Today Basic Books is releasing a revised English version of my first book, Ametora, with an afterword looking at the global embrace of Japanese fashion over the last seven years since publication. With that, I wanted to tell the story of how this book came to exist in the first place.
The History of Ametora
In early 2010, I was editing the short-lived lifestyle site CNNGo’s Tokyo page, when I assigned myself an article on Brift H, the “shoeshine bar” in Aoyama, where expert shoe shiners polish your brogues and oxfords in front of you while you sip sparkling apple juice. (This service now costs ¥4,900 per pair.) As I was sitting at the bar, a middle-aged Japanese man, Mr. Ōshiba, walked in to pick up a pair of boots and announced to everyone/no one that he now possessed a copy of the 1965 photobook Take Ivy with all four authors’ signatures. (This is extremely rare, as photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida would pass away in 2013.) I leaned over to Mr. Ōshiba and told him that an English version of Take Ivy was about to go on sale, and I had just written perhaps the first English-language article on the person ultimately responsible for Take Ivy: Kensuke Ishizu, founder of Japan’s pioneering menswear brand VAN Jacket. It turned out that Mr. Ōshiba had worked at VAN, and after VAN went bankrupt, was a close confidant of Ishizu for the next several decades. In my memory, Mr. Ōshiba then popped out his phone then and there and called Ishizu’s son Shōsuke arranging for us to meet. About a week later, I was at the Ishizu Office in Aoyama hearing first-hand stories of how they made Take Ivy and why.
Over the next 18 months, especially as Take Ivy became a runaway hit in the U.S., I became convinced that Americans would be interested in the backstory of why a Japanese company sent a film crew to the Ivy League campuses in 1965 to photograph students’ clothing. And with the authors all getting on in years, I thought I should write up their story ASAP. This book could serve as a companion volume to Take Ivy, maybe called Taking Ivy. Over brunch, my literary agent told me, sounds very cool, good luck with it, but it’s way too niche for me to pitch to major publishers. She would, however, review any contracts if someone were interested.
So I pitched the book directly to Take Ivy’s English publisher, who liked the idea but told me to think broader: the entire history of Japanese jeans, streetwear, etc. This would be easy, since all of these genres flowed together: Ivy style in Japan appeared with the brand VAN Jacket, then there was a hippie backlash against Ivy that propelled jeans into the mainstream, then a synthesis between hippies and Ivy called “Heavy Duty” outdoor style, then another backlash that took the form of working-class yankii style, then a Preppy revival of Ivy and an ‘80s spinoff as “American casual,” which then inspired streetwear brands in Ura-Harajuku and a massive vintage market. And the story would be easy to tell as there were only a few instigators, who mostly knew each other.
So starting in January 2013 and ending around March 2014, I wrote the entire book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style — on spec. No contract, no advances. I finished the entire 110,000 word manuscript on a loose verbal promise that it would someday be a book. I had a full-time job, so I would wake up and write for an hour before getting ready to leave the house, read key materials on the train to work, go home after work, and put my notes in the master outline for the next morning’s writing session. On the weekends, I would get three or four hours of writing in or go to the National Diet Library to find materials. During weekday evenings after work, I interviewed as many people as I could reach.
There is something rude about discussing private business conflicts, but basically: when I turned in the book and received the proposed contract, my agent and I decided we should maybe also talk to mainstream publishers before we committed. The book was a lot broader than I initially conceptualized. She sent it out to editors, and nine out of ten rejected it. But Basic Books, then part of Perseus now part of Hachette, signed it for a small advance, as they were building a menswear library, starting with Bruce Boyer’s True Style (Huge thanks to Bruce for vouching for the book when the publisher wanted to verify whether it was legitimate.) Upon signing with Basic, I was told it needed to be cut down to 70,000 words, which required a lot of painful editing over summer vacation but was absolutely the right call. The publisher told me it could not be named Ametora, since no one knew what "Ametora" is. They then came back in fall and told me it should be called Ametora. Finally in December 2015, Basic Books published Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.
Around this time, I remember telling my former boss, someone heavily invested in Japanese culture and lived through part of this story, that I had written a cultural history of American fashion in Japan, to which he said, “The three people interested in that are going to love it.” I don’t bring this up to bask in the irony or gloat that he was wrong but to remind myself that I absolutely agreed with him at the time. In my head, I wrote Ametora for four or five fashion bloggers, all of whom initially ignore it upon publication. During the writing period, I had also convinced myself that “Japanese fashion” was a trend that would be over on the exact day the book was published, and the total audience was not just limited but potentially dwindling.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine choosing to write Ametora if I knew what I know now about publishing, or if I wanted to do a “big book." For most of my thirties, I decided I would work a full time serious job to subsidize my niche writing. And it just seemed obvious to me that I would write this book because such a great story had fallen into my lap. I never thought about the professional implications. George Orwell once said that “sheer egoism” was a primary motivation for writers, and this is absolutely true in my case. The only thing on my mind was writing a good book and being paid in esteem. Had I been conservative in considering the financial ROI, there is no way Ametora would exist — even though writing it was ultimately the right choice for me. Naïveté is extremely powerful.
Today, on September 26, 2023, Basic Books is re-releasing Ametora with a new cover and an afterword about what happened in this story since publication in 2015. This re-release is happening because more than three people read this book. It has been issued twice in Taiwan, sold more than 30,000 copies in China (where it is called Harajuku Cowboy), and re-printed at least four times in Korea. Very oddly, I wasn’t thinking about the Japanese market when writing it, assuming everyone “already knew this story,” but DU Books just issued the eight printing of the Japanese translation. None of this will ever cease to surprise me. I had no idea that there would be a growing interest in menswear, which is what has ensured this book's longevity. But even for those not interested in Japanese fashion, Ametora still works as a clear case study on how trends emerge in the intersection of individual ambition and social movements. (Status and Culture is the abstracted field guide for understanding these mechanics.)
A re-release is an honor, but it’s also a relief, because I was able to fix annoying typos and a few errors. The only major correction was related to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The best information available in 2013 suggested that Kensuke Ishizu designed the Japanese Olympic team’s famous red blazers, and their triumphant appearance at the Opening Ceremonies is what legitimized blazers in Japan. The second part is true, but thanks to excellent research from scholar Hisako Anjō, we now know that the style choice came from tailor Yasuyuki Mochizuki, the chief Olympic designer who had been on a decade-long mission to outfit the team in vermillion. Also a note for the individual who sent me a cease-and-desist letter through a law firm demanding I make the world’s smallest changes: I made the changes. (And yes, to many readers who emailed, I fixed the spelling of “Styleforum.”)
Thank you everyone who read the book and told someone about it, posted it on Instagram and TikTok, or gave it a good review on Goodreads. (Also high fives to people who lent it from the library; honestly I would have done the same.) Word of mouth is what sold this book.
I have created many things over the span of my life, from terrible zines to mini-albums to DJ mixes to print journals to loaves of sourdough bread and cocktail cherries, but this book was probably the first thing I ever made where I was fully satisfied with the final product. Thank you, Basic Books, for the reprint, thanks to all of you who read it, and I hope the book continues to be useful and entertaining for the next group of readers.