New York Fit

This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.

Susan sits down with Takaaki “Tommy” Nakajima at Kamakura Shirts on Madison Ave in Midtown Manhattan. Tommy is a businessman with a long career in finance and human resources, and he shares his experience of moving to the United States from Japan and raising a bilingual and bicultural family in the New York area. Known by other Japanese businessmen as “Nakajima-san” and frustrated by Americans mispronouncing his given name, Tommy shares the story behind his American nickname, which involves another “T. Nakajima.” As a regular at Kamakura Shirts, Tommy appreciates the quality of Japanese goods and services, and he supports Japanese businesses thriving in the US. Susan met Tommy through Japanese American community organizations and asks him about his outreach promoting Nagano Prefecture and U.S.-Nagano relations. Proud of his home in Japan, he shares his volunteer activities as the Global Nagano Promotion Advisor.

Kamakura Shirts was founded in 1993 by Yoshio and Tomiko Sadasue. Inspired by the Ivy League style of fashion, which originated in the US, the Sadasues created a business shirt that exhibits “Made in Japan” quality. Beyond the quality of their clothing, the customer service at Kamakura Shirts embodies the Japanese principle of omotenashi. Susan also speaks with Kakeru Kitatsuru, an employee at Kamakura Shirts. Kakeru shares the history of the store and explains the different types and styles of shirts. Notably, the New York locations offer a “New York Fit” style that is designed for Western body types and fit preferences. Kakeru measures Tommy for a “made-to-order” business shirt fitting, and Toshiki also makes a surprise appearance at the store to get fitted for a business shirt!

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Notes

This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Michiko Tamaoki, Keisuke Tokumori, and Kakeru Kitatsuru for accommodating us at Kamakura Shirts.

Transcript

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Susan McCormac: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.

Music

SM: Welcome to The Big Root.

Toshiki Nakashige: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. My name is Toshiki Nakashige.

SM: I’m Susan McCormac.

TN: It’s finally summer in New York. The cherry blossoms have come and gone, and it’s a time for rooftop bars, outdoor flea markets, and picnics in the park.

SM: You’re in a good mood today.

TN: I just turned 29. It feels good.

SM: Oh yeah, Happy Birthday.

TN: Thanks!

SM: Ok, I don’t want to rain on your parade, but we have a podcast to do and we need to get down to business.

TN: Oh I see what you did there.

SM: The theme of today’s interview is business.

TN: Business!

SM: Right, I interviewed businessman and Nagano Prefecture native Takaaki “Tommy” Nakajima.

TN: This was a fun interview to record.

SM: Tommy Nakajima currently works at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in their Madison Avenue office in Midtown Manhattan and has had a long career working in finance and human resources. He was born in Japan and studied business in college. He had an opportunity to work in New York once in 1989 and returned to Japan ten years later. He eventually settled down in the New York area. I think a lot of Japanese businessmen who end up working in the US can relate to his story.

Takaaki “Tommy” Nakajima: I grew up in Nagano—that’s the central part of Japan—up until high school. Then I went to college in Tokyo, graduated, and then joined one of the Japanese companies in Tokyo. Then later on they sent me to work in New York. And I had a chance to go to MIT during my career. That was one year, a very intense program, and then I went back to Tokyo for a while, then came back to the US again. So that’s my education background.

SM: In 1983, he worked for one of the biggest banks in Japan called Mitsubishi Bank. After a couple mergers, it’s now known as MUFG Bank. When Tommy first moved to  the US, it was his first time outside of Japan, so in addition to the cultural differences, he wasn’t very confident in his English language skills.

SM: How old were you when they sent you here to New York City?

TTN: I think that was, I was 28.

SM: And what was that like for you? Had you been outside the country at that point, or had you ever visited New York prior to being assigned here?

TTN: Well first of all, I am not a kikokushijo. I didn’t have any chance to live outside Japan; I didn’t have any education outside Japan. So it was quite surprising when the bank sent me to New York back in 1989, and still I remember when I joined the bank I had a certain English test. And out of 1000 full score I got only 500. So I didn’t think I would ever have a chance to work outside Japan, but for some reason they sent me to New York.

SM: They saw something in you. So, how did you improve your English?

TTN: I don’t know. After coming back to the States, the first three years was just business taking care of Japanese corporations in this area. So I didn’t even need to use English because most of my clients were Japanese, and they’re all Japanese-speaking people. But after that, I was given a chance to work in Human Resources where all of my colleagues are non-Japanese. That’s the time I, you know, improved my English a little bit.

SM: Because you were kind of forced to in order to communicate with your colleagues.

TTN: Right, right. And thanking to my colleagues, they were pretty much patient about my broken English.

SM: I found it fascinating that, before he got into Human Resources, he didn’t have to communicate in English at work. So I asked him what it was like to interact with non-Japanese people during that time.

TTN: Thank you, that’s a very good question because I clearly remember after I moved to Human Resources, my English was improving, so I was getting a lot more confident—oh, my communication skills, you know, kind of improving. Then, when outside, and say, like, going to McDonald’s and ordering something, and still my English was not that communicable. So, you know, that was the time that, okay, probably my colleagues understand my English because they are used to Japanese-accented English and a little broken grammar. So I need to, you know, make myself a little more exposed to more English-spoken culture, society. So that’s why I tried to, you know, spend more time outside the bank and tried to make more American friends and, you know, brush my English.

SM: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were a lot of Japanese businesses in New York, so I wondered if he felt as if he were still in Japan sometimes.

TTN: The answer is yes and no. Most typical Japanese guys—expatriates if you call—they are here only for three or four years on a temporary assignment. And if they do business with Japanese corporations, yes, they don’t have to feel they are outside Japan. Because you know, if you go to Mitsuwa, you can buy Japanese food, and you can go to Japanese-spoken stores, so you don’t have to feel that you’re outside Japan. But my case, for some reason the bank kept me in New York almost ten years straight. It was unusual that somebody who was sent from Tokyo stayed in this country ten years straight. And you know, my exposure to non-Japanese clients and non-Japanese businesses was kind of growing, so I was feeling that I am a Japanese working outside Japan.

SM: Working for Mitsubishi, though, was that like typical of goals that Japanese people in your age group had? Was that like the big accomplishment for you to work for a company like Mitsubishi?

TTN: After coming to the States, my dream was I do something very big in this country and go back to Japan and get promotions. That was my kind of dream, and probably I would say most Japanese ex-pats think about their career development like that. But after 20-something years of, you know, doing business in this country, finally I was told to go back to Japan, and I was almost hitting age 50, and I did go back to Japan, but our all three kids were growing up here, and they were in college here in this country. So my decision was to go back to Japan by myself, leaving all my family in this country. But you know, our family was always together, so me being the only person in Japan and living apart from my family, I was quite devastated, and my family really want me coming back to the States. So one time all three kids talked to me, “Dad, you’re the one that family should be always together, but now you’re sticking to your own career development and you’re going back to Japan by yourself. That’s not fair. So you should come back and stay with us. That’s what families are for.”

SM:   I think of Tommy as a businessperson, but this conversation showed me different sides of his personal story. Part of his Japanese American identity is being a husband and father. Like him, his wife is Japanese, and they moved to the US with 2 children and had a third child after they moved. I wanted to know more about his family life, especially how they navigated living in New York while raising three children. As someone who grew up culturally very American, I’m always curious about how Japanese and Japanese Americans decide how much Japaneseness to bring into the childrearing process.

TTN: I have three kids—now 31, 30, and 25. Two older ones were born in Japan but came here when they were 2 and 1, and the youngest one was born here. All three of them had at one time lived in Japan. Only for three years. The oldest one was sixth grader, and second one fifth grader, and the youngest one is pre-K. So they had three years experience in Japan and went to Japanese school. But other than that, elementary school, middle school, high school, college—their education was all here. So their mindset is more like, you know, “We are American than Japanese. This is our home country.”

SM:  It actually surprised me to hear that Tommy’s children said the US is their home country, not Japan. It seemed to me that he and his wife made the conscious decision to raise their children as American.

TTN: The only thing I can tell that there was very, very intense discussion between my wife and I, and when we came to the States over 30 years ago, we had two children, 2 and 1, my wife and I discussed so if they have to go to school, do we want to send them to American local school or Japanese school? And our decision was to send them to local American school because back then we thought our stay in this country was temporary, not permanent.

SM: So you had no idea that in total you would be here 25 years.

TTN: Taking advantage of being here, we wanted to give our children a little more experience than they could have had staying in Japan.

SM: Tommy’s children learned English more quickly than Tommy and his wife.

TTN: Like I said when I came to the States, my English was not that good, and my wife had a same situation, so we spoke and still speak Japanese at home. That’s the only place our children learned Japanese.  

SM: Oh, so no weekend school for them?

TTN: Well, actually, we were lazy parents! And we didn’t want to, you know, get up early on Saturday morning and send them to school. That was not our life, so…

SM: Since Tommy and his wife actually spoke to their children in Japanese, I assumed that they considered them to be bicultural, with personalities and sensibilities that are equal parts Japanese and American. But that’s not really the case, as Tommy explains.

TTN: I would say to me they sound perfect bilingual. If I am asked are they bicultural? They may be too schooled to American culture than Japanese traditional culture because their education and their life here in this country. But still, they understand some kind of Japanese behaviors and things and typical Japanese people’s behavior.

SM: Did your wife and you celebrate like Oshogatsu, and Hina Matsuri, and Children’s Day, and that sort of thing in the home even while you were here in New York?

TTN: Yes, yes. My wife wants to educate our kids about those traditional culture in Japan. We are the first generation and our children the second generation. Maybe this continues up to the third generation, then they kind of fading away, right?

SM: Hearing Tommy describe his family life made me think of you, Toshiki. Can you identify with Tommy’s children as a child of native Japanese parents who raised you in Dallas?

TN: Well, my mom actually worked at the local Japanese Saturday school as a teacher, so if anyone was being lazy about waking up on a Saturday, it was definitely me. But yeah, I ended up quitting Japanese school during elementary school because balancing extracurricular activities like sports and music with Japanese school ended up being too difficult. But like Tommy described with his kids, the Japaneseness I learned growing up mostly came from interactions I had with my parents at home anyway.

SM: I started taking sporadic Japanese classes in 1999, and I certainly wish I could speak it fluently now! Even though Tommy reflects on not being able to speak English very well when he first started working in New York, I think part of his exposure to American culture and assimilation also ties into his name. His birth name is Takaaki, but he gave himself the nickname Tommy.

TN: Yeah, when you said that you were going to interview someone named Tommy Nakajima, I imagined that he might be a sansei Japanese American guy named Thomas, but no, he’s from Japan.

SM: Middle names aren’t customary in Japan, so Tommy or Thomas isn’t his middle name either. In fact, people in Japan probably don’t know him as Takaaki because businesspeople address each other by their surnames, like “Nakajima-san.” I was curious about why he goes by Tommy.

SM: So I want to talk about your name.

TTN: Okay.

SM: Your given name is Takaaki.

TTN: Right.

SM: But you go by Tommy.

TTN: Yes.

SM: So how did that happen? And why?

TTN: My real first name is Takaaki. And there are two A’s in the middle, and I got to know that for many Americans it’s not easy to pronounce. So most people look at my name and try to pronounce like “Ta-kay-a-kay-eye?” Something like that. Even once in a while I receive phone calls from nobody that, you know, “Can I speak to Ta-kay-ah-kay Na-ka-jai-ma?” I know you don’t know me, right? So one time I was registering at the local golf club in New Jersey, and I was just writing out my name, T. Nakajima, and happened to be one person next to me and looking at my signature, and we was jokingly talking to me, “Oh, sir, are you the brother of the famous Japanese golf player Tommy Nakajima?” What? I’m sorry, what are you talking about? And he said, “Don’t you know Tommy Nakajima?” And I knew, I knew Tsuneyuki Nakajima, but I didn’t know that he went by Tommy in this country. So talking to that gentleman and got to know that Tsuneyuki Nakajima went by Tommy. Oh, okay. So this is a good nickname to pick up. So that was my decision to go by Tommy since then. Actually, when I came to the States and joined Mitsubishi Bank in New York back in 1990, most people tried to call me Mr. Nakajima or Mr. Taka Nakajima, something like that. But later on I decided to go by Tommy and tried to introduce myself, “I’m Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.” Then, to me I felt like people felt much more friendly to me. So maybe, you know, going by first name, like kind of easy name to, you know, to pronounce? I think that’s a good way to get myself more closer to my colleagues. And so that’s why I always try to go by Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.

TN: Do know what my middle name is?

SM: It’s George, right?

TGN: Yeah. My first name is Toshiki, but my parents gave me the middle name “George” just in case I wanted to go by an “American” name when I grew up.

SM: You don’t look like a George.

TGN: That’s racist. I always thought that Japanese names were relatively easy to pronounce because they’re phonetic, so I never actually considered going by George. But Tommy’s story reminds me of the only other Toshiki I’ve met. Coincidentally, my friend’s old boss’s first name is Toshiki, and his middle name is Bruce. And professionally, he went by Bruce. His business card said T. Bruce and everything. Tommy’s interview reminds me that it might be a generational thing, where it’s more acceptable or normal now to have an ethnic name. But maybe when Tommy and Bruce were establishing their careers, since other Americans weren’t as used to seeing Japanese names, it was more acceptable to go by an American name.

SM: I think that was definitely the case for Tommy, and I think it was a big coincidence that there was a golfer named T. Nakajima. Tsuneyuki Nakajima was a golfer who was successful in the 1980s. He was also from Japan but had the nickname “Tommy” when he played internationally. Like Takaaki, the given name Tsuneyuki doesn’t really sound like Tommy, except for starting with the letter T, but it was probably a close enough nickname that Americans could pronounce. I tried to look up the origin of the golfer’s nickname but couldn’t find an answer. Anyway, I think going by an American name was a symbolic step for Tommy to assimilate to American culture.

TGN: It sounds like he wasn’t embarrassed by his Japanese name or anything, but he just didn’t want to inconvenience other people who couldn’t pronounce Takaaki.

SM: Yeah, and I think it’s also a fun story for him now. Becoming “Tommy” was a way for him to take on this new Western identity.

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TGN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. JapanCulture-NYC features events, activities, and restaurants around the city, and it’s a great resource for people interested in Japanese culture to find something to do or eat! Our interview guest Tommy Nakajima’s favorite restaurant in the city is Wasan, located in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And the first taiko drumming group on the East Coast, Soh Daiko, is celebrating their 40th anniversary with a performance on June 22. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.

SM: Because I knew that the interview would focus on business, I thought about a setting for the interview that would fit the subject. Tommy and I met in Midtown Manhattan on Madison Avenue close to the Midtown PwC offices. Madison Avenue is historically known for its role in the growth of the advertising industry, and it’s the backdrop for the AMC TV show Mad Men. Today, there are a lot of high-end retail brands, and if you take a stroll up the avenue, you’ll actually notice a lot of stores that sell business shirts. You know, at The Big Root, we love to highlight how Japaneseness is everywhere, so I proposed that we meet at one of those Madison Avenue stores called Kamakura Shirts!

TGN: Business!

SM: Yoshio Sadasue and his wife, Tomiko, established Kamakura Shirts in 1993 in the charming seaside city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, and the bespoke apparel company opened its Madison Avenue store in 2012. Their Brookfield Place location in Downtown Manhattan followed three years later. The Sadasues strive to bring the highest quality shirt along with excellent customer service to New Yorkers. When I asked Tommy to meet me there, he thought it would be a great idea and said he was a regular customer. When I arrived, he was buying a pocket square! A consummate businessman, Tommy was dressed in a sports coat and dress pants, and of course, a Kamakura Shirt.

TGN: What a professional.

SM: I asked him why he liked Kamakura Shirts.

TTN: I like one American brand about business suits, but their shirt is always too wide. And with my neck size and my sleeve size, there is one shirt that fits me okay, but not perfect. I was always looking for something better fit for me, and also when I got to know that Kamakura Shirts opened this store, I wanted to support a Japanese company trying to do something new in this very competitive market. And also one of my friends was from Yokohama, and he knows Kamakura Shirts very well, and he really pushed me, “Mr. Nakajima, please go to Kamakura Shirts and help them.” So that was the time that I came to Kamakura Shirts, and I bought the first one—this is the one I’m wearing right now—then I liked it because of the quality of cotton, and this shirt fits me much better, to me. So I decided to order made-to-order shirt, and maybe I think I can mention his name, Kitatsuru-san was helping me with my made-to-order shirt, which fits me perfect.

SM: The “Kitatsuru-san” he’s referring to is an employee at Kamakura Shirts who’s helped Tommy with his shirt fittings in the past. The shirt did look nice on Tommy. He’s tried on many business shirts throughout his life, so he knows a quality shirt when he sees one.

TTN: The quality of Japanese goods are really nice compared to—no offense to American people, but you know—there are many, many nice quality things like Kamakura Shirts. So once I find the quality is better, then—I’m the kind of person who may want to spend more money for quality and durability, and Kamakura Shirts is one of them. And some other things if I find the quality is really nice, I am not shy to spend a little more money, but you know. At the end of the day, you know, if I spend more, but the thing is good for a longer time, I think that is a good investment. And that’s what my mother used to say to me.

SM: At Kamakura Shirts, you can buy one of their off-the-rack shirts that come in a range of neck, shoulder, and sleeve sizes, and these shirts cost $89. But if none of those are a perfect fit, they also provide made-to-order shirts that they tailor to your specific measurements. I spoke with Kakeru Kitatsuru, or Kitatsuru-san, after my interview with Tommy, which you’ll hear in a bit, but Tommy had so many positive things to say about his experience getting made-to-order shirts.

TTN: Made-to-order is the best, and I know it’s expensive, but again, I think it’s worth it. And, you know, they proudly introduced 400-count cotton, and the moment you put your shirt on, it’s completely different. And once you button up, and particularly right after you take your tie, it perfectly fits your body. Even like 3pm or 4pm still the shirt looks pretty much new, I mean, clean and no wrinkle even in the afternoon, that makes me feel good. I see a lot of people and clients, and how do I look is really, really important, so Kamakura Shirts helps me doing business.

SM: Tommy is a professional and certainly looks the part, and as a businessman, he knows that you show your support by what you spend your money on. He admires the quality of Japanese goods and services, and he’ll pay a little extra for something that’s made well. He told me that his shoes were a Japanese brand, and he also gets his hair cut by a Japanese barber. Beyond business, though, I wanted to talk to him more about his involvement with the Japanese community here in New York. It sounded like, during his first stint in New York with his then employer Mitsubishi, he focused on his career and didn’t have much time for community service. He talked about how the Japanese American Association of New York, which we featured in our previous episode, and U.S.-Japan Council, which we discussed in our first episode, became important groups for him to connect with other Japanese people in New York.

TTN: After spending my time here in this country over 20 years, all of a sudden, I thought, oh, I did a lot in the Japanese-Japanese business community, but I didn’t do much for the Japanese community in local. And I happen to know the organization USJC, and I met a lot of people, I met a lot of Japanese Americans who are really, really, seriously thinking about the relationship between the two big countries, Japan and the US. So I was quite inspired by many people in USJC that I should spend more time to do something good for the two countries.

SM: I first met Tommy at a JAA event in December of last year, and he expressed an interest in working with JET alumni to strengthen the ties between the US and Nagano. Nagano is one of the 47 Prefectures, or states, in Japan, and its capital city is Nagano City. I serve on the Board of Directors of the JET Alumni Association of New York. It’s  a non-profit organization that fosters an understanding of Japanese culture between participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program and New York’s Japanese community through various events and activities.

TTN: For JET Program, I got to know some alumni who have been to my hometown, Nagano. Now we are talking about what are we doing, a kind of reunion for those who have been to Nagano before and get together and talk about a little more about Japan-US relationship, Nagano-US relationship.

SM: I haven’t been to Nagano City or the Prefecture, but his passion for his home is contagious. Many people might be familiar with Nagano because of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano City, but Tommy recognizes that there are so many things that are great about the city and its surrounding region. I couldn’t help but ask more about how he wants to promote the Japanese prefecture to Americans.

SM: What are your ideas, other than this alumni reunion thing, what are your ideas to introduce Nagano to New Yorkers in general, not just people who were assigned there for JET?

TTN: Thank you, that is a very important question for me because I was lucky enough to get a title from the Governor of Nagano Prefecture. The name is Global Nagano Promotion Advisor. This is my volunteer work. The Governor Abe of Nagano Prefecture is currently focusing on three areas: One, tourism—he’s expecting more tourists from outside into Nagano. Second, he is trying to promote more Nagano-based businesses to the United States. Actually, I got to know that there are a handful of Nagano-based companies who are doing business with Boeing. So there are many high tech companies in Nagano who have pretty much high quality products. Because they are not big, they need some support to get themselves more known to wider industries, in the wider markets, so that’s the second thing. The third thing is Nagano is well known to education, and the Governor is trying to establish more exchange programs between Nagano-based colleges and high schools and colleges and high schools in this country. Actually they are sending 40 to 50 students every year from Nagano to the New York-Boston area to give high school students a chance to look at something very different from Nagano.

TGN: I actually went to Nagano with my dad last year. We stayed at a hot spring bath house or an onsen in the mountains there, and I remember there were apples in the bath because I think Nagano’s famous for their apples. We were staying there to visit Jigokudani Yaen Koen. There are monkeys that hang out in their own outdoor baths. He mentioned the monkeys as a big attraction in Nagano, right?

SM: Yes, he did.

TTN: You may have heard, you may have seen snow monkey. Monkeys enjoying onsen in Nagano area. That’s a kind of typical thing, and that's why Nagano got a little popular among some tourism industry.

SM: More than tourist attractions, Tommy really cares about promoting business and education too. I think it’s important for him to reach out to people who aren’t from the prefecture because maybe people from Nagano don’t know what makes Nagano great.

TTN: I am in discussion with many JET alumni both still in Nagano and here back in the States. JET alumni guys, you were in Nagano and now back in the United States. And what would you be able to suggest to Nagano people based on experience, how do they promote more business, how do they promote more tourism, how do they want to do educational program between two countries? People in Nagano—as you know Japan and even Nagano is pretty much homogeneous, you know, culture, and they do not do a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. But JET alumni can give them pretty much different perspectives on those things. So, you know, it’s a kind of teamwork effort.  You know, people from Nagano inside, from inside Nagano, there are some perspectives, but, you know, those alumni can give Nagano people, you know, quite different perspectives. So making together probably we will be able to do something quite interesting, so that’s what I’m aiming to do.

TGN: I’m glad that we got a chance to give Tommy a platform to talk about Nagano.

SM: I have to go next time I’m in Japan! Like I said, Tommy and I met at Kamakura Shirts, and since he loves their shirts so much, I asked him if he wanted to go for a fitting. I mentioned that a Kamakura Shirts employee named Kakeru Kitatsuru measured Tommy for his made-to-order shirts previously, and coincidentally, he was there when we visited to show us how a shirt fitting goes.

We were recording our interview in a second floor lobby area next to the Kamakura Shirts store, so after we talked about Nagano, we went downstairs. Kakeru was listening to our interview, and he commented to Tommy in Japanese that he enjoyed learning about his background. Kakeru embodies the Japanese principle of omotenashi, which loosely translates to hospitality, although that explanation is a bit basic. Omotenashi is more like the spirit of service; it’s about giving someone something before they know they need it. Before we sat down for the interview, Kakeru brought Tommy and me water and made sure the area was quiet for our recording. For a businessman like Tommy, he was like a kid in a candy store walking around Kamakura Shirts. Before I knew it, Tommy was off looking at neckties. In the meantime, I asked Kakeru a couple questions about the background of the store.

KK: Our vision is to sell more than 400 thousand shirts throughout the world. Mostly it’s going to be probably out of Japan, of course, but still making a made-in-Japan quality product, and to have every businessman out in the world representing what business style should look like, properly. That’s why we have the store here. And another reason is because our founder, the chairman, Yoshio, Sadasue Yoshio, he used to work for a company called VAN Jacket, which is a very famous brand back in the days when the Ivy League style was popular. And it’s the brand that brought the Ivy League style to Japan, and that’s where he used to work. And the founder of that company had also a vision of having a proper shirt shop, and then our chairman, of course, decided to open one up in Kamakura in Japan. So that’s where it started, and it was always his dream to open up a store here, in Madison Avenue where the Ivy League style started. That’s why our signature button-down shirts are very popular.    

SM: I liked that Kakeru referred to Kamakura Shirts as providing “made-in-Japan quality.”

KK: Of course, the fabric is always good, but more importantly what’s the detail of the shirt and the stitching and the technique that’s required to it. You mentioned how with his shirt, it can last more than two or three years, but then, you know something, a poorly made shirt lasts for probably like two or three months, maybe half a year. That goes the same thing with our shirts. Just because the stitching is properly made and also the fabric is good, just that makes it last quite longer but the same price as a two-, three-month old shirt. That’s why our shirt is made in Japan, gives out the quality of what people are looking for.

SM: I attended the one-year anniversary of their Madison Avenue store in 2013, as well as a Suntory whisky tasting at their Brookfield Place location. One thing that stood out to me at both events was that they talked about what a challenge it was at the beginning to make sure these Japanese shirts fit customers in the US.

SM: Let’s talk a little bit about body types. So I think there’s this stereotypical idea of what a Japanese body type is, a Japanese salaryman kind of body type. Did you run into any kind of challenges at first when Kamakura Shirts opened in New York with the vast array of body types that Western men have?

KK: Definitely a lot! There’s a lot going on! I find that a lot more people do work out a lot, maybe not even that much. So body physique’s quite different over here, but then in general the average Japanese person has a similar I say bodyline throughout the chest and waist, so it’s not too hard, they don’t ask too much, not in a bad way, of course. But in a good way over here, a lot of people, because they work out, they require more fitted shirts, so they are very picky on what they want. So that’s why a lot of made-to-measure is helpful for those people, and we find it difficult to have them fit an off-the-rack shirt in comparison to Japan.  

TGN: I can imagine there’s just more variation in body types in New York compared to Japan, but it also sounds like there’s a difference in the way that American customers like their shirts to fit.

SM: Yes, I think it shows the ability of Kamakura Shirts to adapt their business to serve different customers. To accommodate the body types and fit preferences of their New York customers, they actually created a new style.

KK: We do have a specific fit that we only sell here in New York in comparison to Japan. There is one store, actually, that sells in Japan, but that’s specifically the Ginza location, where you do find a lot of foreigners visiting that location. That store does carry that specific fit that we sell over here as well, but mainly we are the store that sells that special fit that’s for a person that’s taller, has a bulkier physique, will be fitted in the shirt. It’s called the New York Fit, and the one we sell in Japan is called the Tokyo Fit.

SM: Ginza is a neighborhood in Tokyo that’s lined with luxury brands and boutiques and attracts a lot of foreign tourists to shop there. Some streets in Ginza actually remind me of Madison Avenue, so I thought it was ironic that New York has influenced their business in Tokyo, too.

TGN: Everywhere New York-ness.

SM: Where did Tommy go? There he is. Oh, he’s shopping now!

SM: I finally caught Tommy to record Kakeru measuring him for a shirt. He was at the cash register buying a necktie.

TGN: I bet the Kamakura Shirts people were happy we brought them business!

SM: Tommy was serious about supporting Japanese businesses! Watching Kakeru and Tommy do the fitting was a lot of fun. You can just tell that Kakeru is very mindful when interacting with his customers and that Tommy is comfortable. He was even joking about how Kakeru would be the first to notice that his waistline was expanding.

TTN: Over the past three years, how fat did I become?

SM: No! I’m sure that’s not—you would keep that to yourself if you noticed one of your regulars getting larger!

SM: So I got Kakeru to go through the fitting process. Kakeru measured his neck first, and then went on to measure his shoulder and sleeve. It seemed like he had Tommy’s measurements memorized because he didn’t write anything down in between.

SM: What is the process that you go through when someone comes in and says, “Hey, okay, off-the-rack isn’t working for me; I really have a specific idea for a fit.” So what do you say to that customer?

KK: Regardless if our off-the-rack doesn’t fit them or not, our made-to-measure isn’t a full custom order. It’s almost like a mix-and-match of different parts of the body with the pattern we already carry. So it’s a semi-custom. So anyway, we will still have them try on the best fitting off-the-rack shirt first, then tweaking it from there to get a perfect fit for the shirt. So we measure the neck and the sleeve and have him try the closest off-the-rack.

SM: Typically order more than one shirt, or like different colors?

KK: It depends, yes. Because I think made-to-measure—it goes the same for suits, pants, orders, shoes any type of custom orders, first try is always the try out. Then the second is the perfect, I think that’s a lot of the case. So a lot of people would like to try on just one shirt.

TTN: I bought this off the rack; I like it. And came back to Kitatsuru-san; I need a little more high quality one, then made-to-order.

KK: Just to give a little more adjustment to the second one, so a lot of people I recommend to try out just one, at first, to see how it fits.

SM: While Kakeru was fitting Tommy for a shirt, he described what he will recommend to create the best fitting shirt for Tommy’s specific body type.  

KK: f it’s usually for him, there is a specific body type I recommend that fits very well in the chest and waist, but the problem is usually the sleeve length and neck size for him, so we have to shorten the sleeve length, adjust the neck size, then he chooses out the fabrics that he likes. So, I’d probably bring him right now the best fitting shirt around here first, then I’ll explain something about the sleeve.

SM: Do you do your alterations on site here?               

KK: It’s going to be in Japan. So we send the data of the measurements to Japan, and they make it in the factories in Japan and send it here.

SM: Excellent. So using the basic pattern, but then adjusting the sleeve and neck for his specific specifications.

KK: Yes, exactly.

SM: That’s an interesting process. How long does that usually take?

KK: Usually the turnaround is three weeks. It’s a little faster in Japan actually because the shirt itself only takes about two weeks in Japan and from there it’s about a week’s shipping. It’s actually quite quick because usually brands take four to five weeks, I’d say, so we are a little quicker in that case.

SM: There were definitely Japanese-speaking customers in the store when we were there, but I was also curious about whether they had more Americans or Japanese immigrants who visit the store .

SM: Do you find that your clientele is a mix of Japanese and non, or...

KK: It’s definitely a lot more locals. Because a lot of people in Japan actually they do have an occasional visit back to Japan, and they find out, you know importing tax and all that does make the price higher over here with the dollar price. With the yen price it’s a lot cheaper. So that’s why a lot of people go back to Japan to purchase our shirts, but it’s almost like a vacation visit kind of location here. People that like Kamakura Shirts in Japan they find that it’s interesting to find us here, so they still do come visit here just to see our store in person.

SM: Omotenashi can be a bit difficult to describe to non-Japanese people. Sometimes it’s obvious when you visit a traditional Japanese inn, called ryokan, where they serve you dinner in your own room. But most of the time, omotenashi can be more subtle, like what businesses like Kamakura Shirts offer to customers.

KK: There’s a lot of small things we can find throughout the stores even now, like for instance, taking the credit card with both hands. We value what the customer’s position is. So even with his jacket earlier, I took with one hand, one hanger, put it on, not on the floor, not on the couch. Or, let’s say greeting them from the door and leading back out together as well, opening the door for them, a lot of small things like that I think builds up, makes the customer feel comfortable. And that’s where our reviews are coming from.   

SM: Tommy does praise the Japanese quality of Kamakura Shirts, but it’s also more than that. They make customers feel like they are well taken care of.

TGN: When I go to Japan and experience the customer service there, it just reminds me of how terrible customer service can be here in the States.

SM: It’s true. It’s not even at high-end stores either. Even at corner convenience stores in Japan, you see those things like the cashier handing you your grocery bag with two hands.

TGN: Ugh, I miss Japan.

KK: All right. So let me measure your neck and sleeve, then.

SM: You got to experience the omotenashi at Kamakura Shirts first hand yourself because you stopped by to have Kakeru measure you too!

KK: Do you ever do wear dress shirts?

TGN: Very rarely.

KK: Very rarely!

TGN: Yes, as a stereotypically skinny Asian man, I thought it would be appropriate to have a different body type for the fitting!

SM: Tommy said that he was your size 30 years ago.

TGN: As a guy who doesn’t have broad shoulders, I’ve always had trouble finding shirts that fit well, so I was curious to see if a Japanese brand like Kamakura Shirts would fit me better. There are a few brands out there that have custom-fit shirts, and I used one of those companies for the one nice suit I own, and it’s cool to see Kamakura Shirts adopt this semi-custom made-to-order model.

KK: About 13 and a half. So, your neck size should be an inch more, a little bigger than that. That’s why I’d recommend probably about 14 and a half, and the sleeve, the length 31 or 32. Did we want to try on a shirt today?

TGN: Yeah I ended up trying on two sizes of the off-the-rack shirts. The shirts were really soft. I think it’s, uhh, because I work out my chest and shoulders, but the Tokyo Style shirt was actually a bit tight on me in the upper body. Because my arms are a little too short for the larger sleeve size I tried on, Kakeru said that he would probably recommend that a made-to-order shirt would be best for my measurements.

SM: Like Kakeru said before, most people try an off-the-rack shirt first, and then get their perfect fit with the made-to-order shirt.

TGN: I think Tommy was off shopping for more stuff in the store during my fitting, and I know you talked with Kakeru more after the fittings. Did you ask him anything else?

SM: Yeah, you commented that you liked the feel of the shirts, and when I was looking around the store, I could tell it was a special material.

SM: It is a great fabric, I mean, what is different about the material? Is it, obviously, from Japan; is it cotton, is it a blend?

KK: Our shirts is usually cotton hundred. Then within the cotton shirts, even cotton/polyester there is a thread count to the cotton weave. Usually high-quality, luxury fabric is considered from 80 to 100 thread yarn count. That’s quite fine. Oxford shirts, like the classic button-down casual ones, are usually about 40, so that’s why they’re thick. A lot of the 80 to 100 thread yarn shirts you find out usually cost like $200. Maybe slightly less, maybe $150, $160. We sell that for $89.

SM: Kamakura Shirts has more than 25 stores throughout Japan, and the two New York locations are their only US stores.

TGN: I love that the New York locations of Kamakura Shirts are tourist attractions for Japanese people who visit. It really shows that Japanese influence is everywhere.

SM: Yes, even for Japanese people who live here like Tommy value a business like Kamakura Shirts. I occasionally run into Tommy at JAA and USJC events, but it was nice to get to know him better as a person rather than a businessman.

TGN: Thanks to Tommy for spending an evening after work with us! He fits well in New York.

SM: A big thank you goes to everyone at Kamakura Shirts, especially Michiko Tamaoki, Keisuke Tokumori, and of course, Kakeru Kitatsuru for accommodating our request to record at their store.

TGN: All right, listeners, please sign up for The Big Root Mailing List at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe. We’ll send out exclusive updates, and we also have live events planned.

SM: As always, we’re looking for new ideas and suggestions for people and activities to feature on The Big Root, so reach out to us at our website or on social media!

TGN: Do you get your hair cut at a Japanese place?

SM: Oh, yes. I love the Japanese salon I’ve been going to for almost 20 years. They have the best service, and my hair looks fabulous! What about you?

TGN: They don’t have to be Japanese, but I need an Asian person who understands my hair to cut it, or else it just looks bad. I don’t have a go-to salon like you do, but I like to try out different Japanese places near me. Plus it’s like a personal challenge to hold a conversation solely in Japanese for the 45 minutes that they’re cutting my hair.

SM: Support Japanese businesses and... practice Japanese language skills, especially if you quit Japanese school in elementary school.

TGN: Yeah, whoopsies.

Music

SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.

TGN: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by me, Toshiki Nakashige.

SM: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.

TGN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige

SM: I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.

Toshiki Nakashige