Imagine going into an espresso bar, as I did in Tokyo, ordering a single shot, and being told that it’s not on offer. The counter at No. 8 Bear Pond may feature the shiniest, spiffiest, newest La Marzocco, as well as a Rube Goldberg–esque water-filtration system, but the menu, which lists lattes and Americanos, makes no mention of espresso or cappuccino.
"My boss won’t let me make espressos," says the barista. "I need a year more, maybe two, before he’s ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I’ll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos."
Only after 18 years as a barista in New York did his boss, the cafe’s owner, feel qualified to return home to show off his coffee-making skills. Now, at Bear Pond’s main branch, 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.
Such obsessive—some might say insane—pursuit of perfection, in coffee and cuisine, clothes and comforts, isn’t unusual in Japan: In a tiny tapas place in Kyoto, while drinking perfectly poured cañas—small draft beers—and eating deep-fried croquetas de jamón, I reach for a napkin, which turns out to be just a thin sheet of waxy paper that doesn’t so much absorb oil as push it toward another, cleaner, part of my hand.
"I think these are Spanish napkins," Gonzalo, my Bilbao-born companion, says in disbelief. It’s almost too ridiculous to think that anyone would import such a shoddy implement from halfway around the world. But the owner of this restaurant tracked down these servietas, priced them out, shipped them in, and stacked them up in custom metal dispensers, all because, in one frustrating wipe, they re-create the experience of consuming tapas in a packed barroom in Spain. Whether or not the diners appreciate this is beside the point.
It used be that the Japanese offered idiosyncratic takes on foreign things. White bread was transformed into shokupan, a Platonic ideal of fluffiness, aerated and feather-light in a way that made Wonder Bread seem dense. Pasta was almost always spaghetti, perfectly cooked al dente, but typically doused with cream sauce and often served with spicy codfish roe. Foreign imports here took on a life of their own, becoming something completely different and utterly Japanese.
As a result of this quest, Japan has become the most culturally cosmopolitan country on Earth, a place where you can lunch at a bistro that serves 22 types of delicious and thoroughly Gallic terrines, shop for Ivy League–style menswear at a store that puts to shame the old-school shops of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spend the evening sipping rare single malts in a serene space that boasts a collection of 12,000 jazz, blues and soul albums. The best of everything can be found here, and is now often made here: American-style fashion, haute French cuisine, classic cocktails, modern luxury hotels. It might seem perverse for a traveler to Tokyo to skip sukiyaki in favor of Neapolitan pizza, but just wait until he tastes that crust.
For many years, before Japan opened itself to the world, the port of Kobe was one of the only places in the country where locals could view the styles, hear the music and taste the food of foreign cultures. It’s here, in a cavernous industrial building, where Hitoshi Tsujimoto rules his men’s fashion empire, the Real McCoy’s, specializing in better-than-perfect versions of classic American clothing, everything from James Dean–style red windbreakers to denim cut like it’s 1955. (He also owns seven Real McCoy’s stores and three NYLON stores in Japan.)
Tsujimoto’s obsession with American clothing began on a 40-day road trip across the U.S. in 1978, when he was 18. He brought home jeans, athletic jerseys and sweatshirts, and sold them at a swap meet in Osaka. The Japanese vintage industry was just beginning to boom; he soon opened a small used-clothing shop in Amerikamura, an area of Osaka that became a magnet for U.S. fashion and youth culture.
None of this would be particularly surprising—blue jeans, college sweatshirts and other American fashions were then popular the world over—if not for the fact that Tsujimoto and others like him would go on to design and construct versions of iconic American wardrobe staples that are far better than anything now, and probably ever, made in the U.S. These designers didn’t open their businesses to beat Americans; Tsujimoto started the label because he wanted to sell the best vintage clothing in the world, but the good old stuff was running out. His solution was to make his own flight jackets, chambray work shirts, loop-wheeled cotton sweatshirts and selvage blue jeans.
"The biggest innovation in clothing history was the invention of jeans," Tsujimoto says, standing in a stockroom filled with his denim. "It’s the garment that conquered the world." But with jeans, as with everything Tsujimoto makes, it’s not about merely imitating classic styles. "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.
These kinds of items might suggest that Tsujimoto aims for a young, casually dressed clientele, but his price point tells a different story: The jacket retails for about three grand, the sweatshirt $250. “My customers are guys age 30 to 50 who grew up obsessed with this kind of clothing,” he says. “They bought American stuff at thrift stores when they were younger. Now they’ve moved on to my stuff.”
That Tsujimoto dissects the details of great American clothing of the ’50s and then brings that style to life again in new and better ways indicates the extent to which the pure, unadulterated power of obsession drives brands like the Real McCoy’s. But it also signals something else: Tsujimoto is the poster child for a highly specific Japanese male subculture, and it’s the connection to this subculture that drives his customers to spring for $350 jeans in the midst of a two-decade recession.
Tsujimoto’s clothes have been featured in Japanese men’s magazines like “Lightning” and “Free & Easy,” which are categorically different from anything in the U.S. or Europe. The November 2011 issue of “Lightning” weighs in at a whopping 482 pages, while November’s “Free & Easy,” at a more modest 290 pages, devotes 42 of them to the World Navy Blazer Championship.
There’s a reason J.Crew men’s stores in New York City now sell these magazines even though they’re without English translations: These fashion bibles reveal just how much more educated and sophisticated Japanese consumers are than others in the world. These publications don’t just help readers understand the subculture they want to be a part of, but they also explain in fetishistic detail why garments like Tsujimoto’s are the ultimate expression of that identity.