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Honky-Tonk Tokyo

By Katherine LaGrave

Jul 7, 2020

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Live performances are one of the hallmarks of the underground scene in Tokyo.

Courtesy of Daisuke Tamura

Live performances are one of the hallmarks of the underground scene in Tokyo.

Underground in the world’s largest city, a fever for all things country lives on through line dancing, big hats, and even bigger personalities.

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George Strait wasn’t supposed to be in Japan, but when I push open the door to a bar called Little Texas on a cool Tokyo night, the so-called King of Country is here: hand on his hip, hand on his wide-brimmed white hat, a crooked smile tilted to the left, like a puppeteer pulled the strings unevenly. There he is on the ceiling, smiling down from a poster, there he is on a $1 bill, sheathed in plastic, pinned on the back of the bar next to a Texas A&M Forest Service patch and a bumper sticker for Fort Worth’s Martin House Brewing Company. His voice, smooth as rivers of syrup, floats down and around me, pooling at my feet.

I’ve got that Friday night fever
Sometimes a man just needs a breather
She knows I love her and I need her
And I’m no cheater
I’ve just got that Friday night fever

Glasses clink down on the wooden bar, and Strait sings on. A slim man dressed head to toe in dark denim swings through my line of sight, tipping his 10-gallon hat in acknowledgement of disrupting my reverie. A woman in a pink western shirt and cowboy boots approaches, takes my hands in hers, and cranes back her head, as if drinking in a long-lost relative.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” she cries, before drawing me into her arms and squeezing me tight. 

Some of the decor inside Little Texas in Meguro, Tokyo.

Texas via Tokyo

New York is fine. Los Angeles is fine. But Texas, says Natsuco Grace Yoshino, Texas is where the magic is. 

Natsuco Grace first went to the Lone Star State decades ago to practice her horseback-riding skills. She fell hard for it all: the customs, the drawl, the dining, the country, the country music. Everyone was so nice. Her husband, Takeshi Yoshino, has himself been traveling to Texas every year for the past 26 years; they return annually to buy barbecue sauce in bulk and to shop for the boots, belt buckles, and big hats that make up much of of their wardrobe. Together, the duo estimate they’ve been to Texas more than 50 times. “Fifty. Not 15,” Natsuco Grace says twice, making a “5” and a “0” with her hands.

In 2005, the couple opened Little Texas in a former ramen restaurant and filled it with bull horns, posters, postcards, and Texas-themed paraphernalia that they picked up from their travels. Cowboy Parking Only, one sign reads. Cow Country—Watch Your Step! screams another. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll live and die in Texas. Even the wood that panels the walls is from Texas, sourced from an abandoned barn in Denton County and shipped 6,400 miles across the ocean. Takeshi and Natsuco Grace's love for Texas has not gone unrequited: In 2011, they were made honorary Texans by then-Governor Rick Perry. 

Natsuco Grace deposits me at the bar, and I swivel to face the room. The city’s top line-dancer and the founder of Dancin’ Texas, she leads crowd members through boot-stomping steps. Other guests sit and pick at chicken-fried steak and Texas-shaped waffles, or palm Michelob Ultras sweating through their paper shirts. One woman tells me she loves Miranda Lambert and that she's seen Luke Bryan in concert in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Another asks me what I think of the Chicks singer Natalie Maines speaking out against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush. Do I like Kacey Musgraves? 

Throughout it all, the hits keep rotating, beamed out from speakers in every corner: “There’s a Girl in Texas” by Trace Adkins, “Stars Over Texas” by Tracy Lawrence. I have never actually been to Texas. But in this basement bar in Tokyo, somehow, I feel closer than I’ve ever been. 

“I’m very happy,” Natsuco Grace tells me, dancing done, as she stands by my side and cradles my elbow in her hand. “Your country, your people. It’s beautiful.”

Jimmie Tokita and His Mountain Playboys, in front of the Tennessee club in Tokyo in the 1960s.

War and Peace

Tokyo is a confederacy of contradictions. A place where ubiquitous salarymen and Shimokitazawa hipsters and Harajuku girls sit slurping soba stool to stool; where ancient temples and centuries-old onigiri stalls coexist alongside hedgehog cafés, sky-high skyscrapers, and lights that never seem to stop flashing, like Times Square on steroids. In some ways, expecting the unexpected, making sense of the nonsensical, is par for the course.

As someone who has lived in Japan and travels there somewhat regularly, then, I’m surprised to find myself surprised by this country music subculture, its current crackling under the city, bubbling up in saloons like Country House in Minato, Happon in Kunitachi, Hee Haw in Nakano, Chuck Wagon in Aoyama, and Cowboy-Bar Boro in Chiyoda; a lifestyle manifest in stores like Bailey Stockman (cowboy boots), Albuquerque (leather wallets and belts), and Oregon Trail (western wear). In these bars, basements, showrooms, and dance halls, there is a fervor and fever for a facet of American lifestyle that I did not expect to find outside of the 50 states. But perhaps that says more about me than it does these acolytes of Garth, George, Johnny, Willie, Reba, Randy, and Dolly. 

When I was growing up on the Japanese island of Okinawa, I became inured to contradictions of a different sort. On the American military base where I went to school, we could pay for Popeye's chicken with American dollars, and see American movies that had been released weeks earlier: Along Came a Spider, Million Dollar Baby. But when I drove off the post, I would see snaking lines of protestors, chanting for the removal of U.S. soldiers, whose presence on the island had been a constant since 1945. History became a lot more complicated when you left the confines of those who were teaching it.  

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Remember: For six years and eight months after the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, Japan was subordinate to the Supreme Command of Allied Powers. Although Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China had “advisory” roles, the United States was the de facto leader; at its height, this occupation saw 350,000 U.S. soldiers stationed around Japan. (Okinawa, the scene of the last major battle of World War II, was under U.S. rule for 20 years longer than the rest of the country.) 

The Blue Rangers performing in Japan in the 1960s.

Country music had a following in Japan before the war, but it took off after its cessation. Then as now, those American troops were a conduit for American culture and content: Westerns hit movie theatres, and performance clubs for officers opened in spades around the country. Radio was also an important development. Though broadcasts for military members had popped up around the Pacific during the war, in 1945, an official Far East Network (FEN) was born, eventually comprising 18 stations in Japan, including WVTQ Osaka, known as the "Sagebrush Symphony" for its lineup of western swing.

By the late 1940s, one of these stations—WTVR, out of Tokyo—was a favorite not only of American soldiers and their dependents, but also of Japanese beholders. Some found it helpful to listen to Americans to learn English, while others tuned in to marvel at the country music. Though the simple, sentimental lyrics were reminiscent of traditional Japanese enka music—with themes of love, loss, and hardship—they were sung in a style that many Japanese people had never heard before, in a language that was only just becoming familiar. There was the twang and twiddle of Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. 

Even though I worked for a FEN radio station one summer in Japan after college, I never knew about WTVR, or thought to really think about what Americans in Japan had left behind. Up until January, I just hadn’t been listening. 

Newspaper ads for the Wagon Aces (L) and Tomi Fujiyama (R), performing on the same night.

Semper Vigiles

Tokyo’s Nakameguro district is primarily residential, its beating heart the Meguro River. In springtime, cherry blossom trees hang their pink carpets over the water, and izakayas along the promenade slide open their doors to face the scene. But on an overcast afternoon in late winter, the trees are bare; the businesses shuttered. 

Naka-Meguro Station, though, swims with activity: commuters barreling through turnstiles, travelers bumping suitcases up stairs, friends convening. It is easy to spot Eddie Chmura right away, not least because of his height, but because of his getup—a dark jacket and boots. Standing at the exit of the station, he resembles something of a cowboy on vacation.

For all intents and purposes, Chmura has long been a cowboy on vacation. Spirited away from his hometown of Chicago to serve as a member of the Army Security Agency (ASA), Chmura first arrived in Japan in 1969 and was stationed in Fukuoka, a city on the northern shore of Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island. As the Army’s intelligence branch, the ASA’s purpose was to gather intelligence and monitor electronic countermeasures. Its motto is semper vigiles, vigilant always, and Chmura’s job was to translate documents from Japanese to English. 

It would be no stretch to call Chmura a cataloguer of the country music scene in Japan. Over coffee in Nakameguro, we talk about the development of the genre in 1950s, and of homegrown Japanese acts like Jimmie Tokita and His Mountain Playboys, Biji Kuroda & The Chuck Wagon Boys, Yoshio Ohno and The Western Jolly Boys. So many boys. 

Chmura ballyhoos Tomi Fujiyama, who began her career as a teen singing kayōkyoku (Japanese pop songs) before becoming a regular performer on the U.S. military base circuit in the 1960s, drawing crowds of soldiers singing along to her renditions of “Shenandoah” and “Tennessee Waltz.” Fujiyama is a veritable star in Japan, and found crossover success in the United States: In 1964, she began performing three nights a week at the Mint in Las Vegas; she also went on to appear at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, following a performance by Johnny Cash. (Fans finally let her leave after three encores.) In 1965, Fujiyama hit the U.S. charts with “Lonely Together,” making her the first Japanese country singer to rank on those charts. Now 80, semi-retired, and recovering from surgery, Fujiyama is as equally adoring of Chmura as he is of her: In a message to me, she calls him her “best friend.”

But Chmura didn’t always like country music. In fact, it wasn’t something he grew to appreciate until he came to Japan, he says. In those early days in Fukuoka, Chmura was content behind a drum set, tapping to the rhythm, never singing, never the show. It was less than a decade ago that he formed his own band—Eddie Chmura and the Diamondbacks—and grew comfortable in the spotlight. 

“Breaking into the Tokyo country music scene was not really that easy,” he says. “It took a couple of years to build up a regular following, and I felt like giving up on it any number of times. However, I am a real goal-oriented type of person, and ended up just plugging along to get to where I am now.”

Where he is now is comfortable: retired, living on the outskirts of Tokyo. On weeknights he takes a train into the city to perform with his band, stepping close to the microphone and leading the room in renditions of songs made famous by his countrymen of yore—Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Hank Williams. 

Line dancing in Japan in the 1980s.

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In his decades in Japan, Chmura has adopted many Japanese intonations and aizuchi, frequent interjections that let the speaker know they’re being heard: “Un, un. Hai, hai, hai. Sou desu-ka.” Spend enough time speaking Japanese in Japan, and these will become commonplace signs a conversation is moving along; indications that the speaker is attentive. But on the occasions I see Chmura onstage throughout my time in Japan, these mannerisms have disappeared, the man supplanted by a larger-than-life American who glides over long vowels in a way that makes me think of a convertible streaming down the coast

Chmura has a story and a scene for everything: that time in Nagoya, that other time in Kumamoto. I should really get to know Charlie! Had I connected with Dicky? What about Daisuke? Did I know about this bar, or that one, or was I traveling out of Tokyo, and did I have time to stop by this show? 

It’s only on the big idea that he gets stuck, his record somewhat scrambled. Of discussing the juxtaposition that lives somewhere between independence and the idea of conforming. This very fact of country music existing underground in Japan, a country where ideas of individuality are often at odds with an unspoken societal pledge to the greater good. A country known for popularizing the proverb, “A nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”

Chmura tilts his head and rests his face in his palm, squinting into the bustle of the café, before his eyes snap back to mine. It would help me, he suggests, to think about postwar Japan. To realize that this akogare—a deep desire rooted in admiration—is something of a frozen-in-time relic from when America was viewed as a shining city on a hill. Americans were occupiers, yes, but also rehabilitators. Two things true at once. And best he can tell, this akogare just so happens to manifest itself in a devotion to music characterized by freedom, heartbreak, religion, trucks, betrayal, alcohol, and guns—often unabashedly so. 

“Wild, isn’t it?” he says, with a grin. 

J.T. Kanehira, second from right, with his band Fujiyama Papa.

“A Japanese John Denver”

In 1985, more than 20 years after Fujiyama had first done so, another Japanese country music singer, Charlie Nagatani, took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. And in 1989, Nagatani—who would eventually gain honorary citizenship in 33 U.S. states and meet two American presidents—organized Country Gold, the first and only country music festival in Japan. For 30 years, American country music artists, their bands, journalists, and crew traveled to Kumamoto for the one-day event, which drew more than 30,000 people annually for stars like Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam. But in 2019, as Nashville contracts tightened and fewer country stars ventured farther afield, Nagatani put an end to Country Gold. 

Yet in one Tokyo bar, in a part of town called Takadanobaba, Nashville has never quite left. Here, guitars are tuned and tunes are sung every night of the week like they have been since 1998, when J.T. Kanehira opened a bar called the Lone Star Cafe

Born in November 1946 in Matsue City, about 10 hours west of Tokyo in the Shimane prefecture, Kanehira first heard country music in high school, when he switched the dial to the Far East Network. A few years after he began studying at Tokyo's Meiji University, he was playing steel pedal guitar in a band called the Country Capers. He’s been performing ever since, in bands called Jackson (1969–1971), Taco (1972–1975), Fujiyama Papa (1976–1981), and Texas Company (1982–present). And though the ensembles changed, the genre did not. Country. Always country.

Why? 

“I like country music,” Kanehira says, simply. “It makes me feel.” 

On a rainy evening, Kanehira walks me through his discography, pointing to a wall of his albums as drums thump and singers sing scales in the background. “J.T. Blues” (1992) was recorded in Nashville, as were the all-English albums “For the Love of the Song” (1993) and 1998’s “Texas Tornado.” Others—like “Honky Tonk Blues” (2008) and “J.T. Sings George Jones” (2010) were recorded, mixed, and mastered at the Lone Star Cafe, which has its own share of country-themed paraphernalia: black-and-white photos of cowboys, passes and ticket stubs from past Nashville concerts, and posters of singers like Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, and Jason Aldean. 

Finished, Kanehira, 74, settles in front of a pedal steel guitar, sliding from sassy (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”) to sorrowful (“Delta Dawn”) in a round of performances at the bar’s Lone Star Opry, which features more than 20 local country acts every last Friday of the month. Most singers are Japanese but croon in English, hand on their heart, hand on their hat.

Toward the end of the night, a bespectacled man named Katsuoshi Suga takes the stage, and hooks a thumb at himself. “A Japanese John Denver,” he says, before playing the opening notes of Denver’s “Wrangell Mountain Song” on his guitar. The crowd titters, but soon goes quiet as Suga steps up to the microphone and sings in a clear voice: 

Sunday and it’s raining in Alaska 
Seven days, I haven’t seen the sun 
Flying bush, flying low along the shore line 
Doing everything I can to make it home

Blasphemy, maybe: But he sounds better than Denver.

Katsuoshi Suga, or “Denver,” performing during the Lone Star Opry earlier this year.

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Takeshi and Natsuco Grace swear they won’t tire of Texas, and Suga says he won’t stop singing Denver anytime soon. But America is no longer the shining city on a hill, and the average age of country music fans and musicians in Japan is around 65. Add this to the fact that Japan’s population is shrinking, and whether or not Tokyo’s country music underground can hold on for another generation remains to be seen. 

It’s this question, the toe-tapping people here tell me, that they think of most often when the music has slowed and the boots have come off. And across Tokyo, the boarded-up country music bars and the clothing stores closing are not good news, perhaps portending worrying things to come. But just like any good country song, this story wouldn’t be what it is without a little drama. Without a little heartbreak. 

>> Next: Journey to the Geographical Center of North America

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