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Time for the people to speak: The rapper that set Japan's protests to a new beat

Yoshinori Ishida, a.k.a. ECD, at right with microphone, raises his voice against national security legislation as Yoshimasa Ushida, far left, looks on outside the Diet building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on July 17, 2015. (Mainichi)

"It's time for the citizens to make the government listen to what we say!"

    So goes the rap echoing through protests outside the Diet building in the wake Moritomo document doctoring scandal, the lyrics and the beat rooted in the works of hip hop artist ECD. ECD passed away from cancer in late January at age 57, but he has left his mark in these new demonstrations of Japan's public voice, helping to sweep young people up in social activism.

    ECD, whose real name was Yoshinori Ishida, was not only a trailblazer in Japan's hip hop scene, but also passionate about social issues, and both his lyrics and tenacious spirit live on in the young people gathering for change.

    ECD's rap career began in the 1980s, but his eyes were first opened to protesting social issues when he joined a demonstration against the Iraq War in March 2003. According to his writings, when he saw TV reports of people from all over the world rising up to protest the United States' airstrike the day the Iraq war began, he felt compelled to do something.

    Around that time, "sound protests" in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, where a DJ would blast hip hop music from a truck bed and participants would dance and chant slogans, had started to pick up speed. ECD became deeply involved in these activities, and before long, he was a regular at anti-nuclear and anti-hate speech demonstrations as well.

    After 2013, young people began gathering in front of the Diet to protest the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets and national security-related legislation. The student group leading the moment, SEALDs, gave birth to a novel and smooth style that build on the earlier sound protests.

    "Tell me what democracy looks like?"

    "This is what democracy looks like!"

    Using a rap rhythm that hadn't been present in previous protest chants, SEALDs mixed in English words, and had female members lead the protests, breathing new passion into the marches.

    "We incorporated the hip hop which was the base for the sound protests, and worked to make it sound more sophisticated," said former SEALDs member Yoshimasa Ushida, 25, who will start his graduate studies this April. Ushida felt a sense of kinship when he heard the lyrics, "It's our turn to make the government listen to what we have to say," in one of ECD's songs, and incorporated it into the group's chants.

    Ushida is himself a rapper, and those around him started to call him "UCD," and it apparently stuck, naturally becoming his rapper pseudonym. He first encountered ECD himself at the scene at a protest. The older rapper continued to go back and forth between joining in with the chants and silently holding up his banner.

    "Even though he was famous, he didn't act self-important and looked after the younger generation," Ushida said of ECD. "He was different from the majority of artists in Japan who don't come to protests and try to avoid making any political statements."

    There is one episode in particular that showcases ECD's character. When protests outside the Diet against security legislation built to a crescendo on Aug. 30, 2015, ECD tweeted, "Before long, there will be those who say ECD is an imitation of UCD. It's exciting."

    Ryo Isobe, a 39-year-old writer and close friend of ECD, recalled, "He was usually quiet, persistently rapping as part of citizen activities, participating in social movements. He didn't hang out very much, and maintained a dignified solitude."

    "There is no difference between rap and protest chants in the U.S. Rap is a technique to get your message across to others. Even in Japan, the most effective chants have come closer to rap," Isobe said of ECD's role in Japanese social movements. "It is precisely because of ECD and others' trial and error that the SEALDs style of demonstration was born."

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