It’s impossible to overstate the contribution that Japan has made to the realm of high-end denim. While thousands of words have already been written about the production end–including Japanese shuttle looms, labor, dyeing processes, and attention to detail–far less has been said of the conceptual side of things.
Though raw denim seems to center around vintage Americana–particularly the period from the 1930s until the late 1960s–what’s not immediately obvious is the extent to which the style of brands like Sugar Cane, The Flat Head, The Real McCoys, and The Strike Gold originates in its Japanese interpretation rather than American roots. This is amplified by the fact that many younger occidental denimheads wear fashions from these brands in contemporary fits and styles that are quite different from how the brands are worn in Japan.
Getting to the heart of why these Japanese brands look the way they do requires us to dive into a more basic question: why does Japan love America so much? Middle-aged Japanese men have a surprising level of nostalgia for American things, which is particularly interesting when one considers that their parents experienced firsthand Japan’s defeat at the hands of America in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, much of Japan had been reduced to a bombed-out wasteland, and a large swath of the population (particularly young men) were lost in the bloody conflict.
By all logic, Japan had every right to be bitter and resent America’s victory and their ensuing occupation; most countries would have reacted in such a way. But that’s not what happened. The Japanese have always been a pragmatic people, and after opening up to the West in the mid-19th century, Japan embarked on an effort toward modernization and industrialization decades ahead of other Asian countries. Japan recognized that the West had something to offer, and they were eager to adopt it.
Japan showed a similar attitude toward the US after World War II. They understood that America had won for a reason; despite the trappings of modernity, Japan was still missing something, some crucial element that made the United States a victorious and powerful nation. Rather than bitterly resent their defeat, Japan followed in America’s footsteps in pursuit of their victor’s secret.
From the 1950s onward, American media began to make its way into Japan. American films–typified by The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, and James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause–became incredibly influential in how the Japanese perceived Americans. They also quickly became enchanted by American and British music, as well, with icons like Elvis Presley and The Beatles becoming just as revered in Japan as they were in the west.
It was no surprise that Japan became enamored with the style of America present in this crossover media: from electric guitars like the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster to futuristic cars like the Chevrolet Bel-Air and Ford Thunderbird, and even architectural styles typified by the large, drive-in diners of southern California. And of, course, the casual fashion styles epitomized by Levi’s and Lee jeans seemed to encapsulate everything young Japanese people found alluring, in a deceptively simple pair of pants.
While modern Japan enjoys a similar level of prosperity to a Western nation, it’s important to remember that during the 1950s and 1960s, Japan was still going through the arduous process of rebuilding. World War II, in particular the firebombings of Japan’s cities in the late stages of the war, completely destroyed cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. Though Japan did enjoy a spectacularly quick recovery by most standards, the young people coming of age in the late 50s and 60s remembered the hardships of the war and the reconstruction, and the prosperous postwar America they saw on screen was the ideal toward which many Japanese aspired.
But this alone doesn’t suffice to explain Japan’s idealization of America’s so-called Golden Age. The real reason goes a little bit deeper. Japan was (and largely still is) a collectivist culture, as most of the world’s nations still are, compared to the individualist United States and Europe. This means that Japanese people typically pursue the interest of a larger group, rather than only their individual motivations. This is particularly evident in the workplace, where an American will typically work overtime out of the desire to make more money or advance, a Japanese worker is more likely to work overtime because of pressure to conform.
This tendency to prioritize the group over one’s own interests is a foundational aspect of Japanese culture but is, in many ways, stifling. It’s also a crucial reason for Japan’s love of American entertainment, which depicts a rebellious, adventurous sort of lifestyle that few Japanese have the opportunity to live. American films and music offer the average Japanese person a way to experience a taste of the (perceived) American lifestyle without putting his employment and status at risk.
Of course, Japan’s fandom of Americana isn’t limited to media. Many vintage electric guitars manufactured by companies like Fender and Gibson now reside in the hands of wealthy Japanese collectors. Japan also has a huge culture of motorcycle enthusiasts, with Harley-Davidson bikes being particularly sought after. In fact, many of our favorite Japanese brands got their start creating clothes that were quickly embraced by motorcyclists.
What’s most interesting is the way in which Japan manages to appropriate aspects of American culture without changing their fundamental outlook: being a biker, or rock enthusiast, or other such hobbies are typically compartmentalized into what (little) free time an otherwise ordinary salaryman has. This compartmentalization is hardly unprecedented, since many Japanese have done the same with other cultural aspects like adopting western-style weddings from Christianity.
Perhaps the reason why such a distinct culture arose in Japanese-American casual fashion is because no single object quite encapsulates the free-spirited American ethos as a pair of blue jeans. Jeans are so commonplace in the twenty-first century that it’s easy to forget that this garment was once associated with rebellious teenagers and lone-wolf movie stars, and were sometimes banned from schools; they certainly weren’t what you wore to church.
The very attitudes that made jeans controversial in postwar America were the same thing that commended them to Japanese. The template provided by the basic five-pocket jeans formed the framework in which Japanese companies could innovate in areas such as hardware detailing, denim weaving and dyeing, and the development of a style and branding that varied between direct homages to Americana, and distinctly Japanese.
Given Japan’s predilection toward putting on certain aspects of foreign cultures, it seems appropriate that jeans offer the most literal example of the phenomenon. Denim is condensed Americana that Japanese yearning for freedom and independence can put on and take off whenever it suits them.
Lead image courtesy bluebloodblog.wordpess.com