Whilst roaming the world-renowned Harajuku District in Tokyo back in 2009, I visually gorged myself on the fashion wonders lining the narrow streets. Back then, Gothic Lolitas were heavily represented, but now midcentury style is once again emerging, as rockabillies in leather jackets and poodle skirts hit the streets in full force.
As in other adoptive countries, rockabilly boasts a colorful history in Japan, where it was first introduced by U.S. military forces during the Occupation (1945-1952). Early rockabilly music—then known as “country”, or as Japanese youth initially called it, “western” or “cowboy” music—caught on after the Far East Radio Network (FEN), through its affiliation with military radio stations, began playing it on-air.
While Japanese teens loved the genre nearly as much as its other imported predecessor, jazz, they gradually found ways to make it culturally their own. According to music historian Mitsui Toru, the first such group was the Western Melodians, formed in 1947, soon followed by the Western Ramblers and other rising stars like Masaaki Hirao and his All-Star Wagon and Kihara Matsuko, one of the few female instrumentalists of the era.
But here’s the kicker—because early rockabilly (rokabiri) groups catered to the Western military, and the bands that followed remained deeply influenced by American hit songs, Japanese vocalists almost entirely sang all of their songs in English. Despite their general unfamiliarity with the language—and a 1961 Time magazine article that discouragingly caricatured their pronunciations—they were able to memorize lyrics with a skill that was both astonishing and accurate. It took several years, after the Occupiers left and Nihonjin (Japanese) fans made up the majority of audiences, that they began translating and writing songs in their native language.
The rockabilly bumu (boom) briefly hit its peak in 1958 and ’59, beginning with the Nichigeki Western Carnival, an annual music festival in Tokyo. Singer Sakamoto Kyū, best known for his international hit “Sukiyaki” and a contender for the title of “the Japanese Elvis,” also began his singing career at the first Western Carnival by covering Elvis Presley’s “G.I. Blues.” In fact, Kyū’s “swinging” version, backed by his former band, Danny Iida and Paradise King, has been accurately described as “run[ning] circles around the fairly staid arrangement on Elvis’s original” (Bourdaghs). How’s that for shaking it up, Japanese-style?
Similar to the black-and-white snapshots we’ve seen of blue-collared, scrappy Western rockabillies, archives of Japanese devotees reveal them as rivals in rebellious fashion. The motorcycles, slicked-back hair, and all that leather shocked the more staid observers of these rokabirizoku, or rockabilly gangs.
So what are local rockabillies up to today, you ask? In Japan overall, less than ten percent of the population participate in rockabilly culture, but bands like Blue Angel, Peppermint Jam, The Mackshow, and the Hillbilly Bops keep the beat going. The Tokyo Rockabilly Club regularly congregates in Yoyogi Park, others in the Harajuku District (perhaps some are conversions from the fashionistas I encountered on my 2009 holiday), and all around Japan, they revive bygone days. The men’s regents (ducktails) and pompadours, 1950s jackets, and combs in denim back pockets, along with the women’s poodle skirts, bobby socks, and colorful parasols, reflect a mixture of vintage, retro, and reproduction brand clothing.
This roving reporter had the opportunity to chat with a couple of fashionable women with their fingers on the pulse of the contemporary rockabilly scene. Kasumi Yoshino, owner of Tokyo-based Psycho Apparel and native Edokko, has been a fan since she was a teenager. Originally inspired by Bettie Page and the Horrorpops, she became drawn to the timelessness of rockabilly. Her eclectic personal style while working in a Harajuku shop at 15 gradually evolved into a modernized vintage-inspired look (think psychobilly pin-up). Kasumi’s psychobilly roots are still evident in her musical tastes; her favorite Japanese band is Spike, locally advertised as a “Rock ‘n Roll Psycho Monster” group, due to its mix of rockabilly and psychobilly sounds.
A trailblazer in Japan’s vintage-inspired merchandising, Kasumi opened her own shop five years ago and created her world-renowned clothing line, Psycho Apparel, three years later. On March 15th, she’ll be launching a new store featuring her original Japanese-made designs for the modern pin-up, merging creative talents with a local custom car shop, Bastards. Like many of her rockabilly sisters around the globe, she immerses herself in pin-up tattoo magazines and music events like the popular (and aptly-named) “Rockin’ Rollin,’” which boasts the added allure of those she charmingly refers to as “many fancy rockabilly ladies.”
Because classic rockabilly style always involves a blast to the past, vintage shop owner Samantha (Sammy) Ishimoto similarly makes clothing the focus of her own involvement in the scene southwest of Tokyo, in Osaka. As a teen, the film American Graffiti (1973) rocked her world quite literally. Shortly thereafter, she began shopping at local vintage boutiques and instinctively knew she’d found her calling.
Thirteen years of experience in vintage clothing led her to open her own successful Osaka shop, Samantha’s Vintage, in 2000. Her business perfectly complements her personal style, which includes wearing only true vintage clothing, attending weekly swing and lindy-hop dance lessons, and listening to rockabilly bands like her local favorite, the Tennessee Cats.
Both Kasumi and Sammy avow that their love for rockabilly goes deeper than the music itself; they cite the inclusiveness of the culture, noting that it transcends all barriers, including age, nationality, gender, and ethnicity. Kasumi loves the pin-up aspect which especially allows women to shine, while Sammy relates that “people [I meet in the scene] are always friendly and open-minded. It’s just fascinating, and it’s a culture I am proud to be a part of.”
Further inside info from Sammy provides an intriguing glimpse into the ‘undercover’ aspect of rockabillies in Japan. Oftentimes, nondescript men in typical business attire appear at music events and dance in their office clothes with unexpected energy and passion. Sammy thus bridges the oft-perceived gap between East and West by adding that prescribed conventionality sometimes involves “a double life [as] a hardcore rockabilly dude during the weekend”; as with our own Western balancing acts between rockabilly culture and the outside world, “it certainly happens in Japan” as well!
Psycho Apparel: http://psycho-apparel.com/
Samantha’s Vintage: http://samantha1950.blog136.fc2.com/
Bourdaghs, Michael K. Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. New York and Chichester: Colombia UP, 2012.
Furmanovsky, Michael. American Country Music in Japan: Lost Piece in the Popular Music History Puzzle. Popular Music and Society 31.3 (2008): 357-72.
All photos used with permission.