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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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.


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