How Western Surf Culture Flipped the Rubric of Leisurewear and Became a Truly Japanese Pursuit

Along its mission to engage with the many talents from its global network, One Block Downs is proud to reveal its latest collaborative editorial with digital magazine Sabukaru. Based in Tokyo, Japan, we have connected with the ever-evolving platform to bring our audience closer to an endless catalogue of unique cultural learnings.

Surfing is a multi-faceted subculture that has a rich history and an array of meanings depending on who you are talking to. For some, surfing can be defined as athleticism. For others, surfing can be defined as a lifestyle. Social scientists point to the emergence of surf culture in the West after World War 2 as seeking to redefine the meaning of leisure. Surfing played on ideals that were in opposition to the industrialized work that gripped the 20th century such as sunbathing and swimming. The ability to enjoy these activities was exclusive to the upper-class, but was later subverted by the surfing subculture. Instead of leisure being defined as a commodity that was available through economic capital, surfing democratized the ability to enjoy such activities by making it a way of life.

The surfing subculture is rampant with stereotypes, mostly depicting tanned, laid-back athletes hanging around by the beach. In this article, we will intentionally take a step back from the shallow caricatures of surfing in order to elucidate the significance of surfing by focusing on the origin, history, and continued influence that it continues to have on the contemporary zeitgeist. To do this, we will look at the way in which surfing gripped the minds of mid-20th century America, and how it is that the modern surf subculture had a role in furthering the intercultural dialogue between the United States and Japan by exporting and assimilating a love for waves.

This article features exclusive quotes from David Marx, author of “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style” and co-founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme, to help give us insight into the unique cultural forces that continue to influence the subcultural dialogue between the United States, Japan, and surfing.

Pre-Contact History

Surfing has existed in one form or another for several centuries. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of surfing, but evidence suggests that fishermen from ancient cultures of Peru surfed on “caballitos de totora”, which were reed boats used for fishing and recreation around three to five thousand years ago. Comparatively, standing up on a surfboard is a relatively recent innovation and its origins can be directly traced back to Polynesia (the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean).The word “surf” is “he’e nalu” in Hawaiian, which loosely translates to “sliding on a wave”.The European explorer James Cook’s account of surfing remains to be the most famous and earliest written accounts of surfing, in which he describes his curiosity and interest with the islanders’ comfort in water.

Prior to European contact, surfing was a central component of ancient Polynesia. Class division was rife in pre-contact Hawaii, whereby all aspects of society were predetermined by their laws known as “code of kapu”. These rules included where you could surf and instructions for how long surfboards could be. Those of the lower-class had to have 12-foot boards, whereas the upper-class members of society were able to have 24-foot boards. With these codes in place, the ruling class had the advantage of having the best boards, and the best beaches.The most skilled surfers were often chiefs and warriors of the upper-class and it was their ability to master the waves that was used to prove themselves and gain respect amongst their peers.

The people of ancient Hawaii did not consider surfing as simply a recreational hobby. Rather, over the centuries, Hawaiians integrated “he’e nalu” (wave sliding sessions) as a sacred practice into the very fabric of their culture. Surfing sessions began before entering the ocean as Hawaiians prayed to the gods for protection to undertake the mysterious and powerful ocean. If the ocean was tamed, surfers would call upon the kahuna (priest) to aid them in a prayer asking the gods to deliver a thrilling surf. The priest would also help the surfers (mainly of the upper class) undertake the spiritual ceremony for constructing a surfboard. This ceremony included selecting one of three types of trees and digging the tree out in order to place a fish in the hole as an offering to the gods for promising “he’e nalu” (surf).

Post-Contact History

The earliest written accounts of surfing came from the British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. Initially, surfing was met with shock, awe, and confusion by the European explorers, which eventually led to skepticism and disdain towards the practice. Upon contact with the Western world Hawaiian culture was forced to change. Various customs and rituals were looked down upon during this period (like gambling), and as European influence over the natives increased, Hawaiian culture began to dissipate. Early 19
th century missionaries discouraged many traditional sports such as surfing, which inevitably led to a cultural malaise towards the beloved activity.

Fortunately, a few faithful surfers managed to keep the tradition alive during the height of European colonialism. It was not until Waikiki became a tourist destination that surfing saw a resurgence in popularity. Particularly wealthy Americans came to the beach and saw the locals occasionally surfing and wanted to try it. The famous writer Mark Twain, who’s best known works are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” unsuccessfully attempted surfing in 1866, but went on to describe the “soul-cleansing” nature of being on a board and waiting for a wave. In 1907, Jack London, another best-selling writer, visited Hawaii for holidays and after taking a few surf lessons, enthusiastically wrote about his experience in an essay titled: “A Royal Sport”.

During this time, Hawaiians started their own club called Hui Nalu (meaning "Club of the Waves"). As news of surfing began to spread, locals in Waikiki began giving lessons and demonstrations for tourists. This upsurge in interest eventually gave birth to the renowned Waikiki Beach Boys, a group of mostly Hawaiians credited with the rebirth of surfing in Hawaii. The Waikiki Beach Boys were known for hanging out at the beach, surfing, and teaching affluent tourists how to ride waves. Eventually, Hawaii’s tourism industry began to change as average U.S. citizens, and not just moneyed people were able to travel to the Islands. It was only a matter of time until surfing was democratized and anyone that was keen on learning had the ability to do so.

In 1907, George Freeth, also known as the man who can walk on water, was brought to California from Hawaii to demonstrate surfboard riding to promote the opening of the industrialist Henry Huntington’s newly developed Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad. Freeth surfed at the Huntington Beach pier, travelling up and down the coast demonstrating surfing and lifeguard skills, which had a large role in solidifying the surfing consciousness in California. And during the 20th century, surfing experienced a complete renaissance by finding its way to mainland USA and unknowingly ushering in the golden age of surfing.

Surfing’s Contemporary Turn

Surfers represent a culture that is centered around riding the waves. For some, surfing can be a purely recreational activity, while for others, it is the central focus of their life. It is widely believed that the surfing experience fosters a type of spiritual experience that brings a surfer in contact with themselves and the world.

Surfing culture is now most dominant in California and Hawaii because both states offer the best surfing conditions. However, it is more than likely that you will find a subculture of surfers across the coastlines of the United States. The most iconic depictions affiliated with surf culture include the Woodie — a station wagon used to carry surfboards — and board shorts, which are the long swim shorts used specifically for the activity.

As surfing caught on in California during the 1960s, its popularity quickly spread through American pop culture via channels such as film and music. Several mid-20th century moviessuch as “Gidget”, “Beach Party”, and “Ride the Wild Surf” created a frenzy among American youth who began to think of California sun and surfing as a dream life, while also helping quell anxieties surrounding the Vietnam War. The surf frenzy was also fueled by early records from bands like The Beach Boys, who famously wore the woolen over-shirts that surfers would eventually adopt to battle colder conditions.

Interestingly, surfing’s impact extends beyond the waves. Surfers in California turned to sidewalk surfboards (what became the skateboard) when the waves were flat, and they needed something to do. And to more closely emulate the feeling of being in waves, surfers would sneak into empty backyard swimming pools to keep things stimulating. Eventually, surfing also made its way to snow with the invention of the “snurfer” — a board that could surf on snow — and was the first commercially available snowboard.

When it came to fashion however, surf wear found its identity in the ‘50s and was largely defined by a functional and minimalist approach. Instead of wearing the fitted, high-riding, and belted bathing suits that were popular at the time, surfers gravitated towards simple lifeguard trunks for increased mobility. In many ways, surfer fashion also had a DIY flair to it, like the cut-off jean shorts to help them get in and out of their clothes with ease.

Most of the surf wear aesthetic was minimalist in nature because surfers wanted to save as much time whenever they transitioned into the water from the beach. As a result, “easy to maneuver through” garments such as white t-shirts, cable-knit sweaters, denim jeans, and aloha shirts became a mainstay on the shores amongst surfers. The ability to navigate the shores effectively is what led to a contrarian style that resisted many of the mainstream trends at the time.

Surfing has made significant strides throughout the industry and continues to play a pivotal role in structuring the attitude and style of subcultures that continue to have a presence in the 21st century. Consider one of the most famous streetwear brands of all time: Stüssy. In the late-80s and early-90s, Shawn Stussy, an avid surfer, started his brand in the Southern California surf scene by screen printing T-shirts and surfboards. Eventually, Stüssy swept through the industry and redefined the look and philosophy of casualwear as we know it today. The designs and overall aesthetic touched on references from a range of subcultures that resonated with the brand’s DNA. This amassed a worldwide network of creative youth who shared a common interest in surf-culture and skating.It then went on to grow from surf culture and steadily revolutionize the fashion industry, paving the way for what we now know as streetwear.

Taking Surfing East

As an island nation, Japan offers plenty of exciting spots where surfers can hit the waves. With a flourishing surf culture that grows in popularity every year, it has four main islands and countless smaller ones that offer plenty of opportunities for surfers to enjoy themselves throughout the country. Butsurfing is nothing new to Japan. In fact, surfing in Japan has its roots in the Edo period (1603-1868), and the earliest written record of it can be found in 1821, where the poet Dokurakuan Kanri describes a group of children playing in the waves on traditional “itago” body boards. Itago are small wooden boards that were initially meant to help non-swimmers in the water; a tool to teach people how to swim, and a lifesaving device for people in shipwrecks.

The assimilation of modern surfing in Japan occurred in the 1960s when American soldiers that were stationed out of Yokosuka naval base started bringing longboards to surf around Shonan and Chiba to relax. During this time, locals were still surfing the waves using itago. When American surfers had to return to their base, many of the soldiers would leave their boards in the beach huts. Locals would seize this moment by sneaking into the huts, using the American-made boards and then putting them back in place before any of the soldiers got back. Many of the locals proclaimed feelings of wonder at the new American longboard-style, which is what inspired the first generation of Japanese surfers to experiment with shaping their own boards in a similar manner. For many Japanese, the Shonan coast, which is 50 kilometres south of Tokyo, is regarded as the birthplace of Japan’s modern surf culture.


Sabukaru: How would you differentiate American culture from Japanese culture? And what is it about these differences that has led to the rich cultural interplay between the two countries?

David Marx: Answering this question always results in broad generalizations, but let me focus on one fundamental difference that I’m interested in. America tends to celebrate goal-orientation, whereas Japan celebrates process-orientation. A good example of this is the film “Top Gun”, where the best pilot Maverick doesn’t “play by the rules” and yet is the only one able to beat the Russians. In Japan, there is much more belief in the way things are done. This results in two different approaches to cultural invention. Americans are more likely to throw away old ways of doing things, and so this results in more radical inventions. In Japan, the obsession with process creates a lot of extremely talented craftspeople who are always pushing towards the best possible version of any particular thing according to pre-existing rules. The world benefits from a combination of both approaches.

Much of Japanese surf wear has adopted similar beats with its American counterpart and follows the same trajectory that characterizes the unique cultural interplay between the United States and Japan. As Japan is known for respecting the heritage and craftsmanship that defines a tradition, much of this can be found in the way in which Japan assimilated Surf culture.


Sabukaru: Much of the conversation surrounding your book “Ametora” highlights the way in which Japan assimilated and integrated American fashion. What is the difference between assimilation and appropriation? Does the unique historical cultural interplay between these two countries help elucidate the differences in any meaningful ways?

Marx: In the case of American fashion in Japan, on the surface it looks like “assimilation,” but only in terms of material goods. Yes, Japanese youth didn’t wear blue jeans, then they did. But the meaning of those jeans in Japan was not the same as the U.S. Japan shows that you can have an assimilation of forms without an assimilation of values.Meanwhile “appropriation” is too broadly used to mean any cultural borrowing or influence. We should limit the use of the word to when a powerful majority exploits the cultural innovation of a minority culture for some sort of economic or political gain. Not all borrowing is appropriation. When a less powerful group uses the cultural conventions of a powerful group for their own purposes, that isn’t appropriation. So in the case of Japan borrowing and tinkering with American style, this wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. For most of the 20th century, Japan had a subordinate position to the U.S.


A lot of the fashion choices in surf culture unintentionally revolved around making surf life easier. Loose sweaters and cut off shorts were easy ways to get from the beach and into the water. Japan embraced this ideal and can be found in the successful Japanese clothing brand Battenwear, founded by the designer Shinya Hasegawa. As a year-round surfer, Shinya’s passion for surfing made him gravitate towards designing clothing that is versatile, multi-functional and most importantly, comfortable. Through Battenwear, Shinya was able to reinforce the idea that, when it comes to surf wear, it is more about efficiency through functionality than it is an aesthetic.


Sabukaru: Your book has garnered widespread appreciation, and on the other hand, it has set in motion an important discussion concerning the nature and process of intercultural exchange. What was the impetus for this topic, and what were you able to learn from it?

Marx: I wrote my senior thesis in college on the street fashion brand A Bathing Ape, looking at why they were under-supplying goods in hard-to-find stores and using no advertising. This was 2001, a few years before BAPE became a global phenomenon or Supreme “hypebeasts” made the scene well-known around the world. In the process of that research, I looked into the history of Japanese fashion, and I was surprised to see that Ivy League fashion in the 1960s was seen as a social menace. Around 2010, the 1965 Japanese photo book Take Ivy started to become famous in the US, and in Tokyo, I got to meet one of the writers, Shosuke Ishizu. That inspired me to think about doing a history of Take Ivy, and after talking to publishers, I ended up expanding the scope to the entire history of American fashion in Japan, including jeans, rock’n’roll, and street fashion.

Before I started the research, I didn’t know most of that history, and like many people, I assumed Japanese consumers fell in love with American fashion because they idolized “America,” but the real story is more complex. American fashion simply became a status symbol in Japan, increasingly detached from any aspirations towards the U.S. While everyone looked to American history as the reference point, American style had become a fully Japanese pursuit.

When you survey the internet and talk to people about what it means to be a surfer, you will notice that there isn’t much consensus. Surfing means different things to different people. Nonetheless, there are some commonalities across that define the subculture, and much of it revolves around a rejection of materialism, and a longing for a spiritual and existential lifestyle that is complementary to nature — one that primarily breaks the boundaries of industrialized consumerist complacency.

Sabukaru: Technology has reshaped our relationship to the world. The internet has accelerated this dynamic in unprecedented ways. In what ways have these technological and virtual worlds impacted the fashion industry? Are moments such as the rise of Ametora in Japan artifacts of the past as a result of the fast-paced hashtag culture we are embedded in?

Marx: The Internet has not been kind to Japan. Japanese organizations have been slow to digitize. In some ways, Japanese magazines and books already fulfilled the role of the Internet, collecting massive amounts of information from around the world on a constant basis — without the rest of the world having equal access to what was happening back in Japan. The “Ametora” story happened because Japan was taking influence from the West, but no one outside of Japan was noticing what was happening. And so things went into new and interesting directions. Now the Internet makes everything happening in Japan immediately observable and consumable. This has some obvious benefits: There is increased admiration and respect for Japanese creators. Japanese brands have more influence on global fashion than ever before. But it also means Japanese goods are a little less mysterious.

Sabukaru: When comparing sportswear to mid-20th century ivy staples, was there a specific historical event that facilitated a transition from formal wear to a wider acceptance of casual-sportswear in the public sphere? In the United States and Japan, sportswear has seen a 110% upsurge in sales. Does an upsurge of interest in sportswear say anything about the contemporary political, social or historical climate?

Marx: I recommend the scholar Deirdre Clemente’s book “Dress Casual”, which is about how elite American college students helped the U.S. become more and more casual in the 20th century. This has now escalated into a total program of de-formalization. Suits are rare. Neckties are curios. Billionaires wear athleisure. This is the obvious outcome of a rationalization mindset: Casual is more comfortable than formal clothing. There are positive aspects of this, but there’s a reason we have such adoration for the people in old movies and photos. Getting dressed up created a social space in which everyone looked their best.


Subcultures are a mirror to the human condition. The emergence of subcultures across countries such as the United States and the way in which countries across the globe such as Japan passionately incorporated it into their own, give us insight into the powerful ways that subcultures can act as a mirror, which reflect the social, historical, and psychological milieu of what it means to be human. The global success of the surfing subculture should not solely be understood in terms of its economic weight, but for its ability to provide a space that answers the apprehension and angst of individuals who do not feel satisfied with the reigning imposition of the modern cultural hegemony. From this perspective, subcultures can be a useful tool that can further aid in the journey towards improving the human condition through social reform.

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