First of two parts

Nineteen-fifties America is a long way from present-day Japan — in terms of time, distance and culture. There were more teenagers than adults for the first time in the history of the United States, and this new demographic permanently changed the country’s character. And the rapidly expanding postwar economy in southern California created new opportunity and purchasing power. Young adults with jobs bought sleek new cars, leaving a huge number of 1920s and ’30s trade-ins within reach of teenagers.

In a creative process aimed at radically increasing their velocity, male teenagers began to turn their jalopies into “hot rods.” Hot rods were noisy, greasy, fast and dangerous. But most importantly, they were cool.

The youth identity that developed around these fast cars rippled through the lives of young people everywhere. Fifty years later, that identity, the cars and the accompanying fashion, language and lifestyle is coalescing into a new youth movement in Japan.

Key to understanding the scene is an appreciation that the mid-20th century hot-rodders of Southern California were the counter-culturalists of their day. The personal creativity of early hot-rod designers — Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Dean Moon — is credited with creating the Kustom Kulture movement. They redesigned machines of mass production into personal objects of art, reshaping the corporate symbols of white-collar affluence into something personal and unique, fast and beautiful.

Today in Japan, a growing number of young people have turned a curious eye to Kustom Kulture and its liberating theme of transformation.

Shige Suganuma of Yokohama is a key component of this growing Japanese trend. In 1992 he bought a part of the famed American Mooneyes auto- accessories and customizing company, and in recent years he has become an important motivating force in the growing Kustom Kulture movement in this country.

“This growth of interest in Kustom Kulture has been an interesting thing to watch,” Suganuma said. “Japan is an interesting place in terms of how it processes cultural information from the outside world. This process of exchange between America and Japan is mysterious for me. I have been intrigued by it since I was a child. In places such as Tokyo and Osaka, many young and middle-age men and women are fascinated with 1950s America. They bring old American cars to Japan and then customize them using the original techniques first developed in 1950s Southern California. Fenders are taken off, roofs are removed, frames are drilled through to reduce weight, then stretched and pinched to change the center of gravity. Bodies are channeled and dropped for better aerodynamics.

“In 1987, I organized the first Tokyo Street Car Nationals. It was the first event for customized American cars in Japan. At the first show there was no information about what to do to a car. Many owners managed to find magazines with ideas about what could be done. For that first show there were a handful of cars that came from as far away as Osaka in the south and Aomori in the north. At the show this year we had more than 750 cars and 100 swap-meet booths.”

There are custom-car builders and customizers throughout Japan who have cultivated noteworthy reputations. Some geographical areas focus on specific looks, car makes and models or styles associated with nostalgic periods of time. Almost all of the cars that are worked on are American in origin.

The city of Nagoya is known among car-culture people throughout Japan and the world as “Kustom City.” Its alter-ego is all about high-octane gas, fast customized American cars, hot rods, vintage motorcycles and the Kustom Kulture life that surrounds it all.

In front of his Border’s “King of Kustom” Garage, Hideki Kato calmly smoked a cigarette. Parked next to him was an impressive 1951 Mercury custom owned by Nagoya enthusiast Syu Chan. The car is named “Syu Merk,” and its chopped body is completely enveloped in a classic orange-to-yellow flamed paint job. The nose and tail are pinstriped by Kustom artist Makoto, who lives in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture.

“I have been creating cars at Border’s for more than 19 years,” Kato said. “I became interested in custom American cars with chopped roofs and a super-low stance. This low thing is very kakkoii (cool). I can’t explain it; the look is just very cool.

“The interest in car shows has changed a lot in Japan. Now younger people are getting involved. Their views about custom cars are more pure. They see custom cars and say, ‘Wow! So cool!’ Older people see the cars and say, ‘This is too noisy, scary . . . too low. Why?’ “

In Nagoya’s Osu Naka-ku district, Yoshiki Miyagawa’s ViSE clothing shop has become a rendezvous for young custom-car, hot-rod and bike enthusiasts. Recently, several Fords manufactured in America during the 1920s rumbled and popped in the street. They were fashioned into what are called Rat Rods: A young man named Toshi drove a ’23 Ford Model T with a 500-ci Cadillac engine; another named Joji drove a ’29 Ford Pickup with a Chevy 327 ci; Kei drove a ’23 Ford with a 350-ci Flathead 8; and finally Masato drove a ’23 Ford T-Bucket with a Toyota 4-cylinder engine. The “O” and “A” had been ground off the Toyota manifold logo to leave TOY T.

Yoshiki pumped the throttle of his vintage Harley-Davidson Shovel Head. “Originally in Japan things were traditional,” he said. “The old lifestyle was an internalized, private thing. During the 1970s and ’80s, this started to change with young people who looked inside themselves. In the ’90s, a sense of difference happened between the old and new cultures. Young Japanese explored different styles: Clothing, music; how to look, what to drive and how to drive it. Most of these new ideas came from America. This has been happening for a while now and is building on itself.”

In front of Miyagawa’s shop, the young men and women standing next to their idling machines are a devoted group. They are impressed by a sensibility about powerful machines with connections to a distant history in a foreign place: the noise, the grit, the danger and the thrill.

The style statements are loud. These kinds of cars and bikes first emerged in Southern California as a special way young people wanted to say something, and this monalogue continues in Japan.

Anthropologist and photographer Michael McCabe traveled with a group of American car enthusiasts in 2007. His book “Kustom Japan” is published by Hardy Marks (2008) ¥3,750. Available online at www.lastgasp.com; Mooneyes, Yokohama, Japan

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.