Country and Eastern

What does the Japanese Hank Williams do for an encore?

By Dave Hoekstra

The Japanese have a popular saying: “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” But Yoshi Sekiguchi has always been his own man. At 17 he made his singing debut in the port city of Yokosuka, Japan, belting out Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call” for a roomful of American servicemen. “Everyone was real quiet,” he recalls. “After I finished, everyone started clapping and yelling. Pretty soon I notice ten glasses of whiskey onstage. They were for me. I didn’t drink that much–maybe three glasses.”

Now 69, Sekiguchi operates an independent design studio from his split-level home in Highland Park. A hardbound copy of Hank Williams: The Complete Lyrics lies on a coffee table. Near the fireplace is a modest CD collection (a Hank Williams box, Merle Haggard’s Chill Factor and Blue Jungle, The Best of Floyd Cramer). He fetches a caricature of Haggard drinking from a shot glass in front of an American flag, which he designed when the singer was a spokesman for George Dickel whiskey. The drawing incorporates Sekiguchi’s patented “Yoshimation” technique, which uses a grid design and a clear lens to create the illusion of motion. As Sekiguchi moves the grid from side to side, Merle knocks back the shot again and again. “My man!” Sekiguchi exclaims. “He’s the best.”

In America, country has traditionally been working-class music, but in Japan it’s rooted in high society. “Country music was not for the masses,” says Sekiguchi. “You have to understand English. That’s why we had some country-music players who were descendants from royal families and notable samurai families.”

Sekiguchi grew up in Yokosuka, a city of 300,000. With the largest harbor and shipbuilding facilities in Japan, it became the headquarters of the Imperial Navy. Sekiguchi’s father was a navy officer, and all three of his brothers were pilots; two of them died in kamikaze operations. “I believe we were the only family which dedicated two sons to the suicide missions,” he says. “If the war had lasted a few more years, I would have done the same thing. But I’m a kamikaze dropout.” The name “Yoshi” means “spared samurai.”

“I firmly believe recent wars in worldwide scale were caused by economic reasons, not by hatred between people of two fighting countries,” Sekiguchi declares. “Japanese culture is very different. When we lost the war we didn’t hate all enemies. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend. Sure, there were some bad feelings among the people who came back from the war. They couldn’t find work. For several years my father and my brother who came back couldn’t get any jobs. Professional soldiers could not work because they were treated as war criminals on a small scale.”

Sekiguchi first heard country music on FEN (Far East Network) radio. “At that time we were ready to learn the English language, because we were fighting English-speaking countries. I could read Shakespeare. But I thought the easiest way to learn English was to learn country music.” He claims he memorized 1,500 country and folk songs while growing up, though his favorites were Hank Williams numbers like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Lovesick Blues.” When Williams died in 1953, Sekiguchi sent a condolence letter to the singer’s widow, and she replied by sending him a photo of his hero. The first time Sekiguchi heard an authentic country band play, at an American base in Yokosuka, he knew more songs than the musicians.

After the war the city was flooded with American servicemen. “The town was full of either Navy personnel or shipbuilders,” says Sekiguchi. “Restaurants and bars catered to them.” Soon after he made his singing debut, all the GIs began calling him Hank. “My tag became ‘the Japanese Hank Williams,'” he recalls. “I also did more traditional things like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ or ‘Clementine.'” With his heavy drawl and good-natured stage presence Sekiguchi became a fixture in the variety shows that toured U.S. bases. The performers wore custom-made western outfits, and sometimes the GIs gave them boots. “Most of the bands were formed by college-age students to entertain American servicemen on the bases and ships of American Occupation Forces. This was before Japanese radio or television stations really picked up country music.”

He taught himself to play guitar during a six-month stand entertaining paratroopers at the air base in Ashiya, Kyushu. His eight-minute Williams medley (including “Lovesick Blues,” “Moanin’ the Blues,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) was added to the regular rotation on Honshu Hayride, the country-music show on FEN. Host Tex Howard, a former PR man for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, befriended Sekiguchi: “Tex said he could make a living if he became my manager in the U.S. It was just for show. It didn’t matter if I was good or not.”

Sekiguchi’s career continued to pick up steam. He contributed songs to Tokyo Jamboree and Western All Stars, two popular LPs featuring acts from teahouses and military camps. By 1958 his band, the Western Caravan, had a residency at the Seamen’s Club in Yokohama, a major commercial port. Their showstopper was “Tequila,” the 1958 hit by the Champs, for which the quartet donned huge Mexican sombreros. Sekiguchi made his film debut in Mervyn LeRoy’s A Majority of One (1962), with Rosalind Russell playing a Jewish woman who falls for Japanese diplomat Alec Guiness; the filmmakers inserted some footage of Sekiguchi singing “Clementine” at a Tokyo teahouse, cribbed from a CBS documentary.

By that time the American presence in Japan had diminished and so had the craving for country. In 1961, Sekiguchi and his wife, Yoshiko, opened the El Paso western restaurant in the fashionable Roppongi area of Tokyo, serving ranch-style chicken, barbecued spareribs, jambalaya, and “Top o’ the Morning Steak.” Yoshi designed the leather-covered menu; bread was served in a miniature chuck wagon, and the ashtrays were shaped like horseshoes. The Mainichi Daily News gave the El Paso an enthusiastic review: “Enter the restaurant, check your guns (if any), and you will be cheerfully welcomed by Sekiguchi (likely as not wearing a cowboy costume) and Yoshiko (dressed up like an Injun girl).”

“There were no recipes for this kind of cooking,” Sekiguchi recalls, “and the Japanese didn’t care for it. But we got foreign people: airline people, tourists. We served dry Japanese beer like Kirin, whiskey, and martinis.” The El Paso was popular with touring American country stars: Hank Snow ate there, and Ferlin Husky brought along guitarist Sammy Pruett, who played with Hank Williams’s Drifting Cowboys.

One day at the El Paso, Sekiguchi was perusing the classifieds in Horizons travel magazine when he spotted an advertisement for the Wild Horse, a dude ranch in Tucson, Arizona. He wrote to the owners, Howard and Grace Miller, to ask for help with his cuisine, and by a strange coincidence, the Millers were in Yokohama when their daughter-in-law received Sekiguchi’s letter. He agreed to show the Millers around Yokohama and Tokyo. “Since my restaurant wasn’t doing well and I wanted to pursue my career in graphic design, I took the Millers up on their offer when they said to come on over to the States.”

In March 1964 he traveled to San Francisco, where he bought a monthlong bus pass and explored the country. “By taking the Greyhound, I realized this country was so big,” he says. “Hours and hours of driving to Arizona. Everything here is so spread out. Even on this property there would be ten Japanese houses squeezed together.”

As a guest at the Millers’ dude ranch Sekiguchi agreed to sing American folk and cowboy songs for the other guests, many of whom were from the east coast; he even taught a little karate on the side. Several families invited him to visit them, and by the end of the summer he’d settled in Chicago. The following April he brought his family over from Japan, and they moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Bittersweet, near the lake. In 1969 the family moved to Highland Park, into the four-bedroom house where Sekiguchi still lives and works.

His first design job in Chicago was with the trade magazine Restaurants and Institutions, but his real ambition was to work for Playboy. He’d become familiar with the magazine when he was touring the military circuit in Japan, and he loved the typography and graphic design. In 1971 he learned of an opening for an art director at VIP, the magazine for Playboy Clubs International, and was offered the job. At that point the club’s membership was about a million, with 27 clubs worldwide, including hotels and casinos. “I could go anywhere,” says Sekiguchi. “So I took it.”

Hefner was a tough audience. “If he wrote ‘OK’ for any first presentation, it was considered a success,” Yoshi says. “One pictorial spread I presented on the first issue which I worked on, the remark was ‘Good spread, HMH,’ which other staff members had never experienced before. They told me this was like winning an Oscar or a Pulitzer Prize.”

When VIP folded in 1975, Sekiguchi was offered a job at Playboy, but by then he’d decided to open his own studio. Often he’ll work late into the night or early morning, listening to Merle Haggard on his stereo. In Inside Design (Where a Concept Unfolds), a 1987 book he published with designer Morton Goldsholl, Sekiguchi quotes Haggard’s song “Big City”: “Been working every day / Since I was 20 / Haven’t got a thing to show / For anything I’ve done.” Adds Sekiguchi, “I am glad to say, I now have something to show.”

Yoshimation has turned out to be a windfall for the artist. Using the technique, he’s designed covers for the Disney CDs Aladdin and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and in 1993, Burger King sold more than 16 million Last Action Hero cups using his design. Two of his daughters have followed in his footsteps: Risa, the oldest, is a painter, and Chika, the middle child, is a graphic designer (Juri, the youngest, is an import manager for United Airlines). Chika used to front her own pop-rock band, and she sampled her father singing Hank Williams’s “Please Don’t Let Me Love You” in a secret track on her CD Little Ship Head.

Sekiguchi doesn’t perform much anymore, except when he’s had one too many. No matter how good he is, people are bound to consider him an oddity. “Americans don’t picture country music in Japan,” he says. “It’s like singing Japanese folk songs in Japanese here. What kind of audience can you get? But I’d probably sing today if someone got a band together. I’d sing ‘Mansion on the Hill.’ Not like Garth Brooks.” He smiles. “Good country.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.