How a Young Japanese Beatboxer Showed Me the Power of a Humble Hobby

How a Young Japanese Beatboxer Showed Me the Power of a Humble Hobby

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“No beatbox, no life.”

It’s a simple statement and I can’t help but laugh at the hyperbole, yet something about it rings poignant and true. The more I learn about Japan’s competitive beatbox scene, the more I realise the sense of purpose that a simple hobby can provide in a pandemic-stricken world where many of us are struggling to hold onto our ikigai (reasons to live).

The words are spoken to me by my friend Kaji. We’re catching up via video call three years after our first meeting, and when he says them, my mind wanders back to that day – to the bustling riverside in Kyoto where I was captivated by a group of three young beatboxers freestyling for cash. I was 21 years old, travelling alone. I had nowhere to be, and the sheer sophistication of their beats had me hooked. Wanting to learn more, I struck up a conversation during his turn on the sidelines.

“How long will you be here?” I asked in Japanese.

“We don’t know,” he replied. “Where are you from?” 

When I answered Australia, his face lit up.

“I can speak English!” he said ecstatically.

Two hours later, the sun was well past set and I was equipped with a complete rundown on competitive beatboxing including the main streams:

Solo (1v1)

Tag Team (2v2 – requiring more musicality, teams of two take turns producing two simultaneous lines of music)

Loop Station (1v1 – competitors improvise complete tracks on an RC-505 Loop Station – that means 5 lines total, if you’re as clueless as I was)

Crew (two teams of 3-5 beatboxers compete against each other)

Little did I know that my new friend would go on to rank 8th Solo at the Japan Beatbox Championship that year. This year, he has won back-to-back Battles and qualified for the biggest international beatboxing competition, the Grand Beatbox Battle, in the Tag and Crew categories – all achievements which can be seen on his instagram.

Having entered university late (after a failed attempt at the hellish entrance exam), he continues to balance beatboxing activities with his obligations as a regular 21-year-old in Japan. But in a culture that values dedication to work over self-development, why risk professional success to maintain a childhood hobby?

Kaji feels that it isn’t a matter of personal choice.

“I discovered beatboxing at around 10 years old – I found Daichi on YouTube and was surprised that one person could produce all those sounds. One week later, I felt the urge to try and imitate it – and it was so fun that I couldn’t stop.”

It was love at first sight – but there is even more reason that he sticks around.

“Anyone can become a beatboxer, but some strangeness might be required… People say I’m weird but I can’t understand how. I guess it’s a strange thing to imitate music using only my body.”

When I attended Kansai Ryugi (translation: Kansai Style), western Japan’s regional beatboxing championship, I caught a glimpse of what he meant. The beatboxers, both competitors and observers, were a mishmash of personalities – from smokers with bleached locks sticking out of their beanies to shy teenagers whose hands seemed glued into their pockets, and the odd bubbly half-American. However they all seemed to feel at home – I was even encouraged to throw my bag, valuables and all, onto a pile in the corner.

“It’s Japan; it’s safe!” they said.

As the lights went down and competitors started to spit their beats, everyone stopped and listened. There was an intense feeling of support with every chant of, “Yaaa-bai!” (rough translation: holy shit) and I had a feeling you’d be cheered for whether your set went flawlessly or not.

Although Kaji’s goal is certainly to go pro and make a living from beatboxing, most competitive beatboxers don’t hold such lofty aspirations. Of the 1000 odd competitors in Japan, he estimates that only 100 have pro status and the rest simply enjoy being part of the community.

While geographic separation prevents the Japanese community from connecting as a whole, regional communities and even smaller social circles are tight knit. Kaji’s three closest friends and fellow beatbox crew members – Asian Loop Station Champion So-So, Kohei from Osaka and Rusy from Nagoya – support each other’s dreams of performing worldwide by introducing “sick tunes” and new beatboxing skills to each other, and breaking local music news in an exclusive group chat.

Indubitably, beatboxing provides a precious sense of community for those deemed “misfits” in homogenous Japan – but Kaji insists it’s more than that. Although less prolific than in neighbouring South Korea (heralded as top in the world for beatboxing), Japanese beatboxers are known throughout the international community for focusing less on having a repertoire of impressive skills and more on ensuring good musicality and originality across the style, sound design and structure of their beats.

“Maybe it’s because we’re an island country,” Kaji theorises, “but Japanese beatboxers have their own way of thinking: beatboxing is not just a genre of music, but an art form,”

He pauses and demonstrates vocally: “I can make this drum sound – *dooof* – and then with a small adjustment I can make a heavier sound: (demonstrates again). Beatboxers can control their sounds to that level of specificity. In that way, beatboxing is different to creating music with instruments that are relatively limited. The human mouth is the most structured instrument. Because Japanese beatboxers maintain this way of thinking, our style is more koseiteki (dependent on the individual).”

At this point in the conversation I truly begin to feel the passion leaking out and saturating his words, and as an artist I empathise with the joy and love that beatboxing brings him.

“Do you think it will be difficult to juggle work and beatboxing in the future?” I can’t help but ask. I worry for the artist in Japan’s labour-intensive culture.

“Beatboxing is really a part of my life and I think more people should be like this. From my point of view, the number of people with hobbies in Japan is decreasing – and I think this contributes to the outside image of Japan that we work too much.”

“Do you think that image would change if the number of people with hobbies increased?” I counter.

He replies, “It could also just make life interesting. Art is important and beatboxing is just one of those arts. But ultimately, beatboxing could be a good medicine for those monotonous times in life.”

The profoundness of his words, speaking of something as commonplace as a hobby, strikes me. After all, despite countless thinkpieces and a bestselling self-help book about ikigai – a Japanese catchall meaning ‘reasons to live’ – it remains an elusive concept. I still struggle to find a reason to get out of bed, and I still envy young people like Kaji who have naturally stumbled upon theirs.

But as I sit quietly in my backyard penning reflections on this umpteenth day of COVID lockdown, one clear thought emerges: perhaps a humble hobby is a good place to start.

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