Originally created as work-wear for farmers, miners and cowboys, denim blue jeans are now for everyone. They're considered a wardrobe staple equally among men and women, young and old, artists and executives worldwide. Though jeans may still have an association with iconic Americana, in recent decades connoisseurs have looked to another country as the leading denim producer and trendsetter: Japan. Denim's fascinating history in Japan shows how a tradition of textile innovation and savvy cultural adaptation helped the country redefine jeans for the modern era.
Blue jeans were introduced to Japan after World War II, when Occupation-era U.S. soldiers began selling and trading their spare jeans on the black market. Japanese youth were embracing imported American pop culture like jazz, rock'n'roll, and film stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, so jeans likewise became a symbol of an exotic, next-generation cool. But the more popular the pants became, the harder they were to find, and more expensive – there was only a limited supply of the so-called "jiipan" (Japanese for "G.I. pants", slang for jeans) on sale in markets like Tokyo's Ameyoko and at surplus shops around military bases.
Gradually, Japanese retailers began importing new pairs of Levi's and Lee jeans, but there was something of a paradox. Jeans were associated with the "outlaw" culture of the black market and the youthquake of "Rebel Without a Cause", but they were too expensive for most of the young consumers who wanted to buy them. Besides, denim fans were by now accustomed to the soft, worn-in texture and color of pre-worn jeans they had been buying as G.I. castoffs – these foreign imports were brand-new, dark, and stiff. Japanese fashion and retail entrepreneurs saw the potential in this market and realized they needed a break-through: to create Japan's first domestic denim.
Various regions of Japan are famous for their textile weaving and dyeing traditions dating back centuries. Kojima in Okayama Prefecture was one such area and, since the 1920s, had been the nation's leading manufacturer of school uniforms. In 1964, a leading Kojima factory called Maruo Clothing set out to make their own line of jeans, but quickly ran into a problem. Japanese traditions of indigo-dying caused the pigment to fully penetrate the cotton fiber, whereas the threads in American denim fabric were dyed only partially, leaving a white center. This creates the classic "fade" and patterning of blue jeans as they are worn in. Hence, the first few years of Maruo's new homegrown labels like "Canton" and "Big John" had to import U.S.-made denim and the heavy-duty sewing machines necessary to stitch it. By 1967, Kaihara mill in Hiroshima, a legendary dyer of kimono-cloth since 1893, had innovated a new indigo-dyeing technique, and finally, from denim fabric to sewing machines to zippers, Japan was "self-sufficient" in blue jean production. Companies also cracked the code of pre-washing to make new jeans more appealing to customers who had first encountered them vintage.