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Book reviews: "Ametora" and "Pure Invention"
Two books about how Japanese creativity has changed the world
(This is the fourth in a series of posts about Japan. The first, second, and third were about Japan’s economic problems. In this post, I’m going to switch gears and talk about Japan’s cultural triumphs.)
Ever since the 90s, the basic story of Japan has been that its economy is weak but its cultural influence is strong. In the decade after the bursting of the bubble, much of Japan refocused away from the pursuit of wealth toward the pursuit of creative expression. The result was a remarkable cultural efflorescence that, while it may never again reach the heights of the 90s and early 00s, continues to this day. And because the 90s and early 00s happened to coincide with the flowering of the internet, Japan’s cultural explosion was perfectly timed to take over the world.
There’s a persistent, bizarre, and wildly incorrect stereotype that I sometimes hear about Japan, which is that the country is imitative rather than creative. Nothing could be further from the truth. Japanese creativity is so socially pervasive and endlessly imaginative that it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by it. I’m not even talking about the long list of things invented in Japan; I’m referring to the art and design creativity that seems to suffuse the whole country.
That creativity has been influencing and changing American culture (and global culture) for years, via the exported influence of Japanese cultural products, artistic forms, and memes. Finally, some Americans are starting to document and chronicle that influence, and the creativity that gave rise to it. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style and Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World share the same basic format (which is probably no coincidence, since the authors are friends). Each book explores the history of post-WW2 Japan through the lens of cultural products — men’s fashion for Ametora, toys, cartoons, and video games for Pure Invention.
Let’s start with the book that pioneered the format: Ametora.
Ametora, by W. David Marx
In my last year of college, a friend of mine approached me with something behind his back. “Two seconds after I show you this,” he told me, “you’ll have decided to move to Japan.” From behind his back he produced a copy of the book Fruits, a compilation of photos from the long-running Japanese street fashion magazine of the same name.
My friend was right. In two seconds of seeing that cover, I made the decision to move to Japan.
In Ametora, David Marx tells the story of how Japan went from the rubble of a bombed-out fascist empire to the picture above, in the space of half a century. It was not an easy or inevitable journey — it involved an incalculable amount of hard work, sacrifice, and ingenuity.
This story of economic and social rebuilding is what Ametora is really about. Fashion — and specifically, men’s fashion — is just the motif. The chapters are arranged chronologically, with each one telling the story of a different era of postwar Japanese history — the impoverished 50s, the materialistic 60s, the activist 70s, the consumerist 80s, and the artistic slacker 90s. It’s told through the eyes not of fashion consumers, but of fashion entrepreneurs — the men (and they’re all men) who tried to get rich off of young Japanese people’s desire to look good.
The most entertaining tale is the story of Take Ivy. Some Japanese guys decided in the 60s that they were going to get rich selling preppy Ivy League American fashions to Japanese kids. But when they arrived in America to shoot some photos, they found that American kids had become a bunch of grungy hippies. So they essentially faked the whole thing, taking photos that made it look as if everyone at Harvard and Yale still dressed like 50s preps.
And this gambit succeeded wildly. “Ivy” fashion became a huge trend in Japan, spawning endless riffs and modifications (“punk ivy”!). And it set a precedent for fashion styles sold through highly detailed catalogue-like fashion magazines.
These styles were not really “trends” in the sense that we think of that word in the U.S. — memes that people imitate. Instead, they function more as templates for obsessive hobbyists. If you wanted, you could precisely master a whole bunch of tiny minute details of a particular style — the collar turned just so, etc. — like learning to play a concerto. Or if you wanted, you could riff on what you read in the magazines, adding or modifying features or even combining multiple styles. A vehicle for self-expression and self-reinvention. (As an example, here’s one of the most skilled practitioners I know from the present day.)
Interestingly, fashion also became something of a vehicle for rebellion in Japan, just as it did in 1960s America. There’s a fascinating decade-long interlude in Ametora that describes how young Japanese people briefly ditched consumerism in favor of (often violent) leftist radicalism — of course, with its attendant fashion styles. The most interesting thing is how quickly that radicalism faded away, replaced in the late 80s and 90s by a resurgent desire for peaceful self-expression. I read Ametora in 2016, just as America was entering a new era of unrest, and it gave me a glimmer of hope that eventually things would calm down.
Anyway, the final section of Ametora is all about how the fashion explosion of the 90s and 00s came about, including the wild styles pictured in Fruits up above. The subtitle of the book — “How Japan saved American style” — is all about how the styles that the Japanese kids invented by riffing on old American fashions like Ivy League prep-wear ended up making their way back to America, where they sparked something of a street fashion revival in the 2010s.
Ametora is thus a book about the magic of two things that tend to get denounced a lot on the internet these days — capitalism and cultural appropriation. The unmatched creativity of the Japanese street fashion kids was sparked by grubby businesspeople scrambling to figure out ways to make a buck. And Japanese tastemakers and hobbyist kids borrowed shamelessly from American culture, putting their own original spin on it to turn it into something that delighted Americans themselves. Ametora is the story of how the profit motive and disregard for cultural authenticity combined to create something unique and incomparably beautiful…and how this in some sense helped to heal the soul of a nation laid low by fascism and war.
Knowing W. David Marx as I do, I know he’s extremely well-versed in leftist thought. I can’t imagine that he didn’t think of this angle when he conceived of Ametora. His writing has more layers than a Harajuku fashion kid’s outfit from 1998.
Pure Invention, by Matt Alt
Pure Invention starts in the same place Ametora does — in the ruins of post-WW2 Japan. This time, however, it starts with a toy — a miniature Jeep created by a Japanese toymaker during the occupation that ended up being a hit with Americans. This same basic story ends up getting repeated throughout the book — a scrappy designer, inventor, or artist looking for a way to make some money while still making something beautiful.
In recent decades, Japanese pop culture — anime, video games, manga, cosplay, and so on — have become a sort of universal language among America’s young people. Even the vast majority who don’t become weebs end up using memes, concepts, and words borrowed from Japanese cartoons and games. (My own theory is that because Japanese culture can’t easily be situated in America’s cultural, racial, or political divides, it ends up transcending boundaries.)
There are many books about this, but Pure Invention isn’t really one of them. It touches briefly on the subcultures that Japanese products have spawned overseas, but the vast majority of the focus is on the Japanese creators themselves. Where Marx is most interested in how stuff gets popular, Alt is more fascinated by how stuff gets made.
And these are intensely fascinating stories. My favorite is the chapter on how karaoke was invented. In the 70s there were a bunch of sing-along performers who would go from bar to bar in Japanese cities (cool, right?). Then some of the people affiliated with this sing-along subculture had the idea of automating it. This involved solving several problems — how to invent a machine that mixed voices with music effectively, how to create standardized filters that made average people’s voices sound good, how to assemble large but portable catalogues of popular music with the vocal tracks stripped out, and how to create a business model around these machines. Pure Invention follows two inventors who simultaneously solved all of these problems — though eventually big companies just came in and swiped the idea for themselves.
(Most of the stories end up more lucratively for the creators. Sanrio got rich off of Hello Kitty, Nintendo got rich off of Mario, Ghibli got rich off of Spirited Away, and so on. Capitalism wins again!)
As I see it, the central message of Pure Invention is that Japan’s modern pop culture is not some kind of essentialized, ancient thing. Samurai and geisha did not inevitably give rise to anthropomorphic cats, heroic jumping Italian plumbers, sword-wielding space robots, etc. Instead, all this stuff was created by Japanese individuals in the here and now. Without those individuals’ genius, our modern world would look totally different than it does.
If there’s one shortcoming of Pure Invention, it’s that it doesn’t quite show us enough of that modern world. Hillary Clinton is shown playing a Game Boy, and the growth of American anime fandom is sketched in brief. But beyond the stories of the inventors themselves, most of the narrative in this book is about how Japanese cultural products shaped Japan, from the Space Invaders craze to manga-obsessed student protesters. There is little description of weeb culture or anime Tumblr or American cosplay conventions (which have far surpassed their Japanese antecedents). And one American subculture that Alt does go into a bit of detail about is the rightist online hordes of 4chan and Gamergate, who in my opinion already get much more attention than they deserve.
In fact, this last piece deserves a little more focus. The penultimate chapter of Pure Invention covers 2channel, the anonymous Japanese forum that inspired 4chan. Like its American counterpart, 2ch is — among other things — a haven for angry young misogynists. By focusing on these trolls, Alt changes the tone of the book a little bit at the end.
Ametora, and most of Pure Invention, are inherently triumphalist narratives — the story of how Japan simultaneously climbed out of postwar poverty and became a liberal society based on self-expression. Reading the chapters feels like a journey up out of darkness. But Ametora was published in 2015, when the world’s new age of strife was in its infancy. Pure Invention came out in 2020, by which time it had become obvious that the world was becoming a darker place. So it stands to reason that while Ametora has a happy ending — Japan and America enjoy each other’s culture and everyone has fun — Pure Invention finishes on a slightly more ominous note.
Japan, so far, shows no sign of abandoning the liberalism that it embraced after the Second World War (right-wing internet trolls have, thankfully, remained politically irrelevant). But overseas, ominous forces are gathering, and someday soon, Japan may be called upon to help defend the world it helped to create.