When travelling in Japan it is hard not to notice the influence of American culture and how the Japanese have embraced the culture to such an extent that it has become very much a part of Japanese culture. The two cultures have become intertwined in such a way as to be inextricable from each other. Snoopy is more popular in Japan than in America. Disneyland and Universal Studios are favourite places to go on a date. Jazz bars and cafes are still popular places to go, to listen to vinyl and drink whiskey. Burgers and corn dogs are popular snacks and konbini, American style convenience stores, that are so much better than the real thing, dot every corner, in nearly every town, throughout all of Japan. Having recently started a course online with Tokyo University through EdX about Post War Tokyo, I was blown away to actually piece together the reasons that pop culture and modern Japanese culture are so influenced by America.
During the occupation of Japan many Americans were stationed in the country for 7 years and some remained for some time after that. In Tokyo, the areas that are now Harajuku and Omotesando, the very centre of pop-culture and fashion, were previously an American military base called Washington Heights. Previous to the Americans moving in, this area was a Japanese military training field. During the occupation, this area became very much like an American gated community, with apartments and other infrastructure that resembled an American town, right in the heart of Tokyo. The “dependent houses” as the military housing was known, contained modern, American style kitchens, with modern electrical appliances. This type of home was a dream house for an average Japanese person, and everything about this lifestyle became very fashionable and popular in Tokyo. The music, including rock’ n’ roll, the fashion, the pop-culture, the sports and the consumer life. Many aspects of American military culture and American pop-culture spread through these areas in Tokyo. Takeshita Dori, across the road from Harajuku Station, became popular for buying American clothes and other goods. It is still the place to go to shop for fashion and is always incredibly busy. The area surrounding is home to many American Vintage shops, selling clothes from the 50s and 60s, probably not dissimilar to what people were buying back during the occupation.
Washington Heights was returned to the Japanese, by the Americans in time to be converted to Yoyogi Park and Olympic Park for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. There were several other military areas around the country and the influence can still be seen today. One base was situated in Kamakura and having visited a few years ago I can tell you it is a little bit like a hybrid town, part Japanese, part Hawaiian, and part American. The surfing culture and the pub culture- including Mexican food, and a very laid back vibe remain today. Japanese movies, of the time, were also very heavily influenced by American movies. Many movies made in Japan in the 50s look like Elvis would be at home, had he appeared in one. Baseball is another import that is incredibly popular in Japan, and a reasonably recent study, 2018, produced data showing that 48% of Japanese named baseball their favourite sport, making baseball the most popular sport in the country. (Reuters) Aoyama, Rappongi, Hibiya and Yoyogi were all areas of American influence. By the time the American’s had left, the Japanese had consumed so much American culture, they had kind of forgotten were it had emanated from.
Language, eating, drinking and entertainment were also influenced. Even the toys that children were playing with. Waseiego is a form of Japanese that has become so popular, that if you know how to make the sounds, you can translate anything into waseiego. Some examples are アットホム ”attohomu” at home, アメリカンドッグ ”americandogu” American Corn Dog, and ハンバーグ “Hanba-gu” hamburger. The Japanese company Suntory has won best Whiskey in the world several times over, and the Osaka based company has recently purchased Beam Inc. that makes both Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. But Japanese artisans, chefs and designers do not simply imitate the culture, food and goods of America, or France, or Scotland, they actually master making these things. They take something they like and aspire to make well, and then they master it and make it better than it ever was. Anyone who has eaten French pastries in Japan can attest to this.
Two of my favourite American “things” the Japanese have taken and made infinitely better are denim and Blythe dolls. Japanese denim had long been recognised for its quality, being dyed with true indigo, and its style. Okayama prefecture is famous for denim, a place that was on my itinerary for April this year, Sadly, cancelled due to COVID-19, but definitely on my list when I can return. Kojima, in Okayama, is recognised as Japan’s denim capital. Murao Clothing, who later changed their name to Big John, started the denim industry in Japan. These jeans are pretty awesome. I still have a pair that I purchased in 1998, and they are well worn and still in great shape. You can visit Kojima Jeans Street, in downtown Kojima, which has many jeans shops and a museum. The quality and styling of the jeans made here not only rival Wrangler and Levis, but, in my opinion surpass them.
In 1972, Kenner, an American toy company made a doll called Blythe. This doll was a big flop. They had movable and colour changing eyes and enormous heads and apparently did not sell well because children were frightened of them. Many years later these unsold dolls were discovered in a factory and the rights for the design were sold to Takara Tomy, a Japanese toy company. Takara took the Blythe Doll, made it an iconic collectable and releases limited numbers of each new design, with new designs every year. These dolls retail for anywhere between $300-$400 when new, to over $1000, if they are rare and become very collectable. I love these dolls and have several of my own. The thing I love about them is the fashion and ephemera that is so very Japanese, but it is Japanese following American characteristics. It is, to me, the very epitome of perfect Japanese Americanism.