To Koji Yama, there is no icon as American as Elvis. The slicked-back hair. The rock ‘n’ roll. That swaggering confidence.
It’s an obsession that has carried this Japanese native 5,500 miles from his homeland and family, and landed him here in California.
And starting this year, it’s become his livelihood.
Stroll into his vintage shop — the Elvis 50’s Corporation USA — in Gardena and enter a time portal. Porcelain Elvis lamps and Art Deco furniture vie for space among leather bomber jackets and pin-up posters of ladies with Bettie Page hairstyles.
“It’s just the look, that period in America. It’s so cool, you know?” the 51-year-old says, lounging on a leopard-print sofa in the store’s backroom. “It’s so, I don’t know how else to say it. So American.”
On this weekday afternoon, Yama is garbed with his usual flair — the style could be described as “the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll: Asian edition.” He favors a well-oiled coif, platform shoes, varsity jackets and tight white T-shirts with a cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve, even though he doesn’t smoke.
“A lot of Japanese young people were nuts about anything American when I was a teenager,” Yama says of growing up in Tokyo during the 1970’s. “There were lots of military bases around. Lots of American stuff. Because of the wars, I guess.”
War or its legacy is how thousands of Japanese youngsters, including Yama, got their first taste of American culture. They bartered and negotiated with GIs, trading tea sets, flags and cash for the chance to shimmy into blue jeans and slip into wingtip shoes for the first time.
Stationed in Japan or destined for the jungles of Vietnam, soldiers brought rock ‘n’ roll culture to the traditionally conservative island nation. The ’60 even swept in a tide of Japanese boy bands with mop tops and tailored suits patterned after the Beatles.
They made an indelible impression on the teenage Yama, who left Tokyo in 1979 — without telling his parents — to move closer to America. He landed in Okinawa, a southern island under American control until 1972.
“Okinawa was the most American place in Japan, as close as you could get to the U.S. without actually leaving,” says Tomohiro Mae, a vintage dealer from Tokyo. “A lot of the America-obsessed young moved there in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Back then, the road signs were numbered in miles instead of kilometers, and one in 12 people was American. Even today, the more than 20,000 military personnel stationed there give Okinawa a distinct sheen of red, white and blue.
“It was like heaven,” Yama recalls. He stands behind his shop counter stuffed with Elvis pins, twisting and thrusting his hips to the beat of some imaginary rock tune inside his head. “The military people would issue Japanese buyers day passes to come onto the base to buy surplus supplies. Combat boots, even old Army cars.”
He eventually opened five vintage stores in Okinawa — the first being a half-cafe, half-home decor shop in 1984 — and married a local girl whom he converted to the “rockabilly lifestyle.”
“After some convincing, she started going with me to concerts. Dressed like — you know. Poodle skirts, bobby socks and….” Yama motions a high, flapping ponytail. “She thought it was odd at first, but we started dressing up in costume,” she Olivia Newton-John to his John Travolta a la “Grease.”
He hasn’t seen his sons, Ryuji, 26, or Tetsuro, 18, since he left Okinawa. He and his wife divorced years ago. Reluctantly, he peels back his jacket and reveals two tattoos, his way of keeping them close.
“Ryuji” is spelled out in cursive script underneath a scrawl of dice and cards on his right bicep. The two faces of drama — one laughing and one crying — decorate his left arm underneath “Tetsuro.”
But that’s a part of his past he doesn’t much want to talk about.
Most days now, he’s inside the lovingly tended shop nestled on a stretch of Western Avenue once at the heart of a thriving Japanese American community and still crowded with noodle joints, sushi restaurants and bakeries specializing in mochi, a Japanese rice cake.
Shoppers — mostly locals or Japanese on buying trips from abroad — browse the clutter for Elvis babushka dolls stacked on a shelf ($68), the porcelain poodle wall decor ($180), vinyl records of “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” ($10) and a Pepsi vending machine that only takes nickels ($680).
“I came for America,” Yama says, gesturing around the store. “This is my dream.”
On a recent Thursday morning, Yama huddles inside his dark blue van. It’s 6 a.m. and he’s heading to the Roadium flea market in Gardena.
Eight years have passed since he immigrated to California in 2002. He worked as a chef in two Japanese restaurants in Hollywood until saving up enough money to open the store last January.
He drives slouched in a letterman jacket and explains how cheap imitations from China flooded the vintage market and killed his Japanese stores. “Kids still want gabardine shirts and bomber jackets, but they don’t care if it’s genuine or not,” he says.
After pulling into a parking lot already crowded with vans, he unloads folding tables in the dark, carefully smoothing velvet cloth on top before stacking his wares: plaid wool blankets, tackle boxes piled in a precarious pyramid, keys rusted with age and matchboxes from all over the world.
Below the inky sky, dozens of buyers from Japan stride around, peering at jackets and fingering the stitching on well-worn boots. Like miners prospecting for gold, they have headlamps strapped to their foreheads.
Tomohiro Masumara, clad in artfully ripped jeans and a shredded white T-shirt, drifts by to say hello.
He inspects Yama’s tackle boxes, which teenage girls in Japan swing as purses. “Japanese don’t think of clothing as just something to use,” says the owner of two vintage stores in the Harujuku district of Tokyo. “We used to all run around wearing kimonos. We appreciate the history of clothing.”
If there are fewer people demanding authentic Americana in Japan, it’s not apparent here — almost everyone in the crowd owns or works for a vintage store in Tokyo or another metropolis in the island nation.
Many pull shopping carts or suitcases large enough for an overseas journey, buying carloads of flannel shirts and cowboy boots for trend-hungry consumers back home. They greet each other cheerfully, bow politely and then continue their hunt.
Vintage is almost commoditized in Japan, buyers say, evidenced by the catalogues some tote that meticulously detail prices on specific types of Levi’s 501s and high school sports apparel (long-sleeved baseball T-shirts fetch high prices; midriff-baring tops printed with cute mascots are even more coveted.)
“See this?” Yama runs a finger down a gray military-style jacket with a yellow tag: $200. “This will sell for five times as much in Japan.” Other sellers and buyers call out to him, vaguely outlined in the creeping light of dawn. He greets them in Japanese, smiling and pulling a cart to carry clothes and furniture he might purchase to stock the store.
Los Angeles-area flea markets attract Japanese vintage dealers here on buying trips, says Mike Romo, the Roadium’s director of operations. Hundreds fly to Southern California every month to pick through the Roadium and the Rose Bowl flea market. “The Japanese out-of-towners come early in the morning, buy vintage, put them in containers and ship them overseas,” he says. “They go to a bunch of markets; it’s like a circuit they do.”
Some buyers, like Natsuo, freely share what trends they’re snapping up. But many tote around opaque black bags and remain tightlipped about their purchases.
“No, no, I never show anyone what I buy,” Nyuki Hiroki, owner of a Tokyo store frequented by Japanese TV stars, says while gripping shut a bulging suitcase. “It’s private.”
Whispers another buyer: “Some of these people are tastemakers back in Japan. If they give away what they’re buying, it’s no longer fresh back home.”
Yama swings by a table selling knick knacks and points toward a wooden crate labeled " Coca Cola Co. Los Angeles,” which he buys for $12 and will later resell for $24. “They are very fashionable in Japan for storing socks and underwear,” he says.
Yama returns to his stand, settles back into a chair. His glittery silver disco shoes peek out under bell bottoms and twinkle in the dawn light.
He surveys his America, a domain carved by a lifetime of dedication.
The language barriers, the years away from family — he brushes that aside with a nervous laugh. It’s been worth it.