Look closely at any typically “American” article of clothing these days. Think graphic hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, and of course the classic oxford shirt. All of these seemingly “American” designs actually became so popularized with the help of one country: Japan. Japan created what is now known as ametora, or “American traditional” in Japanese. When America gave up on style, Japan interfered and completely revitalized the western clothing industry. Japanese trendsetters and entrepreneurs mimicked, adapted, imported, and ultimately perfected American style, dramatically reshaping not only their style but also our own, resulting in the formation of both the mass market and the niche market, and essentially showing the positives the lie within cultural appropriation.
Japan’s relationship with America began in the late 19th century (with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry), when the two nations opened a trade relationship. The late 1890’s , during what is called the Meihi Era, was in height of Japan’s the full adoption of western culture. Kensuke Ishizu, a boy of the upper class, was born around this time period, allowing him to fully experience westernization. Later, Ishizu became a pioneer in the American Fashion fashion movement in Japan, personally renaming it ametora and bringing so called “Ivy fashion” to Japan. He opened Japan’s first major clothing empire VAN, becoming a god-like figure to the youth of Japan, dressing kids in high water pants and classic oxford shirts. From that point on, ametora evolved to become something more than the imitation of American style.
Perhaps the most notable evidence of Japanese influence in America comes from the mass retailer UNIQLO. UNIQLO originated as the child of Tadashi Yanai (who also worked under Kensuku Ishizu at VAN). The UNIQLO’s philosophy is to provide people with quality basics at low prices. To execute this mission, Yanai produced a line of goods inspired by the “heavy-duty” craze in Japan, including revolutionary products such as heat-tech and affordable down jackets. “I wanted to produce something that was affordable but would also last a very long time,” said Yanai. Since UNIQLO’s arrival to the states, the brand has received criticism from many that it was simply the “Japanese Gap.” However, following it’s overseas opening, UNIQLO noticed that people were not looking for the same regular straight-fit jeans as ones sold at GAP. To combat this, UNIQLO brought over Japanese denim in smaller sizes. Subsequently, the jeans sold immediately, indicating an American longing for the cool “downtown” look. To this day, one cannot step into a GAP, J. Crew, or American Eagle without seeing racks of skinny jeans before their eyes.
In fact, Japanese denim essentially saved American Blue Jeans. The American blue jeans were utilized during the 1930’s by miners who needed a rugged a material to survive the dangerous conditions. However, it was not until the 1950’s that blue jeans became a symbol of rebellion and youth culture. By the early 1950s, Ameyoko stores had developed a brisk trade in used jeans (what they called Ji-Pan) , but no one in Japan was able to afford a new pair. There was one notable exception—elite bureaucrat Jiro Shirasu. The Cambridge-educated businessman and diplomat first discovered jeans while living in San Francisco in the late 1930s. After the war, he played a critical role in facilitating relations between the Japanese and American governments, and it was this intimacy with General Douglas MacArthur’s GHQ that allowed him to purchase a crisp new pair of Levi’s 501s from a PX (a US military trading outpost). Shirasu nominally wanted the denim to wear when tinkering with his car, but he ended up living in them. When he boarded a flight to San Francisco in 1951 to sign the peace treaty with the U.S., he immediately shed his suit and spent the rest of the flight in his Levi’s. In 1951, the entire country learned about his love of jeans when a photographer captured the graying gentleman lounging in his favorite outfit.
Fast forward two decades to the 1980’s. Japan’s growing interest in Ivy had been it’s foundation of the country’s involvement in fashion. Ivy’s growing eccentricity had roots in the Japanese fashion revolution erupting in Europe. Japan was taking influences from Europe, allowing for the creation of more obscure styles that only appealed to a niche population. Perhaps the most notable are the avant-garde designers Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçon and Yohji Yamamoto. These designers came to Paris in 1981 and found influences in the Western European art styles of Neo-Realism and Futurism. From there, both designers took classic ivy styles and merged them with the odd art styles of Europe. Since then, these styles (also known as the DC Boom is Japan) have become recognized on a global scale, including in America.
The 1990’s were known as the decade of rap and hip-hop. Rappers like NWA, Biggie Smalls, and Tupac Shakur became the center of youth culture. This cultural shift was not exclusive to America, but also made its way to Japan. A kid named Hiroshi Fujiwara was symbolic of that era (similar to Kensuke Ishizu). He was in love with rap culture and skateboarding, and thus created the subcultural magazine Takarajima. This captured the attention of two men that would become eponymous in the streetwear industry: Nigo and Shawn Stussy. Stussy was a young adult stationed in Los Angeles who created the surfing label Stüssy, as well as the International Stüssy Tribe-a loose network of like-minded creatives centered around his streetwear label. However, up until that point streetwear was exclusive to those into surf and skate culture in the US. To combat this, Fuijiwara created the Japanese streetwear brand Goodenough, which would later inspire Nigo to begin the famous brand, A Bathing Ape. A Bathing Ape essentially utilized vintage ivy garments, and would print graphics on them. Shortly following, Nigo released an entire streetwear line consisting of graphic t-shirts and hoodies, as well as sneakers. A Bathing Ape or Bape, quickly became adopted by several noticeable figures in the hip-hop industry including Soulja Boy, Pharrell Williams, and Kanye West. These rappers wore the brand and popularized it, causing hundreds of teenage boys to scour the internet for Bape. What would follow over the next two decades would be the introduction of brands such as Supreme that would cause teenagers to line up around the block just so they could own a piece of clothing that their favorite rapper wore. America may have created streetwear, but Japan was the one that popularized it.
Considering the heavy influence that Japan had on American style, it almost seems fair that America would give something back to Japan in their form of ametora. There are actually a handful of Americana brands that take on Japanese Influences including Engineered Garments, Battenwear, and The Hill-Side. “These brands are built on the notion of Japanese craftsmanship, Japanese Fabrics, and traditional Japanese ivy styles ,” says Emil Corsillo (co-founder of The Hill-Side). Japanese brands have shown their skill in producing and improving upon American Fashion, but what comes next? After seventy years of borrowing style ideas from America, we must now wait and see how Japan reacts when other countries start appropriating and exporting their version of ametora back to Japan.