It’s a well-known fact that if you go west long enough, you end up in the east. That’s true with Pac-Man, and it’s true with bluegrass, as explained in the documentary Far Western. Directed by James Payne, the film chronicles the country music scene in Japan. This isn’t a Paris, Texas situation, either. We’re talking Japan prime.
Nestled among the tall buildings in Kumamoto, Japan is a saloon called Good Time Charlie. Judging by the inside, it looks like something a tornado picked up in the deep south and flung across the ocean. There are Jim Beam signs, ten-gallon hats, Texas flags, headshots of Hank Williams, and live country music, all enjoyed by Japanese citizens—not expats, but born and bred Japanese. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a gimmick, nothing more than a kitschy Americana novelty bar that Japanese people visit every so often as a goof, like an ’80s bar. Not even close.
According to Far Western, it turns out that during the American occupation of Japan in World War II, the military would broadcast a country music station, WBTQ. Though meant for the stationed American soldiers, some young Japanese would listen in as well. Not only did it appeal to them as a vibrant form of musical expression, but American music and culture embodied freedom and dissent, not in the least because their government outlawed it.
“…chronicles the country music scene in Japan.”
Old-timers like Good Time Charlie’s owner Charlie Nagatani, the first bluegrass band in Japan the Ozaki Bros., and Masuo Sasabe, whose in a popular folk group with his daughter, continue to play country music to this day after listening to WBTQ as children. Music affecting a person like this is no passing fancy or a shiny new toy, but an extension of their being. Think of it like that astral projection thing Doctor Strange does when he needs to take five.
Regardless of how it got there and settled in, it’s a beautifully weird thing to see such a passionate sub-culture of country music in Japan. I always hesitate to use the term “country music,” considering that in a modern sense, it brings to mind bubblegum pop music with a country accent, but the scene in Japan, however small, is the real thing. It’s closer to the folk music roots of American country than most chart-topping American country acts of the last forty years. You won’t hear many country superstars talk about Woody Guthrie with the reverence you see in this movie.
Aside from the movie’s human interest element, you get a strong sense of music’s indiscriminate magic. What could a Japanese kid in the ’40s possibly have in common with Roy Acuff? They have in common what the white British kid had in common with Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s deeper than anyone’s ever had the nerve to look. It comes out in the music, though, and it comes out a little in Far Western.
"…it looks like something a tornado picked up in the deep south and flung across the ocean."