Ametora: When Cultural Appropriation Becomes Fashionable

The insightful new study, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, demonstrates how Japan beat American fashion at its own game

Following Japan’s ‘Meiji Restoration’ in 1868, the country sent out its best and brightest on a mission to identify, study and assimilate governing practices from around the modern western world. The result was a varied hodgepodge of approaches to organizing society: an American-style education system, a French-style police system, a German-style military and constitution.

In the post-WWII period, a similar process of study and assimilation occurred, albeit without government sponsorship. This time it was in the realm of fashion, and the influence was powerfully American.

W. David Marx now offers a meticulously researched and delightfully engaging history of Japan’s engagement with American fashion, from the early postwar years to the present day. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style presents not only a thorough and riveting history of ‘ametora’, or ‘American traditional’, but also argues persuasively that “Japan’s heritage of American-styled clothing now surpasses the United States on many measures… [Japan] has convinced significant numbers of foreigners that their versions of American clothing are more authentic than anything being made in the U.S.”

How did this happen? And what does it signal about the future of global fashion culture?

The history Marx chronicles is fascinating, absorbing, and at times downright hilarious. The ‘Ivy’ craze, one of the first in-your-face manifestations of Japanese teenagers donning non-functional American styles and loitering in the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district, led to a crackdown by police in the mid-

60s. Although the ‘Ivy’ style was based on the conservative clothing of American Ivy League campuses, the materialistic stylishness was interpreted as subversive and delinquent by Tokyo police, who conducted street sweeps and arrested many of the stylish youth.

In an effort to defuse the crisis, ‘Ivy’ fashion designer and owner of the ultra-trendy VAN fashion company Kensuke Ishizu reached out to police in an effort to convince them the brand was harmless. The resulting compromise saw a ‘Big Ivy Meet Up’ organized by police (technically, by a local Committee on Juvenile Problems). Thousands of teenagers showed up to the “meeting on juvenile problems” in hopes of seeing their fashion guru. Sure enough, Ishizu took the stage, lectured that “Ivy is not a momentary trend that you follow, but a tradition to be honored,” did an onstage Q&A with the police chief during which he asked the kids to stop loitering in the streets, and then ended the ‘meeting on juvenile problems’ with a rock concert and free giveaways.

Equally amusing and delightful was Marx’s account of the slow growth of an indigenous blue jeans industry. In light of Japan’s growing obsession with imported blue jeans in the mid-’60s, Maruo Clothing tried to figure out how to produce the coveted pants domestically. After thoroughly analyzing the original American version, the company imported thousands of yards of denim to its factory in the hopes of producing its own, only to discover that its sewing machines were unable to penetrate the heavy material. After several failed attempts, it finally imported a batch of sewing machines from the US.

After having to import various other components (including the thread), it finally produced a pair of jeans, but Japanese consumers wouldn’t buy them since they were used to pre-worn American jeans, not the stiff and uncomfortably raw feel of new jeans. The company decided to try pre-washing the jeans to soften them, only to have its washing machines break down under the weight of the new product. When it outsourced the task, the laundry service it contracted found its machines ruined by the indigo dye. Maruo Clothing bought the ruined machines and installed them in its factories.

But then it discovered the retail shops refused to buy pre-washed jeans, which the retailers considered an affront to quality control. Eventually, after further trial and error, Maruo’s efforts succeeded.

Such incidents fill the history of Japan’s engagement with American fashion, and Marx collects an array of such amusing and insightful anecdotes. He chronicles the history of post-war American fashion in Japan (the concentration is on menswear), from the early Ivy and Ivy-related trends through to the more recent fetish with streetwear and with vintage fashion. He weaves a fine balance between the corporate and social history of these fashion trends, and the biographical details of the designers and businessmen who made it all possible.

It’s not just anecdotes and fashion chronologies, though. Marx draws a fascinating sociological trajectory of American fashion in Japan, delineating how Japan has not only mastered but transcended American fashion, in the sense that many consider Japan’s take on American fashion to be far superior to America’s take on American fashion. Japanese designers and retailers have outpaced American ones commercially, and have reinvigorated and reinvented traditional vintage styles that had been or were at risk of being abandoned and forgotten by manufacturers in the US. Moreover, Marx argues, Japan managed to archive and preserve many iconic American styles, and at a time when America had forgotten or discarded many of its own fashion traditions, Japan’s fashion scenesters made them available for the American bloggers and fashionistas who have in recent years been looking to rediscover them.

Weaving a Theory of Fashion

“Fashion is not created in a vacuum but exists in a specific cultural and organizational context,” writes Yuniya Kawamura in her 2004 study The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion. In studying the breakthrough of Japanese designers into the fashion establishment, Kawamura emphasizes the distinction between clothing and fashion — “Clothing is a material production while fashion is a symbolic production. Clothing is tangible while fashion is intangible” — to emphasize the complex social and materialist forces which shape the legitimation of what is accepted as fashionable, and who decides that.

That social context, for postwar Japan, was shaped indelibly by the postwar American occupation. The early popularity of blue jeans and Ivy, and even of military-style bomber jackets, had roots in the varied styles American soldiers sported while in Japan. The difficulty of procuring these items only added to their fetishization. Even after global supply chains and domestic production had made these goods ubiquitous and easily accessible, they then assumed a nostalgic function for an aging (and affluent) middle-class.

But Japan’s take on American fashion is fundamentally different from the original, argues Marx. “[W]hat makes Ametora distinct from the original? Both Japanese and foreign observers commonly point to a specific set of characteristics — rule-driven, studied, gender-normative, and high quality.”

The rule-driven nature of Japan’s take on American fashion — magazines and books instructed the Japanese on precisely how to wear particular fashions, or in combination with what — was far more prescriptive (and proscriptive) than fashion had ever been in the US. This multi-layered complexity helped fashion transcend the previous era’s gendered aversion to fashion (stereotyped as feminine) by turning it into more of an organized, materialist hobby — like train model collecting, says Marx — than an expression of personal style. As well, the growth of a domestic fashion industry was aided by the Japanese government’s efforts to create a domestic textile industry to aid in postwar economic recovery. The government never intended to kickstart Japan’s dominance in the fashion world, but having the means of production ready to hand helped immensely when fashion began to emerge as a stand-alone industry.

The most recent stage of this process has seen Japanese designers and companies producing their own takes on American-inspired fashion: takes which are now avidly sought after by Americans as well. Japanese designers’ attention to quality, coupled with the establishment of their brands as international fashion icons, have also now garnered the material support of a whole new affluent class in China and other parts of Asia, which continues to fuel the economic side of the phenomenon.

All of these structural and societal elements aside, however, Marx notes that the Japanese fashion industry would never have gotten off the ground if it were not for the perseverance and inspiration of the handful of fashion-obsessed individuals who followed their own unique creative visions; “rebels and mavericks who fought against conventional wisdom and dominant market forces to change the way people dress.” Their work paid off, and “going forward, the world will likely imitate the healthy Japanese example rather than the moribund American original.”

But what, precisely, is the nature of this accomplishment? In her work, Kawamura points out that simple economic success is not enough to denote a ‘fashion capital’. It takes more than commercial success: it takes an ideology. “Ideology plays a decisive role in creating any form of culture, and the fashion culture in Paris is no exception,” she writes. “Ideology is shaped by social relationships, human activity, values and consciousness… Fashion is a kind of institutional subculture.”

How does that compare with what’s happened in Japan? As Marx observes, many of Japan’s own designers consider their work more imitation than actual fashion. He quotes fashion critic Shozo Izuishi: “It’s sad, but in Japan culture and fashion aren’t linked… Fashion is supposed to come from a lifestyle, but most Japanese don’t try to understand that.” Izuishi also points out that unlike Americans, Japan’s postwar generations didn’t have older mentors — fathers, brothers, grandfathers — to pass down fashion and style tips. Instead they had to rely on instructional books.

“Fashion thus became an expressive form of play in Japan,” writes Marx. Fashion normally grows out of particular lifestyles; in Japan, he suggests, the opposite was true. “Society allowed teenagers to indulge in subcultural looks as long as they cleaned up for job interviews later. A connected and deep fashion may have been too disruptive in Japan and never caught on.”

This said, a dramatic shift has now taken place, concludes Marx. The early Japanese designers copied and imitated, yes, but that built a necessary foundation upon which later designers have innovated. Marx likens this to other traditional Japanese arts based on the principle of ‘copying towards innovation’. “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 kata…”

This situation is perhaps best reflected by the re-importation of ametora to Japan. The dedication which kickstarted a domestic Japanese fashion industry inspired by American fashion has drawn the attention of America’s own fashion icons — hip-hop stars, DJ’s, and fashion designers — who now seek out Japanese labels as a way of boosting their own fashion cred. It’s no longer a case of Japanese seeking out American brand names, but of American stars seeking out Japanese brand names for their unique and inspired take on American style.

It’s a fascinating case of appropriation, re-appropriation, and re-importation. It’s a tangled web to be sure, but it’s one that has worked well for Japan. Although the global economy is more unpredictable and fragile than ever, that tangled web has positioned Japan with unique prospects for continued success. From the perspective of many, it’s about time.

“After so many years of being the pupil, Japan has an opportunity to be the teacher.”