When he was 17, Tatsuya Kuwahara picked up a banjo for the first time. It was supposed to be a one-off for a song he was writing; he normally played rock guitar and drums.
Now, we're out in the stairwell at a small club in Tokyo called Rocky Top, where his band Bluegrass Police has just finished its first set. Today, Kuwahara, now 29, is one of the hottest banjo players in the local bluegrass scene. And, in his country of Japan — which has the second-largest music industry in the world — the genre he loves is experiencing a bit of a revival.
Kuwahara's path to bluegrass and the banjo was not a straight line. In junior high, he started listening to a lot of punk, then British rock. And next, he says, he got really into Bob Dylan — which led him to American folk music, and then bluegrass. When he finally did pick up that banjo, he never looked back.
At first, it was hard to find like-minded listeners. "No one around me was interested in bluegrass," Kuwahara says. "My friends didn't listen to it. My family didn't know anything about it." He eventually met and started jamming with the musicians who now make up Bluegrass Police at Japan's long-running bluegrass festivals.
Japan's robust bluegrass scene — considered the world's second-largest, according to the International Bluegrass Music Museum — started with two brothers, Yasushi and Hisashi Ozaki. They formed the country's first bluegrass duo back in 1957. When I meet them, they're wearing matching sweatshirts. "Like twins," Hisashi says. They're not actually twins, but you can tell they're close by the way they speak and interrupt each other. Today, they're 85 and 83, still playing and still making each other laugh — constantly.
The Ozaki brothers fell in love with American traditional music when they were young. Their father, who had been studying and working in the U.S., came home with a record, "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain" — not bluegrass music, but mountain music nonetheless — and the brothers have kept it to this day. But in 1930s Japan, it was becoming enemy music. It wasn't until after World War II that they got to listen to the country and roots music they loved on the new radio service set up for American soldiers in occupied Japan. They wanted to play but had no instruments and no money.
"We made a ukulele by my father's cigar case," Hisashi says. Yasushi bought shamisen strings, cut a round hole in the case and made a neck.
"Sounds terrible," Yasushi says, laughing.
A cigar box with strings from a traditional Japanese instrument just wouldn't do, so their mom — going against their dad's wishes — secretly sold her kimono to buy them their first guitars. They started playing country music for American GIs. Eventually, Hisashi bought a mandolin and they formed the East Mountain Boys, named after the Higashi, or East, mountain near their hometown of Kyoto.
They performed at a few big events and recorded a bit; their music even got played on American radio. Then work got in the way: Hisashi was sent to Nagoya with a big insurance company and Yasushi went with IBM to the U.S. The Ozakis were mostly forgotten — until they started playing again after they retired.
Folk music and then bluegrass had a bit of a boom in Japan in the 1970s. Then that, too, died down. Now it's coming back, and Rocky Top has been the bluegrass club in Tokyo for the last 36 years.
"Compared to the 1970s, the amount of people playing right now is amazing," Rocky Top owner and manager Nobuyuki Taguchi says. "It's kind of like a second revival." The number of young players, especially women, has shot up. Unlike in the 1970s, a lot are based outside of Tokyo, at universities in Hokkaido and in the northeast.
Tonight, Rocky Top is packed for the Bluegrass Police show. Only one or two bluegrass bands have a following like this. Onstage, the musicians banter and smile, but banjo player Kuwahara doesn't join in.
"Yeah, I don't smile," Kuwahara says offstage. "It's not cool for a dude to be overly smiley. They say samurai don't smile, right?"
I ask him if he's a samurai, and he laughs and tells me his family were never samurai. He's pretty reserved, almost shy. But while he may not go out of his way to smile onstage, he does finish the evening on a theatrical note, with a melodramatic and hilarious tale of lost love. Kuwahara satirically busts out some rock and Japanese traditional tunes on the banjo, and there's even a partial striptease. I won't ruin it, but let's just say the band puts on a good show.
You won't catch Bluegrass Police in the U.S. anytime soon: Kuwahara says he's a bit scared of long airplane rides. So if you want to see the whole band — and the rest of the burgeoning scene — you'll probably want to swing by Japan.