Japanese bluegrass music pioneer Hisashi Ozaki passed away suddenly on Saturday, November 10, 2018, as he was preparing to go for a recording session for a regular radio program on Kamakura FM the following day. He was 84 years old.
Born on December 20, 1933, Hisashi Ozaki and his older brother, Yasushi, grew up in Kyoto, a city of tradition about 450 km west of Tokyo.
The Ozaki brothers fell in love with American traditional music when they were young. Their father, who had been studying and working in the USA, came home with a record, She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain — not bluegrass music admittedly, but mountain music nonetheless.
As Tara Linhardt wrote for Bluegrass Today in October 2013 …
“They had started trying to play and sing what was still called Country Music of the US back in the 1940s when World War II was still going on. There would be great dissension if people knew they were listening to the enemy’s music, so they hid their hand crank record player in a closet and played whatever records they could get.
There was little food or supplies available in Japan at the time, and metal was very hard to come by, so they had to make a needle for the record player from bamboo.”
At meetings of the American Folk Music Society the members, including the Ozaki brothers and future mentor/manager Tatsuo Arita, played the 78 rpm records that they had acquired from American GIs.
Not long afterwards the Ozaki brothers began listening to the local Armed Forces Radio, and soon after, started fashioning their own makeshift homemade instruments.
“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 very bad,” Yasushi said, when speaking to Fred Bartenstein in June 2004 during an interview for the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum Oral History Project.
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.
In due course Hisashi bought a mandolin and the brothers formed a bluegrass duet and performed in US Army camps to get their start in the music.
It was Tatsuo Arita who directed the brothers towards a bluegrass sound and the formation in 1957 of the East Mountain Boys, named after the Higashi, or East, mountain near Kyoto.
In January of 1958, Japanese Columbia Records released their first ever bluegrass 45 rpm single, with the East Mountain Boys’ recordings Jimmy Brown, the News Boy c/w Blue Ridge Cabin Home.
On October 17th of that same year the East Mountain Boys made their debut at the 23rd American Folk Music Society Concert at the Osaka American Cultural Center. Sohei “Don” Sano (banjo, vocals), Yoshinobu Kakegawa (fiddle), Hirokazu Uneno (accordion) and Shozo Nakamura (bass) lined up with the Ozaki brothers; Yasushi (guitar, vocals) and Hisashi (mandolin, vocals).
In May of 1959 the East Mountain Boys played at Tokyo’s annual Western Carnival, the most popular music show in Japan at the time.
Then in 1960 their day jobs began to severely restrict their musical exploits. Hisashi went to Nagoya, working with a big insurance company, and Yasushi went with IBM to the USA.
After the Ozaki brothers retired from their day jobs in the early 1990s, they resumed playing music, again as a duo, although they were also often supported by Masuo Sasabe’s Blue Side of Lonesome, and they toured around Japan and in the USA, including the first River of Music Party (ROMP) in Owensboro in 2004.
They played at ROMP in 2008, 2009, at which time the Ozaki brothers were officially recognized as bluegrass music pioneers, and 2010 also.
This fall, the brothers, along with members of Blue Side of Lonesome, again toured the USA playing at the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie, Nashville’s Station Inn, and at other venues.
While in Nashville they earned the honorary citizenship from mayor David Briley on October 1st.
In 2013 the Ozaki Brothers were presented with the IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award for their pioneering with the East Mountain Boys.
Hisashi and Yasushi Ozaki are principal characters in the documentary film Far Western, in which their story links us to World War II, where they first learned traditional American songs, despite the Japanese ban on American cultural media.
R.I.P. Hisashi Ozaki
Kazuhiro Inaba, one of top professional bluegrass artists in Japan, expresses what I’m sure all of the Japanese bluegrass community would say …
“We lost such a big music lover and a legend for bluegrass music in Japan, Hisashi Ozaki of the Ozaki Brothers. He will be missed by many. Rest in peace.”
Our thanks are due to Sab ‘Watanabe’ Inoue for much of the detail in this obituary.
- Jimmy Brown, the News Boy c/w Blue Ridge Cabin Home (single, Columbia Records Japan)
- Till We Meet Again (Jasrac 1210332, CD released in 2012)
Hisashi and Yasushi Ozaki are interviewed by Tara Linhardt here at Bluegrass Today.