Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style
BY TIM HORNYAK
SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES
DEC 5, 2015
Tokyo, September 1964: A squad of plainclothes police descend on the tony Ginza shopping district and round up hundreds of Japanese youths who had outraged local businesses. Their crime? Loitering in what was then outre style — button-down shirts, skinny ties, suit jackets and chino pants. These delinquents were the miyuki-zoku (Miyuki tribe) and they idolized one thing: Ivy League fashion.
Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, by W. David Marx
Basic Books, Nonfiction.
Yes, they were preppies. Tokyo was about to host the Olympics and these kids were causing alarm by rejecting their 19th-century gakuran (high-collar) school uniforms. The Ginza panic seems incomprehensible today, but this is one of the fascinating accounts in W. David Marx’s unique archeology of Japanese menswear fashion, “Ametora.” The term is Japanese shorthand for “American traditional” and the book traces the cultural history of American trad as well as jeans and streetwear in Japan — how they were imported, exploited and sometimes radically modified. The result is, as Marx observes, “a highly illustrative episode of how culture globalizes.”
From gyaru (gals) to French maids, Tokyo’s wild vogues have caught international attention over the past decade or so and there could be no better guide to hacking one’s way to the source of this fashion Amazon than Marx, a Tokyo-based Harvard grad who has long blogged about style at Neojaponisme.com. According to Marx, the adoption of American styles in Japan began with one man, Kensuke Ishizu (1911-2005). The Okayama-born founder of clothing company Van Jacket is most known for “Take Ivy,” the 1965 photo book he commissioned of American students walking about on prestigious Ivy League campuses, decked out in letterman sweaters, sports jackets, madras shorts and penny loafers. In addition to this bible for the East Coast collegiate look in Japan, Ishizu also stoked youth interest — and clothing sales — via a magazine called Men’s Club. It enumerated in excruciating detail the finer points of dressing Ivy. Neckties had to be precisely 7 cm wide, but slanted jacket pockets were a no-no “anti-Ivy technique.”
Aping looks from the United States wasn’t without its ridiculous moments. Men’s Club featured a 1959 photo of wannabe Ivy Leaguers looking more like businessmen in porkpie hats than big men on campus. When enthusiast Toshiyuki Kurosu and other Take Ivy authors snuck into Harvard to do research and take photos, they expected to see students in three-button jackets, regimental ties and wingtips — instead they were in cutoff shorts and flip flops.
“This was people having to adopt a completely foreign culture from zero and then actually sell it to other people as a package,” Marx says over a beer in Shibuya. “They were trying to sell to kids who had no clothing whatsoever other than their school uniforms.”
Marx first became interested in Japanese style after experiencing the streetwear craze in Tokyo in the late 1990s. He was so shocked to have to wait three hours in line to buy a T-shirt at A Bathing Ape that he later wrote his thesis on the chain, which is also chronicled in “Ametora.” It was a chance encounter with a former Van employee years later (while getting his cordovan oxfords polished, of course) that opened up introductions to the surviving Take Ivy pioneers.
“There was absolutely no culture of fashion when I was at Harvard,” Marx says. “People have this image of it as this place where people still dress like the ’60s. You’re lucky if people are wearing clean T-shirts with their sweatpants.”
Gaps in understanding didn’t dent the success of the Ivy look in Japan as Van sparked a revolution in Japanese menswear toward a more casual, individualistic aesthetic. Van enjoyed tremendous success until its bankruptcy in 1978, but countless styles sprung up in its wake: surfers, hippies, rockabilly greasers and bosozoku (biker gangs), not to mention offshoots like the takenoko-zoku (bamboo shoot tribe), who loved to dance in public in garish kung-fu outfits.
Indeed, entrepreneurs like Masayuki Yamazaki made a mint in doing exactly the opposite of Ivy — preaching ’50s hoodlum styles (sometimes called yankii) and putting a Tokyo backwater district called Harajuku on the map with his vintage shop Cream Soda, which counted John Lennon among its customers. As Marx writes, the retro rockers weren’t just imitating foreigners: “They used American influences to terrorize the public — regent haircuts, Hawaiian shirts, dirty jeans — but abandoned them when right-wing garb offered greater potency.”
Probably Ishizu’s greatest legacy today is the global success of Fast Retailing, the clothing firm behind the Uniqlo casual wear chain. Founder Tadashi Yanai’s father ran a Van franchise in Yamaguchi Prefecture and some of Van’s dedication to selling cheap, smart-looking clothes can be found in the Uniqlo ethos. Fast Retailing represents in a sense the full flowering of ametora. Also significant is the recent passion for Ivy style by fashion-conscious Americans tired of rampant casual wear. Style blogs in the U.S. began posting scans of Take Ivy in 2008, and when it was published in English in 2010, it sold over 50,000 copies, also appearing in Ralph Lauren and J. Crew outlets. Americans were turning to Japan to rediscover what they had lost, and the ironic circle was complete.
Sartorially savvy and rigorously researched, “Ametora” is a smart account of Japan’s engagement with America through the lens of menswear. Even if you don’t know your brothel creepers from your brogues, this book is a pleasure to read and an essential manual for decoding contemporary Japanese culture.
The Climb of Ivy
The styles of the American Ivy League transform the fashions of 1960s Japan.
By W. David Marx
0n April 28, 1964, a new magazine called Heibon Punch appeared on Japanese newsstands. The cover illustration showed four boys dressed in the style of American Ivy League students—blazers, short cotton pants, loafers, sharply parted Kennedy haircuts—chatting to another boy in a red sports car. Punch’s pages taught teens how to dress in this so-called Ivy style.
Heibon Punch was an immediate success. The debut issue sold 620,000 copies, and within two years circulation hit one million. The first wave of Japan’s postwar baby boom was entering college right as it launched. Compared with the frugal youth who came of age immediately after World War II, the baby boomers wanted to play in Japan’s newly emerging consumer society and could afford to. Heibon Punch became their guide.
The excitement around Punch sent young men to the most famous retailer for Ivy fashion: the clothing company VAN Jacket’s flagship store, Teijin Men’s Shop, in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. There they bought their own button-down shirts, madras blazers, cotton chino pants, and penny loafers. Soon teenagers in these clothes started to park themselves on Miyuki Street and stay all day. They became infamous in the press as the Miyuki Tribe (miyuki-zoku).
The term zoku means “tribe” in Japanese, but the postwar usage connoted a delinquent subculture. Before 1964 a few youth tribes invented unique styles but almost always as an organic extension of their lifestyle. The Thunder Tribe (kaminari-zoku) bikers dressed in leather proper for a motorcycle ride, while the Sun Tribe (taiyō-zoku) partied on the beaches in bright coastal clothing. The Miyuki Tribe, by contrast, learned to dress directly from the mass media—a youth brigade drafted straight from the models in Heibon Punch.
Parents did not approve of their sons wearing stylish American clothing, so young men snuck out to Ginza with their Ivy duds hidden in rolled-up paper bags, then changed in cafe bathrooms. The paper shopping bag became a vehicle for VAN to promote its brand. The company had started providing the sleek paper bags to retailers featuring its logo in a red box at the bottom that stretched around the side. These bags flooded the streets, and young shoppers came to fetishize the logo. Youth who could not afford to buy anything from an official VAN retailer carried around an old rice bag with a VAN sticker on top.
As the summer of 1964 progressed and schools let out for vacation, teens swelled the Miyuki Tribe’s ranks, ballooning to two thousand members each weekend. The Olympics were being hosted that year in Tokyo, and the media demonized the Miyuki Tribe as a national embarrassment. Even teens who liked Ivy style pleaded for distance from the Miyuki fad. A sixteen-year-old high-school student in Ginza told reporters, “We hate being called members of the Miyuki Tribe—we’re Ivy.”
Parents moved to ban Ivy style at schools. Parent-teacher associations sent formal requests to VAN retailers to stop selling to students. In many small towns, schools prohibited teens from carrying a VAN bag or entering shops that sold the brand. But young men defied orders and lined up outside of menswear shops just to grab discarded cardboard boxes with the brand’s logo. A few maverick companies, meanwhile, got in on the action. Home-electronics company Sanyo worked with VAN to create a line of gadgets—the Sanyo Ivy Razor, the Sanyo Ivy Dryer, and the Sanyo Ivy Junior Tape Recorder. The word Ivy, after years of work by promoters in Japan, was synonymous with cool.
The beginning of the widespread adoption of American style in Japan can be traced back to a single individual, Kensuke Ishizu, founder of VAN Jacket and father of Japan’s Ivy style. Ishizu was born in the southwestern city of Okayama in 1911. It was the end of the Meiji era, a period that marked Japan’s transition from feudal society to modern nation-state.
The Meiji era began in 1868. For the previous 265 years the Tokugawa military government had enforced a sakoku, or “closed country” policy, to isolate Japan from the rest of the world. This seclusion came to an end in 1854 when U.S. naval commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of warships demanded the country open its borders to trade. Four years later the shogunate signed a series of treaties with Western powers that threw Japan into economic and cultural chaos. Determined to get the nation back on track, reform-minded samurai took control of the government in 1868 under the banner of Emperor Meiji. During this so-called Meiji Restoration, the country’s leaders worked to adopt Western technologies and lifestyles, believing that a more modern Japan could fight off additional American and European attempts at colonization.
Before the Meiji era, members of Japan’s high-ranking samurai caste wore their long hair in topknots, strolled dirt roads in robes, and demonstrated their status with two swords tucked into their belts. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the country’s rulers attended bureaucratic meetings, banquets, and gala balls in three-piece suits and Napoleonic military uniforms. Imported clothing styles became a source of prestige.
Even before Western fashion supplanted traditional costumes, Japanese society had long used clothing as an important marker of status and position. To maintain social order, the Tokugawa military government, which began in 1603, micromanaged the nation’s vestments, regulating materials and patterns to certain castes. Only the nobles and samurai—a mere 10 percent of the population—were permitted to wear silk. But not everyone followed these rules. When farmers and urban merchants began to accumulate more wealth than their samurai betters, they lined their standard cotton robes with silk in an act of subversive panache.
After 1868 the Meiji government moved men into practical Western dress. In 1870 the emperor cut his hair short and donned a European-inspired military uniform. A year later, the Haircut Edict instructed all former samurai to lop off their topknots. The military adopted Western uniforms, with the navy imitating the British and the army imitating the French. In 1885 Tokyo’s Imperial University put its pupils in black gakuran (or tsume-eri), closed square-collar jackets and matching pants. The enduring symbol of the early Meiji era was the Rokumeikan—a French Renaissance–styled hall where Japanese elites dressed in formal ensembles, danced the waltz, and mingled with wealthy foreigners. From the 1890s onward, urban white-collar workers wore British-style suits to work.
Kensuke Ishizu’s childhood coincided with the subsequent Taishō era, when the growing middle classes were joining elites in adopting Western customs. By the time Ishizu was in his teens in the 1920s, Japan was undergoing rapid changes in social mores. The notorious mobo and moga—“modern boys” and “modern girls”—stood at the vanguard. After the devastating 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, many Japanese women adopted Western dress for better disaster preparedness. Moga, by contrast, played with Western culture as style—wearing silky dresses with short bobs. Their mobo beaus slicked back long hair and wore flared wide-leg “trumpet pants.” Every weekend, mobo and moga flocked to Tokyo’s lavish Ginza neighborhood and strolled its well-lit brick streets. These youth liberated style leadership from the upper classes and took it in unauthorized directions.
In 1929 Ishizu moved to Tokyo to attend Meiji University. He rejected the utilitarian gakuran school uniform and instead ordered a three-piece suit in brown-green tweed—at the cost of half a professor’s monthly salary—matching it with white-and-brown saddle shoes.
The mobo/moga moment would be short-lived: worried about the rise in leftist radicals, the government reversed course on liberalization in the early 1930s. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department launched a campaign to clean up juvenile delinquency, pledging to close every dance hall in the city. Law enforcement swept the streets of Ginza for overly fashionable youth. The police arrested anyone doing anything suspiciously modern—going to cinemas, drinking coffee, or eating grilled sweet potatoes on the street. Regardless, in March 1932 Ishizu was married in a high-collar morning coat and a custom-ordered ascot.
In mid-1939 Ishizu, now twenty-eight, left with his family for the Chinese port city of Tianjin to become sales director at a department store, soon taking over clothing manufacture and design. Tianjin, situated on the East China Sea, hosted a diverse group of nationalities. Ishizu frequented British tailors to learn trade secrets, heard war news at the local Jewish club, and bet on jai alai in the Italian concession.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese government systematically rolled back all Western influences from local culture. The public heard daily propaganda about the savage crimes of the “devilish Anglo-Americans.” New regulations demanded that companies remove English words from brand names and advised against writing words horizontally. While Ishizu wore his high-end three-piece suits, Japanese men back in Okayama lived in practical, khaki-colored uniforms called “citizen clothing” (kokuminfuku)—an early parallel to Communist China’s Mao suit.
In August 1945, while serving as a naval attaché in Tianjin, Ishizu heard the emperor’s radio broadcast announcing the Japanese surrender to Allied Forces. The Nationalist Chinese prevented any mass violence against the former occupiers, but they ransacked the glycerin factory where he had been assigned during the war. Ishizu spent most of September 1945 locked in a former Japanese naval library.
In October the U.S. First Marine Division arrived, coming ashore to an impromptu victory parade. Looking for Japanese men who could speak English, a young American lieutenant broke Ishizu out of the library. Ishizu and the lieutenant became friends, the American regaling Ishizu with stories of his undergraduate life at Princeton. Ishizu heard for the first time about something called the “Ivy League.”
On March 15, 1946, the Americans put Ishizu and his family on a cargo ship back to Japan. He took only a backpack, leaving behind the modern equivalent of $27 million in cash. At the end of March 1946, Kensuke Ishizu returned to his hometown of Okayama, which was completely burned to the ground.
Ishizu became the menswear designer for a high-end clothing showroom in Osaka. The late 1940s was an odd time to manufacture expensive menswear. Japanese spent forty times more on food than on clothing. Women continued to wear the baggy, high-waisted monpe farming pants they wore during wartime. Pilots who had been in line to perform kamikaze missions wandered around in brown flight suits.
In this fashion vacuum of garment shortages and rationing, the first group in Japan to readopt Western style were the Pan Pan Girls—streetwalking prostitutes who catered to American soldiers. They wore brightly colored American dresses and platform heels, with a signature kerchief tied around their necks. They permed their hair, caked on heavy makeup, and wore red lipstick and red nail polish. Pan Pan Girls’ jackets had enormous shoulder pads in imitation of officers’ wives. Prewar Western fashion and customs had entered society through the male elite and trickled down. But the first to wear American-style clothing in postwar Japan were women—and prostitutes at that.
Following the American way of life looked like a way out of despair. Prewar interest in Western culture was an aesthetic choice and status symbol—now it was also a means of self-preservation. Kensuke Ishizu had a business advantage in this new Japan where everyone hoped to imitate American lifestyles. He built up a network of the top sewing talent in Osaka and stockpiled fabrics and zippers through an American soldier who shopped for him at the post exchange. Ishizu turned out top-notch garments that got the attention of not just others in the garment industry but also law enforcement. His product was so good that the police apprehended him for a short time on suspicion that he was illegally importing clothing from abroad.
At the end of 1949, Ishizu started his own business, Ishizu Shōten (“Ishizu Store”). Although still few in Japan could afford to buy new clothing, Ishizu was confident that the market would return.
Proximity to the Korean Peninsula made Japan a key manufacturing base for the American military effort after the Korean War began in 1950. These boom times encouraged the urban middle classes to finally revamp their wardrobes. Ishizu pursued an alternate business model to the traditional practice of made-to-order suiting: ready-to-wear clothing. Tailoring was expensive and time-consuming (one suit cost a month’s salary), whereas off-the-rack clothing could get a larger volume of garments to an eager public. Ishizu pumped out saddle shoes as well as cotton flannel shirts and indigo work pants under a faux American brand called Kentucky.
Ishizu Shōten found its most profitable niche, however, in high-end sport coats for rich elites. An Osaka department store gave Ishizu Shōten its own corner, and Ishizu found a loyal customer base in wealthy suburban families. As the business grew, Ishizu wanted a more memorable brand name, so he rechristened his company VAN Jacket, borrowing VAN from the title of a comic book.
A major barrier remained: it was taboo for men to show interest in fashion. When white-collar workers first donned Western suits in the early twentieth century, the garment was meant as a modern and sober uniform, not as a means of self-expression. Any tweaks or customization to the basic formula implied vanity. If the suit’s wool looked rough, a tailor would turn the fabric inside out and sew it back together. The basic male wardrobe went to extremes of conformity: a single charcoal-gray or navy-blue suit, dark tie, white shirt, and dark shoes. White shirts outsold colored ones more than twenty to one. A striped shirt was enough to get a worker in trouble. And ready-to-wear clothing was not an option. Men dismissed nontailored garments as tsurushi or tsurushinbo, meaning “something hung up,” with the sting of a racial slur.
Japanese women in the early 1950s could enjoy a handful of fashion magazines, but they were utilitarian—pages packed full of black-and-white dress patterns rather than dream catalogues full of glossy photos. Men had only one fashion resource: the suit-pattern guide Danshi Senka. In early 1954 female readers of women’s magazine Fujin Gahō, who reveled in the latest Parisian styles, complained that their husbands accompanied them to parties and weddings in bland business suits. The Fujingahōsha publishing company decided that men needed a fashion magazine to teach them proper dress, and they wanted a charismatic figure to make the magazine compelling. One name kept popping up: Kensuke Ishizu.
Ishizu joined the editorial team, and the quarterly publication Otoko no Fukushoku (“Men’s Clothing”) debuted in late 1954. The magazine offered fashion photography and articles, but the editorial tone was pure instruction—a textbook introduction to semiformal wear, business wear, sportswear, and golf wear. Ishizu and the other writers gave practical advice to fashion novices and introduced the latest styles from America, France, and England.
Ishizu turned Otoko no Fukushoku into a VAN media organ, weaving advertisements and clothing samples from his company throughout the magazine and buying up the majority of each 35,000-issue print run to sell them to VAN’s retailers. He wrote so much for the first few years that he had to hide his work under pen names such as Esu Kaiya (“Esquire”) in fear that his authorship was too conspicuous.
In the mid-1950s the few young men who rejected their school uniforms for stylish clothing were marginalized as delinquents. Youth wore uniforms everywhere; there was no such thing as “young fashion.” Parents in the postwar era felt a particular anxiety about their children wearing fashionable clothing. The strict morality of the imperialist era collapsed after World War II in tandem with the wartime regime, and parents assumed their children would go astray in the ensuing moral vacuum.
The sensational “Oh, Mistake Incident” of 1950 solidified these associations. Hiroyuki Yamagiwa, a nineteen-year-old chauffeur at Nihon University, broke into a coworker’s car at knifepoint, slashed the driver, and drove off with 1.9 million yen in cash. Yamagiwa then took his girlfriend on a three-day joyride. The minor crime made headlines after Yamagiwa screamed out in pidgin English “Oh, mistake!” upon being apprehended. During police interrogation Yamagiwa continued to drop random English words into his Japanese and revealed a tattoo that said “George.” In just three days on the lam Yamagiwa and his girlfriend spent 100,000 yen—ten times a university graduate’s starting monthly salary—on clothing in high-end Ginza boutiques. In front of the media flashbulbs Yamagiwa wore a gold corduroy jacket, red pocket square, dark brown gabardine pants, light brown button-up shirt with long collar points, argyle socks, chocolate brown shoes, and a President Truman–style fedora. For disapproving adults across Japan, the connection between loose morals and American fashion could not have been any clearer.
Things slowly started to change. In 1956 the Japanese government released a white paper on the economy that opened with a joyous phrase—mohaya sengo de wa nai, “the postwar is over.” The population had enough food, work, and shelter; they began to think more about what to wear. But middle-aged men continued to deplore off-the-rack clothing, and Ishizu resigned himself to the fact that it would never appeal to his own generation. Against the mores of the period, he would have to court the youth market.
None of the contemporary trends in Japan looked right for the new line of ready-to-wear clothing Ishizu wanted to make for younger men. Looking for inspiration, Ishizu embarked on a world tour in December 1959, culminating in his first visit to the United States. While in New York Ishizu sought out a popular American fashion style often covered in Otoko no Fukushoku’s international reporting—“Ivy League.” By the late 1950s the look had moved beyond campuses and into the mainstream of American wardrobes.
Ishizu took the train down to Princeton, the alma mater of his American lieutenant friend. Japan’s elite campuses were packed with identical-looking boys in black wool uniforms; Ishizu was impressed by Ivy League students, who dressed up for classes in a distinct, individual way. The shots he snapped with his compact camera of Princeton undergraduates later illustrated his U.S. trip report for Otoko no Fukushoku. One attractive Ivy Leaguer in a blazer, undone dark necktie, white button-down shirt, gray flannel pants, and a coat slung over his shoulder became the issue’s unwitting cover model. As Ishizu wrote in an accompanying essay, “There was nothing like that particular American flamboyance that we all have come to expect.”
These elite, athletic students demonstrated how dapper a young man could look in ready-to-wear clothing. The clothes looked neat and fit closely to the body. Ishizu especially liked that the style relied on natural materials such as cotton and wool, which could be worn for a long time and easily cleaned. Japanese students in the late 1950s had little pocket money, but Ivy clothing would be a good investment—durable, functional, and based on static, traditional styles.
And there was something chic about how Ivy students wore items until they disintegrated—holes in shoes, frayed collars on shirts, patches on jacket elbows. Many nouveau riche Japanese would gasp in horror at this frugality, but the old-money Ishizu saw an immediate link
between Ivy League fashion and the rakish, rough look of hei’i habō, the early twentieth-century phenomenon of elite students flaunting prestige through shabby uniforms.
Ishizu now had his inspiration. In 1959 VAN produced its first “Ivy model” suit—a detailed copy of Brooks Brothers’ classic Number One Sack Suit with a loose, dartless jacket.
Ishizu’s imported style found ready acolytes. Two particularly dedicated readers of Otoko no Fukushoku, Kazuo Hozumi and Toshiyuki Kurosu, founded the Traditional Ivy Leaguers Club with five other friends in the late 1950s. The group held weekly seminars on Ivy style, looking up terms from American magazines in a yellowed prewar English clothing encyclopedia. They also invited an aging tailor to teach them about details associated with the American style, such as hooked vents (a key part of the stitching on the back of a blazer) and overlapped seams.
In 1959 the club convinced Otoko no Fukushoku—which Ishizu had newly rebranded with the English name Men’s Club—to feature them in a four-page story. All seven members appeared in dark Ivy suits for the group portrait, holding up a poster of a blond pinup girl to demonstrate their expertise in American culture. A blurb proclaimed them to be “seven Ivy samurai.”
Today, little about the clothing in the photo would be identified as Ivy League style—certainly not Kurosu’s porkpie hat, cufflinks, silver-colored formal necktie, and pearl tiepin. Despite Men’s Club’s position at the forefront of Ivy League fashion in Japan, nobody involved in the operation could accurately replicate the American collegiate look. Lacking firsthand experience with Ivy League students, the style in Japan was built on tiny scraps of information and Men’s Club editors’ educated guesses.
In 1961 Kensuke Ishizu hired his son Shōsuke, who had been working at Men’s Club, to be the head of VAN’s planning department and produce an Ivy clothing line. Before this point, most Ivy items relied on the fifty-year-old’s imagination: Ishizu called shirts with a long vertical stripe “Ivy shirts,” desert boots with a buckle on the back “Ivy boots,” and pants with a buckle on the back “Ivy pants” with an “Ivy strap.” Shōsuke’s mission was to make more authentic Ivy items, but he did not know how. The obvious solution was to bring in an Ivy expert. Toshiyuki Kurosu, cofounder of the Traditional Ivy Leaguers Club, was invited to join VAN and accepted the offer.
At the beginning, the two young employees struggled with even the core pieces. With no connections to Ivy League colleges or university shops, Kurosu and Shōsuke had few concrete details on the latest campus fashions. They foraged for hints in GQ, Esquire, Men’s Wear, Sports Illustrated, the French magazine Adam, JC Penney and Sears Roebuck catalogs, and the ads in The New Yorker. These publications provided design ideas, but VAN’s factories needed patterns and three-dimensional versions of the garments to make true copies. While traveling to the United States on business, Kensuke Ishizu bought up a few pieces at Brooks Brothers to use as guides, but these could not be extrapolated into an entire clothing line. Kurosu resorted to hitting the black markets, where he could scrounge around in piles of discarded GI clothes for Ivy-like garments.
As the full Ivy line came together in 1962—chino pants, navy blazers, seersucker jackets, rep ties—VAN updated its logo to appeal to a younger audience. Kensuke Ishizu placed his original red-and-black stencil logo in a circle with the catchphrase “for the young and young at heart.”
The wider apparel industry was unsupportive of the Ivy trend. Ishizu decided that VAN would take it directly to teens.
As fashion-conscious men looked more to magazines than to department stores for style guidance, from 1963 onward VAN used its shadow editorial control of Men’s Club to fill each issue with minutiae of modern American collegiate life. There were explorations of elbow
patches, detailed looks into the “V-zone of an Ivy Leaguer,” and essays from Kensuke Ishizu on critical matters such as “girls who understand Ivy and girls who don’t.”
Despite these efforts, Ivy primarily existed in Japan inside the magazine’s pages. Almost all youth still wore their gakuran uniforms or equally bland garments. Readers understood the imagery in Men’s Club—a world where everyone lived surrounded by Ivy suits, Coca-Cola bottles, and jazz records—as a pleasant fantasy. Dressing like this in real life would certainly elicit ridicule from classmates and neighbors. VAN needed to prove to their readers that there actually were well-dressed youth roaming the cities of Japan.
In the spring of 1963, Toshiyuki Kurosu started a column in Men’s Club called “Ivy Leaguers on the Street,” where he and a photographer took snaps of young passersby in Ginza who dressed similarly to East Coast preps. Kurosu picked the best and wrote accompanying captions. This soon became readers’ favorite part of the magazine. With this, Kurosu may have invented “street snaps”—the distinct style of documentary fashion photography that now appears in nearly every Japanese fashion magazine.
In truth Tokyo barely had adequate numbers of fashionable men to fill each issue’s pages. But the work got easier once teens started to hang around the neighborhood’s main avenues in contrived outfits with the hope of catching Kurosu’s eye. Subsequent editions of the column showed a more pronounced Ivy League style, a trend which snowballed as teens tried to outdo the young men in the previous issue.
VAN customers in the first half of the 1960s came exclusively from three groups: celebrities, creatives at top advertising firms, and the sons of wealthy families. In the United States, Ivy represented the casual style of elite university students, but the style reached far beyond East Coast campuses because of its ease of fit, rugged materials, and reliance on basic styles. Not so in Japan. VAN had so far only found consumers at the very top of society.
To make things easier on their pupils, Ishizu, Kurosu, and the others at VAN decided they needed to break Ivy down into a set of dos and don’ts. They summarized their mission thus:
When you buy medicine, the instructions are always included. There is a proper way of taking the medicine, and if you do not take the medicine correctly, there may be adverse effects. Same goes for dressing up—there are rules you cannot ignore. Rules teach you style orthodoxy and help you follow the correct conventions for dress. Starting with Ivy is the fastest way to get you there.
In the pages of Men’s Club, Kurosu became the unofficial headmaster of the Ivy school. He ran an Ivy Q&A column in the back of the magazine. He told readers, for example, not to wear ties with their sports shirts and to avoid tie tacks and cufflinks with blazers, while also advocating for the mentality of Ivy: an easy East Coast nonchalance. Kurosu warned a reader threatening to wear a button-down collar with the buttons undone, “It has to feel natural. It’s the absolute worst if other people think you’ve left them intentionally unbuttoned.” Kurosu, a twenty-something who had never lived in the United States, was playing referee with confidence that came from years of research—but also a good measure of bluffing.
VAN was so successful in using these definitive proclamations to get both readers and retailers on the same page that Japanese fashion today still retains this emphasis on rules. U.S. Ivy League style was steeped in tradition, class privilege, and subtle social distinctions. The best part of collegiate fashion was its unconscious cool. No one read manuals; they just imitated their fathers, brothers, and classmates. In Japan VAN needed to break down Ivy into a distinct protocol so that a new convert could take up the style without having ever seen an actual American. Men’s Club often gave the same styles the fun of filing taxes.
But readers ate it up, and their demand for instruction only resulted in an even greater tyranny of details. A true Ivy shirt had a small “locker loop” under the collar and a center box pleat. Ivy men wore a pocket square in the “Ivy fold,” a necktie exactly seven centimeters wide, and an “orthodox” pant length. A biblical dogma developed about the Ivy suit jacket’s center hooked vent, even though its presence on the back of the jacket made it mostly invisible. Men’s Club warned against the danger of slanted jacket pockets—a nefarious “anti-Ivy technique.” This homosocial one-upmanship brought fashion—previously belittled as a “feminine” pursuit—closer to technical “masculine” hobbies such as car repair and sports.
In 1963 Kensuke Ishizu, consolidating his position, laid down the master concept for Western dress in Japanese with just three letters: TPO (tī pī ō in Japanese), an acronym for “time, place, occasion.” Ishizu believed that men should choose outfits based on the time of the day and season, their destination, and the nature of the event.
Ishizu later formalized the TPO idea with a guidebook called When, Where, What to Wear. The pocket-sized volume offered lists of ideal outfits, coordination styles, and fabric types, as well as diagrams on how to get the perfect suit fit. The book was an immediate bestseller. Electronics maker Sony passed out copies to every male employee.
Ivy turned into big business for VAN Jacket. By 1967 the company hit 3.6 billion yen in revenue ($71 million in 2015 dollars), and at the end of the decade, 6.9 billion yen ($111 million in 2015 dollars). In these years VAN did not just clothe the nation in Ivy League style but acted as Japanese youth’s introduction to a more Americanized lifestyle, in which clothing played a major role in forming a distinct identity. With traditional Japanese culture discredited by its defeat in World War II, youth were desperate for a new set of values. And at just the right time, VAN offered an idealized version of American life.
The company also benefited from the fact that real Americans were gradually disappearing from the Tokyo landscape. By the mid-1960s GIs were few in number and generally confined to their bases in remote areas. Youth in Tokyo instead learned about the American people from VAN, Men’s Club, and Hollywood films. They came to see the United States as not a wartime enemy or postwar occupier but as the home of jazz, fancy colleges, button-down collars, and blond bombshells.
Ivy style in the 1960s marked a critical moment when men started dressing up, and it set the pattern for how the country would import, consume, and modify American fashion for the next fifty years. After Ivy, Japan had an infrastructure to create and disseminate the latest in American styles—not just the clothes of clean-cut New England youth but even the wilder looks of the counterculture.
On May 24, 2005, VAN Jacket founder Kensuke Ishizu died at the age of ninety-three. By then millions of Japanese men—students, employees, executives, and retirees—were following Ishizu’s principles of Ivy as their basic style. Ishizu taught the 1960s generation how to dress, and they passed down those sartorial lessons to their children.
Ishizu did not just kick off the culture of Japanese menswear but kept it replicating the values of VAN Jacket through a sophisticated industry in Japan. The most successful brand to come out of the VAN Jacket family is global apparel giant Fast Retailing, whose marquee chain, Uniqlo, has over 1,500 stores in eighteen countries. Founder Tadashi Yanai’s father ran a small VAN franchise in the industrial town of Ube, Yamaguchi, called Ogōri Shōji. Ishizu renamed it Men’s Shop OS to attract a younger crowd.
Yanai opened the first Uniqlo in Hiroshima in 1985, and while many of Uniqlo’s best sellers over the years—brightly colored down jackets, fleece, thermal underwear—have not necessarily been Ivy items, Yanai’s dedication to selling unisex basics at reasonable prices echoes the original mission of VAN Jacket. Toward the end of his life, Kensuke Ishizu visited a Uniqlo store and told his son, “This is what I wanted to make!”
W. David Marx
W. David Marx, a writer based in Tokyo, is the founder and editor of néojaponisme.com. He is the author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, from which this essay is excerpted. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.
W. David Marx, a writer based in Tokyo, is the founder and editor of néojaponisme.com. He is the author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, from which this essay is excerpted. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.