How a niche group of Japanese musicians became obsessed with American country music aesthetics

Borrowed Traditions

by Denis Gainty

10/22/2015

This past June, the Japanese fiddler Okano Susumu1 celebrated his 59th birthday by taking time out from a work trip to New York City. After a quick stop at the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Okano made his way to Guthrie to visit the Double Stop Fiddle Shop. While Okano was in the market for a new instrument, this was clearly something more than a practical shopping trip. There are plenty of places to buy a violin in metropolitan Tokyo, a much more practical commute from Okano’s home in Ichikawa City. But along with a new fiddle, Okano left the Double Stop with the indelible memory of meeting and performing with his musical hero and the Double Stop’s owner, the great American fiddler Byron Berline.

The transcontinental voyage of a Japanese man to have such a personal, direct encounter with American roots music deserves our attention. Even if we’ve become used to the idea of global culture, with images of Leonardo DiCaprio and McDonald’s burgers rubbing elbows with Chinese-made Apple products in virtually every part of the planet, there’s something arresting about the case of bluegrass music in Japan. My first contact with Japanese bluegrass came in 1993, at Lone Star, my little neighborhood pub in the sleepy town of Izumisano, south of the western industrial city of Osaka. A group of lawyers, doctors, and businessmen had gathered there for a picking party, and the proprietor—my good friend Nakamoto Taizo—knew that I played the mandolin, so he invited me to stop in. I’d been in Japan for a couple of months as an English teacher at a local language school, and I was predictably confused and homesick. My Japanese was rudimentary at best, and I was struggling to make sense of pretty much everything. I was a prime target for the emotional punch of hearing virtuoso picking and seemingly Appalachian accents lifted in high lonesome harmonies—the comfort of Americana for the American.

After my initial delight, I began to hear little ripples of discontinuity: strangely rounded vowels, a slight but definite confusion of Rs and Ls. But not until I found that the lead singer didn’t speak English did I start to wonder what the hell was going on, and what it meant that Bill Monroe’s music had made its way into the lives of Japanese professionals in their 40s. After more than 20 years, I’m still wondering. Bluegrass music in Japan has, like in the United States, experienced a series of ups and downs, but it continues to thrive. Hundreds of festivals are held annually, and university bluegrass clubs—variously known as anything from “bluegrass circles” to “American music research departments”—are again gaining membership and being revived, from the southern outpost of Okinawa to the northernmost island of Hokkaidō. Live music clubs devoted to bluegrass dot the country, with several in Tokyo alone, and thousands of readers subscribe toMoonshiner, Japan’s premier bluegrass publication. In his 1985 magnum opus on the history of bluegrass, Neil Rosenberg noted that nowhere outside North America was there a bigger, more vibrant, more enthusiastic bluegrass community than in Japan.

Yet Japanese bluegrass players such as Okano remain a curiosity to most Americans. When I’ve asked Americans about Japanese bluegrass, the responses are strikingly similar. Most Americans are surprised that Japanese people know bluegrass at all; those who are familiar with the idea of Japanese bluegrassers talk at length about Japanese technical proficiency, but a lack of soul. Japanese bluegrass is a skilled imitation, they say, that always falls a bit short of the Real Thing.

Why should this be the case? Why should Japanese and bluegrass be such a difficult combination for us to process, when so many other things and ideas have passed back and forth across the Pacific without comment? As a historian of modern Japan, I’ve come to realize that the story of bluegrass music in Japan touches on fundamental questions of what it means to be a human being in the modern world—how we all use the big experiences of tradition and newness, of the familiar and the foreign, to create our own identities.

Traditionation

Part of the meaning of Japanese bluegrass, and how Americans respond to it, lies in how it plays with our expectations about tradition and American identity. Bluegrass music and its predecessors feel old, and they feel American. Bluegrass lyrics are full of references to rural American life, violence, Christian religion, family, and loss; bluegrass is played on portable acoustic instruments brought along to a neighbor’s farm—not on that centerpiece of bourgeois American Victorian homes, the piano. Bluegrass mourns the loss of the Old Home Place. And in the process, bluegrass as an aesthetic defines what it means to be American.

Of course this is not the only definition, any more than bluegrass is the only American music. But bluegrass makes powerful claims about a shared Anglo-agricultural past, lost in the disaster of the Great Depression, eroded by the grit of industrial cities, and engulfed in the complacent plastic of post-war suburbs. It doesn’t matter, exactly, that bluegrass as a genre was a deliberate mid-century creation of the savvy Kentucky entertainer Bill Monroe, or that it was nurtured by modern institutions like insurance companies, recording technologies, broadcast media networks, and urban folklorists and musicians like Moses Asch, John and Alan Lomax, Mike and Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.

As many have argued,2 finding and celebrating tradition is a tried-and-true way to energize members of a community around their shared identity. Traditions like Thanksgiving dinner and Fourth of July fireworks help to strengthen our connection to our shared American past, even if that past is largely made up or confused. The point for most Americans isn’t the actual date on which the Continental Congress voted for independence from Great Britain, or whether turkey was prominently featured on early Pilgrim tables in Massachusetts. In the same way, the “traditional” acoustic music of the Appalachian region came to represent something important about American identity through images of an American past.

Blue grass, rising sun

As the Japanese banjo-picker and bluegrass historian Tsuda Toshiyuki has chronicled, the first broadcasts of “hillbilly music” in Japan over Armed Forces Radio began in 1945 on programs likeHonshu Hayride and Chuck Wagon Time, and the military publication Stars and Stripes recorded the popularity of deejays such as “Cowboy Clem,” whose show received the most fan mail of any radio program from American troops. The Japanese public was listening as well; radio broadcasts (utilizing the commandeered facilities and frequencies of the Japanese Broadcasting Company, or NHK) brought American country, Western, hillbilly, and bluegrass music into the homes of Japanese listeners. Japanese publications like Music Life educated the Japanese public about American music, and Japanese groups such as the American Folk Music Society (AFMS) in the 1950s began holding “record concerts” in rented halls where Japanese music lovers could gather to learn about and appreciate American recordings. These recordings ranged from soundtracks to cowboy films to commercial releases of bluegrass, Western swing, country, folk, and other styles. Japanese musicians, too, began to learn and perform these songs, for themselves as well as for American military audiences.

A fascination with American music was nothing new in Japan. Jazz had been popular since the early 1900s, and American music had been part of the newly modernized Japanese public school curriculum since the late 1800s.3 And in 1853, when the American naval officer Matthew Calbraith Perry led an expedition of heavily armed and modern warships to force Japan to open its ports to American shipping (an earthshaking moment in history, often credited with launching Japan’s entry into the modern national community), Perry’s crew arranged and performed a blackface minstrel show to the reported delight of Japanese officials. In short, Americans and banjos were introduced to Japan at the same time, and American music has been enjoyed in Japan since the middle of the 19th century.

The post-war Japanese response to American music seems all the more striking when we realize that specifically traditional American music of bluegrass was taken up by Japanese musicians and fans at exactly the same time that so many Japanese traditions were themselves discouraged or even outlawed. Under the post-World War II American occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur, elements of “traditional” culture—especially around samurai, martial arts, and loyalty to the emperor—were expunged on the grounds that such ideas were responsible for Japan’s militarism and aggression. If traditional values are the soul of a modern nation, the greater part of Japan’s soul was violently and suddenly removed after August 1945, in a sometimes clumsy attempt by MacArthur to replace Shintō with Christianity, and militarism with representative democracy. The Japanese were instructed to reconstruct their senses of self and community not through the comfort of the past, but against the very structures and ideologies that had helped defined them.

Throughout the 1950s, Japanese university students formed bands with names like “Tennessee Shanty Boys” and the “Foggy Mountain Boys.” In 1958, Arita Tatsuo—a prominent member of the American Folk Music Society described above—organized former students into what’s largely considered the first Japanese bluegrass group, the East Mountain Boys. Their first recording, featuring International Bluegrass Music Association honorees Ozaki Yasushi and Ozaki Hisashi, was made in October 1958 and promptly broadcast on Osaka radio on the program “Hillbilly Corner.”

The timing of this recording is significant; in the United States, the first bluegrass LP, Folkways Records’ American Banjo Scruggs Style, was released in 1957, marking the entrance of that musical form into the urban, middle-class market. Previously, bluegrass recordings had been on much shorter (and cheaper) 78 and 45 rpm formats, typically purchased by mail-order. The transition to 33⅓ rpm LPs, therefore—a longer, more expensive format, typically marketed through brick-and-mortar stores to an upscale clientele—marked bluegrass’s transition beyond Appalachia to a larger, urban audience. The 1959 publication of Alan Lomax’s article on bluegrass in Esquire magazine hammered home bluegrass’s entrance into the sphere of the urban intellectual in the United States, but bluegrass was making that transition elsewhere as well.

Bluegrass, then, became American music when it grew beyond Appalachia, nurtured and loved by non-Appalachians—not just in New York or Chicago, but all around the world.

Local, national, global

Of course it’s reasonable to point to Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe and his deft manipulation of both popular and traditional music and media as the definite source of bluegrass music, and to emphasize that source as American. But when bluegrass began, it was a specifically regional music; while bluegrass implicitly claimed American identity, it specified a certain kind of American identity, located firmly in the rural, Christian, white, post-war South. The idea that a non-Southerner would find his or her way into bluegrass was as startling, in some ways, as the presence of a non-American player would be. When Bill Monroe introduced Bill Keith as his banjo player, he would regularly highlight Keith’s Yankee identity, thus establishing a normalized Southern identity for bluegrass musicians and bluegrass music. Even in the early 1970s, Bill Monroe would call attention to his fiddler, Gene Lowinger, as “the only Jewish bluegrass cowboy in the country.” In both cases Monroe’s comments show that, whatever its claims to American relevance, bluegrass was also importantly local until its expansion into, and appropriation by, people outside Appalachia.

Moreover, as the example of the East Mountain Boys shows, when bluegrass really took off beyond its Appalachian roots, it was as a virtually simultaneous epiphany for a mostly urban, mostly middle-class, and strikingly global community of listeners and players. Seen from this perspective, bluegrass did not simply go from America to Japan; instead, it moved from Appalachian Americans like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley into the world at large: to New Englanders like Bill Keith and Peter Rowan, to Jewish Americans like Gene Lowinger and Ralph Rinzler and David Grisman, to prairie-staters like Byron Berline, and to Japanese like the Ozaki Brothers of the East Mountain Boys or the brothers Watanabe Toshio and Inoue Saburō (also known as Watanabe Saburō, and “Sab” to the countless bluegrass friends who, like me, have found a warm welcome in his family’s home).

Watanabe and Inoue are co-founders of the iconic second-wave Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45. As young men, they began playing with Bluegrass 45 at the Lost City Coffee House in the port city of Kobe, Japan, in the late 1960s. Discovered by Rebel Records owner Dick Freeland during a 1970 visit to Japan, they appeared in 1971 at Bill Monroe’s own Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, the world’s longest continually operating bluegrass festival. Bluegrass 45 became central not only to bringing Japanese bluegrass to America, but to bringing new energy and ideas to the Japanese bluegrass scene as well. The brothers are also organizers of the world’s second longest continually operating bluegrass festival, celebrating its 44th meeting this year in Takarazuka, Japan, and they separately operate the publication Moonshiner and B.O.M. Services, a multifaceted music company.

Perhaps Sab’s frequent claim that bluegrass is no longer American but international music is an overstatement. But we can appreciate that Japanese players and listeners like Okano Susumu are adding something significant to the genre beyond simple imitation, even without pointing to the startling fact that the world’s first book-length history of bluegrass music was, after all, published in Japanese in 1967 by a Japanese folklorist and enthusiast, Kanazawa University Professor Emeritus Mitsui Tōru. The Japanese bluegrass community, like the bluegrass community anywhere outside Appalachia, has not been imitating bluegrass, but creating it.

The globalocal

This is especially striking, and even ironic, when we think again about how bluegrass has moved from being an Appalachian music to one that stands so firmly for American identity. Bluegrass is, after all, part of the broader and fuzzier genre of “Americana.” And along with the obvious work of Appalachian people who have played and listened over the years, it’s due to the efforts of non-Appalachian (including non-American) participants to celebrate and understand that this music of the Appalachians has grown to define an important vision of being American. The very fact that bluegrass seems American and not Japanese was shaped carefully by Japanese bluegrassers like Okano, using the local ideas and images of Appalachia to help get a handle on the larger notion of American identity.

In a way, this is how nations always operate. To make a nation work—to feel a national identity, a sense of national belonging—we need more than abstract concepts. Woody Guthrie’s famous “This Land Is Your Land” functions exactly on that principle. Even a Massachusetts native like myself can hear the comforting list of local images: redwood forests, Gulf Stream waters, New York islands, golden valleys, diamond deserts—and feel at home. There’s nothing about the dairy farms or apple orchards or maple sugar shacks of my childhood in there, and I’d known the song for years before I saw any of the places Woody was describing. But for me, and for listeners around the world, his song placed us in the American story. By listing some of the local experiences that contribute to a universal sense of community and identity, Woody’s song—like so many traditions, and like bluegrass music—encourages us by example to connect our own personal, local lives with something bigger than ourselves.

Back to Guthrie, out to the world

Okano Susumu was aware of bluegrass when he entered college in 1976, but had only listened to the traditional stars—the founding generation of Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. But in 1976, he discovered the experimental sounds of New Grass Revival, the David Grisman Quintet, and Byron Berline’s band Country Gazette. With his own college band, Okano learned and played Country Gazette’s version of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.”  When Byron Berline played in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood with Dan Crary and John Hickman in the 1980s, Okano was in the second row, mesmerized by Berline’s bowing and fingering. Years later, Okano read Berline’s Fiddler’s Diary and, through co-author Jane Frost, got in touch with Berline directly. This June was their first meeting, but Berline’s genius has been a part of Okano’s life for decades.

Now, with a fiddle from Berline’s shop and the indelible memory of playing alongside his bluegrass hero, Okano is back in Japan, keeping the bluegrass faith in the land of the rising sun, filling the abstraction of bluegrass with his own concrete, personal, local experiences. Meanwhile, this October, Byron Berline will again host his Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie. The OIBF, now celebrating its 20th year, takes its international character seriously: among the many bands appearing are groups from Sweden, Canada, Italy, and the multigenerational Japanese band Blueside of Lonesome. Inevitably, some listeners will notice that they’re not from Guthrie, or Oklahoma, or even the United States. But whether and how that matters is another question. If we see bluegrass as a closed, restricted point of national pride, off-limits to outsiders, then Japanese bluegrass players will continue to trouble our sense of ourselves as Americans. If, on the other hand, we appreciate the more subtle and cooperative ways that national culture is created and shared, and if we understand and celebrate the role of the foreign in reminding us of the familiar—if, in short, we recognize how Japanese pickers have helped us to create American bluegrass—we might be in for some pretty good music.


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015