To a visitor’s perspective, modern Japan and America look rather similar, language and demographic differences aside. Both nations enjoy (at least on the surface) a similar standard of living and technology. The extent to which the latter influenced the former is not always clear, but Japan is maybe not so different from America as it would seem.
Japan and the United States have had a complicated relationship for the past sixty or seventy years. Defeated in World War II, post-war Japan had a very different reaction to their conquerors than most conquered states throughout history: Japan admired the US. Over the proceeding decades, they became infatuated, due in no small part to American culture that filtered over to Japan in the form of music and movies.
America invented the electric guitar – the familiar, timeless designs such as the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, and Gibson’s Les Paul and ES guitars. Young Japanese, who heard the sounds of American and British rock bands, fell in love. By the mid-1970s, Japan was producing carefully-crafted replicas of these American guitars that contrasted quite sharply with the decline of the major American manufacturers under the mismanagement of companies like Norlin and CBS. The American makers would eventually recover, but companies like Ibanez and Tokai produced guitars that are still sought after today and manufacturers like Navigator continue to produce some of the best guitars in the world.
Japan’s love of American film had much the same effect in the realm of fashion. Japanese saw James Dean and Marlon Brando – stoic, ronin-esque figures who seemed to encapsulate all of the American pathos into singular, rugged individuals and longed to understand and experience the American way: rebellious, playful, spontaneous, and exciting. It was in many ways the opposite of the strategy that had elevated Japan to its post-war success in the 1970s and 80s: work hard, and work as late as possible. Stay inside the lines. Blend into the crowd.
The nature of Japanese society made it effectively impossible for most people to live an authentic American lifestyle of adventure and freedom (at least, as it was depicted in American cinema). So, on some subconscious level, men shackled in robotic office jobs decided that, if they couldn’t actually live like Americans, they could at least dress the part on their days off.
Japan’s love affair with jeans was born because no other commodity embodied the American ethos the same way that a pair of jeans could. If you wore a pair of vintage Levi’s and had an old American car, then just for a little while, you could pretend that you were in the carefree world of American Graffiti. But much like with the guitar industry, the widespread success of denim resulted in a gradual drop in quality, starting in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, jeans had fundamentally changed. They were mass-produced on projectile looms that created fabric that didn’t seem as interesting or well-dyed as on vintage examples, and many details – like rolled belt loops or hidden rivets – had all but disappeared.
So Japan decided to turn back the clocks and change that.
The Japanese denim revival didn’t start in Tokyo – it happened in Osaka, a comparatively free-spirited and relaxed region with five companies in particular that were later known as the Osaka Five. The genesis of this movement can be traced back to 1979, when Studio D’Artisan was founded by Shigeharu Tagaki.
In their early years, the brand’s old-fashioned philosophy – using pure indigo selvedge denim and carefully-sourced parts including cinch back buckles imported from France – was distinctly at odds with the pre-washed and acid washed jeans that were popular in the 1980s. The brand’s DO-1 jeans, released in 1986, were not even a true replica of the sort that would become popular a few years later – they were an original design, inspired by the past but with plenty of original ideas as well. These were priced at 29,000 yen – a whopping price for jeans at the time – due to the fabric, which was woven on 27-inch shuttle looms and hank-dyed, a much more time-consuming and difficult process than rope dyeing.
Tagaki left the company in 1995, and in the midst of the vintage jeans boom D’Artisan began introducing familiar models such as the SD-101, which featured deeper indigo dyes and the details that are still associated with the brand today. As the first of the Osaka Five, Studio D’Artisan, in many ways, set the pace that all of the other American Casual brands would follow.
The second of the Osaka Five companies was founded in 1988 by Yoshiyuki Hayashi. Though Hayashi’s company Denime was actually started in Kobe and not Osaka, the company’s general proximity to the others resulted in a close association with the Osaka denim boom. Denime offered arguably the cleanest, most conventional interpretation of the vintage American jean, more closely resembling vintages Levi’s than many brands that would follow.
Denime quickly became the front runner among the vintage repro companies and encapsulated the movement in a more straightforward way than the more experimental Studio D’Artisan. One reason why Denime became so popular in the repro jeans boom of the nineties was because their products were accessible due to wider distribution. They were also well known for quick fading, making it easy for new denim enthusiasts to see the appeal of old-fashioned selvedge jeans.
In the mid-2000s, after the vintage repro movement had peaked, Hitoshi Tsujimoto – best known as the founder of The Real McCoy’s – purchased Denime through his retail chain Nylon. Hayashi left and went on to found a new brand, Resolute, which embodies the classic quality of Denime‘s jeans and continues Hayashi’s mission to make the perfect interpretation of the classic Levi’s 501.
Though Hidehiko Yamane was not the first Japanese denim enthusiast to start his own company, he might be the most iconic and is certainly is one of the men responsible for the 1990s boom in Japanese denim. In the late 1980s, amidst growing discontent with the quality of Levis and other familiar brands, he began researching vintage jeans and tried to devise his own way to reproduce the quality found in vintage jeans. Along with his coworker Mikiharu Tsujita, Yamane decided to quit his job and start his own jean company in 1991. That was the genesis of Evisu, one of the most recognizable and influential names in Japanese denim. The Japanese publication Mono offered Evisu exposure and the brand quickly grew.
If Denime most closely embodied the traditional side of vintage repro denim, Evisu would prove to be the most adventurous. Unlike the other Osaka Five companies, Evisu expanded far beyond vintage reproductions to become well-known internationally and is undoubtedly the most well-known and successful overseas. They’re influential in the streetwear scene and have found an audience with hip-hop fans – far from the world of vintage-inspired clothing. Although Evisu is best-known overseas for the conspicuous painted gull wing arcuates found on many of its jeans, the brand has never lost touch with its roots, and the Evisu 2000 #1 and #2 models remain favorites for denim enthusiasts around the world.
Initially a co-conspirator with Yamane, Tsujita quickly started his own company Fullcount, another of the Osaka Five. The brand was one of the first to use soft, long-fibre Zimbabwe cotton over other varieties and Tsujita described the idea behind his company as creating jeans that “feel so good that you don’t want to take them off until you get in bed.”
His goal was to create jeans suited to daily, casual wear rather than a garment worn by a blue-collar worker. This was an attitude that reflected the changing philosophy of denim as jeans had evolved almost entirely casual wear, rather than a worker’s garment. More than the other Osaka Five brands, Fullcount is focused on everyday life and comfort – a true casual brand, rather than one focused on clothing that (at least originally) was intended to be workwear. Regardless, the brand has an experimental side being one of the first companies to experiment with heavier-weight fabrics.
Founded by the Shiotani brothers in 1995, Warehouse was the last of the Osaka Five companies. The brand decided not to focus on directly reproducing vintage jeans but inject their own ideas into original clothes that nonetheless had similar qualities to vintage jeans. Warehouse was determined to modify and perfect minute details from vintage jeans. Their original fabrics were woven with intertwined threads, giving them a different quality from more conventional denim and the brand was particularly careful to sew their jeans with a certain number of stitches per inch. Their flagship 1001XX model embodied these details, among many others, such as iron buttons, copper rivets, a rayon pocket tab and deerskin leather patch.
Each of the Osaka Five companies brought a different attitude to the Japanese repro denim scene. While Fullcount, Warehouse, and Denime were fairly traditional in their outlook, Evisu and Studio D’Artisan were more experimental while nonetheless remaining faithful to the roots of vintage denim. It’s difficult to overstate the contributions these companies made to the denim community. Though Japan is known for making the world’s most innovative fabrics, at the time none of the mills had ever made anything beyond commercial products.
These companies spearheaded a revival that reinvigorated the declining textile industry in Kurashiki, Okayama, where most of the fabric was woven and jeans constructed and laid the foundation for numerous other companies that would push the limits of Japanese denim production. Brands including Samurai, another Osaka company, which was founded several years after the others.
They also laid foundations for many other companies that would experiment with the different dyeing process than vintage jeans such as The Flat Head and Eternal as well as companies known for slubby, textured fabrics such as The Strike Gold and Pure Blue Japan. Without the infrastructure the Osaka Five enabled – from dyeing to weaving to sewing – these companies might never have existed in the first place. Though the world of raw denim is a much larger place than when the Osaka Five were founded, their effect is still being felt today.