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The Report

Six Books To Read On Japanese Style

The titles that guide you through the origins of the ever-popular Japanese aesthetic

The history of Japanese style is entwined with many factors: the country’s heritage of hand-craftsmanship; its relationship with the US in the post-WWII years; the giddy consumerism of the economy boom in the 1980s; and the creation of the manga and anime industries. It’s a rich, dramatic story with many twists and turns, unpredictable offshoots and a long tradition of youth-led street style driving the overall agenda. In other words, it’s not what you might call simple. That’s why, as we launch The Japan Edit, our latest collection of Japanese exclusives, we at MR PORTER thought it would be a good idea to recommend some reading to do alongside your shopping. We have compiled a short list of titles, below, that should serve as a good starting point for anyone interested in Japanese style and aesthetics. Now, of course, as with any list, there are many omissions here – particularly because we have restricted ourselves (with one exception) to English-language books that are in print and widely available from European and American bookshops and online retailers. If you want to get some of the basics nailed, this is where to begin. 

01. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style

By Mr W David Marx

This celebrated investigation of the interplay between American and Japanese style in the 20th century is the definitive book on the topic, the result of years of research from the Tokyo-based American journalist Mr W David Marx. Starting with a vision of the so-called “Miyuki tribe” of besuited youngsters that gathered in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics, it charts the rise of various American-inspired sub-cultures and trends in Japanese fashion – from the Ivy look pioneered by VAN Jacket founder Mr Kensuke Ishizu, to the “bosozuku” bikers of the 1970s – before examining the influence of tastemakers such as Mr Hiroshi Fujiwara in selling Tokyo’s own Harajuku street style back to the US. Richly illustrated in black and white, it showcases a wealth of incredible archive material, charting the shopfronts, brands, magazines and personalities that have made the Japanese fashion industry what it is today.

02. Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

By Mr Leonard Koren

This book from the art director and founder of influential 1970s magazine WET might seem a little esoteric at first, but it does a good job of explaining the appeal and aesthetic of “wabi-sabi”, a Japanese term, oft bandied around in interiors magazines, that refers to a certain kind of rustic simplicity, a beauty in imperfection, irregularity and temporality. This is only tangentially related to clothing, of course. Wabi-sabi, which has its origins in the stylised tea ceremonies of Japan in the 16th century, has a philosophical aspect to it that derives from the country’s spiritual heritage of Zen Buddhism. But it nonetheless goes some way to explaining – particularly in the chapter entitled “The Material Qualities of Wabi-Sabi” – why it was Japanese designers who really pioneered the idea of “deconstruction” in fashion and why today many are still preoccupied with imitating or recreating the effects of long use or ageing in their meticulously “authentic” garments.

03. Take Ivy

By Messrs Teruyoshi Hayashida, Shosuke Ishizu, Toshiyuki Kurosu and Hajime Hasegawa

For a long time, this photo book, comprised largely of photographs taken on the campuses of the eight Ivy League American universities in the 1960s, was out of print, near impossible to get hold of and only available in Japanese. Now, thanks to its reissue by New York publisher Powerhouse Books, it can be ordered in a trice, and should be. You may question what relevance this slim volume – about the US, not Japan – has on the history of Japanese style, but that would be to underestimate the impact that Ivy style had on Japan in the 1960s, and how it continues to influence brands including Beams and United Arrows (particularly its decidedly Ivy League-inspired offshoot Camoshita) to this day.

04. Undercover

By Mr Jun Takahashi

When Mr Jun Takahashi showed his AW18 collection at Pitti Uomo last year, in a joint presentation with friend and frequent collaborator Mr Takahiro Miyashita, it was abundantly clear that his particular, deconstructive take on streetwear perfectly captures the spirit of the moment. Big brands are acknowledging this, too, with the likes of Valentino and Nike working with Mr Takahashi on rather incredible, limited-edition product collaborations. However, what recent converts to the Undercover cause may not be aware of is that Mr Takahashi has been ploughing this particular furrow since 1993, when he co-founded, with BAPE mastermind Nigo, the influential Harajuku store Nowhere. Though Rizzoli’s coffee-table tome on Undercover could be more exhaustive in the men’s department, it nonetheless offers a comprehensive survey of Mr Takahashi’s career as well as the ingenious ideas and obsessions that have made it so special. But, even more interestingly, it opens with a Q&A between Mr Takahashi and director Mr Tetsuya Nagato, in which they discuss the foundations of the brand and its special relationship to the futuristic optimism and pop culture explosion of Japan’s bubble economy in the late Showa era (1926-1989), which was, Mr Takahashi says, “a time when the culture was of a higher quality”.

05. Boro: Rags And Tatters From The Far North Of Japan

By Mr Kyoichi Tsuzuki

Photographer and editor Mr Kyoichi Tsuzuki is a prolific documenter of the oddities of contemporary Japanese society, with a string of fascinating titles to his name. In Tokyo Style (1993, released in English as Tokyo: A Certain Style) and Happy Victims (2008), he documented the cramped apartments and incredible clothing collections of fashion-obsessed Tokyoites, revealing the extremes of Japan’s giddily exhaustive consumer culture. He’s also done work on Japan’s defunct “Sex Museums” (see the wonderfully titled Sperm Palace from 2001). But, more interestingly, for the Japanese fashion enthusiast, he also published a book on boro, a textile tradition born out of necessity in the rural communities of the north of Japan, in which scraps of recycled (and often re-dyed) textiles would be patched and stitched together to create new garments. It’s a look that has long been referenced by the likes of KAPITAL and Junya Watanabe, but Mr Tsuzuki’s book takes us beyond such contemporary interpretations to the source material: intricate, Frankenstein-like garments from the past that are clearly the result of consummate skill and extreme desperation. Boro, like many of Mr Tsuzuki’s publications, is sadly not in print at the moment, but it’s more than worth seeking out.

06. The Beauty Of Everyday Things

By Mr Soetsu Yanagi

Yes, this is what you might term “an oldie, but a goodie” – that is, it’s a new, ultra affordable edition of translated writings by Mr Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of Japan’s “Folk Craft” movement in the early 20th century. This, like Mr Koren’s book on wabi-sabi, has little direct relation to fashion – though it does contain essays on various traditional textiles and techniques such as the Okinawan bamboo fabric Bashofu or Kurasi resist dyeing. But as an aesthetic manifesto for appreciation of the humble objects with which we surround ourselves in our day-to-day lives, explained through a variety of Japanese crafts and disciplines, it provides illuminating context for contemporary Japanese designers’ reverence of simplicity, honesty and utility in the garments they produce.