Culture Japanamericana: A Balanced Culture ClashHow the Japanese reimagine hallmarks of American culture — and often do it better.
- Words Ian J. D. Logan
Japan is a land of contradiction: futuristic yet ancient, embracing tradition while pushing the development of novel technologies. In the wake of World War II, Japan set upon the hard task of rebuilding its government, economy, and society, but its people had talent and worked hard; their newfound awareness for the world beyond their shores led to innovative cultural mutations. Japan’s identity fused with cultural ideas from all over — especially from the melting pot of the U.S.A. American trends and concepts were freed from their cultural confines once they migrated to Japan. Almost everything is imbued with the cultural ideals of its creators, carrying the context of the time and place where it was made. But in Japan, America’s cultural artifacts became blank slates onto which the Japanese could project their own meaning. This inherent contradiction does not result in conflict, but instead, in harmony and balance.
Starting in the 1950s, American films saturated Japan. Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Ones, and later, Easy Rider, influenced the burgeoning youth culture on both sides of the Pacific. Like their American counterparts, Japanese kids began dressing like Dean, Brando, and Fonda. Because the Japanese were introduced to American culture through mass media, their interpretations often came off as caricatures; the Japanese greaser scene is more John Travolta in Grease than Matt Dillon in The Outsiders. Of course, clumsily appropriating other cultures is not limited to the Japanese experience; look no further than the American treatment of the samurai or ninja to see how cultural ideas can be lost in translation.
Going hand in hand with Japan’s rockabilly scene is its hot rods, and at the center of the “kustom kulture” is Shige Suganuma. In 1983, while visiting California from Japan, Suganuma stopped by the famed MOON Equipment Company in Santa Fe Springs to buy a set of iconic MOON discs — the classic pizza pan wheel covers seen on hot rods — for his Toyota pickup. That’s when he first met founder and hot rod legend Dean Moon, who asked Suganuma to start selling MOON discs in Japan. Three years later, Suganuma established MOONEYES Japan, a speed equipment and custom accessories supplier in Motomachi, Yokohama. The first MOONEYES hot rod and custom show took place in Yokohama in 1991 and has since grown into one of the world’s most popular gatherings of cars and choppers. The Japanese have developed their own distinct design language for hot rods and choppers, creating machines that stand apart from their American progenitors.
Rock and roll took hold of Japan around the same time it did the United States, thanks to American GIs bringing records from home. Artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were as popular in Japan as in the States, and it wasn’t long before Japan produced its own rock acts. Musicians like jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi infused Afro-American music with Japanese themes and instrumentation, making not just a hybrid of styles but a genre unto itself, and punk bands like Friction tore up Tokyo in the late 1970s. Today, leather-clad, pompadoured men and poodle-skirted women still get together in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to dance to the golden oldies.
Harley-Davidson is inextricably linked to American culture, but Japan’s relationship with these motorcycles is almost as old as the company itself. Harleys first started appearing in Japan as early as 1912. In 1924, the newly established Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Sales Company of Japan started importing motorcycles primarily for military and police use.
In 1929 the economic crash devalued the yen. Combined with protectionist tariffs, it was all but impossible to sell imported Harleys in Japan, so Harley-Davidson licensed its name and provided tooling, blueprints, processes, and parts to the Sankyo company, stipulating that bikes were not to be sold outside Japan. Sankyo built a state-of-the-art factory, and in 1932, the first Harley-Davidson “Rikuo” (Continent King) rolled off the assembly line. As the dawn of war approached, Japan turned hostile toward foreign companies within its borders, and Harley-Davidson was forced out of the country in 1937.
Production of its motorcycle design continued — without the licensing agreement — under the Rikuo name. Rikuo ramped up production for the military, producing around 18,000 motorcycles for the war effort. After the war ended, the company continued production at limited capacity, but by 1960 Rikuo declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. Two years later, Harley-Davidson regained a foothold in Japan and began opening new dealerships. Harleys are now status symbols in Japan, with brand loyalists who are just as gung-ho as their American counterparts.
Kids in Japan and the U.S. alike wanted to dress like the denim-clad antiheroes they saw on screen, and nothing symbolized youth discontent like a pair of blue jeans. In the 1970s, the Japanese went from admirers of denim to producers, and Japanese denim has since become the most sought after in the world. What makes Japanese denim so special is the lengths manufacturers have gone to perfecting their processes, with exacting attention to detail. Jean makers have become obsessed with all aspects of production, from sourcing African cotton, to traditional indigo dying, to weaving and stitching. Some denim makers, like Momotaro, have gone so far as to resurrect handlooms, where a single person weaves the fabric for a pair of jeans.
Japanese admirers of American jeans are deeply committed to understanding the nuances of the garments; a whole subculture of aficionados has learned to differentiate between pairs of jeans by the subtlest of differences. Today, 70% of vintage denim is found in Japan, where jeans are seldom worn as an afterthought.. There is a deliberateness to how the Japanese choose to dress, and a pair of jeans is meant to say something about the wearer.