Not by Occident but by Design, Oriental T-Shirts Are a Far-Out Fad from the Far East

updated 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even at a time when competition between U.S. and Japanese businesses is at its fiercest, the Rising Sun now dawns daily on the backs of Americans. It is the latest T ceremony in pop shirt design, displaying tokens of Oriental culture. The designs range from haiku poems in delicate calligraphy to fearsome Kabuki faces, classic water-color scenes and translated slogans. One bears the legend MADE IN AMERICA, printed in bold Japanese characters. Call it a sneak attack on Seventh Avenue.

The fashion fad completes the cultural exchange that started decades ago when the Japanese first began sporting T-shirts emblazoned with U.S. college insignias, Osmond faces and Grateful Dead skulls. "We use their cars, cameras and calculators," explains Robert Green, co-founder of an Oklahoma City firm called Nippon Brothers, which specializes in the Oriental look. "So why shouldn't we have their writing on our T-shirts?" The company's best-seller, featuring a red disk and the symbols for kamikaze, has sold 15,000 copies since May. Nippon has also sold more than 10,000 warrior headbands this year.

Entertainers have been quick to use the artful Oriental look to spruce up their Ts. One of the slinky shirts Jennifer Beals wore in Flashdance featured Japanese lettering, Pat Benatar appears briefly in a shirt with Chinese characters in her new Love Is a Battlefield video, and Lionel Richie peddles jerseys at his concerts with his name spelled out phonetically in equivalent Chinese letters: Li-No-Re-Chee.

A pioneer in the field is a Swede, Anders Holmquist, whose Colors of the Wind boutique in Santa Monica, Calif, began turning Japanese circa 1979. That's when he engaged the noted artist Morishita to render his shop's name in calligraphy. (For a racy touch, one symbol can be understood to mean either color or sex.)

Oriental shirt sales in this Year of the Pig remain bullish elsewhere. On hip Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, for example, the Fred Segal shop carries at least 10 different Japanese designs that have sold very well, though buyer Bob Serf says he thinks the appeal is more "aesthetic than nationalistic."

Whatever the explanation, the fad has been a boon to Roach Incorporated in Columbus, Ohio, one of the world's largest manufacturers of iron-on transfers. Roach produced its first Japanese symbols (with English translations) a year ago and has since sold about one million transfers for T-shirts, sweatshirts and jerseys with an Oriental seasoning. The company intends to capitalize further on the craze by marketing items like samurai headbands and World War II Japanese Army jungle caps.

The Japanese look promises to become even more widespread as large retail chains turn their fashion gaze Eastward. John Summers, in the marketing department of Sears, Roebuck, says that the fad is "very hot" and is contemplating a number of designs for next spring's junior line.

"What is ironic," says Roach chairman Stan Peterson, "is that a few years after Pearl Harbor, these symbols would have provoked attacks on the street. Now anything Japanese has become identified with quality." Hai.

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