Popeye magazine did something that few other publications can do: last summer, the Japanese men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine celebrated its 40th birthday, a feat for an age where print magazines increasingly seem to be relics of the past. Granted, Popeye had been floundering for a few years until the appointment of current Editor-in-Chief Takahiro Kinoshita in 2012 brought about rejuvenation and a redesign. The decision to save Popeye over shuttering it can perhaps be partially credited to Japan’s centuries-old culture of print, but the longevity of the magazine is undoubtedly a testimony to its profound influence on defining both menswear and masculinity in Japan, as well as its sartorial appeal that stretches beyond domestic borders.

The first issue, released in July of 1976, featured the fashion and daily rituals of Los Angelites—a topic that seems mundane in today’s hyperglobalized world and even dry when held up against some of the magazine’s more whimsical issue themes, such as August 2017’s concept “I wonder why I like curry so much.” Yet, for the young men of 1970s Japan, Popeye magazine was a portal into a glossy world filled with skateboarding, palm trees and Nike kicks. Each colorful, collage-filled page offered a brief relapse from the reality of a bursting postwar economic bubble and global oil crises and a bleak future of following their fathers into monotonous office work. “In Los Angeles, people looked happy and cheerful,” Yoshihisa Kinameri, Popeye’s original editor, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was magical; it was like heaven.”

The success of Popeye’s Los Angeles-flavored debut would lead to a flurry of other city guides covering metropolises like Tokyo, Kyoto, London, Brooklyn and Portland over the decades, but the publication’s identity as a “Magazine for City Boys” was focused less on accumulating urban readership and more on defining a new modern mindset for young men in a time of societal upheaval. In the 1980s and 1990s, young men became disillusioned with the salaryman ideal as full-time, long-term employment became hard to come by. ‘Salarymen’ refers to the stereotype of white-collar, suit-donning male office workers that traded steadfast corporate loyalty in exchange for lifelong employment and seniority-based promotions. While the workaholic salaryman was initially lauded as a masculine symbol of diligence and self-sacrifice that supported both family and society, the term quickly took a derogatory turn as the children of salarymen grew up with absentee fathers and career anxiety.

As a new generation sought out to redefine masculinity by their own terms, numerous men’s fashion magazines began to crop up with Popeye as one of the industry’s leading voices. In her thesis on masculinities in Japan, Barbara Németh found that while Western men’s magazines focused on topics such as sex, cars, sports and alcohol, Japanese men’s magazines are “more focused on a sense of self-reliance through style and aesthetics” that establish “ideal conditions for young men in which they can express their individuality and dress fashionably for their own benefit first.”

Popeye was one of the first Japanese men’s magazines to extensively feature and discuss fashion, and it did so with a global lens. The magazine’s early years spent scouring California and soaking up elements of surf and skate fashion eventually pivoted to the broader genres of ‘American casual’ and ‘traditional British’ before once again relishing in domestic Japanese labels. Japan’s integration of American and European fashion trends eventually garnered a life of its own as Ametora, a mash-up of the Romanization for ‘American traditional.’
“Some of the significant items were Levi’s 501s, polo shirts from Ralph Lauren, Irish Setter boots from Red Wing, BD shirts from Brooks Brothers, baseball jackets from Skookum and US Army surplus M-65s,” current Editor-in-Chief Takahiro Kinoshita recalled in an interview with Inventory magazine about his own youth spent reading Popeye. “These are still very popular amongst Japanese people, just like back then.”

Ironically, Popeye and other Japanese men’s fashion magazines would become style bibles and historical garment archives for later generations of American men who wanted to get into fashion, becoming the foundation for the online resurgence of menswear in the late 2000s. “When American men wanted to look at pictures of Aldens or Red Wings back in 2007 or 2008, those pictures were in Japanese magazines,” W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, told GQ. “So I just think that when Americans became interested in their own heritage, the resources they needed to learn about it were in Japan.”

In a twist of fate, Popeye, a magazine intrinsically founded on escapism and idealization of life and fashion in America and Europe, became romanticized by young men outside of Japan. In late 2014, the London-based insight and strategy agency Flamingo published an open letter to Popeye, begging the magazine to never release English editions: “Not engaging with the writing in Popeye means I can imagine some unknowns for myself. I can imagine that the smart, modern, informal style of your fashion stories is mirrored in the tone of the features writing. I can imagine that the writers are sharply dressed flies on the wall of Tokyo youth culture: exploring shops and cafes by day, exploring discos by night. Filing copy as the sun rises. Nestled under the skin of the latest trends in how to wear brogues.” Popeye represents a halcyon existence in Tokyo, a city filled with trendy men fetching coffee in New Balances and taking their fresh-faced girlfriends on dates to hedgehog cafes—and frankly—a city far away from police brutality, election scandals, Brexit and online flame wars about the refugee crisis.

Ultimately, it’s the balance Popeye has struck between communicating the familiar and the exotic that has led to the magazine’s longevity and captured both Japanese and Western readers for generations. For the Japanese youth of yesteryear, it was the glimpse into a colorful lifestyle overseas. For Japanese youth today, it’s as simple as the smattering of English as decorative page elements, the frequent use of white and black models and the visual tours of global city boy life. For Western readers, it’s the entrancing page designs and, as Smithsonian so aptly put it, “an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.” Trendy and carefree, aspirational without being unattainable or distasteful, impactful without striving to actively be so, Popeye unwittingly mastered the recipe for a global pop culture fixture.

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Tags: japan, magazines