How Japanese Cool Came to America



Last week, I was more than a little surprised when i walked past the New York flagship store of Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO and saw a large window promoting their new line of Dragon Ball T-shirts. Yes, Japanese otaku culture's adoption into the American marketplace is hardly anything new: a short ten years ago you could walk into any Miller's Outpost (later Anchor Blue) and have your pick of a wide selection of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z tees.

But there was a caveat. Wearing one of these shirts put you in the same category as the Trekkies and Magic: The Gathering players of the world. Wearing one meant you were a self-professed geek of the anime variety.

So why would UNIQLO — purveyors of tasteful and affordably priced downtown cool — be pushing, of all things, Dragon Ball tees? Why now?

Coco Chanel once said, "Fashion is made to become unfashionable." The reverse also holds true.

Fashion trends are adopted one of two ways.

The first begins at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Trends are born on the elaborate runways of New York, Milan and Paris during fashion week, eventually trickling down through the various rungs of fashion merchandisers. In the end, they find their way into the bargain bins of mass-market retailers like Walmart before being discarded and forgotten.

The second draws inspiration from the bottom of the ladder, trickling up. One needn't look further than recent collections from Alexander Wang, John Varvatos, or Rag & Bone to see high couture interpretations of 70s punk, 90s grunge, railway boho, or military throwaways.

These interpretations have typically been associated with dynamic cultural shifts: it's no secret that military-inspired silhouettes discover renewed popularity whenever the United States finds itself in the midst of a ground war.

But the Internet has changed the way we communicate visually. User-generated websites like are giving kids from all corners of the globe a set of keys to the traditionally gilded penthouses of the fashion world. Users post pictures of their daily wears, which become international vessels for individualized self-expression.

This form of globalized communication correlates with the current tightening of fashion's creative cycle. The timeframe for designers to draw from different decades is condensed drastically. Take a look at popular fashion right now: 2010 finds itself experimenting with looks from the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, the early 2000s and everything in between. We're in a time funneling wormhole of creativity that no longer requires cultural shifts on a large scale, but merely subtle inspired tics.

Which brings us back to Dragon Ball. When Cartoon Network redubbed and featured Dragon Ball Z as part of its Toonami line-up in 1998 (calling it "The Greatest Action Cartoon Ever Made"), its overarching popularity paved the way for Japanese animation studios to reach a new market of U.S. fans. Granted, there were animes syndicated in the states beforehand: Voltron, Ronin Warriors, Sailor Moon and the list goes on.

But none were as commercially successful as Dragon Ball Z. Its success opened the floodgates for American-dubbed versions of Pokemon, Yugioh and Naruto, which all eventually went on to become multi-million dollar franchises in their own rights.

Their success is of course due to the obsessive purchasing power of their fans. Otaku culture hones in on that manic passion, and comes with naturally laid connotations of closet nerd- and geek-iness. Its practitioners view themselves as connoisseurs of distinctly defined cultural parameters concerning anime, manga and film. Their role is important, but only to them.

Our era's fondness for this sort of nerd culture plays into fashion's trickle-up social theory, and stems perhaps from broad categorical roles constructed back in high school. Otaku fit rather cleanly into this sort of logic. The funny thing is that in retrospect, most people fancy themselves a former nerd, even if it weren't the case—a little part of all of us rather enjoy playing the victim, at least in snapshots.

In terms of otaku culture's social impact on the West, we need look no further than Nickelodeon's anime-inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is soon to be released in theaters as a live-action blockbuster by 6th Sense director M. Night Shyamalan. While certain to be much better than the live-action Dragon Ball movie, I'd think it to be a truly defining watershed moment for anime's impact on the west. The Last Airbender seems slated to be the first anime-inspired franchise appropriately packaged for a westernized audience.

As for UNIQLO's shirts, perhaps they're merely an indicator of convergence; a result of trickle-up geek chic style sense, the current wormhole that fashion inhabits itself, and an acceptance of anime's imaginative landscape finally fixing itself within America's social narrative.

Whatever the case, all I know for certain is this: I want one.