Learn Japanese with Japanese Hip-hop

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You like hip-hop and rap music do ya? Well I do too. You’re also learning Japanese? Ditto.

Did you know the two can be combined into the awesome holy grail of studying — a blend of fun, repetition and intrigue?

This has been my experience with learning Japanese and listening to Japanese hip-hop. I wrote this article to share the insights I’ve had with using Japanese hip-hop as a tool for learning Japanese.

This article also stands as an introduction for anyone who has a love for hip-hop music, but has no idea where to start looking for good Japanese hip-hop.

This should help get you started =)


Why is Japanese hip-hop an awesome tool for learning Japanese?

It makes your Japanese pronunciation awesome

Rapping to hip-hop music is a lot like reciting tongue twisters, only to music. The music is often so catchy you’ll find yourself singing and repeating the same verses all day. Without even realizing it, you are doing speed drills for your pronunciation.

Your Japanese pronunciation, speed, intonation, rhythm, and cadence will all improve dramatically with the rapid, bullet-fire repetition that hip-hop music has to offer. And the best part is that it all happens effortlessly, while you just sit back and enjoy the good music.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop solidifies vocabulary and grammar in an interesting way

We’ve all heard repetition is the mother of all learning. But seriously, repetition is the mother of all learning.

Hip-hop music contains many repeating parts. When we listen to Japanese hip-hop, we hear vocabulary repeated over and over in context. Every time a word is heard, it is reinforced in your mind. If you listen to that song and hear that word enough times, you will not forget that word.

When you listen to and learn to sing Japanese hip-hop music, not only do you get the reinforcement of that much needed vocabulary, but also the reinforcement of grammar patterns. After hearing these patterns over and over again, you’ll find yourself using (speaking) them correctly and effortlessly in the middle of conversation. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to rap music. But again, the volume of repetition that rap music provides often causes you to accidentally memorize the Japanese grammar.

Let’s lay down a quick example using English to further explain this point.

Let’s imagine you are learning English. Let’s also imagine you like Eminem’s music and you especially love the song My name is.

Well, “My name is So-and-so.” is a very basic English grammar pattern. And incidentally, it appears in the song “My name is” many, many times. Do you know how many times? Go ahead, stop reading and take a guess. Then scroll down when your ready to check your answer.

Ready for it?

24 times.

24 times the grammatical phrase “My name is” is repeated.

That means if you listen to the song 10 times, you will hear this grammar pattern delivered with proper pronunciation and in context, 240 times.

If you listen to the song 20 times, that’s 480 times hearing the grammar point. And if you listened to the song 100 times, well, you get the point…

You can imagine the person who has listened and sang along to this song 10+ times will have no problem producing the phrase “My name is So-and-so.” right? Probably even effortlessly. Of course, they’ll have to learn to swap out “Slim Shady” with their own name, but that becomes a cinch once the grammatical phrase has been repeated so many times.

Now, I spit an example using a very basic phrase in English to prove a point. But what happens when you get the same amount of repetition listening to a Japanese song with less familiar grammar patterns? Yep. That sheer repetition causes you to produce those phrases naturally and effortlessly, with proper pronunciation.

Next, lets talk about how to take a frustrating experience that we all have with listening to music, and turn it into an experience that will cause you to learn Japanese on autopilot:

The song-stuck-in-your-head phenomenon

The catchy nature of hip-hop music will often cause a song to get “stuck in your head.” I’m sure everyone knows the feeling of getting a song stuck in their head right? You suddenly find yourself singing the song over and over. You can’t forget the song no matter how hard you try.

Well what if you could use that to your advantage? What if that song that you can’t stop hearing in your head and singing was in Japanese?

You would be constantly drilling those grammar patterns and vocabulary into your brain, despite whether you felt like studying or not.

This is a natural bi-product of listening to Japanese hip-hop.

Next, let’s talk about how listening to Japanese hip-hop changes your psychology.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop associates the feeling of fun with learning Japanese

Most people associate learning Japanese with frustration, determination, will power, and trying really hard. To an an extent, feeling those feelings is probably unavoidable when it comes to taking on a long-term project such as learning Japanese.

However, you can instead attach the feeling of fun to learning Japanese, so that when you think about learning Japanese, you feel good. It’s actually really easy to do.

Let’s briefly review the old psychological principle of classical conditioning. Pavlov trained his dog to salivate when he heard the ring of a bell. Pavlov did this by giving the dog a steak while simultaneously ringing a bell. He did this every day for a period of time. Then eventually, he stopped giving the dog steaks, but when he rang the bell his dog continued to salivate upon hearing the bell, even in the absence of the steak.

Well you can train your self to “salivate”(have the positive feeling of fun) at the ring of a bell (the thought of learning Japanese). If you incorporate more fun activities into your learning regimen. I personally don’t consider listening to hip-hop “studying.” I just do it for fun, and the benefits ensue.

Conversely, if you only do boring things, you train yourself to associate pain and boredom with Japanese, which makes you want to avoid doing what it takes to learn it.

Discipline is an important skill for taking on a long-term goal. Sometimes, for the sake of consistency, you might even need to study, despite the feeling of not wanting to. But don’t make it your main mode. Make it as fun as possible and you will sincerely enjoy the process of learning of Japanese.

Another fun bi-product of listening to Japanese hip-hop music is…

You will learn slang

Dude, who doesn’t wanna learn slang? Nam sayin’ dawg.

Learning slang is a fun part of studying Japanese. Once you learn a new slang word, you hear it everywhere. And being able to bust it out naturally and appropriately in conversation will certainly feel awesome, and make you sound awesome.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop will expose you to new slang, and give you an appropriate context for it. Hearing slang in it’s natural environment is much better than learning it from some random example sentence from some random website made for learners of Japanese.

Although I wouldn’t recommend mindlessly repeating everything you hear in hip-hop music, the mere exposure to the slang will help you become more aware of the pop-culture of words. Then if you happen to hear that same word or phrase being used in real life by Japanese native speakers, you can start to consider using it yourself.

Learning Japanese hip-hop allows you bragging rights

A final reason for listening to Japanese hip-hop is to learn to sing it, and go show it off in karaoke! (especially if you live in Japan). Your Japanese friends will be impressed by the fact you know and can sing some of their favorite Japanese songs. This will create a closer connection with them. In this case, I’d recommend Def Tech, or Kreva, as these Japanese hip-hop artists have been around for a while and are known by almost everyone. Especially, I get a lot of good reactions from singing Def Tech’s My Way in karaoke.

Okay, so I said “bragging rights” but that’s only part of the whole truth 😉

What we’re really talking about here is connecting with Japanese people and the culture.

How to get the most out of Japanese hip-hop music for learning

Wait, wha-? Seriously? You just discovered another awesome, fun way to learn Japanese and you want to go ruin it with turning it into another form  of rigid study?

Just go listen to the music! Enjoy it. Don’t turn something fun like listening to music into another method of self-torture by making it into “study.”

What, you’re still here?

Okay, okay, okay…

If you want to utilize listening to Japanese hip-hop music in a way that will actually increase your enjoyment of it, read on.

A Simple Guide to Learning Japanese with Hip-hop

Step 1) Find good music you like, and listen to it.

Step 2) After listening to that song a few times, pull up the Japanese lyrics and have a read through them. Use the Rikaichan plugin  to quickly look up the words you don’t know.

Step 3) Sing along to the song, reading the Japanese lyrics as you listen to the song.

Step 4) Listen to the song on the go, in your car, or on your iPod — whenever and wherever. Personally, listening to the song a few times and reading along with the lyrics sheet will be enough so that when I listen to the song again with out the lyrics sheet, I will still be able to at least decipher the correct lyrics by ear. The repetition of listening to the song over and over will take take me to a point of having the song fully memorized, and with very little effort.

Listen to the song with the lyrics sheet as many times as you want/need/feel like.

Step 5) Do this step only if you really, really want to. And I mean, really want to (I almost never do it these days). Go through and take the words you had trouble with, or would like to encode into your memory forever, and add it(them) to your Anki (or other SRS app). I really mean it though. This step is not necessary, and should only be used if there is a word or phrase that you can’t live without having memorized.

Let’s keep the process of listening to Japanese music a sacred activity of fun, okay? 😉

Recommended Japanese hip-hop for those getting started

Lastly, I will leave you a list of my recommended Japanese hip-hop artists. It is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it should get you started if you’re new to the world of Japanese hip-hop.

Note: I have left out links to the songs, as the nature of Japanese music (especially YouTube) is that the Japanese music industry is so strict that videos often go down just as fast as they go up. I’ll leave the Google-fu up to you 😉

Your small investment in finding good Japanese music will produce rewards ten-fold.

Kreva – My personal favorite. Kreva’s music has uplifting lyrics and always puts me in a good mood. From a learning Japanese standpoint, Kreva often uses yojijukugo (四字熟語) which are four character expressions in Japanese, and also kotowaza(諺) which are Japanese proverbs. Have a listen if you want to brush up your “scholarly” Japanese, while being inspired to live a kickass life!

Kick the Can Crew – A 90’s hip hop group featuring Kreva. Super catchy tunes. Check out Sayonara Sayonara, or 地球ブルーズ337.

Def Tech – Self-proclaimed “Jawaiian Reggae” artists. A blend of Japanese rap, and reggae with a tropical Hawaiian feel. My Way or Konomama (re-introducing RIZE) are good places to start.

Rip Slyme – Another catchy, upbeat summer-themed hip-hop group with a jazzy feel. They’ve got a ton of albums made, and with every album their music changes quite a bit. Besides Kreva, Rip Slyme is honestly my favorite Japanese hip-hop group. There is so many good Rip Slyme tracks out there, but I’d wet your chops with One, Under the Sun, or Rakuen Baby.

Dragon Ash – They started out a punk rock group, and turned hip-hop part way through their career. A must check out if you like that rap/rock Linkin Park feel.

Steady & Co. – A Hip-hop group from the early 2000’s. Check out Stay Gold or 春夏秋冬 if you like that classic hip-hop flavor.

M-flow – Another catchy hip-hop group that’s also been around a while. M-flow loves to collab with other popular artists. Check out M-flow loves Chemistry / Astrosexy.

Cream – A newer music duo that does covers of western hip-hop and R&B, done with Japanese lyrics. I like their cover of Omarion – Post To Be. They also do their own original music. Check out Money Money Money.

童子-T – Smooth hip-hop and R&B. I like Better Days (featuring 加藤ミリヤ and 田中ロウマ).

環roy (Tamaki Roy)– One of my favorite minor label hip-hop artists. Tamaki Roy Has a lot of  dope instrumental tracks. Check out 830 Morning and Breakboy in the Dream.

銀座DOPENESS (Ginza Dopeness)– A unique and catchy underground hip-hop artist. Check him out!

That’s it for my recommendations for now. I know I’ve left out a ton of great artists. Maybe I’ll continue the series later and go more in depth on various Japanese hip-hop. Like I said, this is just barely scratching the surface on all of the awesome stuff that’s out there.

Also, if you wanna share your favorite Japanese hip-hop artists, feel free to drop them in the comments!


That’s it for now. Happy learning! And remember, enjoying the journey is just as important as the destination =)

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