Y’All Come: Japan’s Country Music Scene

As the Cold War Space Race fired up the imaginations of young minds in the West, so too did the American occupation of Japan swing open the saloon doors to the Western world.
Blue Rangers at the EM Club in Yokosuka, ca. early 1960s | courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.
Blue Rangers at the EM Club in Yokosuka, ca. early 1960s | courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.

“Starting today no one here likes America, okay?”

Keiichi Teramoto was in elementary school in Tokyo when the teacher told the class the news that Japan had entered the war. Teramoto, who by that time already had a taste for Western pop culture in the form of a head-to-toe cowboy suit his parents had brought back from a trip to the U.S., was not convinced. After all, he knew that, according to his parents, America was where cowboys rode horses and shot their guns backward to protect their herd. “I can’t really hate America,” he told the teacher.

Dolly Parton explains the wide appeal of her favorite kind of music in this clip from Ken Burns’ “Country Music.”

Japan was in shambles when the war-torn nation accepted the Potsdam Declaration in 1945 and formally declared their unconditional surrender. The treaty included conditions for the American Allied Occupation for the next seven years. During this time the Far East Network (FEN), a division of the U.S. Armed Forces Network, began to establish itself throughout Japan. While its purpose was to inform and entertain the U.S. troops stationed in Japan (which numbered up to 350,000 during its peak), the network nevertheless was popular with the Japanese, some of whom found it useful for learning English — and others who found it to be a fascinating source for the otherworldly sounds of American music.

Most people in Japan first heard country music on the Far East Network, which was established soon after WWII ended. | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.
Most people in Japan first heard country music on the Far East Network, which was established soon after WWII ended. | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.

WVTR, the first of the FEN stations, was established in Tokyo a mere days after the end of the war. By the late ‘40s the station, particularly its hour-long program “Chuck Wagon Time,” was playing country and western music: Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. Teramoto vividly remembers hearing those sounds for the first time: “I was instantly drawn to the simple melodies — so familiar and easy to remember, yet it was the first time I had heard such melodies.” Soon country recordings were appearing on the shelves, and Hollywood Westerns like “Shane” and “High Noon” began showing in theatres. Teramoto couldn’t get enough. He bought a custom-made cowboy hat (the only way to get one in Japan at the time); got a guitar and began practicing those all-important three chords that make up a country song.

Learn more about the songs, the stars and the stories of “Country Music” in Ken Burns’ documentary series.

Teramoto formed his first country band while still in high school. Named the Singing Riders, the band had a large repertoire of the latest Nashville hits, which meant that they would be invited to be a part of the lucrative gig circuit providing entertainment at the U.S. military bases and clubs catered towards American servicemen. The camps in Yokosuka and Fukui were frequented by Teramoto and his band, as were clubs like Club Tennessee, Tachikawa NCO Club, News Kissa and Fujiya Music Salon. While the American troops were impressed with their musical skills, the gigs would sometimes turn into a language lesson for Teramoto as he would be taught how to distinguish between the Ls and the Rs.

A newspaper clipping of "The Wagon Aces" | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira
A newspaper clipping of “The Wagon Aces” | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira

The Wagon Masters, Teramoto’s next band, would become one of the most celebrated country acts of the era. The group featured a constantly rotating membership due to the fact that all of its members were students. As one member finished high school, he would quit the band to shift his focus towards college. The band would continue, shifting their sound slightly with each new member. Such a scenario was not uncommon for many of the popular country acts of the era.

These included Biji Kuroda & The Chuck Wagon Boys (one of Japan’s first country bands, which Teramoto would later join), Minoru Harada and Wagon Ace (another band with whom Teramoto would play), Jimmy Tokita & His Mountain Playboys (whose members included future fuzz guitar hero Takeshi Terauchi), Kazuya Kosaka (“country idol” singer of The Wagon Masters, which at one time included Ikariya Chosuke, who would later gain considerable fame as part of the comedy band The Drifters), Yoshio Ohno and The Western Jolly Boys, among many other acts with stylized names derived from the Western vernacular. Tomi Fujiyama, who made the switch to pure country music after a brief career as a teen pop singer, was one of few female country artists who made the rounds in the military club circuit (she was also the first Japanese artist to appear on the Grand Ole Opry stage, in 1964).

I was just a young man when I heard that Nashville sound
From clear across the ocean it turned my life upside down
I bought all the records and I learned all the licks
I’ve been singing country music since 1956
—Charlie Nagatani, “Country Gold”

Charlie Nagatani was a member of Hillbilly Jamboree, Western Caravan and his own band The Cannonballs. Born in Kumamoto in 1936, he discovered country music at the age of 20 when he heard a live band play it at his birthday party. Since then he’s been one of the biggest champions of country music in Japan — through his almost daily gigs at Good Time Charlie’s, the country and western bar he’s operated in his hometown for decades, and the annual Country Gold festival which he’s organized in his hometown since 1989. The event has hosted Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Daniels and countless other country superstars. Nagatani has been honored by the Country Music Association, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and been invited to the White House by Bill Clinton for his tireless work in spreading the gospel of American country music. “I want to let the Japanese know the real American music culture, so I’m singing country music,” Nagatani said. “I just love this music, and I want to spread this music to the Japanese people.”

Nagatani is a featured player in “Far Western,” a documentary directed by James Payne, an Oklahoma-based filmmaker whose works tell stories of the quirks and struggles of small-town life, often based around his home state. Payne felt compelled to tell the story of Japanese country music when he found himself at a honky-tonk in the middle of Tokyo. “It was like a cultural rabbit hole that needed exploring,” Payne said. Perhaps it’s this same curiosity for the “otherness” that compelled the original Japanese country boys to don their custom-made 10-gallon hats and rawhide boots and fully immerse themselves in the exotic world of cowboys and hillbillies.

Watch this video of Jimmy Tokita & His Mountain Playboys with Chiyako Saito on the Jimmy Dean Show ca. 1966

While Nagatani hailed from the relatively rural Kumamoto in the southern island of Kyushu, the irony is that the majority of early country stars in Japan were actually city boys from Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolises. Living in such urban areas meant that there was easy access to movies theaters and record stores where they could see and hear the latest Western export from America. Many future Japanese cowboys, like Teramoto, came from prominent upper-middle-class families, which afforded them the luxury of having expensive Western attire and imported Martin guitars. They went to good schools like Keio University, Aoyama Gakuin and Gakushuin, originally established to educate members of the Japanese royal family. During his time at Gakushuin, then-Crown Prince Akihito was known to be a fan of country music, and the Wagon Masters once played a private gig for the future heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Jimmy Tokita & His Mountain Playboys (Front L-R: Akira Nagura, Jimmy Tokita, Giant Yoshida; Back L-R: Chosuke Ikariya, Mitsuo Fujii, Takeshi Terauchi, Hisaya Miyagi) in front of the Tennesse club in Ginza, Tokyo. | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira
Jimmy Tokita & His Mountain Playboys (Front L-R: Akira Nagura, Jimmy Tokita, Giant Yoshida; Back L-R: Chosuke Ikariya, Mitsuo Fujii, Takeshi Terauchi, Hisaya Miyagi) in front of the Tennesse club in Ginza, Tokyo. | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira

From beneath all the brand new skyscrapers and shopping centers, the vast plains and fields of Oklahoma and Texas seemed like terrains on another planet. As the Cold War Space Race fired up the imaginations of young minds in the West, so too did the American occupation of Japan swing open the saloon doors to the Western world. As seen from their elite school campus in the city, the old-fashioned cowboys and the traditional sounds of country music represented something entirely new. “Those seeking the new flocked to the sounds that began pouring in after the war,” Teramoto recalled. “That is the beginning of country music [in Japan].”

The Wagon Masters, Swing West and the like were talented entertainers in their own right, but for the homesick American servicemen, many of whom were from the rural south, they were also stand-ins that could provide a taste of home — thus having a large repertoire of recognizable songs equaled larger paychecks and more gigs for the Japanese cowboys. So the bands would furiously learn every latest song they heard on the FEN, even though most had little command of the English language and had to memorize the lyrics phonetically. The closer they sounded to the original, the better reception they got, not only to U.S. military expats but to their hometown crowd as well. Hence the popularity of “The Japanese Hank Williams” Jimmy Tokita, “The Japanese Johnny Cash” Takahiro Saito, and other masterful interpreters of the American originators — they were the closest you could get to the real thing.

Which poses the question: what makes country music real and authentic? Harlan Howard, the legendary Nashville songwriter (“I Fall to Pieces” among many other hits), once described country music as “three chords and the truth.” Can those simple elements be transported across borders without losing its essence? In “Far Western,” Toru Mitsui, one of the preeminent scholars of American country music in Japan, asks, “Is [Japanese country music] simply an imitation? Is it just a copy of the original, without consciousness?”

A newspaper clipping of Tomi Fujiayama was one of the few female country music artists making the rounds in the military club circuit | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.
A newspaper clipping of Tomi Fujiayama was one of the few female country music artists making the rounds in the military club circuit | Courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.

Even as he enters his sixth decade as a country musician, Keiichi Teramoto is still seeking the answer. As with most country acts of the era, the majority of the American country songs in his repertoire were sung in its original language. But looking back years later, he now feels that “it didn’t make sense to sing in English to a Japanese audience.” By not singing in a language that his audience understands, he feels that he was unable to speak directly to the heart of Japanese people. “As long as I’m singing in English, people would say ‘country is music from another country,’ and I started to feel that way as well.”

Few artists did attempt and have some success with Japanese-language country music, notably Kazuya Kosaka and Tomi Fujiyama who had hits with translated versions of American country and cowboy songs. Most of the Japanese country musicians from the era, however, stuck to singing straight covers of the latest American hits. To entertain American servicemen, this was fine, if not necessarily a recipe for hits or artistic success.

That’s not to say that there were any fundamental obstacles in creating successful Japanese-language country music. In the 1970s, a new generation of artists like Haruomi Hosono, Kenichi Nagira and Wataru Takada, many of whom grew up listening to country music on FEN, began making original music in Japanese that seamlessly incorporated American traditions like folk and country. Hosono recorded his 1973 album “Hosono House” at American Village in Sayama, originally built as housing for U.S. military families. At the time he called it “virtual American country” music — suggesting that Japanese country music was somehow not the real thing. Forty-five years later, however, “Hosono House” is regarded as a classic, while Hosono is celebrated as one of the architects of modern popular music. In a song he recorded as an homage to Hosono, indie troubadour Devendra Banhart sang, in Japanese: “kantori ongaku (country music) — shikata ga nai (can’t be helped).

Listen to Tomi Fujiyama’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Perhaps country music is a natural part of the Japanese tradition as it is for Okies or Texans? For Payne, it’s not necessary to try to define what Japanese country is all about; rather, it’s about how it feels on a gut-level. “Authenticity is elusive when it comes to art and music,” he said. “There’s a natural tendency for music to travel, be transplanted, co-opted, mutated. […] If some sort of genuine connection is made with the music then it passes the ‘authenticity test’ as far as I’m concerned.”

Mitsui, for his part, acknowledges that country music in Japan has developed a life of its own. Authentic or not, ultimately it doesn’t matter. “They kept playing,” he said, “and it turned out to be the sound of their own.”

All photos courtesy of J.T. Kanehira.