How Japan Helped Westerns Get Back in the Saddle

Japan has played a key role in the reawakening of the Western genre; from having its early pop media influenced by Westerns, to becoming a leader in the genre worldwide

Japanese pop culture has played a key role in the revival of Westerns in recent years, with internationally acclaimed Japanese media featuring Frontier themes and aesthetics. Japan has a point of view all its own, and that viewpoint can be seen throughout arts formats. Japanese detective fiction is a take on mystery stories, as is Japan’s unique genre stylings on everything from horror to television dramas. This perspective has given Japanese pop culture its strong presence globally, represented through internationally acclaimed anime, film, manga, and video games. Global trends play a factor in shaping these forms of media, as in any other place in the world. Yet, more often than not, popular culture in Japan has its own pace. 

That goes for Japanese Westerns too, a take on the American folkloric Wild West of myth and legend. Within the Western genre’s homegrown American identity itself, the genre came in waves. Originating in the folklore of the North American frontier, and the surrounding stories of the folks from it. It became pop culture, from the late-1800s and early-1900s Western dime novels, to the 1940-1950s popularity of Western film/radio dramas and TV shows, and through the 1960s-1970s Spaghetti Western blockbusters.

“The Land of the Rising Sun” forged its own trail through pop culture Westerns: Seibu shōsetsu (西部小説) never found the popularity that Western fiction did in the rest of the world. Disney’s Frontierland has an idiosyncratic labeling Westernland (ウエスタンランド) since Japanese folklore doesn’t have an exact match to the frontier landscape. Even the Spaghetti Western was referred to under a different terminology as Macaroni Western (マカロニウエスタン). Nevertheless, in fact, Japan became a leader in the genre, it is well-known that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had its inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Just from these examples, it is clear that the vibes of Westerns weren’t lost in translation, and most importantly that Japan had an unmistakable positive impact on the Western genre.

These are no ethereal vibes or a fascination with the exotic, it has deep cultural connections to depictions of both American and Japanese folklore, which garnered increasing popularity in mid-20th century pop culture. Just as A Fistful of Dollars saw inspiration in Yojimbo, which too had an inspiration source in Dashiell Hammett’s crime noir novel The Glass Key, great art wasn’t formed in an echo chamber. Even the very roots of the cowboy Western lifestyle, itself rooted in the vaquero traditions of indigenous and Hispano Oasisamerica, wasn’t without its far reaching sources of inspiration. The characters of the wandering samurai and the lone cowboy were obvious analogs, but others involved ideas of honor, justice, and personal autonomy. But beyond this, there was a shared magnetism of humanity’s perception of civilization coming into contact with the nature of the wilds.

“We grew up with Westerns.” — Shigeru Miyamoto

This fusion of cultural elements can be seen in the success of various forms of Japanese media, such as video games. Miyamoto remarked on the influence Westerns had on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in an interview with Satoru Iwata. Found on its original Iwata Asks page, as well as my previous article on the subject. The influence of Westerns goes back to Miyamoto’s early work on Nintendo arcade games, with Sheriff. And the lone hero remains as a vestige found in the archetype behind Mario and Link. The television serials that Miyamoto was referring to were popular the world over. The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, and Elfego Baca found the same popularity with Japanese audiences as they did elsewhere.

In the 1990s, video games and manga produced with Western aesthetics continued to arise. Sunset Riders and Wild Guns brought the Japanese Western to worldwide audiences, as did the manga series Trigun. The 90s-era studios in the United States avoided Westerns, but Japan ones gladly took up the torch. They inspired a new generation to venture into the frontier again. The Wild Arms game series saw inspiration from the Trigun manga series, and Trigun itself was adapted into an anime series. While the anime was released in the late-1990s, it wasn’t until it was featured in the early-2000s on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block that it found an audience in the West.

At this time Red Dead Revolver was being developed by American studio Rockstar, under the Japanese publisher Capcom. This hallmark played an important part in the modern pop culture revival of the Western genre. The Red Dead franchise became a multimillion-dollar series for Rockstar, following the 2010 launch of Red Dead Redemption. Its 2018 sequel Red Dead Redemption 2 would create a worldwide reawakening, lasting through lockdowns that started in 2020. Putting people into the mood for Westerns’ sentiment towards rugged independence and wide-open-spaces. In this climate, anime Westerns are again coming into the fold, Trigun has been rebooted in the form of Trigun Stampede.

“A devoted group of Japanese musicians pursue a lifelong passion for country music in honky-tonks from Tokyo to Nashville.” — Amazon Prime’s synopsis of the documentary Far Western

Seemingly unrelated identities have expressed themselves in both the US and Japan. While reporting for The New York Times, Walter Thompson-Hernández was surprised to find the Chicano subculture alive and well in Japan. Complete with trademark lowriders and Chicano-style hip-hop. This Western lifestyle subculture found its way to Japan the same way Western wear and country-Western music did. As showcased in the Far Western documentary it traveled through the countryside and cityscapes, making its way to talented creatives throughout the island nation.

Tomi Fujiyama and Charlie Nagatani became Japan’s legends of country music. The latter of which even set up the former annual Country Gold concert series in Kumamoto, attracting international country-Western stalwarts Rick Trevino, Daryle Singletary, and Brad Paisley. While that particular event may be on ice, the music certainly isn’t done. “Good Time Charlie” is still rocking his music with one of the longest-running bands in Japanese history, The Cannonballs.

Honky-tonks throughout Japan carry on this tradition, venues like Little Texas and Lone Star Cafe in Tokyo, Stagecoach in Chigasaki, and Armadillo in Nagoya. These locations tend to serve good Texan and Southwestern cuisine fare, so these Japanese honky-tonks are an upgrade from their American dive bar inspiration. Along with featuring performances by Bronco & Spirits, Cadillac Cowboys, Country Wagon, Dicky Kitano, Asako & Geeks, and Swinging Doors.

“The Land of Enchantment” of New Mexico was no stranger to diverse inspirations. The famed New Mexico chile pepper, important to New Mexican cuisine heritage, became a regional staple thanks to pioneer Mexican American horticulturist Fabian Garcia. His student Roy Nakayama, son of Japanese immigrants, became known as “Mr. Chile” for his creation of the Big Jim variety. Let’s not forget Yokohama’s native son Norio Hayakawa, a regular of the Coast to Coast paranormal broadcast. Also known for his stints in country-Western and New Mexico music and as a member of Johnny Whitecloud’s band. Norio moved to Albuquerque to attend college, settling in Rio Rancho, and falling in love with New Mexico’s culture. He toured the US performing country music, enjoying the Western lifestyle, exploring paranormal research, and even hosted a Nippon TV documentary on the UFO claims surrounding Dulce, New Mexico. Americans of Japanese heritage have long made a name on the Western lifestyle itself.

“Brace yourself for a stampede.” — Yasuhiro Naito, creator of Trigun

The revival of the Western genre, in large part caused by Japanese influences, has had a lasting impact, with Western themes and aesthetics influencing the global industry and pop culture as a whole. Country-Western music has become one of the top TikTok and streaming music genres, Trigun’s revival is on its way and Devil May Cry-inspired Western video game Evil West is too, and food from the Southwestern US is on the menu at a restaurant near you. Even in Animal Crossing, when K.K. Slider comes to town, players can choose from “Aloha K.K.”, “K.K. Cruisin’”, “K.K. Country”, “K.K. Dixie”, “K.K. Mariachi”, “K.K. Rockabilly”, and even “K.K. Western” whenever you want some variously-flavored country-Western ambiance.

While it may seem odd, we should always remember that creativity and the arts don’t occur in a vacuum. The Japanese roots of reawakening Westerns caused a dramatic effect, they too inspired by a myriad of sources including Christian media i.e. Nicholas Wolfwood of Trigun. But they all led to Neo-Westerns and Space Westerns in anime and manga like Cowboy Bebop, and even the initial creation of the Red Dead franchise. Reigniting interest in Westerns as a genre, including Hollywood takes on Neo-Westerns and Space Westerns, a la Breaking Bad and Westworld, and created the atmosphere for country-Western music to become a part of pop music internationally again. In some regions, this comeback brought long overdue attention to subgenres, Albuquerque gave Al Hurricane and Al Hurricane Jr. their due recognition in the distinctive New Mexico music genre by renaming the plaza stage after them. And artists like Kane Brown, Blanco Brown, Midland, Maddie & Tae, Dynette Marie, Daniel Solis, Lil Nas X, Mason Ramsey, and others have made careers on this continuing popularity wave. 

Mario J. Lucero is a computer scientist and co-founder of production studio Heaven Sent Gaming, alongside his artist wife Isabel. He is the co-creator, designer, folklorist, and writer of their publications. Including animation, comics, film, novels, and web arts, along with a New Mexico Cultural Encyclopedia & Lexicon and and entertainment journal.

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