W. David Marx and I talk about his book Ametora, Japanese culture, and books in translation.
Craig: You’re listening to On Margins. I’m Craig Mod, and this is season two, episode three.
Today I’m talking with writer and scholar W. David Marx about his book. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. I’ve known David for 15 plus years, and it’s been amazing to watch him go from seriously low-key, but clearly erudite blogger on Japanese culture, to accomplished author with a killer book about the surprisingly complex and fascinating mechanics of post-war Japanese fashion.
This episode, like all On Margins episode is made possible by Special Projects Members, so if you’re into this, please consider joining special projects at craigmod.com/membership. It means a lot.
Ametora is out in multiple languages, but because David is a fluent Japanese speaker, today we focused on the English and Japanese additions. The writing process for both, how complex the translation process was or wasn’t, and how involved he was in getting it to market in Japan. I hope you enjoy the show.
Craig: Hello, David Marx-
Craig: How are you doing?
David: Good, it’s good to be in Kamakura, in your studio. Thank you for inviting me.
Craig: Welcome to the studio. This is exciting. This is the first live interview ever in the history of On Margins, which has a long and storied history of 12 episodes. What’s your background here? You grew up in the south in America.
Craig: You have the Southern American south-
David: More or less. I’m W. David Marx. I go by David. The W is just affectation, and differentiation, and since that, I think there’s, online, a guy who reviews books named David Marx, which is not really useful because I read a lot of books, and there’s a musician named David Marx and a photographer named David Marx, so I’m W. David Marx mostly for the differentiation. I was born in Oklahoma and lived there for about six years, which is bizarre because I always see in my bio in Japanese, it’s like “From Oklahoma.” And it’s like, “Not really.”
David: Then I was in Oxford, Mississippi for three years, which is part of the deep south, and then Pensacola, Florida for all the time up to college. And Pensacola is Florida as a technicality. We call it LA Lower Alabama. So if you go about 20 miles west, you’re in Alabama. And like all the TV stations are Mobile, Alabama stations and things. So it is Florida and it’s on the beach more or less. I mean, it’s on a bay, but it feels very, very Southern.
Craig: Okay, [crosstalk 00:02:39] So you’ve got this, this kind of deep Southern background. And then for whatever reason, you developed an interest in not America.
Craig: And what was the original connection to Japan? What prompted that?
David: Yeah, but I think the not America interest is a good way to say it because in high school I studied French and German and… So my parents are both more or less from the south, but we as a family were never like we’re southerners, just because we didn’t really connect with the deep south culture so much. So growing up there, just any kind of fantasy of living elsewhere, that could be New York, that could be Boston, that could be a different country. It was exciting. And so my parents from work started going to Japan in I think about 90 or 91, and the first time they went and they just came back kind of raving about it, but I didn’t have any touch points, but the second time they came back, they brought all these souvenirs, so they gave me this like giant [foreign language 00:03:42] Manga.
David: It was like a kid’s Manga.
David: And they gave me these Gundam Models, but the SDs, so they’re like the shrunken ones.
David: And they had like eight of them. They’re like, just give them to your friends because they were like $3 a piece or something. Right. And so I got really into those and just wanted to know more like, what is this? Because they were not just like robot shape. They were shaped like Knights and Samurai and rock stars, really strange. And then the Manga itself, I opened it up and it was like the All Japan Dodge ball tournament and…
Craig: Right, right.
David: It was just like, everything was very similar to what I knew as a kid from watching cartoons and TV, but like everything was a little bit off.
David: And so it felt like this really alien place. And I think another background that like we tend to often forget is if you were… I was, I want to say eight or nine when the Nintendo came out and that was huge. And everyone was into Super Mario and the sense that that was a Japanese piece of hardware and software, it was not lost on anybody. Everybody knew is Japanese. And I remember being in the playground and some girl being like my dad went to Japan and they already have Super Mario brothers 10 there.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
David: And there was a sense that Japan was like so far advanced, and if you read the… There was this Nintendo Power magazine and they would have all these articles about like, Dragon Quest just came out or whatever in Dragon Warrior, and here’s the huge line for it. You just got the sense of like Japan was way ahead in all of these things, even as a kid.
Craig: Well, I mean, I think for both of us growing up in America, in the eighties, kind of having our childhood sort of punctuated by all of this stuff that was happening in the eighties. Japan was just present. Nintendo was this mega cultural, super phenomenon, like Atari, it dwarfed all of that. Right. I mean, I had an Atari, I had a Nintendo and as soon as the Nintendo arrived, it was just like Atari’s dead.
Craig: Anything else is dead. You know? And my earliest memories of psychosis over Christmas were related to Nintendo games. It was like Mario, the new Mario, Mario two is coming out, Mario two is coming out, and I think it’s easy to under estimate the influence of a country just being present in your life. Like what other… Was France present in our lives like that?
Craig: Where we consuming French music when we were kids or what- no, not at all. And so I think for… I was never like an Anime maniac and I was never…
David: I wasn’t either.
Craig: A Manga maniac and I was never like Japan, but I think there was something by young seeded in both of us. I was like, oh, there is this place that is doing interesting things. And it’s kind of unknowable because it was like, how do you get there? Right. It’s like, it wasn’t like Europe. You could imagine it getting to Spain or England.
David: Yeah, because my High School had exchange programs with Germany, [crosstalk 00:06:36] with France. I was supposed to go to France in summer and it got canceled.
Craig: I did end up going to Germany after my senior year of high school. So Japan, I was like, I would like to go there. But I mean, the bar was low. I would go anywhere. And I was like… I think by that point I’d been out of the country once to England because my sister was studying there and we went there once. So sure, I’ll go to Japan, and when I was 17, the university in town had a program where they sent over like five or six people and they’re mostly college students, but I got in that program and I went for three weeks to a city that it’s like a village called Hagiwara that’s in Gifu prefecture, that is now part of the Gero Onsen.
Craig: There’s five of the city’s kind of became Gero Onsen, which is like very pretty mountain kind of place. It’s hot, mountain for some reason. It’s not cool mountain in the summer, but I was there in the August and it was really hot, but it was just incredible. It was such a great time and it’s a tiny place. And still it’s like, wow, like all the Gundam Models I can buy, and I went to Nagoya, I didn’t even go to Tokyo, but that was great, and the other thing is I’ve been studying German and French and started just dabbling and learning Japanese, and the sounds were so easy, the grammar was so easy comparatively and the feedback you get from Japanese people when you’re attempting to speak Japanese, it becomes kind of a cliche of wow you’re amazing for saying nothing, but when you’re 17 and you’re just like, oh, they have to learn your language. It’s very encouraging for someone to not be like, what are you saying?
Craig: Yeah. Well, I Think people underestimate it. Everyone’s always like Japanese is the hardest language ever in the world but it’s actually really easy, grammatically, if you got rid of Kanji…
David: And the honorifics, but you don’t even use those that much. You know.
Craig: It really would be one of the simplest.
David: Yeah. If you had been studying German [crosstalk 00:08:32] summer before senior year, I went to Japan for three weeks in the summer. After a year I went to Germany for three weeks. And number one, the first thing I noticed was like the first graders in the school we were in, in Germany, we went to their English class and their English was way better than our German.
Craig: Right, right, right. So immediately… What do you want stop, stop speaking German to me.
David: I was trying to speak so much German and it just… Like every sentence I said, there was an error in it. There’s no way not to make an error in a sentence. And that only encouraged me to, to study Japanese more because Japanese was so simplified. It’s like, there’s no cases in the mess up. There’s no articles to mess up. So that kind of got me to college. And then I was like, I’m going to study Japanese. And then my mom was like, you will absolutely hit second year and decide it’s too hard and fail out.
Craig: Why did she think that?
David: Because her friends kid had…
Craig: There’s this weird thing. And I mean, we’re both basically the same age, and I think like when I went to university and I did Japanese language. The first day of the class, it was this Japanese female instructor and she was maybe like in her fifties and she was just like, you are all going to fail. She’s like Japanese is the hardest language ever. And half of you are going to be gone in two weeks. I was just like, what? And we killed it. We just did. I got straight A’s in that class, I loved it. It was like, this is not that hard [foreign language 00:09:57] . It took like a weekend and you kind of had it, it wasn’t… Anyway, I think there’s this myth. There’s so many myths connected with Japan. It being in the future, the language being super difficult, yada, yada, yada. So your mom thought you weren’t going to hack it out.
David: And I was interested in film and I was interested in Japanese and the Japanese department was like, great. You know, let’s do it. And the film department was like, oh, you do not get to make film. Do you think you get to make film? You do not. Please get out of your head that we’re even going to talk to you about film. It was just very, very, I don’t know. It was very, very complicated, but like, they just, there was no way to go make films. So it’s like, okay, I’m going to do Japanese. And I did it. And it was this weird valley between the economic boom of the early nineties and the Anime boom of like 2004 or whatever.
David: And so when I got there, they had spent the entire nineties building up this like… Getting all sorts of contributions from Japanese companies building up the program.
David: So they had top top-notch Japanese learning, but also all these internships you could do over in Japan. And then they had no students. It was like Japanese, wasn’t the number one most popular freshman year language course in like the early 90’s and then 97 everyone’s like, I’m studying Chinese. You know, the future is not Japan. So because you know, at that point there… 95 is really where the economy had gone bad, but then you had the Sarin gas attacks and you had…
David: Earthquake, and it just seemed like Japan was on the outs. And so I was there, like, I’m not interested in the economy, I’m just interested in the culture. But then those people hadn’t really shown up yet either.
Craig: But also like this whole idea of optimizing for who’s going to be the biggest economy in 20 years just feels like what are you going to do? Are you going to form a bank that is only going to be worth like $4 trillion in Japan versus like $20 trillion in China? What is the goal of this optimization? It doesn’t make any sense.
David: I was just there because I listened to Japanese music and I wanted to know what the words meant. Optimize my future. So I was very lucky because there was… The best internship they had for students was this internship with Kodansha the publisher.
David: And it was for juniors and they’re like only juniors can get it, but then everyone had ceased learning Japanese. So they had no candidates. And as a freshman, I was like, oh Lark, I’ll just apply for it because what’s the worst that can happen. And they’re like, you’re going into Tokyo. So I got this thing as a freshmen and they told me they’re on the cusp of canceling this program. So do good. So I got there and we did, it was three months and I lived in Tokyo. I barely knew anyone.
David: And I worked at kodansha, which mean means I just went there to the office and they were like, you can go sit in that corner over there. Where was the office? The office is in Gutokagi, which is kind of near, it’s like three steps from Ikebukuro.
Craig: Okay, sure.
David: It’s like, that area is just like, it’s only the Kodansha office.
Craig: Right, right, right.
David: And I was in the Manga… So basically… So they put me in six different Manga for one week each. And then I was in Hot Dog Press, which was like the men’s fashion culture, lifestyle magazine. It was like the Popeye equivalent. And then I was in checkmate, which was like the fashion equivalent. And they would just stick me in a corner and be like, don’t make noise, and we’ll maybe take you to dinner because…
Craig: So what was the end? What was the job?
David: The job was just, I mean, it was just like a friendship to be like, come work at a Japanese company and observe…
Craig: What did you do? Like you go into the office and literally do nothing?
David: Read magazines. And then about 6:00 PM, they’d be like, okay, if we take you out to dinner, we can go wherever we want to and expense it to the company. So we’re going to take you to eat a raw horse meat because that’s what we want.
Craig: That was…I remember one of the first times a Japanese buddy from university took me out. Like the first year I got to Japan, he’s like, we’re going to go have Bashashi.
Craig: That was like, I think that’s like a thing they like to just freak newbies out with. It’s like, we’re going to the Izakaya to have raw horse Sashimi. You’re like, all right.
David: And I was like…
Craig: Okay, sure.
David: Tried it.
Craig: So this Kodansha experience, did any of these connections… Are you in contact with any of these people still?
David: No. So I’ll get to how it changed my life, which is cause otherwise… I mean, it was great in terms of learning Japanese. I do think doing an internship is way better than study abroad in the sense of you’re just forced to speak Japanese every day with Japanese people. And you’re not like buddying up with all these foreign students and going out and just speaking English. So I like that quite a bit. What happened was I was very into Japanese indie music at the time. And it’s because I had gotten into J-pop like really straight, the most banal poppy J-pop when I was in Japan. And I was like getting the three-inch CDs. And it was just like a kind of cool thing to me. And then when I got back to America, I was like, looking for those CDs.
David: And even in Boston, there was like nothing. He was like, no one was importing them. Or you go to the Japanese bookstore and they would be $40 or something just… I couldn’t afford as a college student. And so what I did notice as I went to Newbury Comics or like a hip music store, they were importing, Shonen Knife, like all of these cool Japanese Indie artists. And I wasn’t into super pop music. I was in Indie music, American Indie music. And so I was like, oh, I’ll just listen to Japanese Indie music. So I had gotten into Planet of the Apes again, cause I’d watched it as a kid, because it’s always on like TBS in the afternoons, and I was flipping through a Hot Dog Press one day and there was a t-shirt that had a face from Planet of the Apes on it.
David: And I was like, oh, I want that. That’s super cool. And I was like, where do I get that? I’ll the store. And the stores got nowhere. I was like, okay. So it closed at six. And I got there and it was like five 15 or something. And there’s just a guy outside. He was like, you can’t go in. I was like, what do you mean I can’t go in? And this closes at six he’s like, you can’t go in.
Craig: A Japanese guy or a random guy?
David: Young Guy, like he’s the bouncer of the store. And it’s like, what is this? And so I was determined the next day. I just… at 1:00 PM I will go and I will line up. So I get there and there’s a hundred person line and I’m waiting in line…
Craig: This is in like 98.
David: This is 98. And so waiting in line it’s like horrible August, heat.
Craig: Where in Boston is this?
David: This is Harajuku.
Craig: Oh this is Harajuku, sorry for some reason… I was like this is crazy that this is in Boston. [crosstalk 00:16:33] This is in Harajuku, great. [crosstalk 00:16:35]
David: It’s very hot.
Craig: That’s super gross.
David: Trying to get into this basement store with no sign that and there’s a 100 people outside, then you get to the front door and there was another 100 people inside, and then you get in the store and it took like two hours to get the t-shirt I wanted and to check… to buy it. And so the brand was A Bathing Ape, and nobody at that point in the U.S knew what this brand was, and decided to stumble upon it and bought it, got the shirt I wanted and then went back to the magazine, kind of like asked for more information and got into it. And then the more I learned about it, the more I was like, oh, this is a really cool brand, and so then when I got back to school, I started telling… I did two things, like on the personal side, I was like dying for any information about the brand. So I was spending all my time just… There was no Google that point.
Craig: So stay at that moment for a second. Like, what was so compelling about it for you?
David: I think what was compelling about it was… I may have skipped a whole big other part of this, which is as an American kid, especially from the south fashion is not something that’s in my vocabulary [crosstalk 00:17:46]
Craig: Where would you buy your clothes when you were a kid?
David: The GAP would be fancy and…
Craig: I didn’t even, actually, I didn’t know what the GAP was until I was in high school.
David: That’s unfair because my mom bought clothes for me, right? My mom bought 90% of my clothes for me and she would go to the Polo, Ralph Lauren outlet near our house.
Craig: Wow. That’s fancy.
David: So we had nice preppy clothing. And then I was into Indie bands. And so I would wear the polo pants with like a Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt on top of it, and Dr. Martens, that was my…
Craig: I love how Dr. Martens have come back again like a total full circle.
David: So in high school, I just wore Dr. Martens everyday and these Span t-shirts. And so I was trying to do my own thing, but I remember buying the Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt, I think it costs $25 and being like, did you know a t-shirt could cost $25…
Craig: That is pretty expensive.
David: I guess now that’s maybe like 40 or 50, but you know, at the time it seemed insane. And when I went to Japan, I realized everyone was super well dressed in Tokyo. And it was like, what happened, where did this come from? So everyone is wearing casual clothing that fits perfectly on their bodies. It wasn’t overly baggy, dark jeans, like dark denim was very in that summer, that hit in America.
Craig: Well because we were all coming out of the Jango fa-. like the big giant pants stuff, everyone looks like a clown in the mid nineties, the grunge, everything’s dirty. Nothing fits you, you have six layers of shirts, you’re la- yeah.
David: It was not a great look. And it just looked really sloppy. And everyone in Japan looked really well dressed. Even if they’re wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, they were wearing the right t-shirt, the right jeans, the right sneakers.
David: And so I started feeling pressure like, oh, I got to dress better. But…
Craig: When you were in Tokyo.
David: When I was in Tokyo and what I liked about Bathing Ape and those brands is that they were like, all you have to have is the right t-shirt, the right pair of jeans and sneakers and you’re fashionable. I can do that where, when you saw Comme Des Garcons or something like that, I don’t know where to start with this. I wouldn’t go to Comme Des Garcons in New York just to see what it was like, and it was all for artists, it’s like rich artists to wear. So I was not invited.
David: So anyway, so I felt a new pressure to dress up and these brands would give me the ingredients for that relatively easy. And the same time, I was into the music and I felt like it had an authentic connection to the music, which was the other, I think for Americans more or less like how you would get into a fashion at all, because if you were a punk, you wear punk fashion, so all that made sense. And then it just seemed like I had stumbled on something like a cult. And because there was three hours in line to buy t-shirts it was just insane. And then the other interesting thing is I had gone up.
Craig: And how much were the t-shirts then?
David: They were like 5,600 Yen or something but what I saw when I went up the street to Takeshita Dori is there was all these little like resellers, and they were reselling shirts from two years ago, for some like 30,000 or whatever right.
Craig: Sure, sure.
David: And so that whole thing too, it’s like, t-shirts were going up in value.
David: And so this is that obvious, right? Supreme Moral, everyone knows this stuff, but at the time it was like what is this phenomenon?
David: So I liked it on a personal level. Like I liked the music, I liked the clothes. And then on a sociological level was like, I found something very cool and I don’t know how to explain it. And so when I went back to school, I was kind of just telling professors about it. I just got back from Tokyo and this is what I saw, what is this thing going on? And by my junior year or so, one TA was like, that’s your thesis? It’s like, you can’t, you can’t do a thesis on t-shirts come on.
David: And he’s like, no, no, you should do that as your thesis. And then every time I pitched it to a professor, they’re like, that’s great. That’s a great thesis. So I was all… During the time, I was like, I can’t believe how supportive everybody is being. And the other interesting thing at the time was, and I just realized this because I reconnected with the other guy I did this with, when I was online, looking for information about Bathing ape, there was basically one person who I found had posted something on something about it, and he was into it because The Bathing Ape had done these records with a label called Mo' Wax. There was like a Cho Pop label in the U.S and the UK, and he was coming from that angle, I was coming in from the Japan angle and we both were like this brand is super cool, but there’s no info. What do we do in 1989? We should make a website about it.
David: So we made the unofficial Bathing Ape web page before Bathing Ape had a web page.
Craig: Right. They didn’t have one in Japanese even. They didn’t have nothing, no presence.
David: Brands didn’t have…
Craig: Well, even today, I mean like UNIQLO barely has a website. [crosstalk 00:22:35] Right, right, right, right, right. Right.
David: At this point nobody was like, we’re Polo, Ralph Lauren, we must have a website.
Craig: Right. Right.
David: So we made a website that was… It was unofficial. It wasn’t trying to be whatever but it’s just funny looking back now that we were like, yeah, we should make a website for this brand that doesn’t have one.
Craig: I mean, that’s an interesting memory because that’s what we did for everything, for my favorite Indie bands, when I was a kid, I was making websites for them unofficially and I was putting bootleg MP3s up, I’d go to their concerts record stuff and then put those MP3s up and then I remember years later, one of the bands contacted me and was like, hey, could you take that down? And I was like, oh, that’s so cool. I got contacted.
David: The point is the internet is still small enough where you don’t think the other side seeing it. It’s like, you’re kind of off..
Craig: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So did the Bathing people ever…
Craig: No, of course not.
David: What happened was in 1999, the New York Times did an article about super rare street fashion, they finally caught on.
Craig: In 99.
David: In 99, and they were like… Oh, they had gotten tipped off that the brand that people were going crazy about was Bathing, Ape.
David: Because all these art directors from New York were flying to the UK because there’s only one store in the UK that sold it and there was one store in the U.S that sold it in very small quantities. So you couldn’t get it. I mean, sorry, that’s the other part about this. It’s like, this is really pre globalization in the sense that you could only buy it in Tokyo and they were not interested in exporting.
Craig: At one shop, in person.
David: There’s one shop in London that was getting some, there’s one shop in New York and they were both friends with Nigo, the guy who ran the brand.
David: And in New York when I would go there all the time and they just wouldn’t have it. The store was called Recon. They would have it probably like three times a year. They would randomly get a box and…
Craig: Of t-shirts?
David: Of t-shirts and they would sell out. So the New York Times was writing this article and so they were looking for any information about Bathing Ape online, of course there’s not except for our website.
David: So the writer writes me and is like, Hey, can I interview you about Bathing Ape? It was like, of course you can and so then I give this interview as if I’m the PRS spokesperson for Bathing Ape.
Craig: What? Did they think you were officially connected with the brand?
David: No. I was just like, here’s how it works and so I’m quoted in this article and I was so proud and then the Recon, the store that sold it wrote me and they were like, who do you think you are? Like, you’re doing interviews on behalf of this brand that has nothing to do with you and so we had to kind of apologize to them but my thesis when I turned it in, that was the intro, it’s like this angry email.
David: You know, from the guy who actually sold it. So the other great part about that story is New York Times goes to the store and says, can we take a photo of the Bathing Ape shirt? And they’re like, absolutely not. And then they said, can we buy a Bathing Ape shirt? And they said, no, you can’t buy one. So, that just added to this idea that it was this weird cult that I had stumbled onto because people were getting angry at me for telling other people about it but I was just some dorky kid who shouldn’t have…
Craig: No, I think that’s completely the wrong… It’s not at all. I think they were the ones who dropped the ball there and if they wanted…
David: Well, they didn’t want to. The other thing is like I met Nigo in 1998 and I asked him please sell your clothing in America. And he was like, why? and someone explained to me later, America, people just see it as like mass… It’s just somewhere, you sell 10 thousands of things and they sell a 100 shirts. Why would they sell it in America? So I think there was still this idea that they weren’t interested in selling in America.
David: And so I wrote my thesis, I went back in 2000 and I did more research. I went to the store, I went to as many stores as I could in Tokyo, in Japan. Like I went to Nagoya and Kyoto and Osaka. I interviewed a bunch of people kind of around Nigo. I couldn’t… Nigo… I asked for an interview and he was just out of town or something. I don’t think he was against being interviewed.
David: But, and I talked to Tokyo on the magazine that was founded by two American guys in Japan and they had worked with Bathing Ape a lot and…
Craig: How were they connected with them? Just…
David: I think that they just were all kind of in the same scene and in…they started in 93 and Bathing Ape started in 93.
Craig: What was that scene? Just kind of like pop culture?
David: Yeah, just like street fashion, street art, slightly Indie underground 90 stuff, but they put Nigo on the cover in like 96 or something. It’s definitely the first time he’d probably been on a magazine cover.
David: So they were connected with Bathing Ape and I interviewed them and went home and wrote a thesis about kind of why the marketing works and the kind of sense that there had been a history of fashion in Japan and trying to figure that out but yeah, so I turned in my thesis in 2001 and my thesis gets something completely wrong, which is the end of it, I’m like Bathing Ape is the most underground thing ever and it will never sell out they would probably close the brand before they ever sold out.
Craig: That’s how you end it?
David: Yeah, and then in 2002, somebody sends me this link to BAPE Pepsi, like the word Bape and Pepsi together and I was like, this is a joke. I mean, they wouldn’t do a campaign with Pepsi. They had done this giant campaign with Pepsi and in hindsight, like they had really started pivoting towards being a mass market brand in Japan and then it went like… Insanely that direction and then finally, 2003 ish Parrell from The Neptunes met up with Nigo and he was really impressed and went back to America and basically helped bring Bathing Ape to America, and then by 2003, it became the hottest hip-hop brand in the world. And so, there was this very weird thing where I turned in thesis thinking it was one thing and then two years later it had become a completely different thing.
Craig: Right. Well that’s okay.
David: Yeah. So people were like, can I read your thesis? It’s describing very, very specific point in time and it’s not the whole story.
Craig: So, I mean that basically sets up why you would write the book. I mean, it’s like an extent, it’s just the fuller story of kind of all that going back a little further, going forward a little further.
David: Yeah, I think doing that research got me into is one of my main research tools was to go through magazines and what I wanted to see is why did Bathing Ape get big? And so if you go through magazines every month and see you kind of where it shows up.
Craig: Reverse engineering.
David: Yeah, you can have a look, oh, here’s where it gets the big feature.
David: For shows up.
Craig: Reverse engineering.
David: Yeah. You can have a look like oh, here’s where it gets the big feature and all that. So I was doing all that work and spend most of my research, I would just like get a stack of like every hot dog press from 1993 and go through every single one and photocopy every single article and then go read it back in the US. And as I was doing that, I realized those, Jeffrey’s magazines love to do something which is like the timeline of like, here’s 1981, here’s 1982. And what I noticed about it was that every year had its own like micro trend, like ‘80 was American Ivy, ‘81 was British Ivy, ‘82 was French Ivy or whatever it was, and I thought that was a very Japanese kind of phenomenon, but I realized there was kind of a deep history of changes and styles.
David: And I was fascinated to kind of find out more. And then I had spent, I think when I first got here, cause I can’t, sorry, then I came in 2003 to get a master’s degree in consumer behavior and marketing because the consumer behavior was trying to figure out, I wanted to figure out that kind of old mystery, which was why does everybody all like the same stuff at the same time.
David: And I’m not sure that at the end of the day that’s a consumer behavior question. That’s actually the weirdly how consumer behavior as a field is that I found that was very much about the individual, trying to figure out how the individual makes purchase decisions, which is more or less impossible to understand. And I was much more interested in why do a group of people all at the same time do the same thing and that’s more a sociology question.
Craig: I mean, it doesn’t, it feels like a media issue… well mentally, right?
David: And then in the case of Japan, yeah. It’s like a hundred percent tied to how do people consume information and that, and then how do they act upon it. And so my, whether it’s writing on a tour or the academic work I’ve done, or the work, the book I’m writing now is very much about information and media and you can’t take that piece out of any kind of fashion research you do. So, I was interested in more or less the history of Japanese fashion as a thing. And then because of my master’s thesis needed data, I switched over to looking at pop music cause you could use the pop charts to also look at popularity. It was like, like I just don’t, I don’t really like serving people. Like how do you feel about something and then doing data on it, cause everyone lies.
David: And there’s actually a good book about this, I think that’s called Everybody lies about just how no one ever tells you the truth about their own tastes. And so I really don’t like looking at like using people’s survey results in order to do research. So I was like, how can I look at output? Which is like their action. And I think music charts were better at saying if people, if they like this artist, they’re going to buy their record.
David: I don’t need them to tell me they like the artists. So I ended up doing something about music and then putting away the fashion stuff for a while and then around 2006 or seven or so, I got back into the fashion stuff actually cause I was looking at women’s fashion. Cause like this magazine can count as super duper popular. And I was just interested in like, why, where did this come from? So I got way back in the fashion magazines and trying to figure them out. And from there, did I, at that point actually worked with my current agent. I was trying to make a book just about the history of Japanese fashion. So I wrote a proposal and all that, it just kind of faded out for some reason. I don’t understand.
Craig: Yeah. So when, so I mean look, it feels like the seeds of Ametora were like college essentially. I mean, that’s kind of when this, the interest in sociological components of fashion and what was happening in trends and stuff here. And then when did you actually, when did the start of the thing that became the manuscript that was published, when did that really begin in earnest? Was that like 2010, 2011?
David: Yeah. So what, the very specific thing that happened was there is a book, a Japanese photo book I’ll Take Ivy.
David: And Take Ivy was made in 1965 and it was a Japanese film crew and a photographer went to the Ivy league campuses just to like photograph daily life. And I had seen it in Japan, if you ever went to one of the stores for one of these brands, they will always have it in their bookshelf. And so I was aware of that it was kind of a clothes item.
David: And then I saw an article about how copies of it where in the US were going for 300 bucks.
Craig: How many were produced, do you think? Like how many…
Craig: The print run?
David: I mean, I think the original print run in ‘65 was like 5,000 or something.
David: It was very expensive at the time. I mean ‘65? Nobody’s buying clothes or much of anything. It was still pretty poor.
David: And 2,500 of them went to the stores that sold, so there’s a brand called Van Jacket that kind of produced it and 2,500 of the copies went to Van Jacket retailers…
David: And 25 were sold on the open market and there’s not that many of them. It was reprinted in ‘73 and then ‘80 and so those copies are the ones you find. But anyway, so the people in the US were obsessed with it and then the Powerhouse books in Brooklyn decided to do an English edition.
David: And as that was being prepared, I was character writing about the original. And I went to this place called Brift H, which is a shoe shine bar.
Craig: Shoe shine. That was, that’s actually, I found that guy talk about web presence being important.
Craig: I was living around the corner from it, for years. I lived around the corner from that guy for probably like…
David: [foreign language 00:34:35].
Craig: Yeah. And like for like 10 years and I needed to get my shoes shined. I had one pair of shoes that could, shine shoes. And I literally searched for like [foreign language 00:34:45] or Montesano. And he just had really good SEO. I was like, oh, this place is like a five minute walk from my tiny little, I was living in this like little Tatami mat apartment. And I went over there and I was like, ‘what is, who is this guy?’ This is like the fanciest, dandiest like shoe shiner man ever. And that was probably 2007…
Craig: I think, like really early, like he had just kind of opened it.
David: It wasn’t that expensive at that point. It’s now pretty insane.
Craig: No… I wouldn’t, there’s no day in my life now that I’d ever imagine going to Brift H to get…to get my shoe shined.
David: But you know if you’ve been in there, you walk in and then you would get this flute of like apple juice, so like sparkling apple juice and then they would, it’s in front of you…
Craig: Yeah. Well it’s like this dark, it’s velvety, it looks like you’re in like a vampire…
David: You see the bar, it’s like a…
Craig: A vampire bar…
David: It’s like a cigar bar where they polish your shoes. So I was in there doing that for an article, and for CNN, cause I was working at CNN at the time…
David: And as I’m sitting there enjoying my flute of apple, sparkling apple juice, this guy walks in, I guess to get some boots polished, and he’s like, ‘look at this, I got a copy of Take Ivy and all four authors have signed it and it’s got a printing error, like how rare this is’. And I was like, ‘wow, I just wrote an article about that, it’s super cool’. And then he’s like, he was like, ‘oh, I used to work at Van Jacket’. I was like, that’s very cool. And then said, oh, I knew the founder’s son I’ll introduce you to him. And then he got on the phone and he’s like, blah, blah, blah and then so he was like, ‘you’re meeting him next week’.
David: And so I went to go meet the founder’s sons. So the founder’s Kensuke Ishizu and then the son is Shosuke Ishizu. So I went to the Ishizu office and got to meet just Shosuke Ishizu and asked him about making, Take Ivy and just like asked him about the old days and just realized, oh, the people that did this stuff are all alive, but they’re in their late seventies. And it’s really interesting story. And the US seems to be obsessed, or at least this very small men’s wear community is obsessed with American fashion but in Japan and the Japanese brands, but they don’t know any of the backstory about like, why were they doing any of this. They were just writing like, yeah, of course, people in 1965 went to America to shoot Ivy league campuses.
Craig: Sure, sure.
David: So I thought well what could be cool is like a book that was a backstory.
David: And so Take Ivy, the English edition ended up selling about 50,000 copies at the time. I think it’s more now, which is very good.
Craig: That’s crazy.
Craig: That’s crazy, wow.
David: And so when I saw that, it was like, oh, so I pitched, I actually pitched…
David: Powerhouse on, let me do a companion edition, that’s like taking Ivy, it’s the story of like how Take Ivy it got made. And they actually suggested, people were obsessed with Japanese denim too, why don’t you just do a whole book about the history of American fashion in Japan like the whole thing. And I thought, oh, I have the street wear stuff and I don’t know the jeans stuff actually that well, but I’ll figure it out. And then this part, oh yeah, I can do that, like the whole thing connects. And so they were like, great.
Craig: This is what? What year is this again?
David: This is now 2013.
Craig: Oh okay, yeah.
David: And I’m remembering a lot of this, like in real time here, cause I like carried a lot of it. But, so they say, I was like great, send me a contract. They’re like, just go ahead and write it. So I wrote it on spec, basically, the entire book, and.
Craig: That’s a good move.
David: I wrote it. I, and so, and then my agent at the time I pitched her maybe like six months before I talked to Powerhouse and said, hey, I’m going to do this book, she’s like so interesting, super niche, I don’t have time for this, but if you have a contract, I will read it for you.
David: So I wrote the whole book very quickly in about 12 months and I was just like, no, sorry, 16 months. And I had done a lot of pre reading on the Ivy stuff, so I knew that. And when I say reading, it’s like Japanese source material, right?
David: So there’s books about this stuff. At some point I realized that every chapter or every like, kind of genre, so it goes through Ivy league fashion, jeans, heavy duty, which is this kind of outdoor style Yankee fashion, which is like kind of rock and roll or stuff, preppy and designer brands, street wear, vintage, and then kind of it was chapter about now. And I realized there was kind of a character who actually you could follow that would tell the whole story because there’s actually usually one person who made it happen.
David: And so very early, I decided to write the book in a very narrative form, which is I’ll follow one person for a chapter and kind of tell the whole thing for that. And Lawrence Wright, I think is, I remember reading Going clear, which is the Lawrence Wright book about Scientology around then. And I was like, I want to run a book like this in the sense that it’s so compelling, it’s non-fiction, but you just tear through it because he’s just telling stories.
David: And I don’t know whether I had subconsciously or consciously got that idea from him, but most certainly it’s like that’s his technique, so I borrowed. And so I decided to tell the story through the people and that really helped because then I can just go read it on the interviews with them and figure out what they were thinking, interview them myself if they were alive and it was possible. So I spent about 14 to 16 months interviewing everybody, going to the national diet library all the time, pulling out all the old magazines, photocopying, going back home, reading all of them.
Craig: And what was like, how did you motivate yourself? Because this is, sounds like an insane amount of work and you don’t have a real contract, your agent is sort of, eh, I’m not interested in this one. What was the engineer? What was the fire, where was that fire coming from?
David: I mean, I were like jumping around, like, you’re not getting my whole history, but you know, I wrote a blog and I wrote a website for a with no advertising…
David: No money. And the idea was just like just get ideas out there.
David: And if there’s like stories that need to be told, just tell them.
Craig: So even like, okay, so then going back to like the blog. The blog is called Neojaponisme.
Craig: And like what was driving that? I mean, was it just to get these ideas out there and to spark conversations? What were you trying to, where you’re trying to connect with people, were you lonely? I mean…
David: It’s just the, I don’t know, it’s like, I don’t know if it’s zen mentality…
Craig: Right, right.
David: You make stuff, you say it, you get it to people who care.
Craig: I mean, there’s something punk rock about just being like, I’m just going to do crazy research on esoteric stuff and put it out there.
David: Yeah. And just cause it’s like, I think people are interested in this and I hope they read it and that’s great. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, now thinking back, it’s scary almost because if I think now, the biologic now, yeah, I probably wouldn’t have reached that point.
Craig: Like I was saying, I re-read it last weekend and I kind of read it in two days and just kind of lived in that world. And you really are struck by how this shouldn’t exist. This is a book that uses, this is so geeky and so weird and niche and like, who would want, who would think until it was done, until you read it, who would ever think that this is a story people would want out there or want to read, right? I mean, I understand why your agent was like, that sounds great, have fun. It’s like, you’ve got…
David: No, yeah, when I heard that, I was like, oh no, actually I can do it from a book, it was like okay…
Craig: Okay, I’ve already written 400,000 words on my blog that I haven’t gotten a penny for.
David: I don’t know. It’s funny thinking back now because it just made perfect sense that I would go write this book and I didn’t think twice.
Craig: But I do think the impulse, that impulse is critical. And I think that people who are like, oh, I’ve got to wait for the perfect moment to do this thing or I have to have all the ducks in a perfect row before I start. Like, you just felt this unsupressible impulse to do this thing. And you just had to write this book. And that’s like, I feel like that’s probably the best place from which to write a book. It’s like the only way to get through it.
David: The other thing is I would just see on Twitter some journalists be like, oh my God, why did I agree to write the book?
David: That I did, I’m so miserable. Don’t ever write books, people! And I was like…
Craig: What are you doing? yeah.
David: Because I would go to the library and I would pull something, I would find some new fact, it’d be like, when people read this, it’s going to blow their mind. So I was really exciting, I was really excited about what I was finding, about how the story was coming together. I had this, and every time I write anything, I just have this nagging devil on my shoulder being like, ‘you know everyone knows this, you know you’re the last person to find this out’.
Craig: Well, I was going to say like, was there not a Japanese equivalent of this book that you could have just like translated? Or it just doesn’t exist.
David: It doesn’t exist because each piece, there are books about.
David: And that helped a lot except for the vintage section, actually, there isn’t, there wasn’t one book. And in the stuff, like I wrote it in the sense of like my street wear stuff from college was like actually some of the most detailed stuff. But there are books and there are a lot of magazine articles and all that. And the other thing that was amazing is Men’s club, the men’s fashion magazine that I mostly referenced in the book, they would do every week these tight on like they put four of the guys in a room and just like talk about what’s up. And so you knew it like August 1966, this is exactly what they’re thinking.
David: Because you would hear, you would have that whole dialogue, which is, you just don’t have that in any other publication. It’s a very Japanese thing. Because I think it’s just to fill pages, but…
Craig: Sure, sure. [crosstalk 00:44:03] Well, yeah, having four people just talk is a good way to know…
David: To fill.
Craig: To fill up a magazine if you’re just…
David: But also to know what they were thinking. And so that was super helpful. And there was something I got where no one knew how to pronounce Nike, right. And they sort of were calling it Nikkei or whatever. And I think somebody told me that that’s not true, but it’s like, I got it right here in this like thing where people were like, I thought it was called Nikkei or someone called it Nikkei or whatever.
Craig: Or Nike.
David: So you, there wasn’t one book because no one, and this is what someone told me later why the book is popular with Japanese audiences, is nobody in Japan saw this as a one linear narrative. They saw it as like, well, that’s eight different things.
David: And what I was trying to show is like they’re all super connected and they can be characters literally, even if Ivy fashion is established as a competitor, jeans is established as a competitor, whatever is established, but things react against each other. And that, that is the same narrative, even if there are reactions against each other. And then the hard Euchre stuff, people also think is like a different vector, but I’m showing that like, it kind of echoes all of those other things, all these other things and is reacting against the infrastructure that was set by these brands in the seventies and eighties. So that, I think that was unique, which is that no one in Japan thought to put it all together into one book.
Craig: Also, I want to just bring up another thing about like this moment in time in your life when you’re writing this, because I think it’s very easy for people out there listening or whatever to be like, oh, David was single and he was just alone and he was just a freelancer and he had no job, and he was just able to do the, work on this book full-time and your trust fund paid for it or something. But like you have in actual, extremely full time, serious job at a big company. And you were doing that while you were writing this book and you have a family. Your two kids where born by that point. So it’s like, you have two kids, they were young, but you had a full-time job and you’d be commuting on the train writing chapters on your phone, right?
David: Well I would read on the train, but I would wake up every morning and write for at least an hour.
David: And then on the weekends, I would get like a good four hours probably in the morning before anybody was like, ‘where’s dad to take care of me’. So I, the one hour a day trick is this thing like you’ll hear on every self-help thing as it, and you’re like, whatever, you can’t do that, it totally works. If you do 16 months and you do one hour a day, you will write a book.
David: And so yeah, I mean, I was using my time wisely and that was my, the thing I was passionate about. I mean, I have some other hobbies, but it’s not like that was, that’s my hobby. And so I was busy, but I loved all the work on that and if I got to go home and read some articles and put some notes in the outline and the other thing too is I think with non-fiction, what, I work on outlines and so I’ll say, okay, here’s the chapter about this, it’s kind of four sections, okay, each section is this, these are the eight things need to be in there.
David: Then I have in the outline one for every paragraph, I have a entry. And then when I get a piece of information, I slide it into the, with the like reference. And then as I put it in the thing, I put it into the notes and it’s like trying this whole system. And what it also means that if I’m down to paragraph three in section four and I got to go, like, I get ready for the day, then I just come back to it. I know exactly where I am.
David: And so that, I think it was easy to write non-fiction that way. I don’t know if I would be able to write a fiction book where it’s just like I just do it in 30 minute increments.
Craig: Right, right.
David: So I think there’s something about non-fiction and the way, especially history too is linear. And I still write like that now, like in this very, very formal and you just…
Craig: And you use mainly Google docs?
Craig: You’re like a full Google docs writer?
Craig: That’s your tool?
David: Yeah. And it’s like everything’s linking to each other, and…
Craig: What do you mean everything’s linking to each other?
David: So just like, I have a doc that’s like the table of contents doc and I open it and it’s like every, that, all of those link to the chapter and then, the chapters, each chapter has a section, its own doc, and they all come together, and…
Craig: I see.
David: So that does make it easier if you’re someone who’s not a full-time, eight hour, day writer kind of person.
Craig: So you write this thing in sort of like a spurt of manic…
Craig: Sort of joy…
Craig: Or like your family job and this thing is somehow getting written. It gets finished, it’s all on Google docs, your agent isn’t repping you for it.
David: Well she said one thing, she said, “if you get a contract, I’ll look over it”.
Craig: Okay. So the Powerhouse…
David: So the Powerhouse is like, my understanding is like here’s what the cover will look like, here’s the title, and so…
Craig: That’s what they’re saying?
David: They were like, they’re that far and I’m agreeing with the contract. And they’re like . So I get the contract and then I’m like, I got the contract, I send it to my agent and she’s like, “please do not sign”.
Craig: Oh, no.
David: So she’s like, ‘what are you doing?’ And it’s like, I don’t know. And then she, I think realized at that point that ‘you wrote a book and I’m reading it, it’s way more like appealing than I thought it was going to be. So why don’t I just send it to some editors?’ And so she sent it to a bunch of editors and I got a lot of plain rejections, but that’s really interesting, good luck.
Craig: How many rejections did she get?
David: I think she probably sends it to 10 editors and I got nine rejections.
David: And then the one editor at Basic books, which is part of Perseus and now part of the Chef, they were building out a men’s fashion, like a smart men’s fashion collection in the sense that like Basic books is a publisher for academics to write books for the public. That’s like the point of it. So it’s like, if you look back, who’s written books for Basic books, it’s like, Einstein, it’s like really, really just the top academic people.
Craig: It’s quite old.
David: Yeah. I mean, I always like buy really interesting books and it’s like, oh, that’s a Basic book from the fifties or something, so…
Craig: So they were into it?
David: They were into it because they just published a book called True style by Bruce Boyer, who’s like a men’s wear historian. And they wanted to build out a men’s fashion, smart men’s fashion books thing. And so the editor was like, we want to do this. They sent my manuscript to two experts, like an actual fashion scholar to be like, is this legit? And then it came back, oh yeah, that’s good. So they signed it. And that editor then quit like weeks later, which I think is a common story in publishing. And an editorial assistant took it over and that person quit.
David: And then I think the intern was the person left to edit at the end. And so it didn’t go with Powerhouse and it went with this other publisher…
Craig: Basic books.
David: Yeah with Basic. And so, yeah, it came out then I just like did revisions over the year. Oh, the main thing is that actually did it and it was about 110,000 words.
David: And they were like, ‘it’s kind of a 70’. And I was like, ‘great, let’s compromise like 90’. They’re like, ‘oh, it’s going to be 70’. Okay. So let’s do plus 10% so that’s like 77. It’s got to be 70. And so I spent actually, I went on summer vacation and I didn’t have internet connection and I would have to tether from my phone. And so I would just like go and do offline Chromebook editing. And then like, once I was going to save it, I would like tether from my phone and then like save it…
Craig: Oh wow okay, that’s daring.
David: I did a whole week where I just, before they could tear it apart, I was like I will tear it apart. So I just removed every single time there was like two sentences and they said the same thing. I don’t think I have a quote from somebody and then I would say [crosstalk 00:51:59] like to summarize it. And so I just got rid of every, like piece of the fat and ended up turning in a 72,000 word thing or whatever.
Craig: What a great exercise to be forced to, why…
David: I cannot remember anything about, for me, it’s such, at the time you’re like, I can’t, this is the 40,000 words out of here [crosstalk 00:52:17].
Craig: What was their obsession with that word count? Why were they so…?
David: I don’t know, but they were right. I mean, it is a great, 70,000.
Craig: Should they have said 60?
David: No, I think, my joke at that point is they took out a ruler and they were like the book should be this thick, right. But they were, I think they were totally right, it was a 70,000 word book.
David: So I did all that and it seemed very painful, but it wasn’t.
David: At the end of it was like, that was good exercise. And what happened after that? So then it came out in December 2015 and everyone around me was like, why would you do this?
Craig: Is that thing still recording?
David: That’s what I’m making sure. I think it will be, but.
David: Yeah, so I, so everyone’s like, why would you do such a niche book?
Craig: It’s still going?
Craig: All right, good.
David: And the publicity department of Basic was incredible. And so they were getting it everywhere. So it was like New York times, Wall street journal, like all those people were reviewing it. And then it was in People magazine, which is just insane. Like, it must, it was a very slow month for books. I guess December is actually not a good time to release your book because you can’t get on any…
Craig: Well no one can buy it for Christmas and yeah.
David: Yeah. So anyway, so it was in people magazine. So the press was really good. The main thing is like, I wrote this book for a bunch of men’s fashion bloggers.
David: And I sent it, it got sent to all of them and it was just like silence. So no one was like…
Craig: Why do you think…
David: I don’t know.
Craig: What was going on?
David: So no one was like, I hate it, this is stupid. Also, no one was like, I like it or no one was like, this book exists. It was like literally, like we were going to pretend like this book never happened.
David: And so I, like I kind of like put this on as a great men’s wear blog, they like, they covered it. So like, there was definitely some people who were covering it, but there’s a lot of people who didn’t. And then, I, it was, it was very strange because at first it just, it did feel very quiet. The first six months the reviews were great, the press was very good, but like, it didn’t seem to be a ton of sales, but like kind of was very quiet. And then I think it had gotten, it’s people in the US oh, sorry, this is, this is really one of the first big things is people in Japan, started to notice the US press about it.
David: So we tried to sell the book really early to Japanese publishers and they were totally disinterested.
David: And then they saw the press in the US and suddenly they were like, then it was like, Ooh, now there’s a lot of bids. So it went to auction in Japan.
David: And DU books, Disc union books, got the rights.
David: And they, I mean, they are a super duper cool publisher. Like they’re in this small, but they own all the Disc unions and every Disc union has a book section.
David: And they’re really good about getting their books into style, they have like very, very good distribution network.
Craig: But also to back up for a second, like the Japanese edition, was that on your mind when you were writing it?
David: No, not at all.
Craig: Not at all right?
David: This is the other thing, it’s like, you were saying why did you write this book? It’s like, I’m glad I wasn’t thinking about it. But, I didn’t think at all that this book would ever come out in Japan…
David: Which makes no sense, I don’t …
Craig: Well, but it also complicates things, right? Because it’s like you’re quoting primary sources and like…
David: So what I was doing was quoting Japanese sources, doing my own English translation and not remembering where [crosstalk 00:55:48]. It was like, put this later because you’re going to need it. And so I signed the rights for the Japanese one and the translator comes on, [foreign language 00:55:58] . She had done Julian Cope’s Jack Box sampler. And she used to be a magazine editor. And she was like a great partner in this. And we met and I was like, I will help you with this. So I will prepare the text, which means I will go through the English, I will highlight all of the proper nouns and go ahead and throw it, like put in the Japanese dyno. It is, so you don’t have to look it up. And then every quote, I will try to find the original for you. So you’re not back translating my translation. And that took forever. And it took months for me to go through all my materials.
Craig: Okay so because, I mean, because the appendix in the back is ridiculous. Like reference works in the back of that book, it’s a massive list of like you did, this is what I mean by like, it feels like a miracle book in the sense of like, the amount of research, the amount of care, the amount of like you weren’t just like, oh, I’ll summarize this stuff and not give them credit or whatever, you were like, I’m going to give credit for every single millimeter of information I get from other sources. And to then, yeah, I have to go back because then if the original source reads it, which is highly unlikely…
David: Well it’s not even that. I didn’t think about that [crosstalk 00:57:08] I see, it is duty to be the original Japanese.
Craig: Because that’s, I’ve had articles that I’ve done where I’ve interviewed Japanese people, I’ve done my own translations, I haven’t like kept, I feel like kind of done in real time as I’m interviewing them, I’ll be taking notes or whatever and putting it in into English. And then those articles, I had one where like, they didn’t ask me and then they retranslated it. And like the whole, the only reasoning that a lot of these Japanese people agreed to talk to me was because they knew it was not going to be in Japanese. They were like, it’s only for the foreign market. Like, oh, I can say these things, I can be more open because I know that this isn’t going to come out and the people that I’m talking about are aren’t going to see this because they can’t read English or whatever. And so I’ve had to have people pull translations down that have been commissioned without my approval.
David: I cleared a lot of my quotes. When I interviewed people and I used the Japanese and then put in English, I went back to them and said, look, this is the Japanese, [crosstalk 00:58:03]
David: I went back to them and said, look, “This is the Japanese. It’s going to be used, is that okay?” And everyone was cool with it. But that was a big process. And again, I totally forgotten about it, but my 2016 was just spent prepping the Japanese, which I didn’t even translate, right? And so the only thing was Popeye licensed the book, where they would do a chapter… You can’t do a full chapter on one page, but we would summarize one chapter per page… Sorry, per issue for about 12 issues or whatever it was. And so the process was that we were going to take a whole year to translate it, which was actually quite nice. And so I would prep the text, it would go to the…
David: I would put the text in the sense of like, I would say, just do this for the Popeye column, and then we’d send it to the translator, he would send in the back, I would read through it and then we’d do one, and then, okay, next one. So we had time to do it, but it just stretched the whole thing out. And then when they finished the whole thing, I had to go sit down and I actually did a side-by-side read for the entire book. So I’d read the English paragraph, say, what am I saying? And I’d read the Japanese and say, is that the same sense?
David: And there was only a couple of errors I fixed, but the main thing was just that when I said something that was the smallest hint of negative, critical or something in English, the Japanese read like I was yelling at somebody, just because Japanese is such not as much of a critical language. And so I think I said, that this Junior [Wastanabi 00:59:29] obey is hired to desecrate a brand. And desecrate, I mean, in the English, maybe it doesn’t sound great, but it was kind of in the context means just to mess it up. But whatever the translation was was just like this stumble, like something that was so dark. And I was like, I’m not going that far.
David: And so the main thing I did was tone down the Japanese rather than fixed errors.
Craig: And so, I mean, this is you-
David: Oh yeah, Sorry. There’s one other thing, which is, I got some stuff wrong. In the sense of, I got facts wrong and the main one was, this brand band jacket, at the time it was seen that they were making blazers, and blazers weren’t a thing that was sold. And then the Olympic uniform in ‘64 was a red blazer and white pants, and then from there, blazers became really popular. And the designer , the guy from band jacket was on the Olympic uniform committee. So people would put two and two together to say, he must have come up with the red blazer, and actually there was a articles that were saying that and quoting people at the time saying he came up with it.
Craig: And so you went with that.
David: So I went with that because that was all the information we had. So this woman researcher came out, she’s a scholar at, I think I forget… Ochanomizu University or whatever, she talked to the original tailor, and was like, “No, that guy came up with it.” So she came up with a whole book that’s like, actually that’s all wrong. And it was very awkward and I was trying to figure it out at the time, and because I was like, I’m really surprised because why is somebody doing this Ivy league looking blazer without knowing it…
David: And what I didn’t know until I kind of saw it was that all the Olympics uniforms over time had always kind of looked after blazers in the sense of, British sporting jackets. So there was a tradition of that and I just… Anyway, I messed it up. So in the Japanese one I was able to fix it and kind of get the right information, but the English one still has the old story.
Craig: Right, right, right. But so you’ve spent years and years and thousands of hours of work on this thing, and even the Japanese edition, you’ve gone so above and beyond what any other author would ever do if their work is being published in Japanese, but I mean, mainly because most other authors couldn’t read it.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, for authors who are Japanese readers, I don’t know, I mean, maybe they would-
Craig: Yeah, but this feels… And so in the end, financially totally worth it, right? I mean, do you feel like-?
David: I mean is that it? So the Japanese comes out and it does really well-
Craig: Better than the English.
David: …No. Well, it’s just the numbers are numbers, but so we’re on the seventh printing of the Japanese which is a surprise. I mean, I certainly didn’t think it would get. There’s a Taiwanese edition in a traditional Chinese, there’s a Chinese edition, which is called Harajuku Cowboys. And they were like, “What do you think of that title?” I was like, “Is that my book? Did I write Harajuku Cowboys?” And they were like, “It’s definitely going to sell.” And they were right. Publishers are often right-
Craig: So what market in the end has been best selling?
David: Yeah. And then, sorry, the Korean edition just came out, and so there’s a five. And it’s interesting also because they’ve used… I think the Taiwanese edition used the Japanese edition, not just the English and all sorts of things. So the great irony is that the simplified Chinese version has sold the most copies, so it’s on its third printing. It’s just because the numbers are so big. And books are really cheap in China, so I think it sells for like $5 US or something, and people bought it. I mean, I think that street fashion is very big there, so they’re buying it, that’s why it’s called Harajuku cowboys. Because like denim and street wear is big, and the Ivy league stuff isn’t, and so they kind of tweaked it to be more about that, yeah.
Craig: That’s great though. But I mean, what a process for the whole thing. I mean, in the end, looking back, it was how many years? So 2013 is kind of when you started earnest writing it, 2013, 2014, comes out 2015, which was actually pretty quick considering the amount of work that you had to do to get this thing done. Comes out in end of 2015, late 2015, and then the Japanese rights were sold pretty quickly after that, six months after that. You spend a year-
David: And I think the Japanese out in 2017, so it did take a bit. And that mostly was because they slow walked it with the Popeye. Also the other thing is the Popeye serialization, I was so proud. [crosstalk 01:04:08]. I never saw anyone referenced that and so I never got a sense that anyone was reading it. So that worried me too, that the book came out that then you finally started getting response.
Craig: Right, and so then that’s 2017, late 2017.
Craig: So that’s, yeah-
David: And at that point, it’s like, I’m trying to write another book by that [crosstalk 01:04:30].
Craig: Right, right, right. And so now how do you see this kind of post publishing of [foreign language 01:04:36], in the US and in Japan, how much of your time is spent kind of responding to that? What percentage of these markets are reaching out to you to be like, “Hey, we want to talk to you, we want you to come on our show.” We want you to blah, blah, blah. What…?
David: Yeah, it’s like a long sellers of it… Do you say that in English? I mean, I know you say that in Japanese, so-
Craig: Long seller, yeah. Yeah.
David: …It’s spread by word of mouth. And the other thing is, as I said at the beginning, Americans kind of ignored it. I wrote the book thinking it’s about America and Japan, and therefore it’s for Americans and Japanese people, and the biggest audience at first seemed to be the UK. And it’s just, there’s more guys into fashion in the UK. So the UK responsible was really good, as in stores were all stocking it and you started to see that movement. I think that’s the other thing is that it wasn’t bookstores, because bookstores in the US, I would go to green apple books in San Francisco, which I love, and downstairs, they would have the spread of all the new books.
David: And they’re basic books have four or five titles there, and mine would not be there. So I couldn’t find my book anywhere other than Kinokuniya. And if you think about it, it’s like, where do you put it? Like some bookstores go to the fashion section, but most don’t. And even in the fashion section, it’s pretty buried because fashion books are generally art books. There’s not lot of a narrative of fashion type thing. So I never saw it on sale in the US which also always disappointed me.
Craig: I mean, what do you think the way looking back that it could have been reframed slightly to better fit the market? I mean, I don’t mean to… How to be coldly calculating about this?
David: I mean so the other thing to is the title. You were saying, would you have called it Ametora? Earlier you said, when you call it Ametora? And when I turned it in, I turned it in as Ametora, A Cultural History of American Fashion in Japan. And they were like, you can’t call it Ametora. No one knows what ametora is. And ametora by the way means, American traditional. It also means American truck, and so you search ametora in Japanese, there’s a game called American trucks simulator. So you get a lot of screen grabs of people driving a big truck through the middle of Idaho or whatever.
Craig: Oh, Idaho… It’s American. Oh American-
David: Because American truck simulator. And so what happened? So anyways, so they said, go think of another title. So I spent three months trying to think what the other title would be, and what I came up with was, everyone in the book was talking about trying to recreate the real thing, which is [foreign language 01:07:06]. And so I was like, okay, The Real Thing, that could be a good title for the book.
Craig: Right, that’s cool. History of Coca-Cola.
David: [crosstalk 01:07:14]. The Real Thing, History of Coca-Cola. And they came back to me and they’re like, “We’ve got the is a perfect title for you.” I was like, “Oh, great, what is it?” They’re like, “Ametora.”
David: Yeah. And it was, Ametora, How Japan Conquered American Fashion. And I was like, okay, first of all, you just published a book called, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, so I know why you’re using the word conquered, it’s because we’ve just used the word conquered. It’s like that bad writer thing where you’ve just used a word and you think, aha, sustainable. [crosstalk 01:07:46], I know it because it’s from two sentences ago. So they had how conquered… I was like, Japan didn’t conquer American style, it’s not like everyone’s wearing American fashion on the streets. It’s like a very niche group of people-
Craig: That would sort of indicate like everyone in America is wearing kimonos now. Right
David: It’s not true. It’s a little hyperbolic. So then I said in some sort of actual inspiration from somewhere, I said, okay, How Japan Saved American Style. And what I liked about it, it had two meanings is it, Japan saved it as in it’s preserved it, or it’s archived it, which is like, the story is that Japan archived the style died in the United States, and it saved it in terms of rescued. And so saved has both meetings as archived and rescued, what a great meaningful title. And they’re like, “Yeah, whatever. Okay.” So it became, Ametora, How Japan Saved American Style, which I was very comfortable with.
David: I don’t know. The other problem is I think Hachette was in the process of buying Perseus, and so like, who owned my stock? Where was the book stock? I mean, all of that was up in the air and so the other thing I was trying to do was get somebody to pay attention to Japanese airport bookstores. Because you go in, it’s all English books about Japan, can my book, be here, please? And I could not get anyone to figure that out. And then when Hachette plugged in, the Asia people were like, “You have a book about Japan, you’re in Japan. That’s awesome.” So they were really, really helpful, and I’ve had a great relationship with them.
David: So could be sold better? Yes. I don’t know. It could be, but I think it was a hard place to be an indie bookstores. But then really it was word of mouth that was like, some people read it and told people about it and from there it kind of spread. And then a lot of those people who are ignoring the book started admitting the book existed, but it took like two years or something. I think they were looking around saying-
Craig: Well, I mean, I don’t mean to keep hammering on the title, which is a good title once you know the book. Once you read the book, it’s like, oh, this makes sense, I understand it. And okay yeah, that’s a thing. But I do think it is a word that evokes nothing, right? Because I think this is kind of important, and Harajuku Cowboy, I could see why the book would have sold so well in China. I mean, aside from the fact there’s a lot of Chinese people and books are cheap, and yeah, but Harajuku Cowboy, immediately you’ve got this image of something.
Craig: Whereas if someone says, Hey, new book, Ametora. And you’re just like… There’s nothing to grab onto, it’s like an ice wall.
David: Let me reverse pitch you on that, which is, it’s I coined a word, and I am also proud of that, which is, I’ve seen the word Ametora used in the New York Times, with no reference to my book, just like-
Craig: So how did they use it?
David: Because now they’re using it to mean… And again, it’s like the semantics have changed, which is in Japanese, ametora means very specifically, American traditional style, as in mostly Ivy league clothing, or a fishermen sweater. Like just traditional things that American old money used to wear more or less. In the US and in English it now means American clothing that is made by Japanese brands, like reproduction clothing.
David: And so when the New York Times talks about brands like that, there’ll be like, they’re Ametora, and just a noun. There’s not like David Marx’s book, but just ametora, of course that noun. So I have coined a word, which is kind of cool, but to coin a word, you have to take that big risk, which has to be you’ve never heard of.
David: I am very sympathetic to the idea that if somebody had come up with a better title that sold more books, I would have been for it. was not wedded to Ametora because when they told me I couldn’t use [crosstalk 01:11:49].
Craig: You thought of something else. Yeah, yeah. No, but I just think it’s an interesting element of the lives of books. I mean, I think a title does have a massive impact on that immediate perception. Word of mouth is powerful because it overcomes all the friction, right? So if someone you trust is saying directly to you, this is interesting, go get it. It could be called poopy pants and people are all going to buy it, right? It doesn’t matter what it’s called.
Craig: But there’s this whole other massive, giant universe of people that you have one millisecond to grab their attention, and if you throw something at them that is a complete brick wall of meaning, they just bounce right off it. Right? And I think that that is something that people working on handbooks, putting stuff out in the world, that is kind of important to think about. It depends also depends on what your goals are, right, with the project-
David: Yeah, I think my goal, which is not a mature goal, but my goal was like very much, the cool people will read this book and that’s the audience. And the cool people sounds a little too snobby, but just people who are into this will be into this, and I wasn’t trying to convince. And that was, what’s so weird about being in People Magazine, because if you’re in People Magazine and it’s like a super duper gossipy thing, then sure people will be into it. You can put the most obscure thing in People Magazine, but people who read People Magazine are going to be like, “Oh, Ametora, How Japan Saved American Style. I’ve got to pick that up.” I mean, it will not connect. So-
Craig: But if it was called Blazer Samurais-
David: …But that’s the problem is like, I think 90% of the book titles that someone would have thought of would have been terrible. I wasn’t convinced with books or I don’t know about books, but with bands, that the Rolling Stones, you hear it once and you go, oh, stones that are rolling. Or, oh, that’s a reference to an old blues song. And the second time you hear it, you’re like, oh, the Rolling Stones, the band with Mick Jagger. You stopped thinking about the thing itself very quickly. And so-
Craig: Sure, but rolling and stones are both words that have meaning to people. I’m just kind of poking at it because I do think like whatever these are big questions, right? Like when you put a book like this out in the world, I think-
David: Well, now I’m thinking about a new book that’s supposed to have a bigger audience and be even bigger, and the thing that I am obsessed with is the books that lasts forever in the world, like Das Kapital, or like the Wealth of Nations or whatever, it’s like just big, bold, huge title that is the thing that is. And the trend or the convention of the moment for a book is that a clever title, like a very funny word play, and then the subtitle is like [crosstalk 01:14:39]-
Craig: Is like that’s the real thing. Yeah.
David: ….Yeah. And so I don’t know what the clever wordplay, and then the thing is for my book, because I’m trying to write a pretty substantial book that I hope will be kind of almost like a reference book. And in that, I would like a title that had some sort of weight to it and it isn’t like a silly little phrase. So I don’t know, yeah.
Craig: Well I will say, I think, Ametora works really well in Japanese. Like I think that is actually a great-
David: If you’re an American truck simulator.
Craig: …If you love tractor trailers and jeans. No, but it’s like so Japanese language ability contingent, because otherwise it’s like Ametora. Amatra. Like if you look at that, if you look at the word in English, you also don’t know how to say it. Anyway, I think the fact that you’ve been so successful with this thing, despite the fact that you were operating on these principles of no commercial interest, and don’t throw them a bone, anyone who might buy this book, that just shows how incredible the book is because people have overcome all these self-inflicted kind of like… I’m not going to be thinking about these things as I’m producing it. I’m just going to operate from this pure, I’m obsessed with this. And I wanted you to share this obsession. Which often doesn’t translate into much of accessibility.
David: No. And so what I mean, my-
Craig: But this is a very accessible book, but once you get into it.
David: …Yeah. I mean, look the ego questions now that pop out at us, or the dilemma is that when I wrote this book, everyone’s like why? And, good luck with that. The four people who read it are going to love it. And now it’s sold over 50,000 copies worldwide, and it’s like, okay, like maybe I knew what I was doing. And so then you go to the next book and it’s like, people were like, “Who’s going to read this?” And like, why would you do that?
David: And so you get the same questions, and it’s incredible to me how much people… Like people, my friends. I might sound a little bitter here, but I hope I never went to you and be like, why would you write a book about Craig? Why would you do that? You’re already doing it, but you’re going to back out now? Why don’t people have more faith in other people that you have a vision for a thing and you want to see it out. And especially when it’s like, I just turned in a manuscript, I ain’t going back. I don’t need to hear about, this was the wrong idea for a book.
David: So at this point, I do want feedback in the sense of like, I want to hear what a normal person thinks is a good as a bad, should it be more of this or should it be more of that, because I’m at the point with the new book where I would get edits from my editor, but I could change things. If it’s too dense, I can loosen it up or whatever. But at the same time, it’s like, I have to have faith in myself and self-confidence that, “Oh, I did this even more niche last time and it didn’t find an audience.” And so for me, the most important thing is just, I am the toughest reader of all my work and I edit the hell out of it, and if I get to a paragraph and I read it 10 times and a board with it, then something’s wrong with it.
David: It’s got to be readable to me 20 times. And if I’m bored with that paragraph, it means the reader is very likely to be bored with it.
Craig: Well also, I mean, I think about these things you’re writing about, you’ve spent decades building up this taste and it’s like, you just have to have faith in that taste. If other people don’t understand that immediately, they’ll get it.
David: That’s the thing is, and I do think we’re in a culture, especially of on the internet, and I write about… And just for people out there, the new book that I’m writing is about social status and about how the individual desire for social status leads to behavior that in a group, ends up forming what we know is culture. And that is very-
Craig: That’s the title of the book.
David: ….The whole thing I just said. And thEN the subtitle is another paragraph. But basically when I look at is like once you know this one principle, then it leads to another principle. So once you understand status and status pyramids, you can understand status groups. Once you understand status groups, you can understand how conventions form in a group like styles and [crosstalk 01:19:03]-
Craig: Very similar to this Ametora structure of building and build… Like this nested-
David: …Yeah. And then once you understand conventions, you got to understand how some people signal by showing that they’re following a convention, and once you understand that you understand taste, then once you understand that you understand how people create identities. So it’s the same kind of thing, and with this book, which is about taste, first of all. So then I’m always questioning like my own taste, but there is always a tension between things that are immediately understandable to everybody, and things that take time. And it’s just like the human condition is that for most people, they are conditioned to understand the conventions that they have around them at that moment, and everything else, they reject. And over time they start to kind of bend a little bit and they start loosening up.
David: And so in the ’80s, a ban like the Pixies could do a certain kind of song that was slow and they went really fast in the chorus, or it’s just bass in the verse and then it got really hard in the chorus. And most people would be like, that is weird and I’m not listening to it. And then by the time those ideas are kind of floating around and then Nirvana does it and it makes it way more palatable then it becomes a very, very popular kind of thing, but still maybe with a small group. And then by the late ’90s, like country music is doing the same thing. And so once you understand that process and then you place yourself inside of it and you’re like, “Okay, do I want to make the thing that is easily and instantly understandable? Or do I make something that maybe at first is going to take some time, and then people will finally get it?”
David: And I think people’s personality and their goals in life put them on different things, because there’s a lot of people who’re like, I want to sell a ton of stuff and I want to be an immediate winner and be a huge winner, and I want to have fans that adore the thing I do immediately. And for me, it’s like, I grew up where, on MTV, they’d be like, this video is a cult classic, and I was like, I want a cult classic. I would never have had the goal of like, I want to do this huge thing that people immediately get. And so I am very proud that Ametora became a kind of cult book.
David: But we live in an era of both that there is no such thing as a cult thing there’s only something has fewer numbers of people following them on social media platforms, or fewer views. And it used to be that a weird movie that no one saw had like a cache that was unrelated to its view counts. But now everything’s view counts.
Craig: Well, because it’s all visible.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative), like quantifiable, visible, comparable, instantly.
Craig: You’d go into Magic Video and you’d see Eraserhead on the shelf in the weird indie section, and you wouldn’t know that only a hundred people have watched it.
David: But you knew the image of a racer was like this iconic movie and so you imagined everyone has seen this except for me.
Craig: Right, right. Hundreds of thousands of people.
David: And now it’s like on a YouTube video, you can see like, oh no one has seen this video. It can’t be-
Craig: It can be good.
David: … It can’t be. Where this one, this [crosstalk 01:22:07]-
Craig: 40 million.
David: So I think we live in a world in which the logic of making slightly, whether you call it niche or cults or whatever things, is on one hand, less attractive or less understandable, but at the same time it’s like the thousand true fans theory stuff. If you do it the right way, obviously it can be very lucrative. So I don’t know. So I sometimes these questions to me, don’t… Maybe it’s because I’m like the tail end of gen X, or I just grew up in the indie culture or whatever, but I have a hard time sometimes understanding like, why are you asking me why I would do this? I do this because you got to do it, like I don’t have a choice, I’ve got to write the book that I’ve going to write.
Craig: Right. Right. Well, I mean, in a way there’s a theological component to it. It’s like, that’s why we’re alive, you have this consciousness, and it’s like, why would I waste this on reprocessing something that’s already in process a million times? Or putting something out there that’s just derivative of what exists and is popular because I know it’ll be able to latch onto that and also be kind of popular. It’s like, let’s go a little deeper, let’s explore a little more.
David: [crosstalk 01:23:15] do Ametora a lot dumber. I mean, I think somebody would have written the book anyway and it would have been a lot worse.
Craig: Do you think so?
David: I think they would have been something similar to it, maybe it would’ve been like a photo book or something, but I think it would just been a lot more bland. And because again, I write the books I want to read, then I push myself, like it’s got to be as detail rich as possible. So the other funny thing is just like I was talking to a relatively famous author, a famous author in my world, and I was like, from my next book after Ametora I’m going to do this book about culture which I wrote. And he’s like, “You know it’s good sometimes to write a book for yourself, or for like a niche audience.” But he gave me again the like, no-one’s going to read this.
David: And then I sold it to Viking, so it’s like, this process it’s so funny how pessimistic everybody is. And maybe it’s like encouragingly pessimistic where it’s like, “David, you could do so much better, why don’t you write like this big thing?” But it always comes… Like, I’m the person making the decisions and so everyone’s always doubting my decisions. It’s never like pleasant.
Craig: But it is good. I think most people aren’t necessarily gifted with good taste or a perfect compass, right? And so sometimes it is good to have that pushback. Even like with this next book you have coming out, you said that there was a moment where there’s kind of this total revision of what it was about, and that was probably helpful to have someone push back against it. So I think there are two ways to respond to people going like, “Hey, you’re doing a weird thing. Do you really want to be doing that?” It’s like, you have this third person perspective of like being self-critical, and like cultivating that is really important.
Craig: And it’s like temperature check, right? It’s like, do I really want to be doing this? Is this the right shape of this project? Yada, yada, yada. I think that is important because otherwise you get Chinese democracy, right, where it’s like, absolutely, you should probably give up on this, and say 15 years later, you release a crappy album, right? Then that’s not good.
David: So talk about the new book yeah, I was trying to write it as, what is the internal hidden logic of culture and how it works, and it was going to be a book about culture and I just could not get anybody to think about it because the word culture is just too confusing. I just ripped it apart and tried to say, okay, I’m going to make everything just a one little blog post. What if it’s just 40 blog posts? And as I was writing it, I realized-
Craig: Going back to your roots.
David: …Yeah, I mean, it was. I love blogging, what if I just did it as blogs? And so I was rewriting the whole thing as blogs and the first part was like, defining culture, and it was so boring. It was just so pedantic, and then I got to a whole section on status and it was like, I did this, this is good. And I tried to figure out, okay, how can I lead with that? I’m going to redo the book, and ended up putting all of the same continent in, more or less, but just finding a framing, and everyone was more interested in that.
David: And so yeah, I think that I’m fine to get negative feedback, and I’m fine to get people saying, have you thought about this? But I’ve got to then take that and say, is there something? If it hits something that already feeling, I’m much more likely to do something with it. I think if the general critique is or a… As a sense of like, I don’t think the thing you’re doing should exist. And it’s like, that’s not really useful critique to me because I’ve already made the decision. I made the decision five years ago that I would like this thing to exist, so it doesn’t help me to tell me, this thing shouldn’t exist.
David: But also if you told me, write a more popular book, I don’t know how to do that. This is me trying to write the more popular book, right? And.
David: Does the world need more books? When I went to, I think it’s Blackwell’s in Oxford once…
Craig: Let me prove you wrong.
David: That’s correct. I went to Blackwells in Oxford, which is, Oxford UK a couple of years ago. And it’s this giant, one of the world’s biggest bookstores. There’s so many books.
David: Why would I add to this? Like there’s so many more and that pressure is on me though, to say, if I’m going to do something, it’s got to be something that doesn’t exist already. And in reading for the book I’m writing now, which I’ve read like easily two, I might argue this time it’s over 200 pieces now. And it will be more by the time I finish. But you know, reading all those books, there’s a lot of people who’ve written the same book over and over again. And it was very important to me that I only want to do this book if it is something new.
Craig: Well I think that’s just being respectful of the audience, right? Because why would you put… Yet I find the similar thing where it’s my impulse to read as much as I can about the stuff that I’m also writing about is to find counter patterns, right? So anti-patterns or whatever. There’s a lot of people who’ve done a bad job. And once you start to tease apart why these things are failing, there’s a failure of tone, a failure of perspective. That reframes how you’re going to attack whatever the problem is around the book, whatever the topic is.
Craig: And I think that if you aren’t doing that as a writer, then you’re sort of disrespecting everyone involved in the process, right. The people who have written the other books, the readers who may be interested in your work and buy your book and your own time.
David: I find it’s so painful. I think the hardest things I’ve read… I mean, I had to . That was hard, but I read a couple of books that are similar to the book I’m trying to write that are recent. And it was just like, okay, here we go. Get through all of this. And it’s like, every page you’re cringing. And then you get to the end of the chapter and you’re like, oh, they failed.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
David: And then you feel like, okay, there’s still a reason for me to write the book. But I had to read a couple of these books where every page, I could turn the page and this could literally just be the book I wrote, and you’re just sweating, going through it. And then realizing they came to the complete wrong conclusion.
David: But it’s encouraging to not read and be like, oh, I think that that’s done. And that was pretty early in the process of saying, okay, I’m going to write this book. And then I saw someone just did it. And it’s…
Craig: Probably. I mean to be fair to you, your impulse to do these things is probably because you perceive a hole in that market. Because you would have otherwise naturally come across the thing that solved this.
David: I mean, and I have an now, which is literally, I spent 20 years looking for this thing. It doesn’t exist. So I realized I got to write it because just want a book that puts all this stuff together in one book that explains how does culture happen, has fashion happened? How are art and fashion related? All these questions.
David: And so much of the writing of the book also was solving these things for myself in my head because I can’t solve these ones without writing them out. So I had this written proof and hopefully it’s also readable, but you know, it’s the point of it.
David: But at the same time, there was a couple of books that came out or that I discovered in the process of writing this book, the new book, that had, what I felt were counter theses.
David: And one of them was a book that was about beauty and nature. And it was more or less it’s by this… His name is David Rothenberg, but he’s an art slash evolutionary biology guy.
David: I’m very opposed to any of the, beauty is innate in us from an evolutionary biology, reasons. I think it’s very socially and culturally created.
David: And so it was like, ah, I’m going to read this book that’s going to…bla bla bla.
David: But he doesn’t even make that argument. Like the argument, you’re going to have me disagree with that. I’m going to tear it apart. He doesn’t even buy it.
David: And I was like, oh great. And I learned so much from that book. So much interesting stuff in there. And then there’s other people who are doing research that I don’t a hundred percent agree with, but you know, it’s like, we’re just arguing about the edges. And 80% of it is useful to say, okay, I can’t go this far and I shouldn’t go this far, but here’s where we can…
Craig: But I also think the ideal response to this finding of something that does maybe mimic or fall into the same, very similar space of what you’re trying to do, it shouldn’t be one of deflation or fear. It should be like, great, that’s fantastic that this exists. How can I build on this now? You know, because that’s what you’re talking about here. How do you build on all of our about everyone building on each other, right, over the course of 40 years, to get to whatever’s happening in Tokyo today, fashion wise.
David: At the same time, I do think it’s a good instinct. I beat myself up on it all the time and maybe I take it too far, but I do think it is a good instinct to just push yourself, to make sure at all times like you’re trying to do something new.
Craig: Sure. No, no, no, no, absolutely.
David: You’re not just repeating the conclusions of other people.
Craig: But I think the trick is to not let it crush you, because I think for a lot of people that’s the feeling that neuters them. That’s why they don’t do the work. Right. Because it’s like, oh, I can’t beat this. I can’t add something to this.
David: I’m so scared of writing something and then being either completely, oh, that was completely wrong. Or realizing that has been said in the same way or whatever it is.
David: And so what it encourages me to do is to go read around whatever the problem is and just be completist.
David: And then I get more problems over time where I’ve been trying to be a completist about this now. And I can’t find the one book that says your thesis is completely opposite.
Craig: Right, right.
David: So it’s good. It’s encouraging over time. But I feel like that for me, it’s a positive pressure to have that devil on my shoulder. You know, you could be wrong.
David: I’m sure for many people it prevents them from…
Craig: From writing one word.
David: Because I write everything on the typewriter. If you don’t use a typewriter, it’s not really writing is it?
Craig: It’s not writing.
David: That’s an inside joke because the other thing I’ve revealed to you is if it weren’t for computer word processing, I would not be a writer.
Craig: I love that you’re a Google docs writer. Like that’s kind of amazing. Google docs is great. I am a huge fan of Google docs. Honestly.
David: Google docs is great for me. I like that I can sort of edit on my phone.
Craig: Which is crazy. That’s an insane thing that you say that. I think it’s great because it’s not just like editing on a small device as being in and of itself a difficult onerous process. But the fact that you are actively not succumbing to the 800, 000 pornographic delights that are circling the opening of the document on the phone. A phone is this portal into everything that is not doing work.
David: I have a really hard time reading things on my phone.
Craig: A hard time.
David: Yeah. I just can’t read articles.
Craig: But you can print them out, but you can edit.
David: It’s like, I’m an old person.
Craig: How do you edit on the phone if you can’t read on the phone?
David: Oh, so if I get in the zone of editing on my phone, I can do it. If I like a box article, I want to read that I put save for later. The read later folder for me is always like the read never folder, but to get through it, I’ll actually go and print out all of them and then just sit there with a highlighter. I just need, I need the physical, but I would not recommend editing on your phone, the first draft, but it’s great for the 10th draft
Craig: Because you’re just looking for lines.
David: And that is more doable. But I think for my last minute edits on things, definitely. I love the things that are scary, I love the last stages of editing where you’re just like just proofing and you’re just making sure things are fine.
David: You’re not using the word ubiquitous twice in the paragraph and things like that. But just seeing a different format is helpful. The other thing that’s scary, those where you’re like, okay, I finally got it to work. I finally got it to work. And now it’s done and then you read it again. And then I got to redo it. But I edit until I go through, until I can read it with some distance and not want to make any changes. I don’t consider it done, and that usually takes something like between 10 to 20 reps.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. That sounds about right.
David: And you know, I think there’s definitely different attitudes about this. I saw someone complaining recently about this idea of writing as sculpture. For me, it’s like most definitely through good texting.
Craig: When were they complaining about it?
David: Somebody was like, their problem with writing these days is everyone’s treating it like sculpture. They’re like cutting it down, down and down and down.
Craig: How are they, what are they talking about?
David: I don’t know. But I do get a sense that, and I don’t know this for fact, but when you see what the writing process was like for people before computers and in the 1920s or something, I’m sure people were by hand, writing one draft and doing a second draft and getting edits and be printing it by the fourth draft. And I get a sense that there was probably more of a…
Craig: I think that we underestimate how much physical editing was going, literally cutting paragraphs out and moving around. Read the John McPhee essays about his process for writing his non-fiction stuff in the eighties, where he didn’t have a word processor.
Craig: And then he actually had custom word processor software made to match his editing style. But if you read his old essays about what he did, it was extremely iterative. It really was. And I think that there’s just note cards and chopping and tape and double-sided tape and moving things around. You could do it like we do on a word processor. It’s just a little less fluent, right? But the fact that you wrote everything in Google docs does mean that…
David: what do you use? I don’t think I’m weird on this either. What editor do you use?
Craig: No, I haven’t had to use, well, I think Google docs is weird because you have to be online to do it, you know? And you don’t have a local copy saved necessarily. And you’re relying on Google and it’s kind of a weird editor to a degree. It’s not very minimal. And I don’t know. There’s a lot of options in there, but like, I think it’s great. I mean, I love doing article back and forth with the editors on Google docs. I find that… did you use Word? Did you convert to Word and then do..
David: Yeah. I mean, for this new one, I had to convert to Word, you’re going to edit word and send it back to me.
Craig: I don’t understand why they can’t all be happy to go there because I feel like the track changes in Google docs is way better than Word at this point. But no, I use, I mean, I just use Ulysses to write drafts and then, you know, if I have to collaborate with anyone, it goes into Google docs eventually.
Craig: I think it’s great. But the interesting thing about you using Google docs is that actually the entire history, key stroke by keystroke history, of that book is in Google docs. You realize that, right?
David: Yeah. Except for, at some point I would like… Well, probably like chapter four exists. I must just check for it. There’s a doc for that.
David: I saved off before I did the drastic cuts.
David: I saved off another version.
David: But I think the final one is probably in that.
Craig: Yeah. No, no, no. So there’s software that can play back the writing history, keystroke by keystroke and you can speed it up or whatever. So what’s interesting about this is we talk about, in the olden days people had drafts and you saw them do all the markups, everything, but actually digital stuff we have, if you write it in Google docs, even more granular history of the thought process, of the genesis of that chapter or whatever. Anyway, it’s kind of interesting historians in 200 years, we’ll be able to play it back in real time.
David: I don’t want people reading my terrible first drafts.
Craig: Well, they’ll be able to, they can do it. So it’s instructive.
David: I feel life at this point too, when I save things, I’m like, that’s only my first draft of the thing is that right? Give me 12 words that’s to this. I often don’t feel like a lot of people want to grow up to be writers. And I certainly wasn’t and I was not a good reader until after college and yeah.
Craig: And what made you a good reader? What does that mean to be a good reader?
David: Just like reading or I wouldn’t just float off in the middle of a paragraph.
David: You know, and then just be like, did I read any of that? Because I’m just thinking about other things.
David: And the difference was at college a couple of things happened, which is I got into Hunter Thompson. And I realized oh, they just have all the books at the library.
David: And I know that’s not on my curriculum, but I can just go get them and read them. So I really just do enjoy reading or read about weird stuff that I was interested in and just get the books and they have everything.
David: So, you know, doing that. And then after college I realized if you’re reading a boring book, you can just give it up or stop or, you know what I mean? There is no test? Right. And so it was the first time I was like, I can just read if I want to read and read what I want to read. And then after college, when I was in New York, the public library system was like the greatest thing in the world. And so I would just order all these dream books that I had heard of and wanted to read, and then they would get them delivered to my local branch and we’d go and pick them up. And then just like on the subway every day, just tear through. And so, I read tons of Tom Wolf and a lot of like Phil Broth novels and you’re just catching up on a lot of that.
David: And then since then I’ve just been obsessed. But for a long time, I also had access to a library. And I think what what’s been hard about being in Japan, out of the US library system versus also the university library system, because the Japanese universities have great English language libraries is that I there’s nowhere to get these books I want. And a lot of academic books are like $120 new or more, but it’s a lot.
David: So I am obsessed with used book hunting.
David: And so, and also bargain used book hunting to an embarrassing degree. So I probably come home with something like three to five books a week.
David: English, that are like anywhere from novels to obscure things. So just anything I would like to read that at some point and the average price of a book I buy is probably something like two to $3.
David: And my room is now filled with probably 200 unread books, if not more, that are just filling every space because it’s like, I’m going to get to that book on game theory and language really soon. I’m just going to get through these other 200.
David: And then in my basement, the thing I did last year was I bought a lot… I figured out how to buy lots of books as in a lot, not lots of books bundled from this kind of warehouse in somewhere in east Tokyo, that they put things on Yahoo auctions. And so it’ll just be like lot of Western books.
David: And I found one, I found five that were kind of similar lots. And I ended up paying $70 us dollars. And then the shipping was maybe like another 70, because it was so heavy. And I got 420 books.
David: I was trying to figure out, I was like, I’m sure this professor has passed away. And this is his library because it was all anthropologist sociology books.
David: And there was at least like a hundred in there I wanted.
David: And so I got this and fortunately I have a basement I put all of these in, but I opened it up and I started looking through it. And then I found the professor who it was. And he was an anthropologist at Keio University and had passed away last year. And that was his library.
David: And so I got something like 400 of these old paperbacks and at least five to 10 of them, I have found incredible, invaluable insights for my new book that no one ever would have told me that were there. And that sort of serendipity of also a lot of the ideas and things I’ve found in, especially for this new book is it’s a crazy process.
Craig: Well I think that serendipity component, that’s like a really big part of most book writing from what I can tell. I mean, even like novels, if you get into deep novel mode, it’s like anything that happens around you or anything you read or run into is feeding through this novel filter. Can it be added to that world? Or can it amplify something in that world?
Craig: But I mean, just listening to this story now that you talk about this lot of books that you got, you’re so excited about, you can’t not do these things. That’s why you’re writing these books. That’s why there’s very few people out there who’d be like, oh, I just got this box of 400 books that like, you know, is unfiltered. And I have to dig through and there might be some gems in there. And it’s all sociology books. It’s like a professor’s library. Most people would not, it would be like a burden. That’s why they were selling it as a lot of books.
Craig: But it’s great that you found five to 10 important ideas in there, but that just goes to show you, that’s the book you should have been doing. That’s the project. You were fully into it. You’re fully in that project.
David: Yeah. And you know, I had somebody reading the new book and the feedback was, these examples are so random. From where are you getting this stuff? Why?
David: And I think that I have something in the intro that maybe was missed, which I’m intentionally pulling from as many random places as possible to show you how universal these principles are. Because what I want to show you is the principles of taste and status and culture, and all these things apply to dogs. How we choose our dogs, they apply to the pins that we use. They applied to coffee brewing mechanisms. Like all these things, especially when we say no, no, no, they are all practical. And it’s like, no, there’s a status component. And so I’m pulling from all these creative places. But I’m actually intentionally trying to find the examples that are as off the wall as possible, as long as I can kind of double check them.
David: And there’s one that probably will go in the book that I’m really on the fence about, which is Marshall McLuhan has an example that he quotes from somebody that is at an African king has been watching… This is like in the twenties and thirties, watching a Hollywood movie and there’s a barber’s chair, like a big white barbers chair in the movie, and the king ordered that to be his throne. Because he saw it in the movie. And then this African king is using a barber’s chair as his throne.
David: Which is an incredible story. I just can’t find any other verification for this other than it’s mentioned in Marshall McLuhan and I didn’t trust Marshall McLuhan also enough to definitely double-check this.
David: But you know, there’s things like that. You just want to find the most fascinating anecdotes that no one’s seen before.
David: And that requires you to read a lot of crazy things. And so when I see a book at the bookstore, that’s like, growing up in the deep south, in the 1940s. Yes. Just to be like something, if I have the patience to go through this.
Craig: Right. Right. Well, and I think that that’s the feeling you get reading Ametora too. There is a lot of things coming in each of the chapters, like there’s quotes and other… It just feels like not in an obvious, oppressive way, but a lot of work has gone into this.
Craig: Someone didn’t just hear a couple of anecdotes and write them up. Clearly this person has rigorously read around this subject. And you feel like there’s a kind of authority and comfort there. And knowing it’s probably all I’m ever going to need to read on this. I’ve got it.
David: Yeah. So I told you this couple years ago, and you were like, why? But I did this thing where I would, so someone in Ametora would be like, here’s how I bought jeans for the first time. And I was like, great, I got the story and I would write it up. Then I need a little more. And so I would try to find that person’s interview and I would read them because these people are interviewed over and over again throughout the years for the 30th anniversary issue. Let’s talk again about how you found jeans.
David: And they would tell the story slightly differently. And there would be like two or three new pieces of information in that. And I would go back and add it. And because I’m just obsessed with motive. And a lot of times people don’t talk about motive and then you’re piecing it all together saying, I’m trying to explain why things happened.
David: They don’t quite explain. I think that this is wry, but they’re not saying it. And what’s really cool is when you’re like, I think it’s this and you don’t say it. And then you find the interview where like, oh, it’s that? And you’re like, I have deduced it. I have deduced it. I would find I’d read the same story told by a person four times so that I would have the absolute authoritatives perfect.
Craig: Well the overlap of those four stories is the perfect one.
David: Yeah, or just the one that adds in all the details you didn’t know before. I mean, yes, a normal person probably wouldn’t do that. And I’m not saying it’s a better book because I do that, but to me, that is what makes my books… I’m talking about as if there’s multiple ones so far, but makes that book at least super dense and rich. I remember trying to get my thesis in college. One of the professors said it’s a bit of an information overload, which it is. And my books are, but you know, people, when they write me and say, hey, I’ve read your book three times, I think that’s what you’re reading for. You’re getting more out from the overload.
David: And I have been reading a couple of academic books recently on topics I’m interested in. And I remember how much, just pablum there is, or . It’s just like, you have a paragraph. And there’s one idea. There’s one example. It’s just like writing stuff. Like, yeah I know that this thing is… And it’s not even like I’m making academia, like academic writing or academic ideas. That’s fine. But there’s just so much padding.
David: And I think the number one thing is I just want a zero padding book that every idea, every sentence is representing a unique idea.
Craig: Right. I could see how some people would find that overwhelming.
David: And that’s the thing is my books probably don’t have breathing room.
Craig: Right. But from there I think it’s probably easier to add in a little bit of breathing room and the editors can help with this.
David: Another thing, an editor from the website, the thing that I realized is I have two categories of writers and people who turned in grammatically perfect bland pieces. And then I’d have like really grammatically horrible pieces filled with rich detail. And I could always edit those to be wonderful, but I can’t edit in detail. And so, you know, for me, I start with the density.
David: You know, I used to make music in the whole seat of the music I made too, is that it was condensing as many ideas as possible into the fewest amounts of minutes as possible.
David: So my first thing I did was a EP that was 19 minutes and like 12 songs and it’s like 10 different genres. And even within the same song, it flips from two different genres. So there is something about my brain that is very hungry for density. And because my feeling is, you can always repeat.
Craig: Sure, sure.
David: But, you know, I think still making, for example, the most epic and beautiful songs are sometimes the ones where they’re sparse and open, and it’s probably not a good skill that I have.
Craig: Right. The opening of 2001 you’d have been like, well, we could speed this up a little. Yeah. Anyway, it was great. I had so much fun going back to it and I can’t wait for this next book because I feel like I still have so many questions that will only be answered through this next book. I feel like these are going to be a good companion books. It’s like the second one’s going to kind of unlock a lot of the motivation and secrets of the first one.
David: Right. What I hope is the new book is the universal blueprint that explains any book that’s a cultural history or any book that is about trends.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a very low aim goal. You have this
David: I mean, why you do it if it’s not a universal blueprint.
Craig: Right, right, right.
David: I don’t need to tell you a principle about how fashion worked in the sixties in Japan. That’s not…
Craig: Right. You can abstract that. Yeah. Yeah.
David: And again, that’s the whole point of why the book, I’m trying to show that the color, the use of the color purple under, and we rate dogs, the Twitter and the Beatles haircut, they’re universal principles that operate under all of these kind of things.
Craig: Well, I can’t wait when that comes out spring 2022.
David: That is the hope. Cool.
Craig: Anyway, thanks David.
Craig: That’s it. That’s a wrap. Thank you, David, for being such a rigorous investigator and spelunker into Japanese culture, and for sharing that curiosity with the world through your writing and books.
Craig: As I said in the intro today’s episode is made possible by Special Projects Memberships. If you liked the episode and you want to throw us a bone, you can do that at Craig mod.com/membership. Thank you for that.
Craig: Today’s episode was also sponsored by freakishly cold and rainy summers. You think summer has come to claim your soul in Japan, and then suddenly in the middle of August, blammo you got to break out your frigging sweaters and turn off the AC and turn back on the Toto washlet heated toilet seats and everything is backwards. And nothing makes sense in the world because it’s August 14. And you’re thinking about a long hot bath to soak away the depressive feels of a week of nonstop torrential downpours. So thanks climate change, maybe and strange weather patterns for keeping us all on our toes and keeping us here in Japan, cool during what is otherwise a literal hell known as summer around Tokyo.