Music

Clocking up the years with Charlie Nagatani, Japan's country king

by Timothy Nerozzi

Contributing Writer

In a nondescript commercial building in the city of Kumamoto lies a portal to another world. Open the door to Good Time Charlie on the fifth floor and you’ll be whisked away to rural America.

The bar is owned by musician Charlie Nagatani, the 83-year-old leader of Charlie & Cannonballs, who is somewhat of a legend among Japanese — and indeed American — country music fans.

Now more than 60 years into his career, Nagatani, whose real first name is Masateru, has gained honorary citizenship in 33 U.S. states, met two American presidents, been recognized as an official Kentucky Colonel, won awards and medals from various peace and cultural socieities and, perhaps the most prestigious item on the list for a country star, earned membership as a performer at the Grand Ole Opry, the iconic heart of country music located in Nashville, Tennessee.

The glass display cases inside Good Time Charlie are packed full of memorabilia and awards, attesting to Nagatani’s status, though no special care is taken to present the most notable and illustrious prizes at the front. A letter from President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, stands next to a set of musician figurines made of old nuts and bolts and a single pack of L&M cigarettes.

Country gentleman: Charlie Nagatani performed at Grand Ole Opry in 2007 | CC BY 2.0 / CLIFF
Country gentleman: Charlie Nagatani performs at Grand Ole Opry in 2007 | CC BY 2.0 / CLIFF

It is clear that this is not a display case to show off Nagatani’s honors, though, rather it’s a means to show his life story through the knick-knacks and gifts he picked up along the way.

“It’s very hard to pick one (as my favorite), as all are my treasures,” he says. “However, the photo with President Bill Clinton at a White House state dinner would be a highlight.”

Nagatani’s fascination with the West started early in life — as an elementary school student, he befriended troops from the U.S. occupying forces after the end of World War II.

“I first met American GIs when I was 9 years old, right after the war ended,” he says. “At first I was afraid to look at them, but they were very kind and tender … and gave us chocolates and chewing gum, which we had never seen before. It was so delicious. So, I thought I’d better learn English.”

Nagatani grew close to a number of soldiers in his youth, learning English and becoming familiar with American culture.

“My 20th birthday changed my whole life,” he says. “One of my friends, who was working at a military base, hired a country band for me as a birthday gift. They performed for me that night. It had a strong impact and I learned that (it was called) country music. I really fell in love with it and made up my mind to be a country music singer.”

Nagatani dropped out of college and joined the band, touring with them for five years, eventually returning home and forming Charlie & Cannonballs, a group that has been performing, under slightly differing names, ever since.

The Grand Ole Opry writes glowingly of the band on its website, claiming the group has “the longest history of any band in existence in Japan.”

U.S. troops have been the wheelhouse of Nagatani’s career ever since — he’s a hit with Americans living in Okinawa and on military bases across the country, and is often invited to perform for soldiers.

“I’ve met a lot of good-hearted servicemen and women while we were performing in the clubs of U.S. bases in Japan and Southeast Asia for many years, especially during the Vietnam War,” Nagatani says. “(But) the most important thing for me is that I thought I should tell Japanese people how wonderful American people are.”

Keepsakes: Display cases at Good Time Charlie, in which Nagatani keeps trinkets from his career. | TIMOTHY NEROZZI
Keepsakes: Display cases at Good Time Charlie, in which Nagatani keeps trinkets from his career. | TIMOTHY NEROZZI

When Nagatani speaks, he does so slowly and thoughtfully, with a gruff voice and short sentences. And while his English grammar and vocabulary are not perfect, his years of travel to U.S. bases here has made his mannerisms and intonation authentically American.

But that travel took its toll on his personal life — at one time threatening to tear apart his family.

“I just want to apologize to my family, because I made them so sad for many years,” Nagatani says. “I was touring for nine months overseas — Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam — and three months here at Sasebo naval base, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and (the former) Itazuke Air Base. So I couldn’t come home.”

Nagatani now spends most of his time with his family, and the bar at Good Time Charlie is manned by his son, Seiya.

“I went to The University of Tennessee when I was younger.” Seiya says. “I was just hanging out for four years, spending full days speaking English. But I didn’t study English or anything.

“If you go to Tennessee, it’s all country music down there. It’s an emotional thing. It has to come from the heart.”

After more than 30 years of planning, organizing, and performing at his Country Gold outdoor festival in Kumamoto, Nagatani is putting an end to the music event, which brought in more than 30,000 people per year.

“I deeply appreciate my fans who have supported me over 30 years,” Nagatani says. “Next year, I’m planning to open an indoor concert called Good Time Country at Kumamoto Castle Hall.”

Nagatani has some strong opinions about his chosen genre.

“Country music has three S’s — simplicity, sincerity and sadness,” he says. “Without the three S’s, we can’t call it country music.”

His standard catalog of songs reflects this philosophy, with Hank Williams being his favorite artist to sing. Nagatani also cites Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” as a favorite song to perform.

Family business: Charlie Nagatani's son, Seiya, runs the bar at Good Time Charlie. | TIMOTHY NEROZZI
Family business: Charlie Nagatani’s son, Seiya, runs the bar at Good Time Charlie. | TIMOTHY NEROZZI

The song tells the tale of a young girl whose impoverished mother cannot afford to buy her a new coat, and so patches and stitches together an old one so she can wear it to school. The children at her school tease her, and she wishes that they could see the beauty in its many colors.

“I love the story of this song,” says Nagatani, going on to acknowledge that the importance of storytelling in country music could be its Achilles heel when it comes to hitting home with Japanese listeners.

“It’s so difficult to make them understand country songs as most Japanese are very weak at English,” he says. “Country music has a story, but they can’t understand it.”

Some people have suggested that he translate the lyrics of popular American country songs into Japanese, to allow people a glimpse at the sincerity behind it.

“People used to ask me, ‘Why do you sing in English? If you translate it into Japanese, everybody can understand so you can get more fans,'” Nagatani says. “I ask them, ‘What would you think if enka was sung in other languages, (would) you feel good?’ We must sing Japanese songs with Japanese words.”

Between sets, Nagatani wanders about the bar to stretch his legs. At times he goes over to sit down with his customers. He’s quick to pick out new faces at the bar and introduce himself to first-timers.

“I want to tell them to listen to country,” he says. “If you listen to it, you’ll spend your life so happily. I’m the happiest guy in Japan.”

Good Time Charlie is located at Shimotori 1-7-24, Chuo-ku, Kumamoto 860-0807.