How Japan copied American culture and made it better


If you are looking for some of America’s best bourbon, denim and burgers, go to Japan, where designers are re-engineering our culture in love detail.

A couple of years ago I found myself in a basement bar in Yoyogi, a central precinct of Tokyo, drinking cold Sapporo beers with big foamy heads while the salarymen next to me raised their glasses to a TV displaying a fuzzy, obviously bootlegged video of an old Bob Dylan concert. The name of the bar, My Back Pages, is the title of a Dylan song. Dylan is, in fact, the bar’s reason for being: Japanese fans come here to watch his concert videos, listen to his tapes and relive the 60’s in America, a time and place almost none of them witnessed firsthand. As I heard yet another version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” roaring over the speakers, with some drunk Japanese fans now singing along, I thought how strange this phenomenon was.

The American presence in Japan now extends far beyond the fast-food franchises, chain stores and pop-culture offerings that are ubiquitous the world over. A long-standing obsession with things American has led not just to a bigger and better market for blockbuster movies or Budweiser, but also to some very rarefield versions of American to be found in today’s Japan. It has also made the exchange of Americana a two-way street: Earlier this year, Osaka-based Suntory, a Japanese conglomerate best known for its whiskey holdings, announced that it was buying Beam Inc., thus acquiring the iconic American Bourbon brands Jim Beam and Marker’s Mark.

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