All about a Jacket

I was sitting in a shabu-shabu restaurant last week with a friend of mine and did a double-take when I noticed a twenty-something guy sitting with his friends wearing a jacket that looked like this.

11224673_10153146770241961_559408299668599252_n Since much of my work deals with representations and appropriations of visual meaning in the Pacific Islands, especially in relation to militarism in the Marshall Islands and the Pacific War between Japan and the United States, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Why was a Japanese college student in Tokyo casually wearing this jacket that displayed an apocalyptic vision of an atomic mushroom cloud in Eniwetok (Enewetak) Atoll, and what was the story here?

Because I am a chronic procrastinator and I am in the midst of editing the final manuscript for my forthcoming book about the cultural history of Kwajalein Atoll, another Marshallese place that  is deeply tied to the history of US nuclear testing in the Pacific, this fed into my enthusiasm for my book and gave me a refreshing distraction to explore.  It didn’t take too long for me to locate many of these jackets online and to find out that they were known in English as “Yokosuka jackets,” or “souvenir jackets” because they started to be tailor embroidered near the big US military base around Yokosuka in the 1950s.  They are still referred to as “suka-jan” (short for Yokosuka janpaa— or jumper). In all my 20 years in Japan, I had always seen these kinds of jackets out of the corner of my eye and associated them with bikers and gangs and other unsavory characters (since typically that’s who would wear them, especially the newer designs).  But of late, I’d also been noticing that the truly older styles were experiencing a comeback, and they’d become a major collectors’ item in both the Japan and the US, attracting a large youth subculture following as retro fashion.

That said,out of all the sukajan designs I looked at online, this atomic bomb design took the cake.  And not only because it depicted Enewetak Atoll’s tragic atomic and military heritage, but because there was a significant difference between the original design from the 1950s and the version that my shabu-shabu neighbor was wearing in his 21st century replica revival.  I quickly learned that the original design included neither the words “no more” or “peace,” only the mushroom cloud and the atoll. These words were clearly incorporated (subverted?) into the replica design by contemporary Japanese designers (with an antinuclear consciousness?) Here’s the original design from the 1950s:

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This one was priced at 70,00 yen (about $650 USD), but there were more expensive ones out there.  Personally I was more interested in the story about the newer replica.  It was quite hard to track down, and everywhere I found one online it had been sold out for quite some time.  It appears that the one I saw in the restaurant was is a remake by Tailor Taiyo of one of the “silk” rayon jackets that its predecessor company made in Japan released in 2010 to cater to a young Japanese fashionista retro crowd who have little if any historical awareness of any of this. The replicas also sold for ¥30,000– so these aren’t cheap.

Out of sheer luck, I finally found one of these in an online auction and got it for a tiny fraction of the price of a new one. As I suspected, the young online seller didn’t even seem to know much about the design beyond the idea that there was an atomic mushroom cloud on it, and that’s how he advertised it.  I just received the jacket in the mail today and felt compelled to write about the fascinating layers of meaning and history in this simple object, perhaps as a lead up to an article to publish in the future.

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This remake version intrigues me because it fuses western fantasies of the Pacific and Asia with American military bravado/nostalgia, literally sewn together with Japanese embroidery technologies that testify to atomic trauma and speak out for peace.

There are multiple “languages” at play here on this jacket that create gaps and ironic contradictions between intention and interpretation, and multiple possible meanings–not to mention the reinterpretations of those meanings by the Japanese 21st century manufacturers who “edited” this 1950s jacket as well.  But it’s not just written language, there’s also a lot of iconography and media involved here too— the icons of the mushroom cloud, the atoll map/lagoon, the coconut trees, the waves, the fish, etc.  There’s the media of the jacket fabric itself— Japanese companies in a poor economy using rayon but selling the jacket as “silk” (apparently they did this).  There’s the female-gendered (in those days) work of Japanese embroidery and women’s labor and resistance involved here too.  Even the coloring of the jacket— I’ve seen that there were different variations of this jacket originally— either this blood red color or a yellow “explosive” color, or an ocean blue.  And then add to that that this is a double-sided jacket— the inside has a big dragon embroidered on it and says “Japan,” just as the original did.  But the design of this dragon itself is extremely Chinese, and dragon symbols in Japan actually have a strong Chinese heritage anyway— so there’s a particular interpretation there, too, of what constitutes an “Oriental” look from an American perspective.

The English lettering on the jacket—in addition to the word Eniwetok and the names of the islands, the replica version includes “No More” at the top and “Peace” in the center of the lagoon—  is it “No more bombs?” Is it “No more bombs— peace?”  Or, devastatingly, could it be “No more peace?” Are these antinuclear slogans or apocalyptic anarchism?  These are all possible ways of looking at it, even maybe “No More Eniwetok,” though Enewetak is certainly NOT “no more”— it’s a very real place that exists in the 21st century, and although it was used and abused by the US government in the 1940s-1950s to test atomic weapons, it’s actually the only atoll where these bombs were actually detonated, in which people actually reside today and are potentially exposed to radiation (such as that leaking from Runit Dome) on a daily basis.

But there are other deeper texts at play here, in languages and in representations.  These letters also spell out Marshallese place names and profound meanings of navigation, genealogy, abundance, peril, home, and resistance.  These are Marshallese iconographies of place speaking through these satiny threads–accompanying the mapping of the geological shape of the atoll, for example, the Marshallese names of islands, and all their rich meanings.

Take the place names, for instance: Engebi (Enjepe), which was a major site of invasion and death for thousands of Japanese and Koreans (along with smaller numbers of Marshallese and Americans) in the war, means “basket isle”–referring to the richness and abundance that was once there before the war and the atomic tests.  “Piiai” (Pillae) means “trickling water.”  “Japtan” (Jeptaan) means “straining arrowroot for the first time,” which might be a reference to centuries of starvation and hardship in these often drought-stricken northern islands.  “Bogallua” is probably Bokwā-luo, which means “shells,” to indicate that this was where the waves washed shells to the beaches, and a good place for harvesting shells that could be used as tools, decorations, and food.  All of those words have meanings which are completely lost on both American and Japanese “readers” of these places across time.  And this is no different from how Kuwajleen (Kwajalein) means “bestowing the fruits of the land” (to the irooj)—the only “fruit” remaining after “the typhoon” (a real typhoon or a figurative typhoon of war or suffering) being the precious wutilomar flowers that grow in abundance, hence the white flower in the Kwajalein Atoll Government (KALGOV) flag…

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Or how Tarwoj means “sailing to you.”  Or how Epjā (Ebeye) means “usually capsize”—because the currents are so tricky there that you need to jā (jibe) when you approach (and obviously that has all sorts of symbolic depth as well).  And Pikinni (Bikini Atoll) was a breadbasket too— for it means “covered in coconut trees.”

But then there are the Japanese interpretations of those English appropriations of Marshallese words and landscapes by the original creators of the jacket in the 1950s, who had never seen such an island or atoll, and who probably had never seen a marlin either (note the weird green thing that looks more like a mythical Japanese creature).  As far as the place name is concerned, Japanese would not actually have recognized the name “Eniwetok” at the time this jacket was made, because Japanese referred to it as “Brown Atoll,” (Buraun) as did Americans during the invasion of 1944.  What did it mean and how did it feel for Japanese tailors to sew this shocking image of the same genocidal bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years prior?  What did it mean to stitch the word Engebi, where thousands of Japanese bones still lie today, irradiated, having never returned to Japan?  What does it mean when a Japanese college student today wears such a jacket, detached from context, in the middle of Tokyo? And what does it mean when an American like me, raised in the Marshall Islands and living most of my life in Japan, spends hours online seeking to consume and possess such a piece of retro kitsch for my “research” collection?

Of course nothing could be as ironic and violent in its appropriation as the bikini swimsuit, for which there are few obvious referents to the true Bikini Atoll and holocaust aside from the name (about which few people even know).  But this “Eniwetok-no more-peace” jacket is also violent in its own way.

The question is, will I ever wear it?

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