‘Like a cat from Japan’

David Bowie, who passed away at home in New York on January 10, will be best remembered for his intensely creative period during the 1970s when his chameleon-like ability to effortlessly reinvent himself on an almost annual basis created some of most enduring images of modern popular culture.

Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Bowie’s other androgynous alter egos all invoked outer-worldly influences that shocked conservative society and captured the imagination of his fans worldwide. Despite looking every bit like the ‘man who fell to Earth’, many of Bowie’s most memorable early looks can actually be traced to Japan, a fact acknowledged by the singer himself when he described his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, as looking ‘like a cat from Japan’.

David Bowie was first introduced to Japanese arts during the 1960s by Lindsay Kemp, a performance artist who taught mime and dance at the London Dance Center. Kemp’s style of performance was heavily influenced by Japanese music, movement and theatre. During this period, Kemp also introduced Bowie to the Japanese onnagata, male actors who specialize in playing women’s roles.

In a BBC 4 documentary, Lindsay Kemp discussed how Japanese performance influenced his own art and how he educated Bowie about Japanese theater conventions using books on noh and kabuki. In earlier interviews, Bowie himself acknowledged that studying with Lindsay Kemp in the 1960s, became a turning point in the development of his career.

Bowie’s interest in Japanese costume was further ignited by a Japanese designer, Kansai Yamamoto, who, in 1971, held a fashion show at the Great Gear Trading Company on London’s fashionable King’s Road. Yamamoto was reputed to be the first Japanese designer to put on a fashion show in London and his show included models doing kabuki-inspired moves. Bowie was fascinated with Yamamoto’s designs and flew the Tokyo-based designer out to his New York show at Radio City.

Yamamoto recently recounted his introduction to David Bowie in an interview with the fashion magazine Elle: “My Japanese friend Yasuko Takahashi, who was the producer of my 1971 London show, insisted that I fly to New York to see Bowie’s show as he was using items from my womenswear collection. I met him after the show at Radio City Music Hall and we immediately bonded.

Bowie then invited Yamamoto to design the costumes for the 18-month Ziggy Stardust tour of the U.K. and the U.S. Yamamoto’s avant-garde kimonos and his kabuki-inspired ‘tear-away’ costumes helped cement Bowie’s androgynous look and create some of the most memorable images in the history of rock ’n’ roll.

Fashion historian Helene Thian explained the pivotal role Yamamoto played in inspiring Bowie. “The hairdo of the era, the buzz cut-looking red, fringed fantasy that David Bowie wore, which was actually Kansai Yamamoto’s creation and originally inspired by traditional Japanese dolls and Kabuki wigs,” she said.


Another long term Japanese collaborator who Bowie worked with was the photography, Masayoshi Sukita. Sukita had initially traveled to the UK to attend a T-Rex concert but on encountering Bowie he was fascinated by the performer’s stage presence and originality.

“Back in the day, there was very little information available on David Bowie in Japan.  And I had never even heard his name until I visited London.  But the moment I saw him, I became extremely curious about him. The story began in London back in 1972, and I am still following him with my photography.”

Sukita was responsible for taking the iconic black and white portrait picture of Bowie which was eventually used on the cover of the 1977 album ‘Heroes’. Heroes was recorded in Berlin but the cover picture was taken while Bowie was in Japan with Iggy Pop. As Sukita explained, the photo shoot in Tokyo was set up spontaneously, “out of the blue, Bowie called me up, and there was no creative set-up in the studio, just simple lighting and a simple set-up”.

Bowie’s appreciation of Japanese culture went beyond fashion and performing arts. During the ’70s and ’80s he was a regular visitor to Japan, famously travelling around Tokyo on public transport and frequently visiting the culturally important city of Kyoto. Vintage photographs of Bowie in Japan have flooded the internet over recent days.


David Bowie’s fascination with Japan was fully reciprocated by the country’s music fans where he quickly achieved iconic status. Biographer David Buckley detailed Bowie’s meteoric rise to fame during his first tour in Japan: “At the beginning of the tour, Bowie was a virtual unknown with negligible record sales; by the end, it was mass hysteria at the concerts.”

Bowie went on to visit Japan 13 times over the following 10 years and the East Asian nation became the second largest market for Bowie’s music, outselling Bowie’s home country the U.K., but falling short of his huge fan base in the U.S.

Bowie’s flamboyant costumes and dramatic performances also inspired a number of Japanese rock stars, in particular the country glam rock groups of the 1970s and those groups in the Visual Kei movement of the 1980s. Among them the world renowned Japanese rock group, X Japan. In reaction to the death of David Bowie, Yoshiki, the founding member of X Japan tweeted:

The 2013 exhibition ‘David Bowie is’, curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum to celebrate Bowie’s work, included many of the iconic costumes designed by Yamamoto and rare photographs of Bowie taken by Sukita. Over the past two years the V&A exhibition has been touring museums and art galleries across the world. ‘David Bowie is’ will touch down in Japan for spring 2017, and given the enduring popularity of Japan’s most-loved visitor, it is expected to be yet another sold out show.

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