Since the beginning of youth consumer culture in the late 1960s, Japanese magazines have been the most responsible agent for guiding young, provincial teenagers towards the world’s most essential products and lifestyles. No other magazines on earth provide such richly-detailed information and skillfully-curated features, but we would make a mistake to assume that the editors of Popeye and their ilk have had their eyes on the same super-trendy cultural hotspots the whole time. It wasn’t until Tokyo’s rich kids got even richer in the Bubble Economy of the mid-1980s that the media industry started chasing sleek, black European fashion and gaudy designer labels. And it wasn’t until after Japanese youth fashion exceeded the rest of the world in sophistication and creativity in the mid-1990s that magazine editors started worrying more about what people were wearing on Omotesando than Fifth Avenue
So I find it quaint to go back and read Japanese consumer bibles from the late 1970s — a time when Japanese cognoscenti considered “Ivy League” the top of the pops and America the center of cool. Yesterday at Cow Books, I found the January 10th, 1979 issue of Popeye with a special feature on “Campus USA.” The editors went to the University of Texas, Colorado State University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz to bring back a consumer-friendly ethnology of American student life. I can’t remember the last time any Japanese person (or any human, for that matter) thought that kids at American universities were the pinnacle of good taste, but as the editors write in a caption: “Being stylish? Who cares. There are lots of things much more fun on campus.” (お洒落？そんなことどうでもいい。もっともっと楽しいことが、キャンパスにはたくさんあるのです。)
Okay, so maybe they definitely realized that the fashion habits of these college students went against everything they learned from decades of Western media research, but there was certainly an allure about young American kids partying down, watching football games, protesting against the criminalization of marijuana, playing crazy sports, attending costume parties, and living in cool apartments with foosball tables. (They do happily report that Lacoste alligators held a dominant position on the campus, creating some sort of practical shopping use for this otherwise abstract anthropological research.)
What I love about these old Popeye issues is that they are both great surveys of the topic at hand — American university life in the late ’70s — and also, great surveys of what Japanese editors thought was cool at the time of publication. (A slightly-rare, highly-valued early ’80s issue about the ’60s is going for ¥5040 at Cow Books) Japanese style was based mainly on American examples up until the Bubble, but moreover, the centrality of universities in the 1960s counterculture gave college campuses a relatively “far-out” image. (Yes, I’m talking about the Strawberry Statement.)
They used to make films where Harvard students were the heroes — like Love Story and The Paper Chase — and not just over-intelligent, stodgy assholes who get their comeuppance from bums (With Honors), janitors (Good Will Hunting), or hip hoppers who smoke “magical pot” made from burying the ashes of their dead friend in the soil of a marijuana plant (How High). These days, cool seems to be the exclusive right of semi-marginal sub-cultures. Even if Popeye or Relax return their akogare to America, it’s the graffiti artists or the surf/skate communities around Jack Johnson and Tommy Guerrero, not Princeton eating clubs.
In the last thirty years, the American elite has lost control of the media and can no longer make J. Press blazers the ultimate expression of good taste. Even if popular anti-intellectualism is responsible for the loss of underground cultural interest in American universities, I also blame the decline of university culture. Frat jocks really are as bad as we assume, and the last thing we need is magazines forcing designers and street artists to do “double-name” beer bongs and initiation paddles. But let’s not assume that we were always above this. At one point in time, Japanese teens and their international brethren were busy reading about striped tube socks, streaking, and professors who teach “The History of Rock’n’Roll” — somehow trying to figure out how to shape their consumer habits accordingly.