How Japan Mastered the Art and Craft of Denim
There’s nothing more American than blue jeans. They were the uniform of frontiersmen, gold panners and American heroes. The trouser-of-choice for Jack Kerouac, James Dean and Bruce Springsteen. Ever since the first pair of blue jeans was created – 149 years ago, to be precise – they have become a symbol of the American dream, mixing durability and blue-collar valour with countercultural references and a punk spirit. That’s why they’ve been adopted by Joe Biden, The Ramones, and everyone in between.
In the history of denim, there is only one pretender to the American throne. Over the second half of the 20th century, Japan established itself as a second capital of blue jeans, first as a tribute to U.S.A.-made denim and then, more recently, as a whole new world.
The history of Japanese denim begins in Kojima, a small district in the south-western Okayama Prefecture, as divine inspiration struck a duo of down-on-their-luck uniform salesmen. In the story, told in W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, two Maruo Clothing salesmen joined their boss to discuss the future of the company. Instead, he took them on an overnight pilgrimage. At a nearby hot springs resort, the two salesmen were asked how the company could turn around its fortunes. They replied, instantly and in unison, “jiipan” – the local name for “G.I. pants,” better known across the rest of the world as blue jeans.
As the name G.I. pants suggests, blue jeans were associated with American soldiers and were largely sold by dodgy black market vintage dealers. Over time, though, their influence spread across the country. They became a symbol of youthful rebellion, worn by hippies, high school dropouts and left wing revolutionaries. As a new generation of Japanese youth chafed against the American influence, they turned their back on the Ivy League style that had come to dominate Japan. Ironically, they replaced it with the most American of all sartorial choices: those blue jeans again.
At first, this denim craze was fuelled by vintage imports and American castaways. Even when Japanese manufacturers started producing their own jeans, there was a heavy American influence. They used American fabrics, American machines and American hardware, and brands were named things like Edwin and Big John, chosen for their Americana appeal. By the mid 1970s, economic conditions had changed, breaking Japan’s reliance on imported jeans and materials, forcing the Japanese denim industry to look inwards.
Where once Japanese denim had traded off its American connection, now it was standing on its own two feet. The jeans produced in Japan still owed a lot to their American forebears, but techniques had been perfected, craftsmanship had reached new heights and the quality was incomparable. Manufacturers across the country – but especially in Okayama – had a simple recipe, focusing on naturally-dyed selvedge. In the 1990s, premium denim exploded. Japanese brands were at the vanguard of this, and the gospel of Okayama-made denim had spread across the world. Nowadays, the word “Japanese” has become a byword for quality in denim circles.
Denim has come a long way since those first blue jeans were made. From practical workwear to punk uniform and onto ubiquity. From goldmines to religious visions and from Ohio to Okayama. What was once about as American as you could get has gone global, and nowadays its spiritual home lies in Kojima, where four streets and 38 specialist shops have come to be known as “Jeans Street.”