As a researcher of mainstream Japanese popular music, I might be tempted to discount reggae's impact in Japan, but anthropologists know that sub-cultural expressions tell us volumes about the mainstream society by tracing its trajectory through conventional aesthetic values. This is why I read with anticipation Sterling's monograph. Most contemporary scholars would be familiar with the visible presence of Jamaican music and culture in Japan, but Sterling's research helps to break down this phenomenon into three connected but discernable strands: dancehall, roots reggae and Rastafari. Dancehall first is music that is played at “Afro-Jamaican social gatherings” (p. 7), where dancers, MCs, and DJs layer their own performances over the background of pre-recorded music; it also refers to the sociality experienced at these events. Roots is a subgenre of reggae, a folk music associated with Jamaica since the 1960s, and is related to Rastafari. Rastafari is defined as a “messianic protest movement,” as well as an “Afro-centric movement,” which focuses on the spiritual re-establishment of the connection between person and place; here, the relationship to place is often imagined, described as “the gaze towards Africa” (p. 145). What makes this gaze different from other longings is that it comes from the “East,” and replete with all the intellectual and emotional baggage about race (person) and nationhood (place).
Concomitant with the increasing Japanese ‘soft power’ overseas, the English literature on popular music is growing: recent monographs include Christine R. Yano's book Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) on enka; Bonnie C. Wade's book Music in Japan: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), which includes contemporary developments in indigenous music (hôgaku); Ian Condry's, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006); and my book on postwar pop music, Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Power and Authority (London: Routledge, 2008). Yano's research embeds enka in discussions of Japanese identity, and I have written about the US-Japan political relationship through music. Babylon East connects most logically with Hip Hop Japan in its association with blackness, yet Sterling distinguishes his work from Condry's by interrogating “the relationship between power and location… in more ethno racial terms and as worked out across a transnational range of actual sites” (pp. 58–59, emphasis added). Sterling does not dodge the difficult questions about the intersection of race, culture and consumption; it is this departure that makes his work so valuable to our understanding of how culture, race and place are connected. This understanding arises from years of participant-observation fieldwork, and his own position as a Jamaican man—both an insider and an outsider in a racialized and gendered social world—is appropriately problematized in his descriptions of his interactions with informants.
Some highlights of Steven's book include: Chapter 3's inclusion of Japanese sound system culture in the Jamaican music scene demonstrates Sterling's ability to slip between ethnographic sites, and the people who operate the equipment, as well as the content it delivers, are in the spotlight during dancehall performances, not the technology. His chapter on fashion, gender and sexuality is contextually grounded in both structure and agency: for example, the ability of Japanese women to participate in dancehall culture is attributed to their difficulties achieving “financial independence” in a male dominated society as well as part of their desire to discover a new self within themselves (p. 112). The section “History, Repatriation and the Global Body” in Chapter 4 explains Rastafari's traction with Japanese culture, as it can be considered a “primary metaphor for all global ethnic groups’ religious encounters with the natural world… In this sense, [Rastafarians] are visibly travelers… across the wider spaces of the global and the deeper ones of mythological time” (pp. 188–89).
Throughout the book, Sterling's ethnographic skill is evident as he interviews in three languages (Japanese, English, and patois) across two nations, cultures and races. He is equally at home in the city as he is in the countryside, and conducts interviews on a wide variety of topics, including difficult ones, such as homophobia and drug use. His ethnography is written with an elegant but straightforward fluidity, meaning it is accessible to not only Japanese and cultural studies specialists, but also to undergraduates and other interested readerships. Sterling brings together vivid descriptions and sophisticated thinking about music, language, performance, gendered politics and sexuality in an ‘embodied practice’ that functions effectively to form alternative identities for the Japanese reggae practitioners.