Beyond Ametora: Charting the Subcultures That Emerged From Japan’s Enduring Love for Americana

Along its mission to engage with the many talents from its global network, One Block Downs is proud to reveal its latest collaborative editorial with digital magazine Sabukaru. Based in Tokyo, Japan, we have connected with the ever-evolving platform to bring our audience closer to an endless catalogue of unique cultural learnings.

Subcultures are identifiable subgroups characterized by norms and practices that are at odds with a larger group. In this way, subcultures are in a continuous and dynamic exchange with mainstream society and achieve this by subverting aspects of culture that create meaning for themselves. Additionally, subcultures are not restricted to specific geographic locations. Instead, the influence of subcultures can be a cross-cultural phenomenon that permeates national boundaries in unpredictable ways.

For One Block Down’s latest collaborative editorial with Tokyo-based magazine Sabukaru, we explore three unique subcultures born from the encounter between American and Japanese culture and fashion. The editorial’s exclusive product selection can also be shopped here.

When it comes to the cross-cultural interaction between subcultures, Japan and America share a unique relationship that has facilitated an ongoing exchange of ideas and styles. Historically, the inspiration typically flowed from America to Japan and was initiated by the United States’ occupation of Japan following World War II. The western influence that gripped Japan manifested because of two factors: American troops leaving behind surplus clothing and the garments worn by iconic Hollywood actors in the mid-20th century.

“Japanese creatives, craftsmen, chefs and other culture enthusiasts are approaching foreign cultures and subcultures in a very special and detailed manner. There always is this complete eye for the right references, practices, styles and way of doing things that perfectly mimics the original. As a result, Japan often adds its own little twist to create a new story, a new product, or a new art piece that can live on its own while still validating and referencing its cultural roots.”

— Adrian Bianco, Editor-in-Chief Sabukaru

Streetstyle at Pitti Uomo F/W 18.

With the increasing popularity of American culture in Japan, the “Ametora” movement took off (which translates to American-traditional). At its core, Ametora encapsulates a combination of early-1960s Ivy League preppy style and blue-collar American workwear of the mid-20th century. Fast-forward to today, and Japan has superseded their American counterparts by solidifying itself as an industry standard due to their incomparable ability to produce cutting-edge designers who honor the meticulous and thorough craftsmanship of the past.

"I think in general, Japan is a place that absorbs culture relatively quickly and somehow creates a fusion reaction and outputs something distinct for a Japanese audience. It’s not lifestyle subculture, but more like a way to play in the form of a hobby."

— Jonathan Lukacek, Owner of Two Ears Brand and One Ear Brand

When it comes to the cultural relationship between the United States and Japan, the history of Ametora has been covered in detail by journalists and authors alike. In this article, our goal is to widen the scope surrounding this specific intercultural narrative. To achieve this, we will explicitly shift the conversation away from Ametora by examining the interplay between American and Japanese fashion, and the multiplicity of interesting subcultures that emerged across both countries because of their unique relationship. To get an adequate sense of the breadth of this relationship, we will focus on the rich history of the punk, motorcycle, and jazz subcultures that began in American and made their way to Japan.

The Punk Subculture

Ask anyone to list the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about punk rock, and without a doubt, they’ll likely say that: “punk is loud, punk is fast, punk is aggressive, and punk is an attitude.” In hindsight, these characteristics may seem commonplace, yet one can argue that a lot of the boundary pushing cultural happenings that we’ve enjoyed over the past several decades owe themselves to the seeds that the punk movement sowed for us.

Punk Rock emerged in New York City during the mid-1970s through bands like the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Wayne County and Blondie. Primarily, the foundation of punk was a reaction to the excesses of mainstream Rock and Roll. As a result, punk ushered in a raw, DIY sensibility that was undergirded by rebellious sentiments seeking to subvert traditional conventions and undermine the social norms that had a stranglehold on the public space and expressions of individuality.

As a form of music, punk abandoned the overly-produced and polished approach to production that dominated the radio-waves and stadium tours at the time. It took a sledgehammer to glam-rock velvet and the sequined aesthetic in favor of a more intense, raw, and abrasive form of musicianship. Naturally, the uninhibited and unapologetic energy of punk gave way to politically charged and anti-establishment sentiments with lyrics that pushed back against the looming sense of authoritarian institutions, mounting gluttony of consumerism, and brazen expansion of big business corporatism across the West.

As a form of style, punk was distinctively anti-materialistic, and as it came from working-class families, the punk aesthetic was largely defined by thrift-store finds like second-hand trousers, jeans and T-shirts. Punk rockers tended to gravitate towards simple colors because it acted as a canvas that they could embellish and repurpose themselves. Interestingly, the iconic ripped garments that we’ve come to know and love because of punk rock, wasn’t intentional, but instead, a by-product of the bands’ limited funds and the eventual wear and tear from the day-to-day use of the clothing. For punk, frayed and torn garments eventually became a way to express oneself in a manner that pierced through the veiled glaze of materiality and “acceptable decorum” by reflecting individuality in its most transparent form.

Japan’s Take on Punk

In the 1970s, punk made its way eastward to Japan, where it found a welcoming audience with an enthusiastic appetite for the punk ethos. Similar to the United States and England, punk ushered in a new era for Japan’s rock scene, but with its own culture and political landscape, Japan carved out its own identity into the punk scene by injecting faster speeds and uncompromising indifference to any semblance of polished musicianship.

During the ’70s, bands like Friction and Fukushima informed the early stages of Japan’s punk scene in Tokyo by importing a sound of rock that was directly inspired by the likes of New York’s Ramones. As punk became more prevalent outside of Tokyo, the band SS began to attract increasing attention in ’79 because of their darker, unremorseful, high-octane interpretation of punk. SS’s sonic ruthlessness is what solidified Japan’s role in the history of punk. Their breakneck speed and aggressive musicianship would eventually go on to serve as the earliest incarnation and birthplace of what we now refer to as “hardcore”.

Punk rock solidified itself as a subculture in Japan by importing similar political sentiments across disaffected Japanese youth. The main difference between Japan and the West, was that the public space in Japan was considerably more conservative, making it much more difficult for the staunchly left wing politics of punk to gain the same amount of traction as it initially did in the West. Luckily, the DIY nature of punk pushed bands to take matters into their own hands by recording their own material and scouting for abandoned locations to play in. Over time, through perseverance, endless run-ins with the law, and an inescapable rise in popularity, Japan embraced punk rock and has produced bands that enjoy global success and continue to inject novelty into the broader punk, hardcore and metal ethos.

The Motorcycle Subculture

Motorcycles have played a significant role in the 20th century zeitgeist and have been a cultural phenomenon in varying degrees across the globe. Throughout the decades, motorcycles have been associated with many different types of people, and the depictions of these individuals have played a large part in shaping the perception of motorcycles and the people who ride them.

In 1894, Heinrich Hildebrand, Wilhelm Hildebrand and Alois Wolfmüller created the first series production motorcycle in Munich, Germany. Shortly after, commercially produced bikes were released by different manufacturers, and by the turn of the 20th century, iconic mass-production firms like the American brand Harley-Davidson began to emerge.

Motorcycles began to grow in popularity after World War II, wherein the first “biker gangs” began as clubs of veterans looking for the sense of brotherhood, thrill, and hierarchical social engagements they experienced during their military service. Soon after motorcycles were introduced into the wider markets, networks of motorcycle clubs began to appear throughout America, and clubs such as the Yonkers MC, San Francisco MC, and Oakland MC helped usher in the motorcycle subculture as a force to be reckoned with.

The motorcycle gained popularity during the two major wars as a reliable and accessible means of transportation. However, unlike an ordinary motorcyclist, a “biker” viewed their motorcycle as more than a vehicle. Instead, being a biker was a way of life. In the mid-20th century, the term “easy rider philosophy” was coined from the 1969 movie ‘Easy Rider’ in order to capture the principles and values of what it meant to be a biker. Broadly, the easy rider ethos focused on an array of values that emphasized freedom and individuality (seemingly mirroring the non-materialist, communal, social milieu that dominated the ’60s). Motorcycles began to be revered as the definitive symbol for rebellion that was emboldened by the shadow of the post-war era.

As all subcultures come with their own distinctive fashion, the motorcycling community carved out an iconic aesthetic DNA of its own. Motorcycle culture produced several distinct looks throughout its century-long rise. In its earliest days, motorcyclists wore tweed suits, full-length boots, gauntlet gloves, and close-fitting wool sweaters to keep the wind out and provide extra protection in case of any unforeseen accidents.

The quintessential leather jacket, jeans T-shirt and boots look that comes to mind when we think “biker” partly owes itself to middle-American workwear and to Irving Schott, a New Yorker who created the first leather motorcycle jacket in 1928 that originally retailed for $5.50. Schott called his invention the Schott Perfecto, and the sleek black leather garment quickly became a staple for riders and non-riders alike. Interestingly, the iconic motorcycle aesthetic did not become synonymous with bikers until the 50s, which many argue was spawned from Brando’s styling in the 1953 movie, ‘The Wild One’. In the ’70s, the leather jacket had new life breathed into it when it was adopted by punk rock pioneers such as the Ramones.

Other than the adrenaline rush and sense of comradery that bikers enjoy, motorcycle culture began to expand into new territories. Like hobbyists buying model cars for preservation purposes, motorcycles started having their own collectors as well. Eventually, bike designs moved beyond function and started to become artistic expressions that showcased inner inspiration. Broadly, motorcycle culture comprises enthusiasts, riders, collectors, and though there are many different subcultures involved, what binds them together is their steadfast passion for motorcycles.

Japan’s Take on the Motorcycle Subculture

There's no doubt that North America has played a significant role in setting the stage for the motorcycle subculture, but there are plenty of places in the world where motorcycles dominated the streets and Japan is no exception. With their unique heritage and cultural practices, Japan has provided a distinctive take on the possibilities of the motorcycle subculture.

The Hildebrand and Wolfmüller motorcycles were introduced to Japan in 1896. But the Japanese motorcycle industry only truly took off in 1913, when Eisuke Miyata (the founder of the eponymous bicycle company) made the Asahi motorcycle that was adopted by Tokyo police and used to escort various government officials.

During this time, the advancement of motorization was challenging because throughout feudal Japan, the cities were intentionally built in a maze-like way to impede and hamper the prospect of invading forces. Prior to 1920, the roads were made of densely packed streets that lacked signs, street names, or highway codes. The “Road Improvement Plan” of 1920 was initiated in order to create a more modernized and uniform road system by paving roads and building bridges over rivers. It was during this urban reform that motorcycles slowly became a pleasurable form of transportation.

At the end of the Second World War Japan was in ruins. Among those left behind were ex-military aviators, including Kamikaze. Used to a life of extremes, veterans grouped together in the 1950s to revive their exhilaration around a shared sense of meaning. The increasing interest of youth greatly expanded their numbers. The term Bosozoku was used to refer to the Japanese youth motorcycle subculture that began to emerge, which turned a network of interconnected riders into a national movement.

During this time, while Japanese society was evolving and opening up to the world, the Bosozoku instead focused on maintaining traditional values. Primarily as a reaction against the nationwide receptivity to western culture and business suit aesthetics that was taking Japan by storm, Bosozoku established a style that was indebted to military pilot overalls called tokkofuku. Initially, the tokkofuku uniform was an ode to the working class, and it included tall military boots, baggy pants, modified and embroidered jumpsuits with personalized slogans and gang logos conveying nationalist sentiments such as “schichisho hokoku”, roughly translating to: Live your life seven times in dedication to your country (a notable departure from their western anti-nationalist counterparts).

The Bosozoku movement was not isolated to Japan. Instead, their style and values impacted the fashion industry on a much wider scale. Take for instance Japanese streetwear titan, Neighbourhood. Founder Shinsuke Takizawa — who was part of the original Harajuku scene that pioneered streetwear in the early-90s — typically refers to Japan’s biker culture as a key inspiration that is prominently featured throughout his designs.

An example of Takizawa’s deep love for motorcycle culture can be found in the recurrent use of brazen text on various garments across an array of Neighborhood’s collections (which have been tied to the graphic elements of Bosozoku uniforms).

The Jazz Subculture

Most subcultures are accompanied by stylistic and intellectual codes of conduct. While punk and rock certainly left their mark on contemporary culture, not many movements can rival the continued and important legacy of jazz. Originating in New Orleans around 1910, jazz swept through America, following the tails of swing music and big bands that dominated the '30s and '40s. As the big band popularity began to dissipate, bebop, a form of art that has its origin in Harlem, New York, was preparing to take over the American consciousness and solidify what is now referred to as the “Jazz Age”.

Known for being fast-paced and unpredictable, bebop was a significant departure from the structured and choreographed rhythms of the big band and swing era. Musically, bebop ushered in the foundations for jazz by blending elements that ranged from African American religious ceremony, big band melodies, blues sensibility, and African traditions — which all came together to create highly unique syncopated rhythms that embraced melodic freedom through improvisation. For many, jazz differentiated itself from other genres because it was founded on the freedom of improvisation, which gave it an air of unpredictability. Jazz became the most popular form of music for the youth of the time.

Culturally, the Jazz Age is often referred to in conjunction with the "Roaring Twenties'', signifying the way in which the 1920s were a time of dramatic change in the United States. Many Americans were disillusioned in the post-war era, and their reactions took on many forms. Rebellious American youth in the big cities adjusted to the overwhelming economic malaise and nihilistic zeitgeist that engulfed the first World War by embracing a new morality that was far more permissive than that of previous generations.

During this time, many young women adopted the dress and mannerisms that were referred to as "flapper". Flappers had short hair, wore shorter skirts, applied more makeup, and openly embraced socializing with their male counterparts. The male equivalent of a flapper was a “sheik” and were known to have slicked-back hair parted down the middle, listened to jazz and danced the foxtrot (a more energetic and animated form of dancing compared to the slow tempo Waltz of the generation that preceded them). Where the jazz musicians of the time were forced to adopt a formal dress code which tended to revolve around a minimalist approach that included a slim suit, crisp dress shirt, and a skinny tie.

The roaring twenties overlapped in cross-cultural ways with the Prohibition Era, which followed a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages across America. As a result, speakeasy bars came into prominence and became popular venues that were not racially segregated during the Jazz Age, allowing customers to drink alcohol and relax without the fear of social ostracization and legal prosecution. Interestingly, jazz was played in these speakeasies as a countercultural type of music to fit in with the unlawful environment.

The Jazz Age should not exclusively be understood as the product of post-war disillusionment. During this time, jazz was part of a larger women’s rights movement, which saw the expansion of women’s political power through the acquisition of voting rights across the United States. Part of the brandishing of the new social norms by flappers was symbolic of the political equality and personal freedoms that women achieved through women’s liberation. In many ways, the 1920s in America can be summed up as a boundary breaking decade and much of it can be found in the unruly, spontaneous, and edginess of the rhythm, melodies and attitude that jazz brought to the table.

Japan’s Take on the Jazz Subculture

The first jazz cafe that opened in Osaka, Japan was in 1933. And almost a century later, Japan has the largest jazz community in the world and generates more than two-billion American Dollars in sales annually (second to the United States in terms of revenue). We often think of the jazz subculture as an American phenomenon, but how did it make its way to Japan?

In the 1910s, American and Japanese citizens were traveling on luxury liners across the West Coast and Japan, which had orchestras playing on them. As the liners made their way to the United States, a lot of the time, musicians would venture into music stores. The musicians would end up buying records and sheet music to do what musicians do: learn the popular music of the time. The first musicians that played something akin to jazz seemed to be the ocean-liner musicians who also worked for hotel-lobby orchestras.

When America joined the second world war, the American troops that were stationed in Japan yearned for live music and were willing to pay for an opportunity to dance to their favorite songs. Due to the high unemployment rates throughout the occupation years, Japanese musicians would agree to entertain the troops, which unintentionally acted as an inter-cultural bridge between Japan and the United States.

As a means of eventual retaliation, the Japanese government labeled American jazz as enemy music and prohibited citizens from playing it in the late-40s. At this point, the jazz consciousness had already made its way into the roots of the Japanese zeitgeist, which in turn, forced Japanese jazz enthusiasts to participate in underground listening parties.

Similar to the flappers and sheiks in America, Japan’s equivalents were referred to as moga (short for “modern girl”) and mobo (short for “modern boy”). The mogas discarded the kimono in favor of a western style that was defined by their short hair, short dresses, while openly smoking and drinking alongside their male counterparts who donned a double breasted suit, and fedora. Today, many jazz record collecting enthusiasts pay homage to its aesthetic origins by continuing to maintain a formal sensibility.

Over the decades, jazz cafes became the venue for counter-culture students, and intellectuals. Soon, the unique jazz cafe setting began to emerge nationwide. Interestingly, jazz cafes were not about the cup of coffee. Instead, jazz cafes became a library for music. Unlike in the United States, where people go to a bar or restaurant and listen to jazz as background accompaniment for socializing, in Japan, jazz cafes are the complete opposite: you are not able to talk. Rather, each song that IS played in the jazz cafe acts as a moment of unwavering appreciation for the art form.

Jazz cafes eventually acquired a cache among urban intellectuals. If you wanted to be part of the in-crowd, being well-versed with the songs that were featured at the jazz cafes signaled your highbrow musical aptitude. Additionally, jazz cafes also acted as sanctuaries that enabled locals to enter into a space that was removed from the speed and chaos of the modern urban landscape that was making headway throughout the country.

It’s for good reasons that Ametora plays a significant role in highlighting the ways that the American and Japanese cross-cultural dialogue generated trends that impacted the industry in an unexpected and significant manner. Even though Ametora tends to be represented as “American traditional” styling, the reason why it continues to be a significant talking point surrounding this subject matter is because it also encompasses the way in which Japan adapted, perfected, influenced, and exported its own take on textiles and garments that originated in the United States. By taking a step back and examining the rich cross-cultural exchange between the United States and Japan, we hope to have set the stage, moved the needle, and opened up the dialogue surrounding the unique intercultural relationship by showcasing the way it extends beyond Ametora and how subcultures such as punk, motorcycle, and jazz maintain influence on a global scale.

In focusing on this topic, we should also recognize the importance of subcultures as a whole. Typically, subcultures provide fertile ground for trend spotters to appropriate new styles for market purposes, yet, punks, motorcycle enthusiasts, jazz devotees, and other groups on the margins carved out a space that enabled authentic transformation and a sense of autonomy. Other than the commodification of up-and-coming norms and practices, the true gift of subcultures is the insight they are able to provide about what it means to be human. Who knew that if we wanted to know more about the psychological, historical, social, aesthetic, and political dimensions of who we are, that the world of fashion would be a sure way to provide some stimulating and thought provoking answers to those questions.

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