The REAL punk in Japan:
Walking tall amidst engulfing neon

By: Michael Lara

“I hear the train a coming… It’s rolling ‘round the bend.” Well, maybe not, but certainly even the most musically inept have heard of the thunderous one Johnny Cash faithfully conducted. Since his humble Arkansas beginnings, his indelible mark across multiple generations worldwide resulted from his undefeatable backbone to beliefs and actions found in others and in country music itself.
Just as peers, mentors and followers, Cash encapsulated country’s raw appeal, when it was unfashionable, through its simple power in honest observations regarding love, loss, fears, frustrations and various vices – take your pick. Amidst the concrete-blanketed neon streets of Japan, from the southernmost isles of Okinawa to northernmost Hokkaido, fertile land has long nourished country’s punk roots seeded over 60 years.
Outside the US, this music’s second home is in the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s a nation intimately cemented through its sensational rollercoaster ride catalyzed from defeat in a most ravaging war. Years of nationwide occupation, shortages of life’s essentials, wounded pride and the blues deep enough for Muddy Waters to pen matters further, its a perfect recipe from these lingering desperations evident in its complete societal overhaul.
What gives country its full punk underground pedigree here is that most Japanese today seem unaware of its intense, intimate heritage indispensably made from a most tumultuous time in their nation’s rebirth. Within their daily commuting grind such as those through Shinjuku Station - the world’s busiest train station - money and music changes hands as it does elsewhere as they slug their drink of choice down.
As massive masses daily head in all directions from Shinjuku and other vital hubs within Tokyo and throughout Japan, pocketed here and there lie bars, shops and venues dedicated to the undying sustenance of the liberation and compassion found in country that its keepers faithfully fan, keeping this rebellion alive and kicking.
Ignited from the occupation, and increasingly fed as Japan found itself as the strategic focal point of transit either way for U.S. Armed Forces in both Korea and Vietnam, “Nashville nights” were further ensured amid the international shot in the arm from winning the 1964 Olympics as the parallel construction and successful launch of the world’s first bullet train system brought a vibrant vitality buoyed by country music.
After its zenith during Vietnam and its own homegrown talent of Jimmy Tokita kept the range open, its rapid, subsequent downfall to the emerging J-pop almost spelled death in the following years for this rebellion. Despite these rapidly dwindling numbers, the country “Jedi” of years past soldier on in their own packs such as bands like James Band, Ghost Riders, Texas and others while bolstering impressionable young guns.
They’re reaching out, educating a hungry, restless youth of all ages in the power of this force within underground enclaves throughout this storied former empire. Inside J. T. Kanehira’s Lonestar CafÈ in Takadanobaba, James Sasaki’s Yes No James in Fujisawa and Charlie Nagatani’s Good Time Charlie in Kumamoto, rich tales of freedoms are regularly imbibed wholly.
Whether behind the kit, on an Emmons’ steel, a Telecaster, fiddle or whatever, this resilient rebellion is alive and kicking from a cross-section of gender, ages and occupations while battling a landscape littered by fleeting doe-eyed stars with thin talent. A perfect environ for this punk to thrive.
In a nation famous for its mammoth, yet incredibly efficient public transit alongside a legendary commercial consumption rate, the simple virtuous vestiges of its hard-earned success strike a healthy alternative to bath in its hearty broth. After all, no matter the genre of artists alike, you can reckon to hear a country cover.
Like many in the West still longing to be Jimi, Sid, Joey, or Kurt, your brothers and sisters in the land of Asahi are doing their share to ‘rebel, rebel’ by getting back into the saddle in their choice garb of grandeur: Buttoning that fine snap-shirt, slipping on some Justin’s and Wranglers (big buckle included of course) as well as throwing on a Stetson for good measure.
Yet do not be fooled when walking these streets as some choose to go undercover with dress not readily associated with its roots - you know, the John Shaft’s of country so to speak.
It makes no difference as all head into the hidden nourishing world of George Jones, Hank Williams and more as Jack still lives here. So are old favorites Jim Beam, Four Roses and Bud of course. Like Johnny, country in Japan keeps on walking and walking tall, but how about Japanese country overseas? Perhaps now is the time for a new meaning from the Vietnam-era anthem of Mel Tillis’ “I Wanna Go States-side”.

Further nourishment through enlightenment of the movement:


All opinions expressed by Michael Lara are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.


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