Japan's high-detail coffee, booze, food, and fashion simulacra

Writing in the WSJ, Tom Downey describes what he perceives as a new shift in the way that Japanese food, coffee, cocktails and fashion relates to the outside world; according to Downey, the ideal now combines the much-vaunted Japanese attention to detail and precise copying with a kind of remaking that produces a "replica" Brooklyn coffee that's better than the best coffee in Brooklyn, a "replica" vintage pair of jeans that look more vintage than the actual item, and so on. It's Baudrilliard's simulacra, with more denim and espresso.

"It's not so difficult to make something that's 100 percent the same as the original," he says. He holds up a heavy, metal zipper, American-made new old stock. "I've got 500,000 of these. Enough for the next 40 years.

"But the key isn't just getting the details right—it's knowing when to change things," Tsujimoto continues. "My style has to be an improvement: With 1 percent more here, 2 percent less there, we create something that looks better. You have to change the fit because all these classic garments were designed with extra room to carry tools or weapons."

He takes a deerskin-lined flight jacket off the rack and points out the colorful American military design stitched onto the back. He passes me what appears to be a standard-issue '50s-style gray cotton sweatshirt until I actually touch the thing. The heft of the loop-wheeled cotton makes it the thickest, heaviest sweatshirt I've ever felt.

Made Better in Japan (via Kottke)

(Image: downsized crop from a photograph by Tung Walsh)



  1. I wonder if the daily mail cropped and downsized your wife’s picture from the GAP would that of been ok ?

    1. Two years ago, I was stalked and harassed on the Internet by someone living in another country.

      He found a picture of my family that I posted under a CC share-alike non-commercial attribution license. He grabbed it, posted the copy on a forum, and invited people to photoshop it to embarrass me, my kids, and my wife.

      He posted it without attribution, and without a license copy.

      Someone made me aware of this happening. The forum members had overwhelmingly voiced their opinion that he ought not be allowed to use the picture.

      I posted, reminding him to attribute and provide a copy of the license. Then I defended his right to use my photo under CC and under fair use! Many of the forum members, including two attorneys, verbally abused me personally for defending this guy (a notorious troll).

      Creative Commons is a legal contract, with consideration and performance. Fair Use is a legal doctrine protecting people’s rights. They exist even if the re-use or fair use are offensive or unpopular with the general public or the content owner.

      By showing up and defending the troll’s legal right to use of my property, under fair use and/or the CC license I provided it under, I neutered the troll’s goal — to get notoriety and attention by transgressing a societal norm. His cadre of wannabe-bad-boys dropped away from him, depriving him of his cheering squad.
      The answer to a troll, or a bad argument, isn’t special treatment or censorship (though I repeat myself) — it’s a better argument.

      1.  Oh right on!  Too bad so very few will listen to your thoughtful and compassionate response to internet bullying………because foaming-at-the-mouth reacting is……..more fun or something?

        Also:  responding to a troll with better argument makes me feel good (calm too) whereas reacting in kind or more so makes me feel a little bit sick.

        Thanx for the reminder!

  2. Has this ever not been the case? Japanese language is based on “kanji” characters taken from China, but improved and refined. Japanese culture is based on appropriation and adaptation. 

    1. The Japanese use essentially the same characters as the Chinese kanji/hanzi (though fewer as standard) but have added two syllabaries hiragana and katakana to adapt them to a radically different grammatical structure – I am massively simplifying the complications here. It is a very cumbersome system (though interestingly you need to activate more areas of the brain in reading and writing Japanese than any other language). The initial impulse in borrowing Chinese characters was the perceived superiority of Chinese culture – not the most rational of reasons. Personally I think it’s fucking neat.

      1. “Perceived superiority?” Japan didn’t have a writing system of its own back then and China was, for obvious reasons, Japan’s most important outside cultural influence. More coincidence than anything else; it’s not like people evaluated different scripts and said, “y’know, I think China is way superior, which is why we should use their script.”

        (And yes, the Japanese did adapt the Chinese script somewhat, e.g. by inventing their own characters (kokuji) and simplifying a huge number of them.

          1. Again, not sure the “initial impulse” statement holds. They just took the next best writing system they could find. Chinese is all that was there back then. It was more like a natural evolution since China was pretty much Japan’s only window to the world for a long, long time.

      2.  “(though interestingly you need to activate more areas of the brain in reading and writing Japanese than any other language)”


  3. Japanese also are adept at sucking the soul out of Western culture, and presenting  you with a meticulously detailed empty shell, so that it is consistent with their own culture.

    1. Americans also are adept at sucking the soul out of Western culture, and presenting  you with a meticulously detailed empty shell, so that it is consistent with their own culture.

    2. I think they have a sense of irony, too: viz chindogu. Western ideas of patentability, copyright and the originality of art make us too sensitive. Japan had a perfectly workable artistic and material culture before these ideas were injected from outside. Either it is irony or revenge.

  4. It’s kind of surreal. Products selling on manufactured nostalgia to people who have never seen what this nostalgia came from.  Manufacturers not only reaching into a past and then selling it as an ideal, but reaching into different cultures, themselves comprised of appropriations of lifestyles of others long dead.

    1. Manufacturers not only reaching into a past and then selling it as an ideal, but reaching into different cultures, themselves comprised of appropriations of lifestyles of others long dead.

      The Aristocrats!

      1.  That is a given in any field, be it creative/technical/whatever. I’m more worried about intent, which is where the original clothes and imitations differ. Imitations carry the intent of taking elements of a culture and rendering them independent of the culture itself – creating a statement which requires no reality behind it.

  5. It’s not so different from what a commercial graphic designer often goes through.

    Say some company tells you, “We need a billboard made. You can get our logo off our business card.” And you look at the thing and it’s a logo that was printed out, scanned back in, printed out again, and then badly printed at tiny size and you’re expected to use it ten feet tall. So you have to reverse-engineer it to make a version that’s resolution-independent (i.e. has no bumps even when blown up to ten feet tall), which entails guessing the original artist’s intent to know what to fix and what to keep the same. Was this corner meant to be slightly rounded off, or was it meant to be sharp? Was this edge meant to be slightly wiggly, or was it supposed to be straight? What shade of what color was this murky brownish-green intended to be? The goal is to produce art of much higher quality than what was on the business card, with little improvements wherever possible, and yet the final version has to resemble the tiny version when you see them at the same size.

    Basically, it’s “I need a better version of this poorly-reproduced thing, but it still has to look like the same thing, and you have to extrapolate the Platonic ideal of the design from the crappy art on my business card.”

    I imagine it’s no different in any creative domain: You see a mass-produced cupcake, you think “How did they make this? What did they want it to taste like, and how can I make a similar cupcake that achieves the same goal better than this factory-made compromised one?”

    And sometimes, after you do this sort of archaeological reconstruction of someone else’s design, you do eventually discover the original artist’s source material (the recipe before it was simplified for production, the photograph or sketches that were used as inspiration for the logo, etc.) and it’s always fascinating to see how your reconstruction compares to the previously-unseen source material. You wind up with a lot of convergent design — give two graphic designers the same logo, or two bakers the same cupcake, and they’ll come up with generally similar solutions to the problem of “Improve this without changing what it’s supposed to be,” but it’s the tiny details — the things that are only noticed by other designers/bakers/etc. — that are unique to each solution and give it that special polish lacking in the low-quality version. Two bakers might both improve the cupcake by using higher-quality flour, but maybe one’ll add a few milligrams of Ceylon cinnamon while the other uses a tiny quantity of almond extract.

    1. I guess the fundamental question is “How many enhancements can you make before the thing becomes a different thing?” How many genes can you improve in a Neanderthal before they become a Sapien? How much plastic can you implant in a beauty queen before she becomes a beauty mannequin? How much seasoning can you add to Taco Bell without accidentally creating food?

      I’ve got to ask Phil Dick about this. Is there something I can sprinkle on his corpse to make him more talkative, without changing him from a dead guy to a killer zombie?

      1. This is an old Greek philosophical problem, but slightly different. If I buy a table, for instance, and one by one I replace all its parts due to wear, is it still the same table? I forget the original example.

        1. It’s okay if you forgot all the parts of the original example… it’s still the same example. Or… IS IT? (dramatic gopher music)

          I think L. Frank Baum made a lot of kids worry about this distinction in some of the later “Oz” books (especially “Ozma of Oz”), as he specified that the Tin Woodsman was alive (he had been human before all his parts had been hacked off and replaced with tin parts) but Tik-Tok wasn’t alive (he was built as a robot.)  This was a key plot point because it meant that different types of magic could affect each of them.

        2.  That one shows up all over the place. I believe it has appeared in the guise of Odysseus’s ship, the old modern-day saw about “but it’s still my grandfather’s tent, right?”, and in Terry Pratchett re: dwarven axes. There’s almost certainly others.

  6. “Japanese chefs are now cooking almost every cuisine imaginable, combining fidelity to the original with locally sourced products that complement or replace imports. When they prepare foreign foods, they’re no longer asking themselves how they can make a dish more Japanese—or even more Italian, French or American. Instead they’ve moved on to a more profound and difficult challenge: how to make the whole dining experience better.” Apparently the writer has never seen an episode of Iron Chef, which went on the air in 1992.  Japanese chefs and diners being well informed about foreign cuisines is hardly a new development.  Yeesh!

  7. >”You have to change the fit because all these classic garments were designed with extra room to carry tools or weapons.”
    >implying no capacity to carry tools or weapons is an improvement

    Japan, this is why you fail.  Dunno about y’all, but it’s rare that I wear a garment that doesn’t carry both tools AND weapons.

    1. >> Dunno about y’all
      This is why you fail. Is the Japanese fashion industry meant to only cater for you?

    2.  The Japanese male have no issue walking down the street with a bag or backpack, and so have less need for carrying thing in their clothing.

  8. Hilarious. The line “he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure” reminded me strongly of the Onion headline “Variety Of Unsustainable Business Models Make Up Extremely Hip Neighborhood”. 

  9. I read this article back-to-back with that article on Alan Parsons and audiophiles that y’all linked to yesterday. The two seem much of a piece: people intent on reproducing something with a degree of meticulousness and fidelity that the originators never imagined or cared about.

    It’s like insisting on using double-precision floating point variables to do integer math. You can’t add fidelity that wasn’t there in the first place.

    1. But how else will we discover and exploit new and untapped areas of meaningless elitism?  It’s not like we can find value in ourselves in this world such that everyone else will agree on it.

  10. “he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure”

    in portland, many smug bowels begin to churn as they realize they are totally outgunned…

  11. In the late 1970s during what is now known as the “lawsuit era” of guitar making, Japanese manufacturers were making copycat Fender and Gibson replica guitars that many thought were better than the genuine article. Companies like Tokai and Ibanez made fantastic instruments that are sought after today, complete with their shameless ripoff headstock and logo designs. 
    Also the stuff that Fender Japan is making these days many people in the West love. Unfortunately in the US and Canada we’re restricted to the made in USA, Mexico, Korea, and China stuff, and the Japanese get to choose from a whole host of interesting stuff that we need to pay a premium for to get imported. 

  12. Something isn’t better because it takes six or fifteen times the amount of time to make it as the original. I’d venture to say that’s worse, actually. Give me my damn espresso.

    Oh, also. If you go to the site for one of the Japanese brands, The Real McCoy’s, you will see that they are charging approximately 60 dollars for three wooden hangers. Three wooden hangers.

  13. This may be only tangentially related, but I’m reminded of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where the market for authentic American antiques among the Japanese conquerors is flooded with very well-done knock-offs.

  14. often, items that carry a higher price tag are of higher quality.  this is true in the US and any market influenced from high fashion. thus the loop wheeler sweats, and deer skin leather, and heavy quality zippers.  they spend, by choice, more for clothes, per capita in japan.

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