How Japan Copied American Culture and Made it Better
If you’re looking for some of America’s best bourbon, denim and burgers, go to Japan, where designers are re-engineering our culture in loving detail
A couple of years ago I found myself in a basement bar in Yoyogi, a central precinct of Tokyo, drinking cold Sapporo beers with big foamy heads while the salarymen next to me raised their glasses to a TV displaying a fuzzy, obviously bootlegged video of an old Bob Dylan concert. The name of the bar, My Back Pages, is the title of a Dylan song. Dylan is, in fact, the bar’s reason for being: Japanese fans come here to watch his concert videos, listen to his tapes and relive the ’60s in America, a time and place almost none of them witnessed firsthand. As I heard yet another version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” roaring over the speakers, with some drunk Japanese fans now singing along, I thought how strange this phenomenon was.
The American presence in Japan now extends far beyond the fast-food franchises, chain stores and pop-culture offerings that are ubiquitous the world over. A long-standing obsession with things American has led not just to a bigger and better market for blockbuster movies or Budweiser, but also to some very rarefied versions of America to be found in today’s Japan. It has also made the exchange of Americana a two-way street: Earlier this year, Osaka-based Suntory, a Japanese conglomerate best known for its whiskey holdings, announced that it was buying Beam Inc., thus acquiring the iconic American bourbon brands Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.
In Japan, the ability to perfectly imitate—and even improve upon—the cocktails, cuisine and couture of foreign cultures isn’t limited to American products; there are spectacular French chefs and masterful Neapolitan pizzaioli who are actually Japanese. There’s something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home. “What we see in Japan, in a wide range of pursuits, is a focus on mastery,” says Sarah Kovner, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Florida. “It’s true in traditional arts, it’s true of young people who dress up in Harajuku, it’s true of restaurateurs all over Japan.”
It’s easy to dismiss Japanese re-creations of foreign cultures as faddish and derivative—just other versions of the way that, for example, the new American hipster ideal of Brooklyn is clumsily copied everywhere from Paris to Bangkok. But the best examples of Japanese Americana don’t just replicate our culture. They strike out, on their own, into levels of appreciation and refinement rarely found in America. They give us an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.
When I headed to Osaka a few months ago, my friend Nick Coldicott, who lives in Tokyo, urged me to visit what he contends is the best bourbon bar in the world: Rogin’s Tavern. Knowing Nick’s command of the spirits universe, I take a commuter train out to Moriguchi, an obscure little town about half an hour from the center of Osaka. When I emerge from the station I can see a neon light spelling “Rogin’s” in English. Inside it is dim, with a long wooden bar backed by hundreds of bottles. American jazz comes from an ancient-looking jukebox in the rear.
Nearly every bottle is bourbon, though there is a smattering of rye and sour mash. I can see bottles from the 1800s next to obscure export bottlings of Jim Beam next to standard-issue Jack Daniel’s. Seiichiro Tatsumi, an older man dressed elegantly in bartender’s attire, emerges from the shadows and says hello in English. I tell him I am a friend of Nick’s, and he reaches for a bottle nestled behind the register. “You want to try a 1904?” he asks.
He tenderly unscrews the top and pours a shot for me and another for himself. I take a sip. It is a brand I’ve never heard of, once made, Tatsumi says, especially for a hotel in Kentucky. It is highly alcoholic but silky smooth. Unlike wine or vintage port, bourbon is not supposed to change much in the bottle over time. And so I think of this as a chance to taste the past and experience, almost exactly, what drinkers were sipping a hundred years ago.
“I tasted my first bourbon in the basement bar of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a famous old place in Osaka,” Tatsumi says. “Then I spent years reading everything I could about bourbon at the American cultural center. I sent letters to Kentucky and Tennessee trying to set up visits to the distilleries. I even asked for help at the American consulate. And then I finally got to visit in 1984. I fell in love with America then. I’ve been back a hundred times since. I now own a house in Lexington, and I’ve even been named a colonel in Kentucky.”
I ask him how he found all these old bottles of bourbon. “I drive across America, only on the back roads and especially at night, when you can see the lit-up liquor-store signs in the distance,” he says. “I stop at every place I pass, and I don’t just look on the shelves: I ask the clerk to comb the cellar and check the storeroom for anything old. I can’t tell you how many cases of ancient bottles I’ve found that way. I’ll try any bourbon once, and if I like it I buy more.”
The next day I visit another bourbon bar in Osaka, Tonen (meaning “decade”), in a downtown neighborhood where salarymen go drinking. This is the bar of the bourbon master from whom Tatsumi originally learned. A pack of businesspeople parade into the place and one asks for one of the most expensive and rare contemporary bourbons around, Pappy Van Winkle, a bottle of which can cost more than $1,000. The bartender makes a big show of pouring this cultish favorite, laying the snifter down horizontally and swirling the bourbon inside it before presenting it to the man who ordered it, obviously the boss of the group. Then he comes over and we talk about his old bottles, and I see a glint in his eye. For someone in Kentucky or Tennessee it might be called nostalgia, but can you be nostalgic for a time and place you never knew? These two Japanese bourbon temples represent a bold act of imagination.
Back in the States I phone up bourbon bars from Manhattan to Louisville, and their responses are all the same: We have old-style bourbons, but not anything old. And then I call Keith Biesack, the beverage director at what may be New York City’s best bourbon bar, Char No. 4, and I ask why no one in America stocks anything really old. “Until very recently people didn’t think they wanted to drink anything but newly bottled bourbon,” he says. “The idea that this was a drink whose past you’d want to discover through old bottles, that’s a very new idea.”
Not in Japan, I think, and I imagine Tatsumi 25 years ago roaring across the small roads of the American South and discovering bottles that only he knew to treasure.
A few years ago a friend took me to Samurai, a jazz bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district whose owner, a haiku poet, stood behind the bar surrounded by thousands of maneki neko—smiling, waving cat figurines. He had a primitive video camera trained on the sleeve of the record album he was playing, and he projected that image onto the wall. Samurai had its own quirks, but it wasn’t an unusual type of place: The jazz bar and its cousin, the jazz kissaten, a coffee shop focused on jazz, are shrines to recorded music, dreamlands for high-fidelity obsessives. They offer a kind of jazz experience based on pure appreciation of the act of listening.
In Tokyo I track down James Catchpole, an American expat and jazz expert who goes by the very Japanese-sounding nickname of Mr. OK Jazz, to understand what’s happening right now to Japanese jazz culture. “When these kissa started back in the ’50s and ’60s, Tokyo apartments were too small to play music in,” Catchpole says. “Imported records were really expensive. Jazz kissa were the only places in the city where fans could listen to the music they loved.” The coffee shops became hideaways where jazz lovers could relax, hear new records and learn about trends like free jazz from others who knew the music well. In the ’60s, when jazz was allied with Japanese university counterculture, jazz kissa became organizing centers for the student protests that rocked Japan. But of course Japanese people no longer need to visit a bar or café to listen to recorded jazz. “Are jazz kissa going to survive?” I ask Catchpole.
“Go to Kissa Sakaiki and find out,” he says.
Tokyo’s tiny cafés, bars and restaurants are notoriously difficult to locate. Even with a GPS-equipped iPhone, a print atlas and the help of police guarding a nearby embassy, I spend half an hour wandering the back streets of Yotsuya, a residential Tokyo neighborhood not far from Shinjuku, before I turn the corner and see the discreet sign for Sakaiki.
What makes places like Sakaiki or the Bob Dylan bar survive and sometimes prosper is the fragmentation of bar, café and restaurant culture in Tokyo. An eight-seat pub stands out in New York as supremely small, yet in Tokyo there are at least three nightlife neighborhoods consisting almost entirely of eight-seat bars. You don’t need many fans of whatever it is you’re into to support a bar, café or restaurant devoted to that obsession.
When I enter Sakaiki, owner Fumito Fukuchi, wearing a gray newsboy cap turned backward, waves me to the bar. Seated next to me is a Swedish free-jazz clarinetist speaking English to a group of Japanese. I tell Fukuchi that Mr. OK Jazz sent me. He nods a welcome and serves me a cold beer. The place is small, warm and gently lit, with a green-shaded banker’s lamp shining on the album cover of the record he’s playing. I ask Fukuchi how he came to run Sakaiki.
“I was a salaryman working in IT until 2007,” he tells me, as he cleans, inspects and preps the next record in his rotation. “Jazz kissa were my hobby,” he says, leading me to a coffee table covered in matchboxes from the jazz kissa of Tokyo. He picks up a matchbook that reads, “Eagle.” “This is the first one I ever visited. It’s right here in Yotsuya. I read the owner’s book about jazz when I was a teenager in Hokkaido. As soon as I came to Tokyo, I headed for Eagle.” Many of the matchbooks Fukuchi flips through are from jazz kissa that have long been closed. And all the other jazz kissa he knows of in Tokyo, he tells me, are run by men a decade or two older than he is—and he’s 41.
The obvious question is why go out of your way to hear recorded music with other people when technology has made it easy to listen alone? The answer comes to me as I look around the room at the people brought together by the music Sakaiki has collected: International jazz musicians, local workers and jazz fans from all over the city are here because they appreciate the act of listening to a record together. It’s a pleasure that anyone who grew up before the era of the Walkman and iTunes can appreciate. What’s uncertain is whether the next generation will cherish the same experience.
Takashi Tateno keeps an office in a simple studio above his wife’s hairdressing salon on the outskirts of Okayama, a medium-sized city in central Japan. In fashion circles, Okayama is famous for one thing: making the world’s best denim, using looms that date back to the 1950s. But Tateno isn’t a denim head. His brand, called Workers, adapts all sorts of American work wear from the 1900s to the ’60s—railroad jackets, canvas dusters, flannel shirts, double-kneed pants. Moreover, he’s obsessed by the American workers who manufactured these garments in their heyday, and the skills, techniques and tools used to produce such high-quality clothing on an industrial scale.
Before he hatched the idea of his own collection, Tateno spent years making clothes himself and working in a factory. At the same time, he launched a Japanese-language website that was absolutely alone in its single-minded pursuit of knowledge about the plans, patterns and procedures that old American work-wear manufacturers used to make their garments under such labels as Crown, W.M. Finck & Co. and Can’t Bust ’Em. Tateno journeyed to the United States multiple times to sift through archives and contact heirs to now-defunct clothing manufacturers to see if they had information about their ancestors’ businesses, and to buy up examples of the old clothes he loved so he could dissect their construction.
Tateno ushers me into his upstairs space. One room is filled with all kinds of clothing, everything from the work wear he collects to contemporary Italian jackets by Boglioli. There is also machinery, including an ancient riveting machine, plus old sewing-machine accessories that Tateno purchases so the factories he hires to produce his collection can make things to the exact specifications of, say, 1924 or 1942, with the same tools in use back then.
“When I learned to sew and tried to make these garments myself, I began to realize just how intricate the work was, what kind of tremendous skill level was required to turn out such huge quantities of high-quality garments,” Tateno says. “These were produced at a time when American workers were the most knowledgeable and skilled in the world.”
Though the kind of skilled manufacturing he admired in these garments had largely disappeared in the United States—a consequence of apparel production moving abroad and garment workers no longer finding work—he saw older Japanese people around him in Okayama with high-level sewing skills. And so he realized that if he could unearth the manufacturing secrets behind these old garments, he could make them in Okayama—and perhaps make them even better than the originals.
The cult of the artisan is ensconced in contemporary urban American culture. This is the ideal of a person who can handcraft a pair of jeans or a necktie, conscious of the most minute details of fabric, workmanship and authenticity. The era Tateno’s clothing harks back to is not the age of the lone artisan laboring over a single creation, though; it’s the era of packed factories in Pennsylvania, Virginia and California churning out thousands and thousands of high-quality garments at a reasonable price, all because of the workers’ skill. The irony is that this ideal of the American worker, which sounds like something lifted from old-school union advertising copy, can be hard to find in America today.
For years Matsumoto Kozo owned and ran a restaurant in Tokyo, cooking yoshoku, which is the Japanese word for the Western food that came to Japan over 100 years ago. Then Kozo got a chance to go to America and manage a couple of restaurants for Japanese investors. He moved to Los Angeles and lived in a strange little hotel called the Magic Castle, just a couple of blocks uphill from Hollywood’s tourist strip.
One day there was a big barbecue party down by the pool. This was the early 1980s, and the glamorous, glittering, feline cast and crew of Cats were bunking at the Magic Castle, too. It was their day off. When they saw Kozo and his family come out of their unit, they insisted that he join the party. They were grilling burgers over an open flame. But it was 3 in the afternoon and Kozo had already eaten. So he asked if he could wrap up the burger to enjoy later. No way, the Cats said, you can’t save a burger like that. You’ve got to eat it here and now. It wasn’t his first hamburger—he’d eaten one before at McDonald’s in Tokyo and at MOS Burger, a Japanese chain. But this flame-grilled, all-beef patty was something categorically different.
When he moved back to Japan a few years later, Kozo thought back to that afternoon at the Magic Castle. He found a place in a residential Tokyo district called Gotanda. It was big enough for a restaurant and a little garden. This was 1990. There were a handful of burger joints already in Japan, but they served burgers as a fast-food snack. (Now there are around 2,000 independent Japanese-run burger places, Kozo says.) He built a real restaurant with a station for grilling burgers in the middle. He enlisted the help of a friend to design a menu that was suitably American, printed on brown paper, with a logo that featured a chef holding a spatula and tossing a plate. He called it 7025 Franklin Avenue, the street address of the Magic Castle Hotel.
Kozo still mans the grill nearly every day, though he does have a Nepalese chef who has been working by his side for years, and whose daughter cashiers and waits on tables. The cheeseburger I order, made from Australian beef, is simple and superior. The char is unmistakable, and the meat has a consistency and flavor, so familiar at home, that I have never seen replicated abroad.
I ask Kozo whether he’s been back to the Magic Castle or to the States since returning here in 1985. “I’ve never been back,” he says, tears forming in his eyes. “I always wanted to go, but I haven’t made it yet. Which is kind of amazing, since this whole business is thanks to America. This is what I found in America and wanted to bring back to Japan.”
A Japanese company called Kamakura Shirts opened on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in 2012, just blocks from Brooks Brothers and J. Press, the icons of American preppy wear, what cognoscenti call “trad” and the Japanese call “Ivy style.” (Never mind that Brooks Brothers is owned by the Italians, J. Press by the Japanese.) I track down Kamakura’s founder, Yoshio Sadasue, at his headquarters in Tokyo, above a Kamakura Shirts in Ebisu. He is sharply dressed in his trademark style: a button-down shirt with a distinctive collar roll, what Sadasue considers the essential feature of his design. I ask why a Japanese manufacturer opened a New York store to sell American-style shirts to Americans.
“This style originated in America, of course,” Sadasue says. “But there was a period of time when Americans forgot their own style.”
Kamakura Shirts are made in Japan. Sadasue doesn’t sell them through department stores or other retailers because he wants to keep prices low and profits high, particularly for the independent factories that produce for him. As with Tateno at Workers, there is an undercurrent of respect for what those factories do and a strong desire to make sure that they can keep doing it in Japan.
This movement of American style across the ocean to Japan and back to America with a Japanese twist is happening more frequently. The most famous example is probably Daiki Suzuki, who was design director for the quintessentially American brand Woolrich Woolen Mills and now produces his own menswear line—Engineered Garments, a Japanese-run American brand that manufactures its unique take on vintage Americana in New York and sells it in both Japan and the U.S. One of his former employees, Shinya Hasegawa, now has a Brooklyn-based line called Battenwear that offers his interpretation of American outdoor wear from the ’60s to the ’80s. I had never encountered the brand in the States, but I found it in Kyoto.
Part of what’s going on is simply the globalization of taste, culture, cuisine and the way that, in the modern world, you can get almost anything everywhere. But Japanese Americana is more than that. There’s a special way that the Japanese sensibility has focused on what is great, distinctive and worthy of protection in American culture, even when Americans have not realized the same thing. It isn’t a passing fad. It’s a long-standing part of Japanese culture, and, come to think of it, as more Americans are exposed to U.S. products revived or reinterpreted by Japanese designers, the aesthetic is becoming part of American culture, too. If you ever wonder which of the reigning American tastes, sounds, designs or styles will last into the future, there’s no better place to answer that question than in the stores and restaurants, the bars and studios of Japan. They often know us better than we know ourselves.