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Blue Jean Nation: A Brief History of Japanese Denim
09.19.2017

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.

The industry exploded - growing sales from seven million pairs in 1969, to 15 million pairs in 1971, to 45 million pairs in 1973. Local labels proliferated, with names like Edwin, Big Stone, Betty Smith, John Bull, and Bison all drawing on imagery of the American West, though they were now totally home-grown. Jeans became a ubiquitous fashion staple, not only for rebellious youth, and eventually gave rise to a community so passionate about denim that they wanted to go even further.

In the 1980s, some Japanese denim fans began traveling to the U.S. to buy up used and dead-stock American jeans to re-sell in hip vintage boutiques in Tokyo and Osaka, gaining almost archaeological expertise in the process. As the quality of American denim brands declined in this period, Japanese designers and consumers looked even more closely at the historical craftsmanship of original Levi's 501s and other models.


In the coming decades, new labels like Evisu, Kapital, and Studio D'Artisan sought not only to make their own products inspired by this heritage but to improve on the original. They began using old-fashioned equipment, techniques and details that had fallen out of favor in mass jean production worldwide, including "selvedge" denim (which comes off the loom with its own hemmed "edge" to prevent fraying), to create something brand new. Other companies wove in more explicit Japanese culture and aesthetics, with labels like Samurai and Momotaro, and iconography that played on traditional myth and symbolism.


By the early 2000s, the world had discovered the exquisite craft, evocative designs, and clever cultural fusion of the new Japanese denim wave: Now Western brands were in turn playing copycat. Fashion bloggers became obsessed with selvedge denim and other trends re-popularized by Japanese jeans labels, who themselves continue to innovate.
"Denim gave Japan a new arena for national pride," in the words of fashion scholar W. David Marx in his book "Ametora." "The country does set the global standard for luxurious fabrics, high-quality sewing, innovative production techniques, and ingenuous treatments." Today, the story of Japanese denim has perhaps come full circle - where Japanese brands once had to pretend they were American to succeed, now denim brands all over the world can only wish they were Japanese.


HIDEHIKO YAMANE, FOUNDER OF EVISU

Born in Osaka in 1959, Hidehiko Yamane grew up loving fashion and trained to be a tailor. In the late 1980s, he was working at a small Osaka boutique called Lapine which sold a lot of vintage American denim, allowing Yamane to closely study the variations in construction of brands like Levi's over time. Using an archaic shuttle loom, he began experimenting with his own version of the classic 1944 version of Levi's 501xx jean, and quit his job to launch his own jeans company in 1988. He called his jeans "Evis", as an homage to Levi's (of course), but also a reference to the Buddhist god of prosperity, Ebisu. His finishing touch? An abstracted "seagull" painted in white on the back pockets (similar to the Levi's stitched arch). The jeans immediately sold out, and a company was born. In time, Yamane would change the name to "Evisu", the Japanese folk god of money, to avoid clashing with Levi's legal team and also handily evoking the Japanese transliteration of "Elvis" - a retro denim god in himself. Evisu quickly became one of the biggest Japanese fashion brands, and one with a worldwide reach – there are over 150 Evisu shops around the globe today, and the brand is name-checked in songs by hip-hop stars Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. Though Yamane is only one of many denim visionaries who made their mark on the industry, Evisu remains a quintessential homegrown success story.