by David Isle

I’m a sucker for almost any book about clothing, but W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is more than that. It’s a social history of post-war Japan told through the history of American influence on Japanese clothing. You’ll learn about the early adopters of Ivy style in Japan, which as a reader of this blog, you may know something about already. But did you know that in 1970 members of the Japanese Red Army Faction “hijacked a Japan Airlines flight en route from Tokyo to Fukuoka with samurai swords, handguns, and dynamite, and hitched a ride to their Marxist ‘ally’ North Korea”? I didn’t until I read this book. I interviewed David to learn more. 

David Isle: You start off the book describing the Tokyo police rounding up teens dressed in Ivy clothes, yet you also say that around the same time, Sony was handing out an Ivy dress guide. How were both these things happening at around the same time?

W. David Marx: Chronologically, there’s a few years between those two things. The Ginza raid happened in September ’64, and the book “When, Where, What to Wear” was written in ’65, so Sony probably handed it out a year or two later, like ’66 or ’67. 

The thing about Ivy in Japan is that it started out with the industry pushing it as a classy style to give to youth. But the Miyuki Tribe teenagers picked it up in a way that even the [Ivy magazine] Men’s Club editors weren’t that excited about. They weren’t wearing Ivy correctly and it looked a little bit delinquent. They didn’t think the police should be chasing them off the streets necessarily, but Ivy in 1964 certainly attracted a delinquent element that was interested in the style as delinquent fashion.

Ivy was also, however, the first fashion that appealed to youth in Japan as a non-delinquent style. The idea was not “do this because it will make people angry” but “do this because it’s the way elite youth in the United States dress.” Yet some were still attracted because it looked delinquent. For example, Masayuki Yamazaki who later founded the store Cream Soda, which helped bring in rock ‘n’ roll style, was attracted to Ivy in 1964 because he thought it was a delinquent style. So when he found a more delinquent style in the greaser stuff that was happening in Yokosuka around ’66, he switched over to that. The evidence seems that everyone had a hard time trying to figure out how to “read” Ivy in Japan at first.

Once Take Ivy came out in ’65, though, there was more breathing space for Ivy, and by ’66 and ’67, the rest of society understood that Ivy was elite fashion rather than delinquent fashion. You have to understand that by 1967 there were so many hippies out on the streets that Ivy, just by comparison, wasn’t the thing that delinquents were wearing. It felt like the opposite.

DI: I highlighted a quote in the book from Masayuki Yamazaki, who says that “all cool fashion is delinquent fashion.” I highlighted another at the end of the book from Jun Takahashi, saying that “generally Japanese people can’t make up their own minds and have to have an example to follow.” Do you think it’s true that Japanese fashion is more about following rules?

WDM: If you read any basic fashion theory, like Georg Simmel, there is an idea there is a dichotomy/contradiction at the heart of fashion: You wear clothes to make yourself different than some people and also to dress the same as other people. Fashion has long functioned like this in Japan. People dress a certain way to say “I am like these people, but I’m not like those people.”

The big difference between Japan and the U.S. though is men’s fashion developed in a way where the rules are so explicit. And that came directly from the fact that it was imported. In the 1960s, you had to teach people step by step how to do wear an American style, and media have continued to teach dressing up like that to this day. So style differences are much more obvious when people are following the rules.

That makes it easy for someone like Jun Takahashi to say all of Japanese fashion is rule-based — even his very strange brand Undercover had very normal kids from the provinces buying it because magazines advocated it. And that orderliness makes it feel sometimes like Japanese fashion lacks a individuality or a sense of personal expression.

I don’t think that’s the whole story though. I thought it was really important in Ametora to also look at the yankii and the bosozoku motorcycle gangs because they show clearly that not all Japanese fashion is about rules — and especially there are many Japanese who never cared about preserving imported fashion forms from America in a pristine way. The bosozoku didn’t care about the origin of their styles. They just thought, whatever scares people, we will use, and when it stops scaring people, we will not use it anymore. That’s very different from why people adopted Ivy and the reverence shown to the “correct” Ivy forms.

DI: Throughout the book it seems like there is this game of hide and seek between the older establishment, the wealthy youth, and the rougher youth.

WDM: I think there are four groups who have driven the changes in Japanese fashion over the last 60 years.

First, there were rich delinquents who did whatever they wanted, knowing that whatever they did as a kid wouldn’t matter because they had money and they could go work for their dads’ companies. So for the first twenty or thirty years of the post-war, they were the ones who moved fashion because they had the freedom to wear whatever they wanted. The first adopters of Ivy League style were from that group. Also the Sun Tribe from the 1950s and the first motorcycle gangs, the Thunder Tribe.

The Sun Tribe

Then there were the middle class kids, who were emerging as consumers and went out and bought the brands media promoted. And today that’s the bulk of who buys fashion in Japan.

Then there’s the artistic counterculture, and that’s the hippies and even Hiroshi Fujiwara and his crew. They are always doing their own thing, and very much want to be part of a global culture, not just their own cohort in Japan.

And then finally, the working class kids like the 1970s motorcycle gangs. They don’t care much about what’s in the media, just about their local experience.

At any given time, one of these groups might dominate — in the early ‘80s, the rich kids came back with the American casual thing to go against the middle-class and creative-class idea that you had to wear one avant-garde designer brand head-to-toe. Or in the 1990s, Ura-Harajuku was very much a creative-class movement that spread to the middle-classes.

DI: How did jeans manage to become acceptable to every group? Is “jeans” just such a broad category that it has that flexibility?

WDM: In 1950, you had to be the most elite Japanese bureaucrat, with access to Americans shopping at the Army PX, to own a crisp pair of Levi’s. If weren’t super elite, you had to go to the blackest of the black markets to find these horrible stitched-up pairs of jeans thrown away by Americans. So jeans had a bit of an edge in the 1950s because no one could get them outside of black markets. At the same time, they were incredibly expensive and therefore felt exclusive and prestigious.

In the ‘60s, jeans first caught on with the hippie and radical Marxist student groups. After that flamed out, it moved to a more back-to-nature look. Then after a period where straight leg was in again, the 1980s saw lots of groups buying different kinds of denim, from horrible acid wash tapered jeans that the designer kids were wearing to people getting into vintage Levi’s 501s. The vintage thing is interesting because we think of it as an offshoot of workwear, and certainly now if you buy vintage jeans, it’s coming from brands that are trying to project an old rugged lifestyle. But in the early 1980s, a lot of Japanese kids figured out that the French and the Italians were wearing 501s, and wore them trying to be sophisticated. 

Part 2 will follow on Thursday (update: it’s here). In the meantime, you can follow W. David Marx on TwitterInstagram, and Néojaponisme, and find his book at Amazon.