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Ametora: An Unofficial Guide to the History of Japanese Americana

Whether you’re familiar with the term Ametora or not, you may be in contact with the concept more than you’d think. Ametora literally translates to ‘American traditional’. But, culturally, ametora was, and still is, much more than that. More explicitly considered the adaptation, importation, perfected construction, and eventual exportation of American-inspired textiles, with it, some of Japan’s most innovative and contemporary citizens reshaped Japan’s culture through style and dress. Now, more than ever, Japan holds the reigns of international fashion, with some of your favorite Americana clothing coming from Japanese powerhouses that dominate the industry today.  

Yet, with an ever-changing, and much more inclusive, fashion world these days, we can’t help but wonder how this grand influence came to be. As Japanese style is now known to be some of the most daring and desirable on the map, how exactly did it get to the point of international domination, with such a complex and seemingly restrictive history? What makes the connection between American and Japanese menswear industries so vital to the history and trajectory of global trends?

Lucky for you, we have compiled 200+ years of the most important and groundbreaking moments in Japanese menswear fashion that individually contributed to the fruition of ametora style into a crash course, if you will. Whether you consider yourself a fashion historian or not, we introduce this platform of useful information as a guide to Japan's convoluted style past. 

 

MEIJI RESTORATION (1868-1912)

Interestingly enough, this act of cultural style exchange all began with Japan’s desire to westernize their culture after 265 years of economic, political and social isolation from the rest of the world. When the isolation came to an abrupt hault, Japan was simultaneously thrown into complete economic and cultural turmoil. After years of chaos, and an ultimate loss of cultural and social identity, a reform-minded samurai finally took control under the reign of Emperor Meiji, initiating his reformation plan that worked to adopt Western technology and lifestyles.

Throughout the years of Restoration, the Japanese government influenced and initiated radical transformations within the society, most drastically altering the male wardrobe from traditional to twentieth century. By exchanging high-class uniforms from long haired top knots and swords for three-piece suits and Napoleonic military uniforms, imported clothing steadily became a source of prestige and wealth.

 

 

The MOBOs & MOGAs (early 1910s-early 1930s)

While the country was experiencing an era of seismic political change following the Restoration, it began undergoing social changes as well. More and more young people with elite parents began adopting Western dress, creating the notorious mobo and moga—“modern boys” and “modern girls” subculture. Some of the most bad-ass, revolutionary kids in Japan’s history, the mobos and mogas liberated Japanese culture with Western fashions by swiping style leadership from the upper classes, and taking it in unauthorized and unconventional directions. Mobo men sported slicked back hair and flared, wide-leg “trumpet pants”, while their moga counterparts wore silky dresses with short bobs, playing with the Western culture as style. As these fashions and trends were considered “casual wear” in the States, this type of dress was deemed revolutionary and rebellious in Japan, supplying a short-lived movement that was eventually brought to a halt by the police department’s campaign to clean up the supposed “juvenile delinquency” that filled the Ginza streets.

 

THE WORLD WARS (1914-1919 & 1939-1945) & Japanese Occupation (1945-1952)

Unfortunately, as both World Wars came and went, Japan was forced into full fledged war-mode, and westernization of Japanese culture and the luxury menswear industry were pushed to the back burner. When the war ended in August of 1945 with Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces, American troops famously occupied the streets of Japan's most prominent cities. This occupation, the first in Japan’s long-standing history, was surprisingly amicable, as the soldiers were many times associated with passing out candy to children and helping the citizens. This, in turn, led to the reinstatement of Western culture in Japan, as the soldiers brought over American imports and customs that would soon be adopted by Japanese citizens.

Although the presence of American troops throughout Japan’s major cities was generally cordial, the difference in each party’s living standard was utterly conspicuous. While the Japanese population struggled for every meal, they watched on as American soldiers’ wives carried sacks of rice and enormous hams throughout the streets of Ginza, back to meet their husbands at the comfortable, American Headquarters.

Ironically enough, this incited a sort of desperation and urgency for adopting an American lifestyle, as it created the facade that anything American, physical good or cultural practice, was a golden ticket escape from despair. Japanese youth tuned into the Armed Forces Radio Service in order to hear jazz and American pop, local language covers of American songs became instant hits, and 5.7 million households listened in on the popular English-language radio program, “Come Come English”. Slowly, but surely, even the most Occupation-weary citizens began to admire America’s overt affluence. Before long, adopting Western culture was not just an aesthetic choice and status symbol, like in times before the wars, but rather, it was seen as a means of self-preservation and progression.

KENSUKE ISHIZU (1911-2005)

Cue: Kensuke Ishizu. The most important name to remember on this list. Son of a paper wholesaler and born in 1911 in the southwest city of Okayama, Japan, he became the “Godfather” of Japanese prep, single-handedly sparking the Ivy Style revolution that rapidly permeated through Japan through the mid-1900s. Although he was eternally obsessed with Westernism and was considered to be a mobo himself, Ishizu did not directly work in designing menswear until he scored a position as the menswear designer for Japan’s largest undergarment maker at the time, Renown. For the 3 years following occupation, he learned the rules of the trade, educating himself on high-end retail and the market of western fashion, eventually splitting from Renown and establishing his own brand, Ishizu Shoten. Although a time of great poverty, with few citizens spending time purchasing new clothes, and less so luxury ones, Ishizu was convinced that the desire for Westernized style would soon return.

And that it did.

With the eruption of the Korean War in 1950, Japan became America’s main manufacturing base for their military effort, with seventy-five percent of the country’s exports at the time supplying the conflict. Consequently, Japan’s economy was struck with loads of cash, igniting the match on one of history’s greatest comeback stories. The economy strengthened, and so did the pockets of Japan’s white-collar workers. High fashion began its comeback, and designers were able to establish new brands out of market confidence. Most importantly, Ishizu found a niche in high-end sport coats and reissued his brand name to VAN Jacket, utilizing “VAN” from the postwar comic magazine. Mostly for members of the society with a bit more cash to blow, VAN fought to embed itself in the local Japanese media in order to gain visibility. But, unfortunately, because VAN was such a specific taste and construction, most kids, and even some men, either couldn’t afford it or didn’t really want to stand out that much. Consequently, Ishizu knew he had to do something to vamp up his company and tap into a broader market.

In search of inspiration, Ishizu set his sights to the wild, wild west. Up until this point in his life, he believed Americans to be styleless, usually taking design values from European suits. But, when he finally took the train ride down to Princeton’s campus for the first time, he witnessed Ivy Style first hand, surprised by all of the dapperly dressed students. Young men filled the campus, dressed in distinct, unusual ways with button-downs, untied neck-ties, blazers, flannel pants, to name a few, much different from youth style that was happening across the pond in his home country. Throughout his trip, Ishizu identified the type of style that he wanted to bring back East for the Japanese youth to imitate: Ivy League fashion. With ready-to-wear clothing, young men could finally present themselves in a sophisticated manner while also staying up-to-date with Western trends. Upon returning to Japan, VAN made the first steps towards Japanese Ivy style by producing a detailed copy of Brooks Brothers’ classic Number One Sack Suit with a loose, dartless jacket. This, along with Ishizu’s book, Take Ivy, which documented his Princeton trip and gave a visual understanding of Ivy to the Japanese youth, both sparked what could be seen as the greatest style phenomenon in the history of fashion.

 

 

ERUPTION OF IVY STYLE (1960s)

Author of ametora bible, AMETORA: How Japan Saved American Style, W. David Marx, explains in his book that the concept of Ivy is what truly started it all, in terms of modern or post-war, Japanese style. With Take Ivy, Ishizu brought American style to Japan for the first time, as, prior to the 80’s, it was still fairly difficult for its population to travel west or receive influence from western cultures without it being brought directly to them.

Through this book, the narrative surrounding men’s fashion changed. Men became more aware of how they dress as a hobby, not just a means to look decent in the workplace. Blazers with broad shoulders and elbow patches, along with dress pants and loafers began to saturate the closets of young, Japanese men, mirroring America's Ivy culture. As it tied back to the elite, Ivy League culture at the time, Japanese who dressed in Ivy clothing felt a sense of pride and reassurance of their status after so many years of war and hardship. The Ivy Style phenomenon not only provoked a new, fashion trend in Japan, it started a lifestyle, an era of creativity and innovation for Japanese menswear that had no near sight of slowing down.

 

 

DENIM REVOLUTION (1960s-1970s)

Just a few short months after Ishizu’s documentation of East Coast campuses in Take Ivy, those same campuses began to transform into radical nerve centers of “cultural experimentation and anti-war demonstrations”, as Marx puts it. The students who were previously so avid about looking clean-cut and sleek with button-downs and khakis began experimenting with frayed jeans, unkempt hair, and T-shirts that featured political slogans and graphics. It was the 60s….so, self-explanatory.. But, at the same time, the Japanese youth were going through similar social changes. As a constitutional ban on war was implemented to prevent assistance to US in the Vietnam war, young men began to disobey the work-obsessed lifestyle and adopted much more casual ones, challenging any and all right-wing adults.

With the therefore dissipation of the extreme and strict past culture, the more moderate, Sixties aesthetic of dressed down, back-to-basics style was more accepted than ever. Although on a much lesser scale than in America, the rebellious essence that filled the air was what separated many sub-groups with different interests. Yet, whether it was the hippies or the punk rockers, the Japanese youth had agreed on one thing: the blue jean.

As blue jeans quickly became a staple in Japanese fashion, companies such as Lee and Wrangler began to establish importation deals with Japanese companies like Ishizu’s VAN Jacket. From 1950 to 1975, the denim market “went from a rubbish pile of soldiers’ dirty jeans to a ubiquitous and competitive retail network”, with new Japanese denim brands such as Big John dominating the field. Jeans were beyond just being ‘popular’ or ‘in style’, but rather transformed into a fully rooted part of Japan’s contemporary culture, so much so, that they began calling it the ‘Jeans Generation’. With lower prices and higher comfortability than the former ivy style, the new, casual denim trend was able to reach untapped markets and classes. With that, denim jeans also became one of the first articles of clothing that men and women shared as a essential, written aspect of the national wardrobe, solidifying Japan’s enlightened take on style and dress.

 

 

HIROSHI FUJIWARA, NIGO & HARAJUKU STREETWEAR (1980s & 1990s)

In the late 1980s, Hiroshi Fujiwara, now deemed designer, musician, influencer, and termed the “Godfather of streetwear”, was the coolest kid in town; some may even say in all of Japan. After moving to Tokyo and being elected “best dressed” at an underground party London Nite, he was sent on a free trip to London, in turn meeting two of his idols, Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren. It was McLaren who turned Fujiwara onto the new musical genre coming from the streets of New York--hip-hop. Fujiwara got extensively into the DJ side, returning to Tokyo with his first crate of hip-hop records; the first crate to ever grace the Japanese streets. He began showing the club scene how to scratch and cut records with two turntables and even eventually formed his own hip-hop unit, Tinnie Panx, which became an integral part of the early Japanese rap scene.

Through this scene, he developed mentorships and relationships with like-minded, young, Japanese men, including the likes of Jun “Jonio” Takahashi and Nigo, and even was the first Japanese member of the International Stussy Tribe--a loose network of creatives centered around Shawn Stussy’s revolutionary streetwear label. Through these connections, new Japanese streetwear brands were invented for the first time; Fujiwara’s Goodenough, Takahashi’s punk brand Undercover, and Nigo’s Planet of the Apes-inspired A Bathing Ape. As their fan base built up, as did the amount of members in Fujiwara’s crew creating their own lines.

But, it was truly Fujiwara himself, and Nigo’s BAPE brand that set things off. Their brands and influence, all inspired by hip-hop culture, and Fujiwara’s pioneering of it in Japan, became the magazines’ reader’s favorites, dominating the streets and clubs of Harajuku. Soon enough, they began to dress the artists they were inspired by, through collaborations with record labels and global brands, in turn transforming them into global brands themselves. Unaffiliated retailers were benefitted, as well as youth cultures around the world, as A Bathing Ape became an international powerhouse, selling and collaborating through international entities.

In all, both men “changed the face of fashion in their own ways”. While Hiroshi Fujiwara brought the underground to mainstream, Japanese culture, putting Japan on the international map of cultural elites, Nigo introduced Americans to the idea of quality, top-dollar, Japanese-made, American style. Through this, Japan became a cultural epicenter, one that cultural leaders around the world could no longer ignore.

VINTAGE & REPLICA (1980s & 1990s)

Now, with American-inspired style and culture becoming the norm in Japan, a new niche surfaced: vintage clothing. Through the 1980s, young Japanese buyers living throughout the United States, such as Yosuke Otsubo, Koji Kusakabe, and others, sent cheap deadstock back to Japan, directly to the vintage stores that were springing up everywhere. As Americans left 20+year old jeans and jackets to pick up dust, the Japanese population found treasure in another man’s trash. And, although Japanese parents discredited the boom in used American clothing, believing it revealed a morose recessionary mindset, the youth could not disprove that idea more. To them, old American clothes were not symbols of impoverishment, but rather a sign of cultural, societal, and economic progress and innovation.

This too sparked the era of vintage and replica military apparel, as older men found interest through magazines such as mono, a magazine that featured old, American workwear and military flight jackets. In turn, a nostalgia for the wartime seemingly came about, as men were able to align with militaristic opinions and ideas, without overtly attempting to involve themselves, or worse, fight in a war themselves. It brought them back to the time of the American Occupation. Although full of poverty and despair, it was a time of Western admiration and hope in adopting American affluence for their own society. 

As the trend of vintage clothing peaked, Japanese brands began popping up, introducing a new concept to the market: vintage replica. Up until this point, American vintage was a one-way street through importation, but never exportation, and certain creatives began to notice the opportunity in front of them. As they studied vintage clothing more in-depth than the Americans who put no value in vintage, they found ways to recreate them even better. Brands like Evisu, Warehouse, and Full Count began innovating and exporting denim replicas for one-fourth the price, and in 1990, the Real McCoy’s of Kobe re-created a nearly perfect version of the American A-2 flight jacket. Now, Japanese vintage is seen as the epitome of replica perfection, with many of streetwear's most favored pieces deriving from this era. 


EXPORTATION OF AMETORA (late 1990s to Now)

The spark of exporting Japanese clothing and ideas to the Western world did not just mean sending clothing over to these countries’ retail stores. But, it also initiated a cultural exchange of ideas and styles through Japanese prints and catalogues, with American youth just then hopping on the menswear train. Americans began to acknowledge Japan’s perfectionism in recreating styles from years before, as those same styles were seen infiltrating college campuses around the nation yet again. Americans soon began to accept a hard truth: the Japanese were better at Americana than Americans themselves.

AMETORA TODAY

Today, this narrative remains true.

When Japan began incorporating the influence of Western menswear into their culture, they were much more in contact with the styles, having a first hand look at those creating the style; i.e. Take Ivy, American troops during occupation years, Harajuku hip-hop scene, etc. But, in the long run, this fashion transformation that hit Japan by a storm is not just considered an appropriation or ‘copy’ of culture, but rather, is much more than that. It is a representation of the contemporary nature of the Japanese society, and their ever-modernizing influence throughout the world. It is a discovery of an entirely new identity, a new persona, and one of the greatest instances of cultural exchange and globalization. It is, Japan.

 

Gisella Dimitroff

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