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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japanese Pay Top Prices for Real Americana

PASADENA, California -- This is supposed to be the stuff of rarefied urban myth: the Japanese record collector who snaps up a rare Elvis Sun-label single for $1,500. The Tokyo store owner who brings home a suitcase of American thrift store sweaters for $7,000. The Japanese youth who picks up a pair of 2-year-old Nike Air Jordans at the flea market -- for $600.

But it is reality. And it's our stuff.

The Japanese are crazy for America's hand-me-downs, from old, stinky shoes to '50s-era toys to high-end, used couture. Every month, hundreds of Japanese vintage-shop owners and their buyers fly into Los Angeles International Airport, fists full of cash, ready to comb through used clothing stores, rummage through thrift shops and, especially, dash through the flea market at Pasadena's Rose Bowl like shoppers at an after-Christmas sale.

At the monthly Rose Bowl meet, buyers line up 10 wide and 100 deep at first light for first crack at the goods.

When the turnstiles open at 6 a.m., Japanese shoppers, duffel bags at the ready, carts in tow, burst into the swap meet like horses from the gate. They scatter through the converted parking lot while many vendors still struggle to set up stands.

They seek goods they can sell for at least three times what they paid to a quick-change Japanese market enamored with Americana and obsessed with authenticity.

"I sell to shops and flea markets in Japan," said buyer Masaya Uchida, 28, as he flips through a rack of women's '70s-era "baby Ts."

"I sell some stuff for 10 times what I pay," he said.

This drives some area thrift-store and flea-market prices higher than a Tokyo skyscraper ($30 for a very used T-shirt, $50 and even more for sweatshirts) and prompts the question of whether American discards are trash or treasure. Pop culture, some would argue, is the United States' only true original art form.

"One of the problems we have in America is that when we find something new we tend to discard the old," said Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor and popular culture expert. "We have to have a deeper appreciation for those things which belong to us ... an appreciation for history."

The Japanese have a history of coveting American pop artifacts, beginning in the '70s when aficionados began collecting classic jazz records of the '40s and '50s. In the '80s, they began importing classic American lowriders and muscle cars. The '90s have seen a new mining of stateside discards.

Classic chrome Osterizers, Art Deco desks, old animation cells, big-finned toy cars from the '50s -- all fetch top dollar from Japanese buyers at the Rose Bowl.

The flea market, held the second Sunday of each month, is a spectacle of cash flow.

One Japanese man paid $550 for a beat up Langlitz biker jacket, while steps away another hands over $25 for a generic-looking pair of used baby Nike high tops.

Some Rose Bowl prices are so high, they represent clear attempts at gauging and even bring up the issue of discrimination.

One Japanese man picked out a pair of undistinguished khakis from a pile of pants on the ground. They are clearly pinned with a price tag: $5. When he brought them up to a table to pay for them, the seller said they were $25. At another table, brand-new replicas of vintage Levi's sell for $350 -- while they can be had at retail shops for less than $200.

Many buyers know the prices are steep. They don't care. Rose Bowl vendors tailor their wares for the Japanese, offering convenience for buyers with a lot of money but little time.

Some buyers, however, have begun to scour thrift stores and swap meets along the Californian coast.

"I've been doing this for 15 years," said toy buyer Tokihiki Takamatso, 40, of Osaka. "It's gotten very expensive. So I also go to garage sales in Long Beach, Santa Monica and Pasadena."

He clutched what appeared to be an old Superman poster: "Young people dream about America. Japanese kids like American stuff."

Still, some lament that America has a disposable mentality, when pop culture, they argue, is all we have to hold on to our past.

In some cases, what is pop today crosses into art tomorrow -- such as a first-edition, pre-rock Harptones album from the early '50s. It will be cherished as an artifact. And probably never played again.