I am not sure any single magazine has seen so many reincarnations in the last few years than Tokion. Started in 1996 by two Americans living in Japan — Lucas Badtke-Berkow and Adam Glickman — the bilingual magazine went from being an oversized, overgrown zine primarily covering the Japanese cultural explosion of the late ’90s to being a glossy “national geographic for the pop culture generation.”
The interpretation of the latter statement became a point of contention between the two founders once Adam moved to L.A. to publish the magazine in America: Lucas and the Japan team started moving more and more into “soft” themes like animals and travel, where Adam’s interest lay more in the burgeoning street culture and graffiti art scenes. Once Tokion U.S. trucked the whole operation to the Lower East Side in New York, the focus mismatch was so great as to cause formal dissolution. For a couple of issues in 2001, there were two Tokions with completely different content published on opposite sides of the world.
Then the Japan-based Tokion morphed into Paper Sky — a travel-culture magazine only published in Japan. Tokion in the U.S. became more and more engulfed in the excitement of post-’01 “Downtown New York” and thematically moved away from Japan. As an editor and writer there at the time, my job was to do the token Japan article every issue to keep a bit of the old spirit alive. But in general, we were having trouble finding a steady stream of new artists and creators coming out of Japan. From what we heard across the sea, the cultural wave of the late ’90s had reached its peak and new things still seemed to be radiating from the already famous. Tokion (U.S.) eventually got rid of the Japanese text to make more room for articles and look more proper to distributors. This was a difficult decision: Even though no one actually read the Japanese text, most of the readers liked seeing it on the page.
In 2003 things got confusing again as Tokion (U.S.) opened Tokion Japan in Japan using a lot of the original Tokion staff who did not fly over to Paper Sky. For the most part, the new magazine was just a direct translation of the American version with some inconspicuous local features. Then last year, the rights to Tokion Japan were sold to Infas Publishing, making it a sister publication to Studio Voice and Ryuukou Tsuushin. Then in a surprise move, Adam Glickman sold the American Tokion to another company, meaning that both Tokions are presently owned by separate parties who have little to nothing to do with the original founders. Quite a testament to the original brand image that other people would come in and want to continue on the legacy of what is basically a niche title.
As the American version dropped beloved design guru Deanne Cheuk‘s revolutionary layout and focused more and more on mainstream Western creators, the content no longer had much obvious appeal to Japanese readers. Now free from the chains of history, Infas has decided to scrap the original template for Tokion Japan and begin again. So debuting last Saturday: the first issue of the all new Tokion Japan.
Old Tokion purists will no doubt question the whole operation from the start: These are not the original “Tokion” people behind the magazine. But I am quite intrigued by the gust of fresh air. In fact, the new magazine seems to hark back to the old spirit behind the first issues — a group of youngsters bringing a distinctly individual editorial eye to the world around them. The new voice of Tokion is French Tokyo-resident Cyril Duval, who acts as both Fashion Director and mascot model. Having the staff on the cover of the magazine may strike some as being a bit narcissistic, but Lucas B-B could almost be credited with starting the tactic back with his ubiquitous appearances in the early issues.
Overall, the content seems to focus on high-fashion, artsy sides of consumer and cultural life — half-fashionista catalog, half-profiles, and half-fashion spreads (You got a problem with 3/2?). In fact, the new magazine lacks the straight interview style of past Tokions (although they include some translations of the latest Tokion U.S. content in a little booklet). Another fun feature is a close-up on luxury items from LV, Gucci, and all the other usual suspects — but Cyril has chosen the most extravagant and ridiculous goods from these brands’ collections and displayed each item individually upon the page in an ironic celebration of luxury’s gratuitous existence.
I find it interesting how non-informative the magazine is — unlike oppressive monthly art bible Studio Voice, the new Tokion goes down the Western media route and teaches you very little about how to be “in” yourself.
The cover story is on bag designer Asa. He is half-Japanese, raised in Woodstock, NY, but now lives in Tokyo. The next issue will apparently focus on OK Fred‘s Audrey and Yoshi, and in general, the magazine seems to be interested in exploring and exposing Tokyo’s “international scene” represented in the word “glocal” (global + local).
This intention strikes me as a big departure from the original magazine. Lucas-era Tokion was about two Americans in the middle of a Japanese underground explosion, raising flags of solidarity with Nigo and Cornelius in celebration of the small scene they found themselves embroiled in. Eventually, they helped export this culture to the rest of the world by being some of the first to translate it over to English and place the creators’ faces at every Tower Records from Berkeley to Providence. Lucas and Adam did not become heralds of their respective scene because they “got there first” as much as they got there at all. In the mid ’90s, foreigners living in Tokyo were mostly leftovers from the heady finance days of the ’80s, and very few had any interest in the local pop culture. Lucas and Adam were the godfathers of an entire generation who grew up respecting (non-anime) Japanese culture as internationally relevant, and now, almost anyone living in Tokyo for these cultural reasons lives in their wake.
The new Tokion is not so much about this messianic mission of exporting Japanese cool, but looking at the local culture arising from the contemporary mix between foreigners and Japanese. In some ways, the magazine could be seen as a report on “what happened in the 21st century” after the initial Tokion project succeeded. My only concern is whether “we foreign Tokyo residents” are actually so interesting or dynamic to warrant such coverage. Tokion Japan does not ignore Japanese creators to solely focus on the ex-pat fashion world, but the latter may end up providing a baseline view of the “glocal” culture. I tend to forget how much things have changed since the days when “foreigner in Japan” automatically meant “Gas Panic, Hiroo, English teaching,” and I should be authentically pleased with the character of foreigners here now: interested in mole-like submersion into the soil, trying to pick up Japanese as the “universal standard” of local communication. But I still get hung up on the “white skin privilege” — that we foreigners tend to make good magazine fodder not because of our skills but because of our visual association with the locus of pop cultural creation and decision-making in the West. (Hip hop has extended this privilege to those of African heritage, but any brown and yellow shades of skin originating from less rich countries still remain in “case by case” limbo.) Are Europeans and Americans being featured because we are actually interesting or because we resemble the interesting type who are forging into new directions overseas?
But readers are not dumb, and the success of Tokion Japan will eventually depend upon how interesting Tokyo inter-racial, inter-national “glocal” culture actually is. But, hey, if Yoshi and Audrey are the prototypes for a new Japan and a new Tokion, then count me in.
Update: This version of Tokion Japan folded, only to be resurrected as a different Tokion Japan at INFAS which seems to come out randomly if at all. Meanwhile in the U.S., Nylon Holdings bought the American Tokion license in early 2009 and then renamed it Factory in late 2010.