Okinaka, Bobby


Bobby Okinaka (Wakayama, 1992-95) Keeps America Up on Japanese Fashion & Pop Culture with Tokyo a la Mode

By Justin Tedaldi (CIR Kobe-shi, 2001-02)

Jonesing for Japanese pop culture long after the JET experience is over?  L.A.’s Bobby Okinaka (Wakayama-ken, 1992-95) feels your pain. The Web editor for a site called Discover Nikkei (http://www.discovernikkei.org/) — which in his own words covers the Japanese diaspora — is also the founder of a unique pet project called Tokyo a la Mode (http://www.tokyoalamode.com/), a site that advertises itself as a “Magazine for Japanese fashion and urban culture.”

The site spotlights those overlooked hip and hot fashions or pop culture nuggets you might otherwise miss (or not even notice they’re Japanese in the first place), along with handy links for designer info and purchase.  Associate Editor Justin Tedaldi (CIR Kobe-shi, 2001-02) recently caught up with Bobby to talk about all things sporty in the world of Japanese fashion and pop culture.

Justin Tedaldi: Tell us about the origins of your site.
Bobby Okinaka: After JET, I worked in video production and managing content on Web sites. About two years ago, I started a Web site about Japanese fashion and Tokyo urban culture called Tokyo a la Mode.  The inspiration for the site was other JETs.  Before going to Japan, these girls knew very little about the culture and lifestyle, but after coming back they looked at Japanese fashion magazines, went to Japanese rock concerts, and ate Japanese food.  I figured if I could tap into what they liked about Japan and share that information with other people, the result should be similar.

There’s plenty of information on Japanese music on the Internet, but not a lot about fashion.  So I started Tokyo a la Mode.  Also, while the anime generation is very knowledgeable about all things anime, I’ve found that their knowledge of Japan is limited.  So I hope to expose them to more real Japanese culture through this project.

JT: So it’s inspired purely by fashion and popular trends?
BO: Actually, the real inspiration for Tokyo a la Mode is the anime generation.  They grew up exposed to Japanese culture through Pokemon and Naruto, and now that they’re growing older, they’re branching out into Japanese music and fashion.  I kind of knew I was on to something when I noticed that some kids at the Anime Expo were wearing Japanese street fashion and J-rock clothes and not just doing cosplay.

But Tokyo a la Mode is not meant to be an anime Web site.  In much the same way that New York in the ’80s represented the growth of hip-hop culture, Tokyo has a global image as a place where Japanese kids wear funky street fashion, men in spandex suits play human Tetris, robots are built to replace human beings, and so on and so on.  Tokyo represents a certain lifestyle that anyone can be a part of.

JT: How did your experience on JET prepare you for running your site and choosing the content on there?  Specifically, what knowledge or skills did you pick up by working with Japanese people and spending time with Japanese youths?
BO: Coming from a Japanese American background plus living on a U.S. military base outside of Tokyo as a youth, I already had a strong understanding of Japanese life.  So it’s hard for me to think of anything specific about my experience on the JET Programme that prepared me for starting up my Web site other than just learning more about Japan.  I do wish I studied the Japanese language harder, though.  While I lived in Japan, I decided that I wanted to make a career about cross-cultural communication, basically showing people back home in the States what I enjoyed so much about Japan and Asia.

JT: How would you describe the brand of your site?
BO: Tokyo a la Mode’s brand is “cute and cool.”  The more I got into this project, the more I realized there is a huge market for all things kawaii.  It is comparable to men who grew up with comic books and as adults still have this obsession with Batman.  I think that women are beginning to realize that just because they’re older now, they don’t have to give up being cute.  Instead of Batman, their icon is Hello Kitty.  And “cool” because I wanted to focus more on what makes Japan cool, not just the bizarre or otaku-centric.

JT: Have you had any surprises in terms of what Americans like from “cool Japan” compared to Japanese?
BO: With all the popularity of “cool Japan” there are very few Japanese people that have become famous or popular here in America.  Puffy AmiYumi got close, but that came from being cartoon characters.  The language barrier is a definite problem for Japanese talent to make it in the U.S., although Hikaru Utada bombed, even though she speaks English.

Also, there is a myth that persists about Japanese people that they want to be “American” because they wear Western-style clothing, eat Big Macs and listen to rock or hip-hop.  I don’t believe that’s completely true.  Take American kids who watch anime and wear Japanese street style: are they trying to be Japanese?  I’m not so sure.  But I was surprised to see American kids recording themselves singing Japanese songs on YouTube.  That’s pretty cool.

JT: What kind of challenges do you face running Tokyo a la Mode?
BO: The challenge for me in doing this project is that I’m based in Los Angeles and not Tokyo.  Luckily, there are plenty of Japanese things here in Los Angeles that I can cover.  Also, I use the Internet to look for stories, but my Japanese isn’t fluent, so I’m not able to read much.  It’s also very hard for me as a writer to write for a twenty-year-old female.  So I end up just putting together very short articles.

JT: What are your future plans for the site?
BO: I think it’s a good idea to add a Web store and even make some T-shirts featuring retro Japanese girls’ comics.  But I’m just too spread out to really give that effort the proper attention that it requires.  It’s hard enough for me to update Tokyo a la Mode on a weekly basis.  Surprisingly, while I’ve received a lot of help on this project, I’m not working on it with anyone else.  But I’m a very collaborative-type person, so I don’t know why I have trouble in finding partners.  Probably because no one wants to work for free!  Hopefully Tokyo a la Mode can grow into something.  If not, my backup plan is to move to a place where there are no Japanese people and open a Japanese toy store selling Gloomy Bear and Domo-kun goods for the girls and Gundam robots for the boys.

Domo domo, Bobby!
We’ll see you in fashion cyberspace.

You can learn more about Bobby Okinaka at www.myspace.com/okinaka.

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