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Loving Elvis tender and true

A Japanese man's obsession with the King took him from Tokyo to Okinawa and then to California, where he runs a 1950s vintage shop in Gardena.

January 02, 2011|By Shan Li

To Koji Yama, there is no icon as American as Elvis. The slicked-back hair. The rock 'n' roll. That swaggering confidence.

It's an obsession that has carried this Japanese native 5,500 miles from his homeland and family, and landed him here in California.

And starting this year, it's become his livelihood.

Stroll into his vintage shop — the Elvis 50's Corporation USA — in Gardena and enter a time portal. Porcelain Elvis lamps and Art Deco furniture vie for space among leather bomber jackets and pin-up posters of ladies with Bettie Page hairstyles.

"It's just the look, that period in America. It's so cool, you know?" the 51-year-old says, lounging on a leopard-print sofa in the store's backroom. "It's so, I don't know how else to say it. So American."

On this weekday afternoon, Yama is garbed with his usual flair — the style could be described as "the King of Rock 'N' Roll: Asian edition." He favors a well-oiled coif, platform shoes, varsity jackets and tight white T-shirts with a cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve, even though he doesn't smoke.

"A lot of Japanese young people were nuts about anything American when I was a teenager," Yama says of growing up in Tokyo during the 1970's. "There were lots of military bases around. Lots of American stuff. Because of the wars, I guess."

War or its legacy is how thousands of Japanese youngsters, including Yama, got their first taste of American culture. They bartered and negotiated with GIs, trading tea sets, flags and cash for the chance to shimmy into blue jeans and slip into wingtip shoes for the first time.

Stationed in Japan or destined for the jungles of Vietnam, soldiers brought rock 'n' roll culture to the traditionally conservative island nation. The '60 even swept in a tide of Japanese boy bands with mop tops and tailored suits patterned after the Beatles.

They made an indelible impression on the teenage Yama, who left Tokyo in 1979 — without telling his parents — to move closer to America. He landed in Okinawa, a southern island under American control until 1972.

"Okinawa was the most American place in Japan, as close as you could get to the U.S. without actually leaving," says Tomohiro Mae, a vintage dealer from Tokyo. "A lot of the America-obsessed young moved there in the '70s and '80s."

Back then, the road signs were numbered in miles instead of kilometers, and one in 12 people was American. Even today, the more than 20,000 military personnel stationed there give Okinawa a distinct sheen of red, white and blue.

"It was like heaven," Yama recalls. He stands behind his shop counter stuffed with Elvis pins, twisting and thrusting his hips to the beat of some imaginary rock tune inside his head. "The military people would issue Japanese buyers day passes to come onto the base to buy surplus supplies. Combat boots, even old Army cars."

He eventually opened five vintage stores in Okinawa — the first being a half-cafe, half-home decor shop in 1984 — and married a local girl whom he converted to the "rockabilly lifestyle."

"After some convincing, she started going with me to concerts. Dressed like — you know. Poodle skirts, bobby socks and…." Yama motions a high, flapping ponytail. "She thought it was odd at first, but we started dressing up in costume," she Olivia Newton-John to his John Travolta a la "Grease."

He hasn't seen his sons, Ryuji, 26, or Tetsuro, 18, since he left Okinawa. He and his wife divorced years ago. Reluctantly, he peels back his jacket and reveals two tattoos, his way of keeping them close.

"Ryuji" is spelled out in cursive script underneath a scrawl of dice and cards on his right bicep. The two faces of drama — one laughing and one crying — decorate his left arm underneath "Tetsuro."

But that's a part of his past he doesn't much want to talk about.

Most days now, he's inside the lovingly tended shop nestled on a stretch of Western Avenue once at the heart of a thriving Japanese American community and still crowded with noodle joints, sushi restaurants and bakeries specializing in mochi, a Japanese rice cake.

Shoppers — mostly locals or Japanese on buying trips from abroad — browse the clutter for Elvis babushka dolls stacked on a shelf ($68), the porcelain poodle wall decor ($180), vinyl records of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Heartbreak Hotel" ($10) and a Pepsi vending machine that only takes nickels ($680).

"I came for America," Yama says, gesturing around the store. "This is my dream."

On a recent Thursday morning, Yama huddles inside his dark blue van. It's 6 a.m. and he's heading to the Roadium flea market in Gardena.

Eight years have passed since he immigrated to California in 2002. He worked as a chef in two Japanese restaurants in Hollywood until saving up enough money to open the store last January.

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