How Japan Invented Los Angeles — and Reinvented American Style

By Colin MarshallSeptember 12, 2016

How Japan Invented Los Angeles — and Reinvented American Style

Ametora by W. David Marx

FORTY YEARS AGO, four Japanese writers and photographers came to town and invented Los Angeles. Or rather, they invented an image of Los Angeles they could distill, package, and sell — first to Japan, then to the rest of the world — with the debut issue of Popeye, published July 1976. Described in its own subtitle as the “Magazine for City Boys,” Popeye would go on to stake out and ultimately dominate its territory in the world of Japanese men’s style print media, one of the most internationally visible branches of that country’s still shockingly robust print media ecosystem.

Popeye celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a special 831st issue that contained a complete reprint of the first, with its extensive report on the lifestyles of the young and Californian, including instructions on how to jog, surf, skateboard, and hang-glide; seven pages of nothing but sneakers; and, most in-depth of all, a 27-page feature on the campus of a distant school called the University of California, Los Angeles. “It was all totally new,” the magazine’s first editor Yoshihisa Kinameri recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “In Japan at the time, students had maybe two kinds of sneakers, and they were cheap and not stylish at all. […] In Los Angeles, people looked happy and cheerful. It was magical; it was like heaven.”

The issue raised Japanese interest in UCLA to such a pitch that the bookstore in Ackerman Union, the subject of its own two-page spread, had to put up Japanese-language signage in order to handle the flow of tourists desperate for letterman jackets and gym shorts in blue and gold. This localized craze foreshadowed corporate Japan’s buying spree across the United States in the late 1980s, which was to be fueled by the asset bubble that briefly enriched the Japanese beyond even their own wildest dreams. It also came as a colorful moment in the story of Japan’s interest in American clothing, and specifically menswear, which W. David Marx tells in Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.

Marx, an American in Tokyo who co-founded the group blog Néojaponisme (“We can no longer examine Japan without an eye to the rest of the world,” declares its manifesto, “and conversely, we must explore the rest of the world to keep an eye on Japan”), has written about Japanese culture for well over a decade. I remember following, back in the days of Livejournal, his spirited comment-section debates about the meaning or merit (or lack thereof) of the latest — or oldest — Japanese events, attitudes, and phenomena. His engagement with Japan well established, Marx’s parallel interest in menswear emerged over time. Ametora — the product of years of research — finally brings these strands together. It is the book his readers have been waiting for. 

“The 1976 Popeye world was a sunny take on life in California,” as Marx puts it, “where youth were carving out the future for the rest of civilization. West Coast teens invented new sports, wore new kinds of clothing, and took up new healthy values. Los Angeles youth culture felt like a bright light in a dark America still recovering from Vietnam and Watergate.” It also shone as a beacon toward a Japan Kinameri described, in the editor’s note prefacing the first issue, as having fallen into “a state of drift,” suggesting a new focus by introducing not just a variety of Californian sports but a variety of Californian consumer products.

That, and the magazine’s acknowledgment of support from “the American Embassy of Tokyo United States Travel Service” (a one-stop shop for information about the United States in Japan back then), generated conspiracy theories. The most colorful of these held that “the fervent revolutionary Marxist agenda of Japanese students in the late 1960s had convinced the C.I.A. to put together an operation to win over Japanese youth through ‘psy-op’ techniques,” as “[c]overt operatives funded publishers who filled their magazines with Nike sneakers and Patagonia rugby shirts.” Conspiratorial tool or not, Popeye got results: “America was cool again in Japan — seen as a bright, shiny place of hopes, dreams, and desirable fashion goods.”

Though pitched to the modern menswear enthusiast, on a deeper level Ametora tells the story of Japan’s relationship with the United States over the past 60 years. During that time, the former has oscillated between intense infatuation with and benign disinterest in the latter: Japan falls for a certain cultural image of the United States (sometimes one made in Japan), then casts that image aside, later returning, even more passionately, to a new appealing conception of the country that defeated it in the increasingly distant World War II. Americans have never quite known to make of Japan’s apparent lack of reservation about conforming to the “American way” almost immediately after V-J day: expecting bitter, even violent resistance, they met instead with enthusiasm.

The Japanese, so it startlingly appeared, could really turn right around and begin openly desiring chocolate and cars, butter and business suits. In a ruined country, “following the American way of life looked like a golden ticket out of despair. Prewar interest in Western culture was an aesthetic choice and status symbol — now it was a means of self-preservation.” Before long, Japan’s economic engines got back up and running to the extent that even young people began to demand things Western of their own, especially clothes. One man, the closest figure Ametora has to a central character, found himself in a position to satisfy those desires. This man was Kensuke Ishizu, the founder of a company called VAN Jacket.

Born in 1911, “the very last year of the Meiji Era, a period that marked Japan's transition from a feudal society to a modern nation-state,” Ishizu already had a lifetime’s worth of exploits behind him: he grew up middle-class when Japan had just begun to experiment with the assimilation of baseball and hamburgers, had his tailor alter his school uniforms for additional élan, matured with the fashionable example of the Jazz Age mobo and moga (“modern boys” and “modern girls”), studied at Tokyo’s Meiji University even as he “coached boxers as a cornerman, founded the school's first motorcycle club, and ran an unlicensed taxi service with a friend,” then returned to his hometown of Okayama to marry and take over the family paper company.

Ishizu’s attempt at traditional respectability — during which he “patronized geisha houses at night and took glider lessons on the weekends” — didn’t last. With the paper company’s output restricted by Japan’s increasingly militaristic and dictatorial 1930s government, Ishizu decamped for the Chinese port city of Tianjin, where his family owned a department store. Running with an international crowd that included “British country-club elites in tails” as well as “disheveled White Russian émigrés,” he went from directing the store’s sales to designing and manufacturing the clothes themselves; when the war took a turn for the worse, he and his family sold the store. Ishizu then enlisted but remained in China, becoming a naval attaché and overseeing a glycerin factory he soon repurposed “to make clear soaps scented with Parisian spices.”

After Japan’s August 1945 surrender, Ishizu “spent most of September 1945 locked in a former Japanese naval library.” The arrival of US Marines the following month brought relief, as well as a vector of Western style: the young officer who brought Ishizu out of the library, a certain Lieutenant O’Brien (whose later fate Marx never could determine), “regaled Ishizu with stories of his undergraduate life at Princeton — the first time Ishizu heard about something called the ‘Ivy League.’” Introducing that culture’s clothing to his homeland — after leaving “the modern equivalent of $27 million” in China, returning to a burnt-down Okayama, taking a job in the underwear industry, and rising to the rank of high-end menswear designer in a still-impoverished country — stands as Ishizu’s legacy.

Japanese men of a certain age may or may not know Ishizu’s name, but they all know his brand. In the 1950s and ’60s, VAN Jacket brought to the Japanese market not just navy blazers and repp ties but button-down shirts, chino and twill pants, crewneck sweaters, and other elements of Ivy League dress — or rather, of an image of Ivy League dress they could distill, package, and sell. The project presented Ishizu and his younger collaborators with challenges both material and psychological. The former entailed a struggle to replicate pieces of American menswear from whatever they could glimpse in the media that made it to Japanese shores or buy on rare and expensive trips to the United States itself; the latter meant convincing the style-unconscious majority to care about their wardrobe, the style-conscious minority to give non-tailored clothing a chance, the youth who lived in their school uniforms to wear something else on the weekends, and the stern authorities not to crack down on “frivolous shirts with button-down collars” as a harbinger of mass delinquency.

This required what Americans might regard as an unholy alliance between manufacturing and media. Japan’s first men’s style magazine Otoko no Fukushoku (“Men’s Clothing”) launched in 1954 — and who should appear on its masthead but Ishizu himself? He had “turned Otoko no Fukushoku into a VAN media organ. Advertisements and clothing samples from VAN weaved in and out of the entire magazine,” and he wrote so many of its “real” articles that he had to use jokey referential pen names like “Esu Kaya” (with its echo of Esquire). As the country grew richer, the magazine turned more youth-oriented, taking the English name Men’s Club, and coming to focus entirely on — and define — Ivy League, or “Ivy,” style.

It did this with the help of the twentysomething Toshiyuki Kurosu, a fan of American clothing who, through his work at VAN and Men’s Club, became Japan’s foremost “Ivy expert.” In 1963, he took to the Ginza, Tokyo's highest-end shopping street, and pioneered a style of street photography seen in dozens of magazines and hundreds of blogs and Instagram accounts today. “Tokyo barely had adequate numbers of fashionable men to fill the pages of each issue,” but the feature caught on anyway, and soon “fashionable teens started to hang around the neighborhood’s main avenues in contrived outfits with the hope of catching Kurosu’s eye.” By the next year, “VAN enjoyed a national retail network and editorial control of the nation's top menswear magazine.”

At the height of its power, the VAN-Men’s Club complex made the rules, supplied the gear, and refereed the game of dressing Ivy. But, despite comparable sartorial ends, the Japanese and East Coast American ways of doing it could not have had less in common:

In the United States, Ivy League style was steeped in tradition, class privilege, and subtle social distinctions. No one read manuals on the style — they just imitated their fathers, brothers, and classmates. In Japan, VAN needed to break down Ivy into a distinct protocol so that a new convert could take up the style without having ever seen an actual American.

To bring the actual Americans to Japan — and to see a few more actual Americans themselves — Kurosu, along with a film crew and a team drawn from the VAN and Men’s Club staff, flew to the United States and made a road trip from Ivy League campus to Ivy League campus, documenting all the style they could find. But a disillusioning first morning at Harvard presented them with the opposite of style, students who “slumped into view wearing frayed cut-off shorts and decaying flip-flop sandals.” (The description induced flashbacks to my own college days, almost 40 years later and on the other end of the country, at UC Santa Barbara.) Even the acceptably dressed ones hewed to the anti-commercial ethos of the coming hippie era, refusing to participate in VAN’s “commercial.”

But the other Ivies proved more cooperative, and after getting a feel for the territory and learning to find (or create) examples of high style in the United States’s unexpectedly casual dress, Kurosu and his compatriots got all the material they needed and then some. Yet they still returned home to the task of “explaining why Ivy League students did not wear suits to class,” ultimately concluding that, while “Ivy fans in Japan are more stylish,” they also had much to learn from these Americans who “demonstrated their status through their nonchalance.” Apart from the exegeses of that discovery, which filled the pages of Men’s Club for months, the other fruits of the journey included Take Ivy, a slim photobook with an unexpected afterlife.

Take Ivy’s curious title, in the Japanese pronunciation, plays on that of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” another lodestone of the Ivy sensibility. Published in Japan in 1965 to disappointing sales, it nonetheless had its influence on once-intransigent retailers and fashion insiders, who “changed their mind about Ivy after seeing real images of healthy, elite Americans wearing madras blazers and chino pants among the majestic brick and stone buildings of old New England campuses.” Forty-five years later, just after its rediscovery by an American menswear blogger, the book enjoyed a rerelease in an even more influential English-language edition.

“The surprising craze for the book helped popularize the idea that the Japanese — like the Arabs protecting Aristotelian physics in the Dark Ages — had safeguarded America’s sartorial history while the United States spent decades making Dress Down Friday an all-week affair.” Ametora’s subtitle uses the word “saved” in the sense of both the preservation and salvation of American style: Japan accomplished the latter by earnestly practicing the former on the dress of Ivy Leaguers as well as other groups. By the end of the 20th century, the United States had taken on “the ignoble distinction of being the First World’s most casual country. For many men, dressing poorly became a badge of honor.”

Marx pulls his punch; the dress sense of the American man fell, in a few short decades, from being the object of the world’s envy to the object of its wholly justified derision. That dire trend has reversed slightly in recent years, thanks almost entirely to the proliferation of men’s style knowledge on the internet, creating the environment that made books like the English Take Ivy and Ametora possible. “On Ask Andy About Clothes, old prepsters — ‘trads’ — talked about sack suits; on Superfuture, kids who wanted to look like Tetsuo, from Akira, compared the fades on their Japanese denim,” writes The New Yorker's Joshua Rothman, reflecting on the movement’s emergence. Eventually, all these “strands of men’s fashion emphasized by menswear — heritage Americana, denim fetishism, Ivy League traditionalism, Italian style, with its ‘sprezzatura,’ or relaxed, studied flair — became popularized.”

Japanese enthusiasts played a part in popularizing all of them. They did the work of scrutiny, codification, replication, and even refinement that kept them alive enough in Japan to revive in the United States and the wider world. Kensuke Ishizu died in 2005, but Marx interviews other enterprising obsessives who sold a certain current of American style to their homeland, inadvertently preparing it for later reintroduction into its country of origin. This happened with workwear, athletic gear, biker leather, the “preppy” Ivy revival, streetwear (which, through homegrown brands like the massively popular A Bathing Ape, Japan quickly made its own), and denim of every kind. One day, jeans-lovers worldwide woke up to find those most American of all pants made to the formerly high American standard of quality in Japan — and only in Japan.

Toward the 20th century’s end, denim vividly demonstrated how “vintage American aesthetics and superior Japanese craftsmanship” could come together “to make the thing that Americans could no longer make themselves.” When Japan’s postwar economic miracle turned to malaise and its “edge on consumer electronics, semiconductors, and even video gaming consoles” dulled, denim gave the country “a new arena for national pride.” And the Japanese mastery of classically American clothing goes far beyond jeans. Tadashi Yanai, son of a VAN franchisee, founded UNIQLO, now a multibillion-dollar global basics brand that an admiring Kensuke Ishizu once described as “what I wanted to make.” VAN alumnus Yoshio Sadasue started Kamakura Shirts, maker of arguably the best oxford cloth button-down on the market. Onward Kashiyama, who first paid handsomely to license the traditional Ivy League brand J. Press for the Japanese market, has owned the Yale-founded company outright since 1986.

The J. Press purchase happened early in the time of the bubble, when “jealous Americans castigated Japanese perfectionism as superficial mimicry lacking a soul.” At the beginning of the 1980s, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner envisioned a Japanified Los Angeles of the 21st century; at decade’s end, his Black Rain dramatized the eruption of resentment between East and West by pitting a maverick New York cop against organized Japanese crime. “I grew up with your soldiers; you were wise then,” says Ken Takakura’s Osaka gangster boss to Michael Douglas’s jeans- and leather-jacket-clad working-class hero. “Now music and movies are all America is good for. We make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace.” The American’s sneering reply: “And if there was one of you guys who had an original idea, you’d be so tight you couldn’t even pull it out of your ass!”

“1991 and 1992 were ultimately the darkest years for Japanese-American relations since WWII. While the American economy was in painful recession, the Bubble Era Japanese economy was invincible, nearly ‘Number One,’” Marx writes in a Néojaponisme essay on Dave Barry Does Japan. He seizes upon Barry’s description in that comic travelogue of the “greaser rock’n’roll dancers” who, “an institution of the Yogogi Park area since the late 1970s,” have shown up each and every Sunday to perform their painstakingly practiced 1950s American dances to their painstakingly curated playlists of 1950s American rock songs in their painstakingly assembled American 1950s outfits — all dressed, as Barry puts it, “identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes,” each with “a lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut, held in place by the annual petroleum output of Kuwait.”

This and other Tokyo scenes convince Barry of “a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweeb like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.” A Dave Barry of the early 1960s might have indulged in similar ridicule had he, in a reversal of Take Ivy, come to Japan and beheld the still-askew approximations (and sometimes fabrications) of East Coast collegiate style on offer, let alone the near-groundless rigidity of the gospel according to Men’s Club — “Ivy men wore a pocket square in the ‘Ivy fold,’ a necktie exactly 7 cm wide, and an ‘orthodox’ pant length” — which “risked turning Ivy's youthful energy into sheer tedium.”

Yet style-conscious American men of the early 21st century have developed an appetite for the “rules of dress” that is as insatiable, and often as pedantic, as that of style-conscious Japanese men of the 1950s and ’60s. Part of it comes from having nowhere else to turn, since as the Japanese gained sophistication in Western dress, Americans discarded it. As the ’60s became the ’70s, according to menswear designer Alan Flusser, “fathers started dressing like their sons. As a result, two or three generations of men have lost the savoir-faire.” The severance of tradition having rendered them stylistic orphans without fathers, brothers, or classmates to imitate, young American men — and even not-so-young American men — found themselves in need of manuals.

American legacy men’s magazines like GQ or Esquire (that source of one of Ishizu’s many noms de plume) hoisted themselves into the knowledge vacuum alongside all those blogs and forums. But many readers across the world nevertheless found themselves seeking out the “primary” Japanese sources. I myself, when last I lived in Los Angeles, became a regular browser, and occasional purchaser, of Japanese men’s style magazines at the Little Tokyo outpost of Books Kinokuniya. Though mainly a fan of the Steve McQueen–deifying, rugged “Dad’s Style”–promoting Free & Easy, which in Marx’s words “has looked not abroad to Naples or Los Angeles, but pulled directly from the history of American fashion in Japan” (and whose final issue, published this past March, I made a point of buying on a trip to Tokyo from my current home in Seoul), I also, like many in the international menswear community, pay attention to Popeye.

Though I do study Japanese, I can read it only with a dictionary close at hand. Yet the language barrier presents no obstacle even to menswear enthusiasts who don’t speak a word. This owes to the visually rich, catalog-like format of most Japanese men’s style magazines, which Popeye didn’t quite pioneer but did much to develop. (Seven pages of nothing but sneakers in its first issue, recall.) Conventional publishing wisdom held up the “three Ss” — sex, suits, and socialism — as requirements for a successful men's magazine, but critics of “the magazine that pulled the trigger to start Japan's materialistic bubble” accused Popeye of interest only in “things that had a price tag.” Could this have come from the Popeye ethos, immediately exemplified in the athleticism-intensive California feature, of endorsing a healthy, non-rebellious, “wholesome” lifestyle?

An earlier, smaller generation of Japanese men had to fight the public impression that their clothes-consciousness came out of a “need to look feminine in a mad drive for lust,” but Marx offers a simpler assessment of the Popeye cohort: “the editors liked commercial goods more than members of the opposite sex.” These men, whatever their interest in women or anything else outside the realm of clothing, pursued style as an end in itself. This detachment of dress from life, let alone from sex life, goes back at least to the 1960s heyday of VAN Jacket. It reasserted itself during Japan’s early-1980s Ivy revival when Ishizu, despite VAN’s collapse the decade before, again rose to prominence as a stylistic elder statesman: “Just as before, Ishizu wanted kids to think about Ivy and Preppy clothing as part of a holistic lifestyle — not just a superficial fashion trend. And once again, he failed miserably.”

Marx sees Japan as having followed, since Ivy first colored the streets of postwar Tokyo, “a fifty-year trajectory towards its current status as the world's most style-obsessed nation.” Though few foreign observers doubt the degree of the obsession, more might object to its nature. Its conception of style, transplanted from foreign soil, seems detached from, or never in the first place attached to any morality or philosophy — anything but the will to achieve an increasingly meticulous self-presentation. Some Japanese style magazines have taken a stand for the man in full — the late Free & Easy idealized, in the words of its editor, he “who has his own style, who spends his days immersed in his interests with full intellectual curiosity” and who “should do his best for his professional career” — but deep shallowness, and its attendant flexibility, remains the rule.

The United States now shares in that aspect of the Japanese sartorial condition as well, having rediscovered its own style through what Marx calls “systems of clothing”: Ivy, Heavy Duty, California campus wear, Dad’s Style, and others, all first worn in the United States but rigorously articulated in Japan. “As a man who enjoys clothes,” laments Joshua Rothman, “I often find the postmodern nature of menswear frustrating. I want to dress like myself, and not like James Bond, Steve McQueen, Sartre, or some action figure I owned when I was a kid.” He quotes a female blogger’s complaint, shot through with fully capitalized cries of frustration, about how “all dudes learned how to dress and it sucks.” Their systems of clothing need at no point engage with their actual ways of life, and as a result we all “have ZERO idea what dude is who.” (Something like this happened, in a less refined form, in the United States of the 1990s, when athletic wear began to appear every day on bodies that had never felt a day's exercise.)

The word “Ametora,” a portmanteau of the Japanese renderings of “America” and “traditional,” identifies one such system, or family of systems, that a man — Japanese, American, or of any other nationality — might choose to wear. Men have gravitated to it especially in the wake of the late-2000s global financial crisis, in whose aftermath even the Japanese “public lost its appetite for vulgar displays of wealth” and “fashion editors needed something practical, something classic.” Ametora, “rule-driven, studied, gender-normative, and high quality,” offered just the ticket to both sides of the Pacific. It came as the product of “copying towards innovation,” a practice rooted in the traditional Japanese arts: “In flower arrangement and martial arts, students learn the basics by imitating the kata, a single authoritative ‘form.’ Pupils must first protect the kata, but after many years of study, they break from tradition and then separate to make their own.”

And so “the kata for Ametora may have started in the United States, but now it has settled comfortably in Japan. Going forward, the world will likely imitate the healthy Japanese example rather than the moribund American original.” A UCLA student today, looking to develop his dress sense, might well turn to instructions descended, directly or indirectly, from stylistic principles codified in Japan. When this young man finds his way to Popeye magazine, maybe he’ll open issue number 831 to see his own campus replicated, in a vivid and ultraconsumeristic form, on the page — albeit as it looked and felt four decades ago.

If he becomes a regular reader, he’ll eventually see all of Ametora printed in its pages, in a yearlong serialization beginning this September — albeit in Japanese, translated for the benefit of a new generation of men who, no matter their mastery of American style, lack any inkling of how it got to their country in the first place. (Marx recently wrote about giving a talk on the content of Ametora at Kensuke Ishizu’s alma mater: “The general feedback from the students was that they had never heard about anything I was talking about.”) Americans learn American style from Japanese who now need to relearn the history of American style in Japan from an American: it’s enough to induce a kind of vertigo — a vertigo reflective of the times we live and dress in.


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes about cities and culture. He writes the LARB Korea Blog and is currently at work on the book A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

LARB Contributor

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin's Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


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