Ninjas don't wear sweatshirts. Yoshiyuki Ogata, a Tokyo designer whose street fashion is stocked in upscale L.A. and London boutiques, was living in Seattle in the 1990s when he discovered a peculiar phenomenon. His friends overseas, Americans as well as other nationalities, were proud of their roots, while his Japanese mates tended to denigrate their own culture and idolize anything foreign. Ogata couldn't understand the impulse. Yes, he had traveled the world and had majored in international business. But Ogata had a black belt in karate. He loved the exquisite craftsmanship of Japan's artisans. So when he returned to Tokyo and started his own clothing line, Ogata took his fashion cues from the rich traditions of local design, not from some Parisian or New York City atelier. Today, instead of a hip-hop hoodie, Ogata wears a sleek hooded jacket that zips up to show only the eyes, a self-made creation inspired by what ninjas used to wear during their stealthy missions. "Because Japan was an isolated island for so long, there is so much that is unique about our culture," says Ogata, whose design for the Japanese contestant in the 2006 Miss Universe pageant won the best national costume award. "I want Japanese to be proud of our traditions, to understand that something Japanese can be just as fashionable as something from the West."
"Made in Japan" is getting a makeover. No longer are Japanese products simply equated with technological wizardry or muted expressions of international modernism. Instead, Japan's new exports draw inspiration from the country's abundant artistic heritage. Fashion designers are updating the kimono, while centuries-old sake distillers are proving that the rice-based spirit can be just as complex as a good Bordeaux. Movie directors are winning international awards for films that celebrate Japan's divine bond with nature, just as interior designers are fusing organic materials with industrial chic in a distinctively Japanese way. Instead of marketing to a global standard, one Japanese auto designer is even relying on a mythical serpent to provide the sinuous curves of its latest sports car. The results are edgy yet steeped in Japanese tradition. "You pick up an iPod, and it emanates California cool, just as Bang & Olufsen products feel very Scandinavian," says Tatsuya Matsui, an industrial designer who has created everything from robots to airplane interiors for a Japanese budget airline. "What you see coming out of Japan now are designs that will be loved because they have a feeling of Japanese-ness."
Old Is the New Cool
What a change from the Toyota sedans and Sony stereos that have long defined Japan Inc. Sleek as those products may be, there is something culturally anonymous about them. It's as if these brands along with a certain animated, mouthless cat that was introduced in 1974 were scrubbed clean of ethnic markings and sold instead as prototypes of a postnational world. The cultural distancing is understandable. Japan's wartime defeat equated nationalism with suffering. The occupying Americans discouraged indigenous martial arts like karate and kendo from Japanese schools, just as an Emperor whose name was used to justify a terrible war learned to focus on safer pursuits like marine biology. What aspiring Japanese fashion designer would want to, say, revive historical motifs when the rising sun still draws revulsion in Nanjing or Bataan?
For decades, Japan learned to love things foreign. By the 1980s, housewives chatted knowledgably about Cezanne or osso bucco. Novelist Haruki Murakami riffed on the cultural alienation many Japanese feel by filling his books with meditations on jazz and the Beatles. Top Japanese fashion designers decamped to Europe, while those back home emblazoned T shirts with phrases in broken English. Some chefs even abandoned traditional cuisine for the glories of beef stew or the potato croquette. "For my parents' generation, cool meant something was from the West," recalls fashion designer Ogata. "The subtext was that Japan wasn't cool."
Then came the long economic languishing of the 1990s, and the effective end of lifetime employment. Today, Japan still suffers a hangover from that difficult decade. The economy expanded by only 1% in the first quarter of this year, business confidence among top manufacturers hit a near five-year low in June, and the R word is being increasingly whispered. Compounding the nation's angst is the sense that it is being overtaken by ancient rival China. Yet one unexpected side benefit has been a flowering of artisanal culture, the antithesis of the monolithic companies that had come to symbolize "Made in Japan." "I hate to say it, but Hello Kitty was a sign of an immature country," says Kyoko Higa, a fashion designer whose kimono-inspired clothes have been shown on Beijing and Miami catwalks and who also served as a judge for the TV show America's Next Top Model. "Now, we've grown up and can express ourselves confidently."
The world is buying in. Take the success of the whimsically named Super Potato, an interior-design firm founded by Takashi Sugimoto. His designs have been commissioned in more than 20 countries, most notably in the high-end Grand Hyatt and Shangri-La hotel chains. Sugimoto was tired of the proliferation of stale Japanese icons overseas, the lackluster sushi bars or suburban karate studios. He decided, instead, to export a whole new aesthetic that plays with the collision of natural materials, such as bamboo and stone, with industrial matter such as scrap metal or junkyard finds. The result is a celebration of irregularity, a sharp contrast to a Western design sense that, even in its modernist forms, tends to hew to symmetry. "It's not just foreigners who didn't understand what it meant for something to be Japanese," says Sugimoto. "Many young Japanese think that a hamburger is a Japanese thing. We need to promote real Japanese culture at home and abroad."