The question started out innocently enough: "Do you know 'Brooklyn' is written on your socks?"
Picture: photo.ua / Shutterstock
My wife, an Osaka native, replied, "Yeah, these seemed more casual than the other socks I was thinking of getting."
A quick look around at what people are currently wearing in Japan, where I've called home for nearly the past fourteen years, and you are bound to see someone with "Brooklyn" emblazoned across their clothes, whether that's a college student on a date or a little kid playing at the park. "Brooklyn" is the perfect brand name for Japanese clothing companies that hope to evoke cool free of charge and want something foreign-sounding (but don't want to run the risk of mangled English).
This hasn't quite hit fever pitch (not every article of clothing sold in Japan says "Brooklyn", so do not think that). But, my wife's socks should not have come as a surprise, because this year is the year that Japan has fallen in love with New York's most populated borough, Brooklyn.
These are "Brooklyn clothes". Not my clothes, mind you.
More "Brooklyn" clothes, er, "Brkln clths".
Modelling at the playground. As one does.
That's actor Mizuki Itagaki in a Brooklyn duel. May the best Brooklyn win!
Even children are not safe.
This year, it seems like there are lots of options for Brooklyn-branded threads.
Japan's Uniqlo, for example, now has a line of "Brooklyn Machine Works" t-shirts, which are also being sold internationally.
At other stores, there are other "Brooklyn" things, like backpacks, hats, etc.
Lots of people like Brooklyn! Lots of people outside Japan, too. Just ask any Brooklyn resident, and they will be quick to point to all the tourists roaming about. It's not just visitors. "Brooklyn" is now a popular boy's name in the States. Beats naming your son "Scranton", I guess!
No offence to Scranton. Or parents who named their kids that.
Earlier this year, Japanese site Fashion Snap tried to pin down Brooklyn's popularity in the country, chalking up the borough's new-found fame to things like its hand-made jewellery, such as Brooklyn Charm, and its appearance in TV shows and movies, among other things.
Last year, Brooklyn Charm opened a store in Harajuku — a part of Tokyo that was previously fetishized in the West in a somewhat misguided way. To Japan's credit, in what I've seen so far, Brooklyn is currently being shown in a pretty positive light, largely free of gross or offensive characterisations, but not entirely 100 per cent accurate. That gap, though, is expected in cross-cultural depictions.
Another Brooklyn Charm opened in Tokyo's Ikebukuro (below), helping to spread the Brooklyn name among Japanese youth, backwards Rs and all.
Ditto for other Tokyo restaurants, which use the Brooklyn name, whether that's pancakes or coffee shops.
But, the biggest push Brooklyn is getting in Japan is from a doughnut chain.
Mister Doughnut. I fucking love Mister Doughnut.
A new series of "Brooklyn-inspired doughnuts" launched earlier this year in Japan. I have not eaten them. Sorry!
Website Gigazine visited a Mister Doughnut in Osaka that was covered in Brooklyn as part of the promotion.
The tables even have maps on them.
This is a green tea doughnut with brownie sprinkles.
All this seems like an attempt to pick up any momentum created by the Cronut™. That creation was introduced on Japanese morning shows, and a version of it did go on sale in Japan last year or so. It really helped solidify the notion that New York equals doughnuts. Japanese people love doughnuts. Since Brooklyn has tasty doughnuts, this promotion is an easy leap.
There are even special "Brooklyn jars" available at Mister Doughnut.
Which are mason jars.
That say "Brooklyn."
And are made in Japan*. Heh.
I asked my Brooklyn-based colleagues if they had heard of a "Brooklyn jar", and no said, "No", and the other said, "lol what."
There are Mister Doughnut commercials that are set in Brooklyn, or rather, a version as seen by Japan. And if you go to the Mister Doughnut website, there is an explainer on what Brooklyn is to bring everyone up to speed.
Hybrid sweets. Handcrafted. The Brooklyn Bridge. Got it.
Though, the actual Brooklyn, as in the place, is known in Japan and has been for many, many years. However, here, Mister Doughnut is promoting the idea of Brooklyn. That's important. This is branding. International branding, at that.
Trends and fads come and go in Japan. Suddenly, something becomes popular, and just as quick as it appears, it disappears. You see this with products, brands, celebrities, and, yes, even cities, countries, and places. Japan is not unique in this regard (America does the same), but what the country often does is remake things in its own image, taking what it likes, wants or needs, and ignoring the rest. That can be a feeling that's evoked or simply a sense of place or otherness.
The places that often, but not always, appear in Japan's popular imagination are in North America or Europe (though, not always, as for a time in the early 2000s, some people in Japan were obsessed with, say, South Korea, and if you really want to go back in time, then during the years between 700 and 1200, Japan was really into China). They're exotic, different, and distant. Sometimes certain places become more popular, but certain locations like Hawaii or Paris continually remain popular destinations.
Sometimes, Japan can get very specific about a certain place. During the 1970s, for instance, the "Madison Bag" was a must-have among Japanese junior-high students. For Americans, Madison Square Garden has an array of associations, from pro sports to live concerts and comedy performances. But for Japanese people at the time, "the world's most famous arena" evoked sports. Including football.
In Japan, written English is often seen as "cool", so this had an exotic feel that you would not get with, say, a bag that read, "Yogogi National Stadium". Likewise, in the US, things are written in foreign languages to give them an exotic appeal. It's the exact same idea.
Just as with the Madison bag, young people in Japan are probably more interested in the concept of Brooklyn, than the actual place. What does Brooklyn evoke? Doughnuts, trinkets, and a causal type of fashion, "Brooklyn" branded sweatshirts, socks and all, which people living in the borough probably would never wear. Fair enough, because some folks in Brooklyn are brewing kombucha Japanese people would never drink. You know what, that's totally fine and makes for some truly sweet hybrids.
*Actually, I'm glad they're made in Japan, because really, this is a Japanese concept of Brooklyn.