What Is Japanese Americana?
When it comes to menswear, Japan and America are mutually obsessed with one another, with a never-ending exchange of ideas and styles.
It’s only in more recent years that menswear in America has come to reflect styles in Japan, as stores in New York and Los Angeles are increasingly stocked with Japanese brands and magazines that range from the well-known to the obscure, the traditional to the avant-garde.
Before that, though, inspiration tended to flow from America to Japan, giving birth to a rather peculiar—in name, at least—aesthetic: Japanese Americana.
Follow Marc on Twitter here.
Tags: boro-denim, boro, levis, selvege-denim, indigo, denim, kapital, beams-plus, beams, the-real-mccoys, buzz-ricksons, osaka-5, sugar-cane, hiroki-nakamura, visvim, americana, japan
That one country’s spin on another country’s traditional style became its own thing is rather remarkable, really—speaking to both the qualities of Americana and those of the Japanese men and brands that made it their own.
The first seeds of Americana took root in Japan after World War II, when thousands of in-uniform soldiers continued to rotate through the country as per the terms of surrender after the war and as the United States became embroiled in other conflicts in the region. By the 1960s, bits of non-military garb started to make their way into Japan, through soldiers, but also through works of American pop culture that they brought with them—movies, music. In 1965, Take Ivy was released, introducing a generation of Japanese men to the way Americans on college campuses were dressing. These Japanese men followed suit, and, by the 1980s, the Ametora movement was in full swing, referring to Japanese men’s habit of combining “Ivy style [with] British items like fisherman's sweaters. It’s anything you’d see on East Coast campuses in the U.S.,” explained the writer W. David Marx, author of a book dedicated to “Ametora.”
As a result of the increased popularity of American garb, two new niches emerged for Japanese businesses: the importation of vintage Americana and the production of high-quality, Japanese-made Americana. Books and magazines—like Men’s Club and Made in America Catalog—documented both new and archival American menswear. Much of Japan’s now-famous denim industry was born as a result of this obsession with Americana and some of the country’s best known retailers and designers got their start by peddling vintage Americana, inspired by what they saw in Take Ivy, Made in America and in imported American pop culture.
While there’s an argument to be made that streetwear constitutes modern Americana, classic Americana refers to sturdy workwear with roots in the Mid and Southwest, mixed with a dash of Ivy-league prep and ’70s counterculture garb—think olive grab, tie-dye and jean jackets. While a certain subset of Japanese menswear evolved to focus on more contemporary American influences—legendary sneaker shop atmos was born by importing vintage sneakers from the U.S.; countless Japanese streetwear brands reference contemporary American pop culture—what’s come to be known as Japanese Americana sets itself apart with a reverence for classic Americana and a commitment to traditional production methods that might even surpass that of American brands. That’s coupled, in some instances, with traditional Japanese design elements, whether in the form of dyes, boro patchwork or decidedly Japanese silhouettes to create an aesthetic that is entirely unique.
Selvedge Denim Straight-Cut Jeans
No overview of Japanese Americana would be complete without mentioning Japan’s now famous denim industry. The Japanese denim industry was born from the ubiquity of jeans in American style and the Hollywood movies that made their way to Japan during the ’50s and ’60s. In an ironic twist, Japanese selvedge denim would go on to become arguably the standard-bearer worldwide.
As the Japanese denim industry grew, producers continued to use shuttle-looms, which even American manufacturers had abandoned by the ’70s and ’80s. It typified the way Japanese brands sought to refine the all-American jean, rather than simply replicating it—using better materials and better techniques to create a better product. By the late ‘90s and early aughts, Japanese denim brands were among the most well-regarded in the world.
While many of the brands offer a number of cuts and washes, straight-leg unwashed jeans remain the signature model for virtually every brand that trades in Japanese Americana.
wings+horns and Reigning Champ founder Craig Atkinson got his start in the fashion industry importing vintage Americana to Japan in the ’90s, including the kinds of fleece sportswear pieces that the two CYC brands would eventually produce.
There’s always been an appreciation for high-quality fleece (perhaps better thought of like sweatshirt-ready heavyweight cotton fleece) within the Japanese Americana movement. The pieces, whether they be crewnecks or hoodies, tend to be defined by their weight, with brands like Visvim, Kapital and The Real McCoy’s favoring heavier cottons than North American brands—even one like Reigning Champ.
The silhouettes are largely unremarkable, though—cut just like the crewnecks and hoodies that were issued first to American troops and then went on to become mainstays in sports locker rooms and on college campuses across the U.S.
Aesthetically, these heavyweight, high-quality pieces tend to be rather simple, available in classic colors like navy blue and heather grey, and occasionally bearing a bold word mark inspired by those on classic varsity sportswear and standard issue military cotton fleecewear.
One of the most iconic pieces to emerge from standard issue military wear, the bomber jacket might be second only to the blue jean in terms of ubiquity in Japanese Americana. Japanese brands have happily reworked the MA-1 jacket, whether in its original form, or combining it with Japanese elements to create hybrid jackets like Visvim’s Sanjuro Kimono.
Part of the reason that the MA-1 is so popular in Japanese Americana owes to American influence in the post-war years, when the jackets would have been a fairly common sight in Japan. It also made vintage versions of the jacket easy to find in the early second-hand shops that specialized in American gear.
Synonymous with American youth culture, the denim jacket is one of the foundational pieces for Japanese Americana brands like Visvim. Like their jeans, many Japanese brands have sought to refine and perfect the silhouette, rather than simply replicating what one might have seen in a movie. And, like with the MA-1s, Japanese inspiration and detailing—like Boro patchwork technique, for example—is often used to create something that, while familiar, sits in that aesthetically distinct category we’ve been calling Japanese Americana.
Some brands have riffed on denim club and garage jackets by integrating graphic patches and embroideries—Wacko Maria and Kapital being two standout examples—while others, like Visvim and The Real McCoy’s, have instead opted for a more toned-down approach. In doing so, the brands reflect the breadth of Japanese Americana—which draws inspiration from different eras of American style, from Gold Rush workwear to ’70s counterculture.
One of the elements that eventually endeared Japanese Americana to Americans—funny circle, that—is how it’s layered and styled together, whether by brands, stores, magazines or individuals. Central to that is Japanese brands’ embrace of mid-layers, whether in the form of long sleeve shirts, lightweight jackets or vests. While down-filled insulated vests are an important element, they don’t contribute quite as much to the layering that defines Japanese Americana as their non-down-filled counterparts.
Fishing and work vests are particularly popular with brands and stores that specialize in Japanese Americana, from South2 West8 to WTAPS to Buzz Rickson’s. The vests, on their own, may not be spectacular, but it’s the possibilities they afford that makes them one of the key pieces of Japanese Americana.
Considering that roughly half of Japanese Americana is rooted in classic Gold Rush-era Western workwear, we’d be remiss to not include a sturdy pair of work boots on this list.
Though we do so with the broadest possible definition fo the “work boot.” Some Japanese brands prefer suede; other brands opt for luxurious leather. Some opt for round toes; others with a more square moccasin toe. Others, still, prefer more obscure work boots, like Kapital’s Popeye pull-on boot, which riffs on the engineer boot.
Regardless of the specifics, though, they all have roots in workwear and bear similarities to American-made boots both new and old—it’s impossible to not see, at least some similarities between, say, Visvim’s footwear and Red Wing’s.
Canvas High Tops
And, considering that the other half of Japanese Americana is inspired by sportswear and youth culture in the middle of the 20th century, it’s no surprise that canvas high tops—inspired by [Converse](https://www.grailed.com/drycleanonly/chuck-taylor-all-star-sneaker-history and PF Flyers—figure among the core footwear models.
There isn’t much that one can change on such a simple model—it’s literally canvas and rubber—so the emphasis tends to be on quality, unique materials and dyes, as with much else in the canon of Japanese Americana. Something like the Visvim Skagway series is an excellent example of flipping the classic Chuck Taylor into something that’s both rooted in heritage, but still luxurious and thoughtfully reconstructed.
Image: The Real McCoy's Store in the Harajuku district of Tokyo
While we can break out the various styles, items and design aesthetics that have defined “Japanese Americana”, those are nothing without identifying the brands that have helped shape the space and broadcast it to an audience well beyond the borders of Japan.
From those carefully reproducing mid-century American style icons, to the brands fusing American heritage with Japanese craft and attention to detail, a few of our favorite Japanese Americana Brands Include:
(Keep in mind, the list doesn’t have to end here—these are just a few brands to get you started! This is especially true when it comes to the world of denim and denim reproduction. Let us know any other brands that you’d like to see in this list down below!)
Key Pieces: Varies continuously, but essentially any and all wardrobe basics.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the Beams Plus offering is more representative of traditional Ivy-inspired “Ametora”; but there’s also an argument to be made that American prep constitutes a part of Japanese Americana, considering the way pieces and brands are often mixed and matched. More importantly, the brand’s offering is so varied and big that it touches on pretty much every aspect of Americana—from prepwear to golf to military garb to workwear.
Of all Japanese brands, barring perhaps The Real McCoy’s (which we’ll get to in a minute), Beams Plusmight have the most American aesthetic , riffing on classics of Americana from various eras and areas with only the slightest changes.
If anything, Beams Plus might simply represent the more formal end of the Japanese Americana spectrum.
Key Pieces: MA-1, A-2
Named for Steve McQueen’s character in The War Lover, Buzz Rickson’s was only founded in 1993, but its parent company has specialized in American garments since after World War II. Rather than sell souvenir jackets and camp collar shirts—which Toyo Enterprises, the parent company, sold to American soldiers rotating through Japan—Buzz Rickson’s focuses on meticulously recreating vintage American military pieces.
The word meticulous is often misused, but in Buzz Rickson’s case, the work is truly meticulous, matching stitches and analyzing the fibres on vintage pieces to get an exact match, while using production techniques that match those from the periods when the pieces would have been introduced.
The brand is most famous for its flight jackets, from MA-1 bombers to the AN-6552—the shearling collar aviator jacket—but the product line includes everything from trousers to canvas sneakers. It’s safe to say that if an American man wore it in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Buzz Rickson’s has a near replica of the garment; this is the brand that embodies the “Americana” in Japanese Americana.
Key Pieces: Ring Coat, Century Denim
Undeniably the most free-spirited of the Japanese Americana brands, Kapital taps into the counterculture aspects of Americana—think California communes, where classic workwear and army surplus are repurposed ad infinitum until they’re entirely new garments.
Kapital, like so many of its contemporaries, was founded by Toshikiyo Hirata and specialized in recreating American denim. It was only when Hirata’s son, Kiro, joined the business, in 2002, that the modern incarnation of Kapital came into being.
Between Kapital’s main line and the artisanal and experimental Kapital Kountry line, the Hiratas push Americana to its limits. Famous for its washes and distressing techniques, much of Kapital’s appeal lies in its ability to create pieces that don’t look inspired by decades or centuries-old workwear or denim—they look like they are decades-old themselves.
“Most distressed clothing looks fake,” the author David Sedaris wrote in Calypso, “but not theirs, for some reason.”
Key Pieces: Okinawa Jean
Sugar Cane is owned by the same parent company as Buzz Rickson’s, Toyo Enterprises, and Sugar Cane is the older of the two brands, having been introduced in the 1970s. Sugar Cane’s claim to fame is found in its name: Rather than only using cotton fabrics for their denim, the brand uses a blend of cotton and sugar cane fibres. It’s unique and also environmentally-friendly.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the brand is quite similar to RRL, with rugged workwear-inspired pieces constituting the bulk of Sugar Cane’s offering. In addition to the sugar cane fibres, the brand is famous for the unique leather patches used on its denim, which range from snakeskin to ostrich leather.
While the brand has less mainstream recognition than some of the other Japanese Americana stalwarts, it played an important role in launching the trend of Japanese brands recreating, refining and reimagining the classics of Americana. That makes it one of the foundational brands of this particular movement—even if it’s not the most popular or well-known.
Key Pieces: A-2 leather jacket, N-1 Deck Jacket
Officially, The Real McCoy’s has only existed since the early-2000s, but the brand’s founder, Hitoshi Tsujimoto has made a living selling Americana since 1978. Originally, Tsujimoto resold vintage garments, but, in the early-2000s, he decided to focus on painstakingly reproducing—and refining—those garments. Take, for instance, the brand’s most famous piece, the A-2 leather jacket: original jackets from World War II were made from horsehide, so The Real McCoy’s imports horsehide from Poland and then handcrafts each jacket over more than two months in Japan.
The Real McCoy’s and the brand’s various diffusion lines have gained a cult following in the two decades it’s been around, embraced by vintage militaria aficionados who relish an opportunity to own something that’s made to the exact specifications from almost a century ago.
Tsujimoto’s operation is also one which illustrates just how successfully Japanese Americana has exported itself, with The Real McCoy’s having a particularly strong presence in the U.K., where they once had a shop on the same block as Nigel Cabourn.
Key Pieces: Social Sculpture Denim, Folk and Virgil Boots, Sanjuro Kimono
Hiroki Nakamura’s Visvim, founded in 2001, is the perfect embodiment of the symbiotic relationship between American and Japanese fashion. Nakamura spent a considerable amount of time in the United States, which explains Visvim’s unique blend of Americana and Japanese clothing. That blend and the resulting aesthetic, are what’s allowed Visvim to develop a cult following over the last two decades.
The brand arguably enjoyed its most successful period in the early-to-mid 2010s, as men’s style evolved in the traditional include more researched and well-made pieces. Visvim prides itself on the craftsmanship that goes into their pieces and, particularly, the unique ways in which its garments are dyed and finished.
While the craftsmanship and detailing is what initially earned Visvim plaudits, the brand’s unique aesthetic has added to that. The above-mentioned Sanjuro Kimono—which blends the classic MA-1 with the traditional Japanese noragi—became one of the brand’s signature pieces, perfectly illustrating Nakamura’s ability to riff on Americana in a Japanese way. Perhaps most interesting when it comes to Visvim as a purveyor of Japanese Americana, is the brand’s ability to touch on everything from workwear to military garb to Southwestern ranch wear.
While other brands may offer more pure versions of Americana, Visvim is, arguably, the one that typifies the concept of Japanese Americana.