How Japan Saved American Style

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By W. David Marx

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“A fascinating cultural history” (People) of how Japan adopted and ultimately revived traditional American fashion 

A strange thing has happened over the last two decades: the world has come to believe that the most “authentic” American garments are those made in Japan. From high-end denim to oxford button-downs, Japanese brands such as UNIQLO, Kamakura Shirts, Beams, and Kapital have built their global businesses by creating the highest-quality versions of classic American casual garments—a style known in Japan as ametora, or “American traditional.”

In Ametora, cultural historian W. David Marx traces the Japanese assimilation of American fashion over the past 150 years. Now updated with a new afterword covering the last decade, Ametora shows how Japanese trendsetters and entrepreneurs mimicked, adapted, imported, and ultimately perfected American style, dramatically reshaping not only Japan’s culture but also our own. 



A Nation Without Style

THE WIDESPREAD ADOPTION OF AMERICAN STYLE IN JAPAN took several decades, but the very beginning can be traced back to a single individual—Kensuke Ishizu. Ishizu was born on October 20, 1911, the second son of a prosperous paper wholesaler in the southwestern city of Okayama. 1911 happened to be the very last year of the Meiji Era, a period that marked Japan’s transition from a feudal society to a modern nation-state.

For the 265 years before the start of the Meiji Era, in 1868, the Tokugawa military government enforced a sakoku or “closed country” policy to isolate Japan from the rest of the world. Japan’s seclusion came to an end in 1854 when United States Naval Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of black warships demanded the country open its borders to trade. Four years later, the shogunate signed a series of “unequal treaties” with the Western powers, a humiliating capitulation that threw the country 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 technology and lifestyles, believing that a more modern Japan could fight off additional American and European attempts at colonization. Over the next forty years, the Meiji government modified and updated every part of Japanese life—the economy, laws, military, business practices, education system, and dietary habits. Bolstered by these efforts, Japan did not just ward off imperial invaders, but, in a few decades, became an imperial power of its own.

These radical social transformations mapped directly to changes in the male wardrobe. 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 steady 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 (1603–1868) micromanaged the nation’s vestments, strictly regulating materials and patterns to certain castes. For example, 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 standard cotton robes with silk in an act of subversive panache.

After 1868, the Meiji government instituted a set of policies to move men into practical Western dress as part of the modernization agenda. In 1870, the Emperor cut his hair into a short Western hairstyle and donned a European-inspired military uniform. A year later, the Haircut Edict instructed all former samurai to lop off their top knots. The military meanwhile adopted Western uniforms, with the Navy imitating the British and the Army imitating the French. During the following decade, government officials such as bureaucrats, policemen, mailmen, and train conductors would follow the military’s lead in Western dress. In 1885, Tokyo’s Imperial University put its pupils in black gakuran (or tsume-eri) closed square-collar jackets and matching pants—a look that has since become the classic uniform for male students.

Emperor Meiji in traditional costume (left) and modern military uniform (right).

It was not long before Western culture began to trickle down from state institutions and into the lives of Japan’s upper crust. The enduring symbol of the early Meiji Era was the Rokumeikan—a French Renaissance-styled hall where Japanese elites dressed up in formal ensembles, danced the waltz, and mingled with wealthy foreigners. From the 1890s forward, urban white-collar workers wore British-style suits to work.

Kensuke Ishizu’s childhood coincided with the Taish Era, a period when the growing middle classes joined elites in adopting Western customs. Everyone consumed more meat and milk, and the most radical political factions demanded greater democratic representation. Ishizu was a product of his times, playing imported sports like baseball and preferring hamburger steaks to fish. He also exhibited a precocious interest in Western clothing. He wanted to wear the black gakuran jacket with gold buttons so badly that he asked his parents to transfer him to a different school far from his home. Later, in middle school, Ishizu schemed with his tailor to add flair to his uniform without breaking the dress code—square flaps on the back pockets and wider hems.

Kensuke Ishizu as a middle school student (left) and university student (right). (Courtesy of the Ishizu family)

At this point 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 Kant earthquake, many Japanese women adopted practical 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 Western culture in Japan from the Rokumeikan model, swiping style leadership from the upper classes and taking it in unauthorized directions.

In 1929, Ishizu moved to Tokyo to attend Meiji University after promising his father he would come back to take over the family business. With an ample stipend, he transformed himself into a “man of action.” He remembered later in life, “My life as a student was amazing. I was never once bored.” He coached boxers as a cornerman, founded the school’s first motorcycle club, and ran an unlicensed taxi service with a friend. In just a few short months, Ishizu had become the living embodiment of the mobo.

Kensuke Ishizu (far right, top row) on his wedding day, March 1932. (Courtesy of the Ishizu family)

As part of this mobo ethos, Ishizu 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. He matched it with white-and-brown saddle shoes. Ishizu lived in this dashing outfit at all moments, even in the stifling Tokyo summers.

But 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 even eating grilled sweet potatoes on the street.

After narrowly escaping trouble with Japan’s notorious thought police, Ishizu returned to Okayama in March 1932 to marry his young bride, Masako. While most of the family dressed in traditional Japanese robes, Ishizu could not resist the opportunity for sartorial flair—he was wed in a high-collar morning coat and a custom-ordered ascot. For their honeymoon, the couple headed back to Tokyo and spent a week at the dance halls and movie theaters, enjoying the last gasp of the mobo-moga life. At the tender ages of twenty-one and twenty, Ishizu and his wife settled down in their hometown to run the decades-old paper company.

CONFINED TO OKAYAMA, ISHIZU DID ANYTHING HE COULD to escape the “boring as shit” world of paper wholesale. He patronized geisha houses at night and took glider lessons on the weekends. He assembled an extensive wardrobe of tailored suits and daydreamed about making clothes for a living.

This decadent life might have continued unabated if not for Japan’s lurch towards dictatorship in the 1930s. After the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and a right-wing pushback against political parties, a military-led government stamped out all varieties of dissent and heterodoxy. Fanatic “patriot” groups assassinated democratic politicians and attempted coup d’états. The war in China soon hit home for Ishizu: the government increased its regulations on industry to manage war supplies, forcing his wholesaling company to cap its business activity.

Luckily, things looked sunnier in Japan’s colonies. By the early 1930s, the Japanese Empire controlled Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, as well as swaths of Eastern China. In mid-1939, Ishizu’s hometown friend, Teruo kawa, received a letter from his older brother in the Chinese port city of Tianjin asking them to come and help run the family’s successful department store, kawa Yk. With no work at home, Ishizu’s father encouraged him to go off and try something new. Ishizu was thrilled to leave: “The young men of that era grew up with freedom. I especially needed new forms of stimulation on a daily basis and longed more and more to be over in the freewheeling Tianjin.” There was also a more urgent motive to leave town: Kensuke heard whispers that his favorite geisha was pregnant. The rumors ended up being false, but Ishizu chose not to stick around to find out. In August 1939, Ishizu and his family boarded a boat and moved to Tianjin.

Kensuke Ishizu in Tianjin, China with Russian friends (left) and in front of Public Security Department (right). (Courtesy of the Ishizu family)

Tianjin, located on the East China Sea, was famous for its international flavor, with self-governed British, French, and Italian concessions incorporating their own unique architectural styles into the fabric of the city. Beyond the Chinese population and fifty thousand resident Japanese, the city hosted a diverse group of Europeans—from British country-club elites in tails to disheveled White Russian émigrés.

At the age of twenty-eight, Ishizu began a new life in China as Sales Director of the department store kawa Yk. Ishizu was a natural salesman and delighted in dreaming up new promotions for the store. He soon took over clothing manufacture and design. When World War II got in the way of distribution routes from the home islands in 1941, Ishizu brought his tailor from Okayama and started making suits in China.

Outside of work, Ishizu did not stick with other Japanese but integrated himself into the wider international community. He picked up basic English and Russian and learned Chinese from a local geisha. He frequented British tailors to learn trade secrets, heard war news at the local Jewish club, and bet on Jai Alai in the Italian concession.

Living in Tianjin allowed Ishizu to avoid the hard times back home. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, war in the Pacific went from a regional conflict to a full-scale military engagement with the United States. Japan mobilized for total war. While Ishizu enjoyed the European culture and comforts of Tianjin, his country systematically rolled back all Western influences from local culture. The Japanese 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 even advised against writing words horizontally. Baseball avoided persecution only by replacing its foreign-derived terminology with native Japanese terms for strikes and home runs. 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 the Mao suit.

The war brought numerous hardships to Japan: at first, food shortages, and then, from April 1942, American bombing campaigns. Thanks to a part-time job as an instructor for military gliders, Ishizu avoided the front lines. Japan’s Imperial Army ravaged the interior of China, but Tianjin saw little conflict.

By 1943, Japan’s prospects for victory looked bleak, and the kawa Yk team worried that their trade in luxury goods would appear unpatriotic. The elder kawa brother decided to sell off the company and split the money between the employees. With his share of the proceeds likely to be confiscated on his return to Japan, Ishizu chose to remain in China.

Ishizu shaved his head and enlisted. Taking a cushy position as a naval attaché, he ordered himself a debonair version of the standard uniform in high-quality British serge wool. Ishizu was assigned to look over a glycerin factory but retooled the machinery to make clear soaps scented with Parisian spices. He later felt remorse about this dereliction of duties: “I was ashamed that I never did any work of use to my country. We probably lost the war because of Japanese like me.”

It was in this makeshift soap factory in August 1945 that 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 treated Ishizu with contempt and ransacked his factory for barrels of glycerin. Ishizu spent most of September 1945 locked in a former Japanese naval library.

Things improved in October with the arrival of the U.S. 1st Marine Division. The Marines came ashore to an impromptu victory parade, as thousands of Chinese and European expatriates stormed the streets to greet their liberators. Looking for Japanese men who could speak English, a young American, Lieutenant O’Brien, broke Ishizu out of the library. In subsequent weeks, Ishizu and O’Brien became good friends. The American regaled Ishizu with stories of his undergraduate life at Princeton—the first time Ishizu heard about something called the “Ivy League.”

Through luck and cunning, the thirty-four-year-old Ishizu had managed to avoid the worst of his country’s repressive fascist society and wartime violence. And even after Japan’s humiliating defeat, he parlayed his cooperation with the American forces into relative material comfort. Ishizu did not taste the war’s bitterness until March 15, 1946, when the Americans put him and his family on a cargo ship back to Japan. He left behind everything that could not fit in a backpack, including the modern equivalent of $27 million in cash. The Ishizus spent a week with hundreds of others on a rickety boat with shallow cots for beds and two primitive toilets. Sadly, the harsh life on the sea was not just a temporary hardship for Kensuke Ishizu and his family—this would be the new normal for the people of Japan. Ishizu’s days of easy luxury were over.

AT THE END OF MARCH 1946, KENSUKE ISHIZU RETURNED to his hometown of Okayama to find it completely burnt to the ground. American bombing campaigns leveled almost every major industrial area in Japan, leaving endless landscapes of rubble punctuated by the occasional husk of a concrete building. Ishizu’s seven-year sojourn to China had protected him from this apocalyptic nightmare, but, in 1946, he could find no more respite from the war’s great terror.

Postwar life was bleak. Between the aerial attacks on the mainland and overseas fighting, Japan lost around three million people—4 percent of its population. American bombs destroyed much of Japan’s working infrastructure, and, in 1946, the country suffered from chronic shortages of food and other supplies. National wealth plummeted back to 1935 levels. People spent the first postwar years trying to avoid starvation, typhus, and hypothermia. Japan was also bruised on a spiritual level. The failed promise of the Japanese empire disillusioned most citizens towards traditional institutions.

Meanwhile, an American army towered over the defeated population—the first foreign occupation in Japan’s long history. Indoctrinated by wartime propaganda, the Japanese populace braced for a ruthless campaign of vengeful pillaging. Before the Americans’ arrival, Nobel prize-winning author Kenzabur e assumed that Americans would “rape and kill and burn everybody with flamethrowers.” The Occupation troops, while nowhere near perfect, did not live up to the fears. They built up a pleasant rapport with the local population, most famously by handing out chewing gum and chocolate to children.

Nevertheless, the obvious power imbalance between Americans and Japanese generated feelings of bitterness. Healthy, well-fed, and gigantic American troops patrolled the streets, while starving, unkempt Japanese men scrounged the black markets for food. The Occupation forces made many of Japan’s most famous hotels, luxury estates, and department stores off-limits to locals.

In the first year after the war, Kensuke Ishizu sold off the family business, and after taking time to rethink his life, joined the kawa brothers in a new venture working for Renown, Japan’s largest undergarment maker. Based on his experiences selling clothes in Tianjin, Ishizu became the menswear designer for Renown’s high-end clothing showroom in saka.

The late 1940s was an odd time to manufacture expensive menswear. The vast majority of Japanese were getting rid of clothing rather than purchasing it. Food shortages in the big cities forced the urban population to travel to the countryside and trade their garments for vegetables—a shedding of layers likened to “living like a bamboo shoot.” In the late 1940s, Japanese spent forty times more on food than they did on clothing. Women continued to wear the baggy, high-waisted monpe farming pants they wore during wartime. Men lived in their tattered army uniforms with the medals plucked off. Pilots who had been in line to perform kamikaze missions when the war ended wandered around in brown flight suits.

Even though there were no more authoritarian mandates on dress, the postwar government still campaigned for frugality and moderation. Between the U.S. stopping all commercial imports of textiles and garments to Japan and a rationing system set up in 1947, few could buy or even make new clothing. The only fresh source of shirts and pants came from boxes of used garments collected in American charity drives, most of which ended up in the black markets.

In this fashion vacuum of garment shortages and rationing, the first group in Japan to adopt Western style were the Pan Pan Girls—streetwalking prostitutes who catered to American soldiers. As writer Ksuke Mabuchi described, “The Pan Pan Girls were the de facto fashion leaders of the immediate postwar.” Pan Pan Girls 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. In a topsy-turvy social reversal, the first to wear American-style clothing in postwar Japan were women—and prostitutes at that.

As the Occupation progressed, Japanese outside the demimonde took an interest in American culture as well. A thirty-three-page Japanese-English Conversation Manual came out within a month of the war’s end and sold four million copies. 5.7 million households listened to the popular English-language radio program “Come Come English.” Japanese youth tuned into Armed Forces Radio Service to hear jazz and American pop, and local language covers of standards like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” became hit songs. Newspapers syndicated the comic “Blondie,” giving Japanese readers a window into the material comforts of American middle-class suburban life.

Even the most Occupation-weary Japanese came to admire America’s sheer affluence. As historian John Dower writes, “In the years of acute hunger and scarcity, the material comfort of the Americans was simply staggering to behold.” Douglas MacArthur’s General Headquarters (GHQ) took over the upscale Ginza neighborhood as its base of operations, and with thousands of G.I.s and their wives out on the streets, the area became known as “Little America.” The U.S. military PX (“post exchange”) stocked imported goods and foodstuffs in quantities unimaginable to the starving Japanese public. Officers’ wives exited the PX each day with arms wrapped around giant hams and overflowing bags of rice while famished Japanese looked on in awe.

This disparity gave a veneer of prestige to anything American, whether physical goods or cultural practices. Following the American way of life looked like a golden ticket 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 clear business advantage in this new Japan where everyone hoped to imitate American lifestyles. Thanks to a lifelong obsession with Western culture and time spent living overseas, he understood the West and, more importantly, knew how to make and sell Western clothing.

In the course of working for Renown, Ishizu built up a network of the top sewing talent in saka. He stockpiled fabrics and zippers through a Harvard-educated soldier named Hamilton, who shopped for him at the PX. 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 quit Renown to start up his own business, Ishizu Shten (“Ishizu Store”). Although few in Japan could afford to buy new clothing, Ishizu was confident that the market would return. If someone was going to make great Western-style clothing in Japan, it was going to be him.

THE OCCUPATION DREW TO A CLOSE IN THE EARLY 1950s. Figurehead General Douglas MacArthur departed Japan in April 1951, with two hundred thousand cheering him as he made his way to the airport. The two former enemies signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in September, which returned sovereign status to Japan in April of 1952. And, with that, American troops gradually disappeared from the landscape.

Even before the treaty, Japan’s economic anxieties had begun to subside with the eruption of the Korean War in 1950. Proximity to the Korean Peninsula made Japan a key manufacturing base for the American military effort. Seventy-five percent of the country’s exports went to supplying the Korean conflict. This flooded the country with cash, striking the initial match to Japan’s long recovery. The Korean War boom also minted the postwar’s first millionaires, rejuvenating the market for luxury goods.

These boom times encouraged the urban middle classes to throw away wartime garments and revamp their wardrobes. By the early 1950s, no one in Tokyo would be caught dead wearing old monpe farming pants, and most young women abandoned the kimono for Western dresses. Yet there were still serious challenges to clothing the nation. The government swept in to rebuild the textile industry as part of its economic recovery plan, but focused all production on exports. Mills churned out bolts of cotton fabric in huge numbers, but almost nothing remained in the country. Protectionist regulations meanwhile blocked imports of foreign clothing.

Facing this scarcity of materials, few companies attempted to mass manufacture garments for sale in the Japanese market. The shortage of textiles forced many women to make “reborn clothing” (kseifuku), American-style items from old kimono fabric and discarded parachute nylon. The government’s lifting of restrictions on imported textiles in 1949 tempered this practice in the commercial market, but even throughout the 1950s, women continued to rely on neighborhood tailors, sisters, friends, or themselves to stitch together their wardrobes from whatever scraps they could find.

As the economy improved, white-collar workers reappeared at their local tailors to order new suits. Kensuke Ishizu pursued an alternate business model—ready-to-wear clothing. Tailoring was expensive and time-consuming (one suit cost a month’s salary), whereas Ishizu’s off-the-rack clothing could get a larger volume of garments to an eager public. As other companies struggled to decode the secrets of American and European style, Ishizu already had a few hits up his sleeve. He pumped out saddle shoes as well as cotton flannel shirts and indigo work pants under a faux American brand called Kentucky.

Ishizu Shten found its most profitable niche, however, in high-end sport coats for rich elites—targeting company owners flush with cash from the Korean War boom. Ishizu, along with the apparel industry as a whole, enjoyed the ripple effects of a growing economy as the nouveau riche celebrated their business success with new wardrobes. saka department store Hanky gave Ishizu Sh

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  • "Japan's exalted status in the fashion department seems like a given now--even non-sartorially inclined folks likely know Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons and Uniqlo or could recognize the trendy look of the Harajuku neighborhood. But perhaps less well-known is the fascinating decades-long dialogue between American and Japanese men's fashion that Marx skillfully explores here.... It's riveting to follow as men swap their austere student uniforms from Japan's imperialist days for chicer garb, no longer ashamed to care about style.—Entertainment Weekly
  • "You'd be wise to put Ametora at the top of your 2016 style reading list."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "A fascinating cultural history."—People
  • "Ametora by W. David Marx traces the craze for American fashion after World War II in Japan, but it quickly becomes larger than that. It's a fascinating window into how fashion, culture and history intersect; you end up learning about several things at once."—B.J. Novak, Wall Street Journal, one of the best books of the year
  • "Mr. Marx writes with the understanding of how rich his material is. The scenes and the style trends in his book are not only interesting but often absurd."—Wall Street Journal
  • "A fascinating, finely-observed, highly readable history of the wonderfully unlikely rescue of iconic 20th Century American menswear by the Japanese who loved it when we no longer did. I had of course been aware that this had happened, but had never expected to see it reconstructed by a cultural historian of W. David Marx's very evident skill."—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and The Peripheral
  • "W. David Marx is our most insightful observer of the pop culture traffic between Japan and the U.S.A. Focused on fashion, Ametora tells the fascinating, intricate story of how Japan--the most style-obsessed country on earth--has beaten America at its own game, in the process established itself as the world's leading nation for curation, simulation, and mutation."—Simon Reynolds, author of Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978-84
  • "This is what happens when a really smart person takes on a really interesting topic. Japanese culture and fashion come shining into view."—Grant McCracken, anthropologist and author of Culturematic and Chief Cultural Officer
  • "W. David Marx's Ametora answers the questions I had about the history and direction of menswear in Japan, and his research and analysis will undoubtedly be the authoritative word on the subject for years to come. This is a marvelously written, important, and necessary read for any student of global fashion today."—Bruce Boyer, author of True Style
  • "W. David Marx's Ametora is a careful, complex, wildly entertaining cultural history of the highest caliber. This book will obviously be of immediate and considerable appeal to Japanophiles, classic-haberdashery connoisseurs, and other assorted fops, but its true and enormous audience ought to be anyone interested in the great hidden mechanisms of international exchange. In an age overrun with hasty jeremiads about the proliferation of global monoculture, Marx has given us quite a lot to reconsider. Ametora is a real pleasure." —Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction

On Sale
Sep 26, 2023
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

W. David Marx

About the Author

W. David Marx is a writer on culture, fashion, and music. He is the author of Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change. A former editor of the Tokyo-New York street culture magazine Tokion, his work has appeared in Vox, Popeye,, and Lapham’s Quarterly. He lives in Tokyo. 

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