Big in Japan: a custom- tailored cowboy culture

At the 15th annual country music festival, thousands of Japanese hoedown in style

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"I have to make a Japanese-style American Western boot. I can't help that it will cost $600," he says. "Japanese will pay $600 for the boot; they will want the best country boot, and it will have to be special. You must understand this to understand us. It will have to be special: special order, special toe, special heel, special color, special something."

Nashville mandolin artist Roland White, of the Grammy-winning Roland White Band, remembers playing Japan in 1977. "I thought it was unusual at first. You had these Japanese artists with cowboy hats. But when they talked about Roy Akuff, or Lu Lu Bell, or the Blue Sky Boys, they knew what they were talking about."

Partly what Japanese long for is a certain America of the mind, a place of wide-open spaces. Older Japanese appear wistful when describing the first time they heard country music. "They played it on the radio," says one festivalgoer named Atsuko, who is relaxing at a special dining zone featuring "American Beef." "It was fantastic. I have 500 records of country music. I like the American story. I love Davy Crockett and John Wayne; I know all about the Alamo; my hobby is folklore."

"We have a very odd relationship with America," says Yamasaki. "Some Japanese fell in love with country. There are a lot of 'Texas nuts' out there. People are seeking authenticity, and country is seen as the 'real America.' "

Ten years ago the country cult was fading. Then, line dancing helped revive it. The group dance was brought to Japan by Natsuko-san, an irrepressible dancing force who tells this reporter, "Just call me Wild Grace." She found line dancing in Texas honky-tonks, and felt compelled to share it back home.

"Japanese are shy; they won't dance unless everyone can do it together," says Ms. Grace. "I don't do this for money. I do it because we need this enjoyment in Japan."

Tomoi, a patron who came from Osaka, appreciates that sentiment. He builds ATMs by day, and by night dreams of the wide prairie. His CD collection would make a Nashville producer blush. But there's a problem. "My wife doesn't understand," he laments, "she is a good wife from Osaka, but now she thinks I'm crazy."

If there is a dirty secret to the country craze, it may be that most devotees can't speak English. They don't understand the lyrics of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" Some have lyrics translated. But for most, country cool lies more in the "twang."

"It's a feeling, not of words, but of melody. We like the honky-tonk sound," says Charlie Nakasone, the organizer of Country Gold, who is also known as "Good Time Charlie."

On the other hand, Mr. Nakasone's personal experience was a little different. The leader of one of Japan's top country bands, Nakasone began singing in 1956, and formed a band in '61: "The Hill Top Hens." But the band wasn't getting work. Finally, they changed their name to "Charlie and the Cannonballers," Two days later, the band got a job and never looked back.

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