Happy Shirts: Cultured Clothing with Humor

Monku, monku, monku.

For many Japanese Americans, a polite translation of this phrase (“Complain, complain, complain!”) is unnecessary. Used among friends and family, the utterance often brings a sly smile over a shared sentiment.

But used on a T-shirt, it’s a humorous symbol of ethnic pride—something that artist/designer Richard Hattori has learned means a lot.

“Japanese tees gained a lot of their popularity shortly after the ethnic pride movement of the ’60s,” says Hattori, owner of the Happy Shirts company. &ldquop;Tees are a great medium because they can communicate so much to so many simply by being worn.”

“Happy Shirts is an offshoot of my company, Tee Bags, which I created from the need for Japanese pride,” Hattori says. Hattori, who was educated at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, worked as art director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and has also served as a graphic designer for American Marketing Works.

But while he has worked professionally in a variety of settings and styles, the creative spirit behind Happy Shirts has very personal origins.

“A lot of my inspiration comes out of my ethnic history: internment camp, my grandparents, and my traditional Japanese upbringing,” says Hattori.

“I first became acquainted with the Japanese American National Museum when the barracks from Heart Mountain were transported and rebuilt for an exhibition,” Hattori recalls, adding that he’s found it interesting to observe the range of opinions from customers who have purchased his shirts from places such as the Museum’s store.

“Everyone has different reactions to my shirts: some love them and others are indifferent,” he says. “I get so much gratification when I hear people laughing and enjoying them.”

“I am glad to see society becoming more of a melting pot,” says Hattori. “Although we may be losing a lot of our national pride, this new blending will also bring new beginnings — and the clothing industry is constantly changing in response to changes in society.”

And in Hattori’s view, those changes are exciting—and the simple act of bringing different cultural messages together with clothing is empowering.

“I am pretty lucky to have found a vision and a gratifying way to express it.”

January 2008

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