms of reggae dance, Junko Kudo is definitely the queen of Japanese dancehall dance. In 2002, she won the National Dancehall Queen Competition in Jamaica — again, all Jamaican competition — and since then a lot of Japanese dancers have followed in her footsteps.

Where is the best place on the web to learn about the music?

There’s a neat Bose documentary on the dancehall reggae scene in Japan. It’s focused on the female dancers but also gives some sense of the overall scene. BBC also has a good audio documentary on the scene.