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

Kamakura Shirts owner Yoshio Sadasue opened a New York store on Madison Avenue. (Raymond Patrick)
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“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.

Work wear
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.


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