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Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style

by

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo, September 1964: A squad of plainclothes police descend on the tony Ginza shopping district and round up hundreds of Japanese youths who had outraged local businesses. Their crime? Loitering in what was then outre style — button-down shirts, skinny ties, suit jackets and chino pants. These delinquents were the miyuki-zoku (Miyuki tribe) and they idolized one thing: Ivy League fashion.

Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, by W. David Marx
296 pages
Basic Books, Nonfiction.

Yes, they were preppies. Tokyo was about to host the Olympics and these kids were causing alarm by rejecting their 19th-century gakuran (high-collar) school uniforms. The Ginza panic seems incomprehensible today, but this is one of the fascinating accounts in W. David Marx’s unique archeology of Japanese menswear fashion, “Ametora.” The term is Japanese shorthand for “American traditional” and the book traces the cultural history of American trad as well as jeans and streetwear in Japan — how they were imported, exploited and sometimes radically modified. The result is, as Marx observes, “a highly illustrative episode of how culture globalizes.”

From gyaru (gals) to French maids, Tokyo’s wild vogues have caught international attention over the past decade or so and there could be no better guide to hacking one’s way to the source of this fashion Amazon than Marx, a Tokyo-based Harvard grad who has long blogged about style at Neojaponisme.com. According to Marx, the adoption of American styles in Japan began with one man, Kensuke Ishizu (1911-2005). The Okayama-born founder of clothing company Van Jacket is most known for “Take Ivy,” the 1965 photo book he commissioned of American students walking about on prestigious Ivy League campuses, decked out in letterman sweaters, sports jackets, madras shorts and penny loafers. In addition to this bible for the East Coast collegiate look in Japan, Ishizu also stoked youth interest — and clothing sales — via a magazine called Men’s Club. It enumerated in excruciating detail the finer points of dressing Ivy. Neckties had to be precisely 7 cm wide, but slanted jacket pockets were a no-no “anti-Ivy technique.”

Aping looks from the United States wasn’t without its ridiculous moments. Men’s Club featured a 1959 photo of wannabe Ivy Leaguers looking more like businessmen in porkpie hats than big men on campus. When enthusiast Toshiyuki Kurosu and other Take Ivy authors snuck into Harvard to do research and take photos, they expected to see students in three-button jackets, regimental ties and wingtips — instead they were in cutoff shorts and flip flops.

“This was people having to adopt a completely foreign culture from zero and then actually sell it to other people as a package,” Marx says over a beer in Shibuya. “They were trying to sell to kids who had no clothing whatsoever other than their school uniforms.”

Marx first became interested in Japanese style after experiencing the streetwear craze in Tokyo in the late 1990s. He was so shocked to have to wait three hours in line to buy a T-shirt at A Bathing Ape that he later wrote his thesis on the chain, which is also chronicled in “Ametora.” It was a chance encounter with a former Van employee years later (while getting his cordovan oxfords polished, of course) that opened up introductions to the surviving Take Ivy pioneers.

“There was absolutely no culture of fashion when I was at Harvard,” Marx says. “People have this image of it as this place where people still dress like the ’60s. You’re lucky if people are wearing clean T-shirts with their sweatpants.”

Gaps in understanding didn’t dent the success of the Ivy look in Japan as Van sparked a revolution in Japanese menswear toward a more casual, individualistic aesthetic. Van enjoyed tremendous success until its bankruptcy in 1978, but countless styles sprung up in its wake: surfers, hippies, rockabilly greasers and bosozoku (biker gangs), not to mention offshoots like the takenoko-zoku (bamboo shoot tribe), who loved to dance in public in garish kung-fu outfits.

Indeed, entrepreneurs like Masayuki Yamazaki made a mint in doing exactly the opposite of Ivy — preaching ’50s hoodlum styles (sometimes called yankii) and putting a Tokyo backwater district called Harajuku on the map with his vintage shop Cream Soda, which counted John Lennon among its customers. As Marx writes, the retro rockers weren’t just imitating foreigners: “They used American influences to terrorize the public — regent haircuts, Hawaiian shirts, dirty jeans — but abandoned them when right-wing garb offered greater potency.”

Probably Ishizu’s greatest legacy today is the global success of Fast Retailing, the clothing firm behind the Uniqlo casual wear chain. Founder Tadashi Yanai’s father ran a Van franchise in Yamaguchi Prefecture and some of Van’s dedication to selling cheap, smart-looking clothes can be found in the Uniqlo ethos. Fast Retailing represents in a sense the full flowering of ametora. Also significant is the recent passion for Ivy style by fashion-conscious Americans tired of rampant casual wear. Style blogs in the U.S. began posting scans of Take Ivy in 2008, and when it was published in English in 2010, it sold over 50,000 copies, also appearing in Ralph Lauren and J. Crew outlets. Americans were turning to Japan to rediscover what they had lost, and the ironic circle was complete.

Sartorially savvy and rigorously researched, “Ametora” is a smart account of Japan’s engagement with America through the lens of menswear. Even if you don’t know your brothel creepers from your brogues, this book is a pleasure to read and an essential manual for decoding contemporary Japanese culture.

  • Steve Jackman

    All my friends in the U.S. back in my college days who dressed preppy had a certain carefree and casual vibe, with a little bit of unique eccentricity or something unusual like a rule-breaking accent thrown in for good measure to express their individuality.

    Sadly, when I look at preppies in Japan, they remind me more of a store mannequin or an image from a catalog page. They all look the same and it’s like they’re trying too hard to get into character where the look takes over any personality. Finally, guys, stop wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts from American universities you did not go to, especially if you can’t speak even a word of English – it’s just tacky.

    • DA

      Then perhaps those same universities should limit their sales to campus shops? Or are you blaming the Japanese for the universities shamelessly trying to cash in on them (and the rest of the world)? And what does it matter if you don’t speak English; you’re not allowed to have text on your clothes in a language you don’t speak? Just look at all the Americans with kanji t-shirts and tattoos…

      • Steve Jackman

        The universities don’t care who buys since they make money from merchandise sales, but the joke’s on those who are dumb enough to wear these without having gone to the university whose sweatshirt they’re sporting.

        English ability matters, since if you’re wearing a UCLA t-shirt without speaking a word of English, it is obvious you didn’t study there since all courses are taught in English at UCLA and other American universities. It just makes you look dumb and clueless.

      • Stewart Dorward

        You mean like all the American tourists in their ‘Oxford University’ merchandise in the UK?

      • Steve Jackman

        Did you also see a lot of American tourists wearing “Oxbridge University” merchandise in the UK?

      • Stewart Dorward

        And every other nationality under the sun – Oxford, Oxbridge but far fewer than Cambridge. Wouldn’t be so bad if the Americans could speak English.

      • Steve Jackman

        “And every other nationality under the sun – Oxford, Oxbridge but far fewer than Cambridge.” Haha, Stewart Dorward, you fell for it! Really, so you actually saw merchandise that had “Oxbridge” written on it? That is amazing. Next you’ll be telling me you saw a unicorn on Regent street.

      • Stewart Dorward

        It really isn’t a joke – Oxbridge t-shirts and sweat shirts are very common – it just makes you feel depressed when you see people wearing them.

      • DA

        I think you’re missing my point. What I’m saying is that big American universities make their merchandise available far beyond campus stores. So what you are saying is that if a Japanese person stumbles upon a Yale shirt at their local Uniqlo store, they should think “Wait a second… I didn’t graduate from this university, so I must be ineligible to buy this” ?

      • Steve Jackman

        No, I think you’re missing my point. My comment was in the context of how Japanese preppies blindly copy American preppy style based on some superficial understanding of it and by dressing in preppy style head-to-toe like it’s some sort of a costume.

        This includes spending huge amounts of money on 100-dollar t-shirts and 200-dollar sweatshirts with names of American universities, sometimes names of even made-up non-existent American universities, which makes it even more comical.

      • Steve Jackman

        The universities don’t care who buys since they make money from merchandise sales, but the joke’s on those who are dumb enough to wear these without having gone to the university whose sweatshirt they’re sporting.

        English ability matters, since if you’re wearing a UCLA t-shirt without speaking a word of English, it is obvious you didn’t study there since all courses are taught in English at UCLA and other American universities. It just makes you look dumb and clueless.