What’s behind Tokyo’s strange passion for all things Portland?
Every time I’m in Tokyo, walking down the busy shopping street Meiji Dori, I’m struck by the legions of guys who look like they may have been imported from Portland, Oregon—decked out in the classic work boots, wax canvas jackets, and plaid shirts that are practically that city’s uniform. It’s been going on for a long time. The Japanese view of Portland has nothing to do with the spoof or town’s twee self-righteousness on IFC’s Portlandia. Tokyo newsstands are packed with magazines like Workwear, Lightning, and HailMary that fetishize this Americana design aesthetic. But lately this obsession has spread beyond rugged clothing and into all things Rip City.
This year Voodoo Doughnut, famous for long lines and over-the-top concoctions, opened up a shop in Tokyo, trying to catch up with rival Blue Star Donuts, which debuted in Japan before it expanded in the US. Gallons of Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee are being served at the trendy Paddlers Coffee in Shibuya, which is filled with vintage furniture and piles of vinyl records. The PDX Taproom has Rogue Dead Guy Ale on tap and both the Portland transit map and a piece of Portland’s famously ugly and beloved airport carpet on the wall.
When you think about it, Tokyo’s appropriation of Portland makes a certain kind of sense. In addition to housing Nike—a favorite in Japan for futuristic self-lacing HyperAdapt runners—the city has all the accoutrements the Japanese adore: a strong food and beer culture, an intense connection with the rainy outdoors, and a flair for everything artisanal. With Mount Hood and Mount Fuji, both cities even sport their own sibling snow peaks.
Not surprisingly, a flurry of companies have begun to capitalize on this odd trend. Even the sporty dad brand Columbia has honed in on the action with a campaign that touts its Pacific Northwest roots. Small PDX-based leather-goods makers like Tanner Goods and Wood & Faulk have also dramatically grown their markets as hordes of Japanese tourists have flocked on holiday to Portland. Hometown boot maker Danner, which has two terrific shops in Portland, became a bigger household name in Japan after the Japanese mega-shoe-retailer ABC-Mart bought it in 2012. The company even built a high-end footwear chain called Stumptown Boots & Recrafting to position Danner at the top of the market. But the hunger for Portlandia goes far beyond leather. Pendleton has long held a place of glory in Japan, but now the brand’s iconic wool patterns are popping up everywhere, from clothing shops such as United Arrows to the tony home-goods and antique dealers that line Cat Street in Harajuku.
It all came to a head last April, with the opening of the simply named Pop Up Portland, a massive 5,000-square-foot outlet packed entirely with Portland-based clothing, home goods, and accessories. It’s kind of like a “Made in Oregon” shop that you would find in your local airport, only perfectly curated and meticulously merchandised. And much like everything else in Japan, it was reproduced at several levels higher than its source material.
It’s this kind of obsessive reworking of remix culture that makes Japan such an incredible place. The nation’s adoption of Americana dates back to the postwar era, when the city was fixated on baseball, jazz, and Ivy League style. But its current obsession with Portland is unparalleled. Even East Coast hipster rival Brooklyn, which has become its own worldwide brand, has far less currency in Tokyo than Portland.