Big in Japan: a custom- tailored cowboy culture
At the 15th annual country music festival, thousands of Japanese hoedown in style
They arrive in buckskin leggings and spurs. Some even come on horseback. They're primed to line-dance Texas-style, expertly tapping hand to boot. And they're ready to soak up the country-fried sounds of Eddie Raven and Heather Myles.Skip to next paragraph
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It's just another crowd of intensely devoted, 10-gallon-hatted, country music fans - from Osaka, Nagasaki, and Tokyo.
Among the many specialty subcultures born or made in Japan, add "country cool" to the list. Only in this case, call it "Country Gold," Japan's biggest (and only) country music festival, which marked its 15th year this fall at a mountain-ringed amphitheater in this southern town.
The event celebrates anything related to Texas, be it barbecues, boots, or bluegrass - and it allows 20,000 far-flung Japanese devotees of the American West to hoe-down, big-time. If you're gonna get it right one night at a time, or if you've been livin' too long on refried beans, well, Kumamoto is the place where country is king.
It is quintessentially Japanese to pick up styles, then adopt and recreate them, experts say. That's what happened with country music here in the wake of World War II, when American GIs popularized it by playing Hank Williams on the radio. Add to that the appeal of America's wide-open West and lonely cowboys in a nation of crowded cities and group dynamics, and it's not hard to understand country music's secure - and custom tailored - place in Japan's heart.
If a hobby is worth pursuing in Japan, moreover, it must be pursued with perfect attention to detail.
Not only does the country sport a national rodeo association, where US circuit cowboys do several shows a year, but western-style stores can be found in any major city, selling everything from spurs to finely crafted boots.
"Some people like the music. Some like the horse. Some want nature. Me, I like everything. I'm in it for the whole country experience," says Johnny Tsuji, whose headpiece sports a rattlesnake snout, and who cherishes the days when he can dress like a cowboy. "In Japan, you know, we can't wear this on the street. We hide it away until there's an occasion."
Shigeru Yoshihiko and his wife have come to Country Gold five straight years. They handmade their star-spangled line-dance outfits, and even played country music while their 3-year-old was being born. "We love the sound," says Mr. Yoshihiko. "It was a special birth."
For Japanese hobbyists like Yoshihiko, country is partly about style. It requires, for starters, a full Western outfit, carefully assembled and appointed with the proper balance of sequins, rhinestones, turquoise, and feathers. One also needs a nickname, though Goose, Yahoo, Boss-man, and Rodeo-clown, among others, are taken. Then there is line dancing, rodeos, horse shows, dude ranches, and vacations to Texas - not to mention repeated showings of Western films by John Ford.
Kochi Yamasaki is a Country Gold vendor whose tent offers red-checked flannel shirts, leather vests, and high-end boots. He designs and imports for Japanese country tastes. Business, says Mr. Yamasaki, depends on buyers who mostly won't look at anything ordinary.