What’s the Go With Japan’s Bootleg T-Shirts?
I was in the Tokyo suburb of Shibuya when I first laid eyes on one. Nothing about my bright and hectic surroundings felt familiar to me, until I recognised the spiky-haired cartoon hellraiser printed on a stranger’s T-shirt. But there was something not quite right about the Bart Simpson I was seeing. This Bart was shooting a lay-up in a Lakers uniform. I shrugged it off; this person must be a huge fan of both basketball and The Simpsons.
It made sense until I saw another. This time Bart was a member of Wu Tang Clan. A few hours later I saw him dressed as his long-forgotten alter-ego Bartman. Now I was in deep. I had to know who made these shirts, why people bought them and if they are they were even legal.
My quest for Bart enlightenment began in the Japanese centre of youth trends, Harajuku. The staff at Celtic Park, one of the most prolific purveyors of bootleg tees, were happy to answer some of my burning questions. I was disappointed not to see any Bart shirts for sale, but there were racks full of slightly amiss Toy Story, Coca Cola and Starbucks merch. Instead of being made from a bootleg shirt generator bot like I imagined, every item sold is created in a room out the back by the store’s owner. Japan’s copyright laws let him get away with creating unlicensed goods as long as they can be classified as a parody. So the off-brand T-shirts I’ve been seeing are made this way for legality.
I was curious to see the store’s highest selling shirt, expecting a current and witty pop culture reference. Instead, I was shown a simple white shirt with a wilting flower and three Hiragana characters:
The guys in the store laughed as they told me the translation: “I am a wimp”. What kind of person would want to wear this? Is it a cry for help or is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series big in Japan?
“Self-deprecation is funny,” they shrugged.
Hungry for more, I continued my hunt for answers until I saw a young girl in a slightly worrying school uniform. There was nothing unusual about it from far away; it was the tiny logo on her vest visible from a second glance that made me clutch my pearls. The hot pink Playboy logo she was rocking would never have flown at my Catholic high school, where nail polish was the symbol of a wanton woman. I assumed this girl was just a badass until I saw a school uniform shop selling the same vest, and knew I had to follow the hot pink bunny.
Harajuku’s Conomi store specialises in the sailor-like school uniforms worn by Japanese students. But it’s not just youths that buy them.
“Women in their twenties like dressing up in school uniforms to go to places like Disneyland. It makes them feel young and carefree,” Hina, a shop assistant at Conimi, explained. This sounded like an awesome way to deal with my upcoming exit from teen years, and I made a mental note to force my friends at home do this with me. Now I had to address the bunny in the room.
“We’re aware of the American magazine, but in Japan, the bunny is just a cute symbol, associated with the fashion brands rather than the magazine,” she continued.
Numerous Japanese labels have teamed up with Playboy, most notably Hysteric Glamour in 2013. This attempt from Hef and Co to go high fashion seems to have worked in Japan, as Hina rolled her eyes at my sexualised image of the bunny.
Done with Harajuku, I headed to Shibuya 109. With 10 floors worth of boutiques, surely I could tap into some Bart intel here. But a bright pink store called Meow stopped me in my tracks. Hanging amongst the glittery crop tops was a ‘Bernie for President’ shirt. Is socialism big with Japanese teens? Bart would have to wait while I figured this out.
I asked Akina, who works at Meow, what the store’s customers thought of Bernie Sanders.
“They don’t; it just looks nice,” she deadpanned, which I took as my cue to leave.
I was starting to understand that aesthetic is everything in Japanese fashion; the meaning doesn’t matter. And who was I to judge? I come from a country where getting quotes tattooed in languages you don’t speak is commonplace – at least shirts aren’t permanent.
I decided it was time to go straight to the source. Actually talking to the creators of The Simpsons seemed like a bit of a reach, so instead I asked Leo, the curator of Instagram account @bootlegbart, the internet’s foremost collection of bootleg Bart Simpson T-shirts. He told me that bootlegging is a quick and profitable hustle, which the Japanese have gotten in on. Leo pointed to Japan’s long-running dubbed broadcast of the show as a possibility for Bart’s marketability here. But the key to their products being better than those made in English-speaking countries is the language barriers. A particularly memeable example he showed me was a shirt with Bart’s famous “Don’t have a cow man!” translated to “Don’t have a Box New!”
I thought back to Japan’s appropriation of the heavily American images of Playboy and Bernie Sanders into fashion statements. I knew that Japanese audiences were aware of The Simpsons, but had no idea they had given it a new, wearable meaning. Many things, from Gwen Stefani to Uber, have found success in the west but failed to become “big in Japan”. Hugh Hefner was on to something when he tapped into the Japanese fashion market to launch his rebrand. Maybe we’ll be seeing an Uber x Uniqlo line soon.
In an interview with Variety, The Simpsons showrunner Mike Reiss revealed that “it drives some people crazy that the Japanese don’t watch our show. We cannot get them interested. Japan is the biggest market in the world that we haven’t conquered.” Comparably, the show itself never became the pop culture phenomenon that it did in western countries. But Reiss was wrong to say that they can’t get Japanese people interested in The Simpsons. Turns out all it took was a bunch of crafty bootleggers.