Fashion

What You Need to Know About Japanese Denim, the Best in the World

The pair of selvedge jeans you are wearing right now traces its origins to indigo, Okayama, and Osaka.
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It’s easy to take denim for granted. There are racks of jeans on display in every store in the mall, as well as a pile of jeans tucked away in your closet in every wash and cut imaginable: dark, light, acid-wash, skinny, elephant, ripped… you get the picture. But beyond mass-produced denim is real heritage. Originally created as American workwear for laborers such as farmers, railroad workers, and miners, because of its ability to withstand harsh working conditions, denim is now considered as one of the most iconic fabrics in menswear.  

Its roots lie in the U.S., but ask denimheads where you can get the best in the world and they will likely point to Japan. The history of Japanese denim is fairly recent, beginning only after the end of World War II, but there’s no doubt about its reputation as the best in the world, thanks to its premium craftsmanship and construction. From the selection of cotton and dyes to the treatment of fabric to the incorporation of tiny accents, there’s a meticulous attention to detail in Japanese denim that you just can’t find anywhere else.  

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Here, a quick history of Japanese denim and those selvedge jeans you love.  

Japanese denim has American roots

While denim as a cloth originated in France, the denim jeans we know today have been in use in the U.S. since the 19th century, thanks to a certain Levi Strauss, founder of the well-loved Levi’s brand. A hallmark of Americana style, denim jeans were worn by laborers all over the country: cowboys, miners, farmers, and carpenters alike. 

Fast forward to World War II, the American occupation in Japan brought different fragments of its culture, including blue-dyed jeans, to the Asian country. When the war ended, American soldiers began selling and trading their spare jeans at makeshift stores in military outposts. In the '50s, young students also became enamored with post-war American pop culture—jazz, rock 'n' roll, graffiti, cars, and movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando. After Dean appeared in jeans in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, the garment became the symbol of teenage rebellion and counter-culture cool. 

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Japanese denim is characterized by the country's indigo dye

The denim movement in Japan has grown leaps and bounds beyond simply producing a piece of American clothing. It made denim its own by using exclusive traditions and techniques, including methods from ancient times. 

The deep, dark shade of blue seen in Japanese denim, for example, is taken from the country's indigo plant, which has been in use since the 7th century during the Edo period to dye clothing worn by aristocrats and samurai. In the 17th century, two centuries before the first American jeans were born, Japanese indigo dye was commonly used in households for kimonos and hand towels. 

Japanese denim traces its origin from abandoned shuttle looms

In the '50s, the U.S. switched from using old shuttle looms to projectile looms that produced more denim at higher speeds, reducing production costs. However, projectile looms did not produce fabric with tight, self-sealed edges, which caused the jeans to fray at the hem. 

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Shuttle looms produced lower yields at slower speeds, yet tended to create a tighter and denser weave, and therefore sturdier fabric. Selvedge (from the word “self-edge”) denim jeans are made only withi shuttle looms. With the instrument, denim is stitched tightly, creating the much-coveted stripe at its end roll, a detail that is taken as a symbol of quality and attention to construction. 

Okayama is where Japan’s best denim is made

The more popular jeans became in the post-war era, the harder they became to find in military surplus shops. Entrepreneurs began importing classic American jeans at premium prices, but the steep price tags were too much for the young market. By this time, wearers also preferred the soft, worn-in feel of the secondhand G.I. pants they would find at outposts. The rise in demand for that pre-washed feel and locally available fabric opened the doors for Okayama's rise as Japan’s denim capital. 

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Kojima in Okayama prefecture was already known as the leading manufacturer for school uniforms before it became the base for many mills and factories that produced denim jeans. The first company to produce Japanese jeans was Big John, formerly known as Maruo. At first, limited access to denim forced Maruo to accept sewing work for jeans under the Tokyo-based Canton brand. Maruo convinced North Carolina’s Cone Mills to send it scraps and B-grade rolls of denim, which it then used to create the Big John line. This brand would later surpass Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler as the best-selling jeans in the '70s.

After a boom in business, Maruo opened the doors for other companies to thrive, cementing Kojima in Okayama prefecture as the production mecca for Japanese denim. 

Osaka is where Japan's raw selvedge movement began

While Okayama is responsible for producing the material itself, it is in Osaka where the fascination with raw selvedge denim began. In the '70s, denim enthusiasts sought to revive vintage production. Breaking away from the idea of pre-washed, broken-in jeans, these enthusiasts looked to raw selvedge denim as a way to return to the old days. 

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An elite group called the Osaka Five, composed of the companies Full Count, Evisu, Studio D'Artisan, Denime, and Warehouse brought raw selvedge denim back into sartorial consciousness and thus became known as the designers who understood premium quality, high-end jeans.  

Led by Studio D’Artisan, the first brand to establish itself in 1979, the group re-adopted vintage weaving methods as well as the centuries-old indigo dye to create the cutting-edge Japanese denim we’re now familiar with.

The Osaka Five was not only inspired by heritage, it also sought to innovate based on existing techniques and traditions. 

The best Japanese jeans

In the early aughts, the world began to discover its love and fascination for artisanal Japanese denim products, inspiring Okayama to further develop its high-end denim industry. This lead to the birth of some of the world’s best denim brands: In 2001, sewing factory Capital began its own line called Kapital in Kojima, while in 2005, vintage-inspired denim brand Momotaro was born and later became known for its handmade production process.  

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From the '50s to today, discerning men have looked to Japanese denim as a must-have, something made with great care and can be worn forever.

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Sam Beltran
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