Kojima | Japan’s Denim Capital

In search of the blue stuff

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  • 8 min read

Writing about Japanese denim, wow, that’s a lot of pressure. Let’s not get into that sanforized vs unsanforized argument again, Tony. I can’t go back there. Just let it go, Tony, let it go.

Better to just amble about Kojima, a little coastal down the trainline from Okayama. Its district ‘Jeans Street’ is a mecca for denim aficionados, home to 40 or so premium denim stores and many of the world’s selvedge denim mills. Honeycomb fades, 14.5oz shadow selvedge, slub, 8oz tapered, 17.5oz hank dyed; whatever your denim niche, it’ll have you covered. Just like Japanese denim, the beauty of this town is in the details: rivet drain covers, selvedge road markings, denim-clad vending machines. It’s a postmodern architect’s dream (and Disneyland for Denimheads).

Before we kick off our tour, let’s take the time to recognise some notable fans of Japanese denim. There’s Beyonce, Rihanna, Marc Maron, Travis Scott and Jay-Z. Frank Ocean and Daniel Caesar wrote love songs dedicated to the blue stuff. Back in the 90s Evisu even made David Beckham a pair of bespoke jeans with five 18-carat gold buttons. There’s Jiro Shirasu, top Japan-USA diplomat following WWII and famously the first Japanese public figure to be photographed wearing jeans. He liked his suits Henry Poole, his cars Porsche and his denim selvedge.

Then you’ve got the Big Guy himself, Evisu founder Hidehiko Yamane rocking double denim…

...and This Dog. Crotchless denim, that’s not an easy look to pull off.

James Dean and Marlon Brando unwittingly started the craze for denim in post-war Japan. Rebellious, free-spirited and casually rocking jeans, these guys embodied everything the youth were seeking. Denim became a symbol for iconoclasts. A revolution began. Students wore jeans to college, and the professors were up-in-arms because they were considered too sexy.

The Japanese press coined the disparaging term ‘taiyōzoku’ to describe the growing movement: youths styling themselves on rocker and greaser subcultures, listening to Rock and Roll and wearing wrangled jeans, those naughty, naughty things.

Even your average salaryman started to get in on the action: office worker by day, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ by night. And so Japan’s love affair with jeans was born.

Shout-out too to the 80s Japan ‘Ametora’ kids, all preppy looks taken from American Casualwear. (If you’re into this kinda thing check out the ‘Roller-zoku’, a rock n’ roll obsessed subculture, the ‘Kaminari-zoku’, they’re the biker gangs, and the ‘Sukeban’, badass girl gangs who ran amok through to the 80s, wearing ruffled-up school uniforms, sometimes carrying concealed razor blades and committing crimes across the country- YOU HEARD ME RIGHT).

There’s a backstory to how Kojima became the birthplace of Japanese denim, and why Japanese denim has become the most sought-after in the world.

The Japanese obsession for American denim, aka ‘blue gold’, wasn't initially matched with supply. Fanatics had to rely on military surplus and vintage jeans left behind by American soldiers (known as ‘jiipan’ or ‘G.I. pants’), and a denim black-market proliferated for those covetable Levi 501s. In particular the bustling shopping area of Ameyoko, Tokyo, where you can still pick up a silky bomber jacket like the one Ryan Gosling wore in ‘Drive’.

Kojima, located right on the Seto Sea, had a rich history of cotton cultivation, indigo dyeing and weaving. It was already a manufacturing hub for Japan’s heavy-duty cloth, workwear and uniforms, and so was a natural fit for domestic denim production. The first pair of Japanese jeans were produced in Kojima in the late 1960s.

But by the 1970s, the success of denim had meant cheaper mass production and a drop in quality: in Japan the old looms had gone, replaced with more efficient projectile looms. Meanwhile American brands started to outsource production and lower standards. The new fabric didn’t seem as interesting or well-made and many details like hidden rivets had all but disappeared.

I guess two things helped Japan turn things around, and led to their denim being set apart from the rest. The concept of ‘takumi’, a Japanese word that describes craftsmanship as a way of life, as distanced from fast fashion and mass production, and ‘kodawari’, an uncompromising attention to detail.

The hataya (weaving mills) soon realised the magnificence of the denim woven on the old, low-speed shuttle looms. The Kojima mills, looking to create the perfect jeans, experimented with reverting to their old Toyoda looms. And in 1972 the Kurabo Mill produced the first ever Japanese selvedge denim, naturally indigo dyed, and known as ‘Kurabo KD-8’: named after the number of attempts it took to get it right.

Japanese selvedge is now a hallmark of quality denim. It has a handle which is impossible to recreate on more modern looms. It’s more like a handwoven fabric, with cotton slubs giving each pair of jeans an individual DNA. With these looms you get denim with volume like there’s air inside, the fabric feels good when you wear it because it’s soft. Your average shuttle loom will only make enough denim for two pairs of jeans every hour: it’s quality over quantity.

The vintage looms need attention too, often with expert technicians who’ve been loyal to the same machine for 50 years, and can tell how they’re ‘feeling’ just by listening to them (cue Golden Anniversary jokes). The world’s few remaining shuttle looms reside mainly in Kojima, feeding the fashion world’s appetite for Japanese denim.

Continuing innovation, skilled craftsmanship, handmade construction and premium fabric is why Kojima (and neighbouring Okayama and Osaka) now have a reputation for offering the best denim in the world, sought after even by couture labels including Gucci and Chanel. Current trends include shaving the denim- creating texture for days, and hank dyeing- to deepen the blue and produce more stellar fades.

Ok, let's get going!

Palpable excitement, exiting the train at Kojima station. The jeans staircase! The denim lockers! Denim is in the air!

All signs (and the denim bus with denim-upholstered seats) point towards Jeans Street.

First stop is Setto, our label of choice (we currently stock their accessories and aprons in store). Caressing those babies. Featuring indigo selvedge denim from the renowned team behind Momotaro and Japan Blue Jeans, Setto’s a younger brand known for its contemporary cuts, clean lines, ‘monozukuri’ (that’s manufacturing prowess) and hardware detailing.

Not just anybody can set up store on this famed street: only premium Kojima denim brands need apply.

Vernacular architecture. Industrial, worn-in, yakisugi wood and hardware metal details, referencing the language of denim workwear.

Next stop: Momotaro, literally ‘peach boy’, named after a popular hero in Japanese folklore. You’ll accordingly find peach logos stamped on some models’ rivets, a signature pink-line selvedge and denim known to wear darker with age. We popped in to get our grubby little paws all over their mythical Gold Label jeans, inevitably precluded by the one-year waiting-list and £2000 price tag.

The Kojima store is home to Japan’s only denim hand loom, originally from Kyoto’s famous weaving district of Nishijin and specially adapted for denim.

The devotion to denim continues. There’s good reason why so many denim heretics from around the world make the pilgrimage to this tiny area. These jeans aren’t cheap, you’re looking at spending hundreds of pounds upwards. So it’s worth it to speak with the experts and sometimes even watch your own pair being made. Denim sommeliers, if you will. The area is really quiet, it’s not hit the mainstream just yet, so you can shop at leisure. And some labels offer exclusives only available at their Kojima stores.

Plus you can get ‘denim’ ice cream flavoured with real indigo.

Jean noragi and denim-clad coffee bags at Salon de Denim.

Down the street: talking denim and scary rollercoaster rides with Yoshi of Pallet Life Story. The label takes inspiration from 50s and 60s sportswear and workwear, with signature Jackson Pollock-esque paint splatter patches. The team weave, dye, sew and finish their pieces at their own factories as well as produce denim for a number of other well-known Japanese brands.

Seriously though, that rollercoaster at the nearby Washuzan Highland amusement park... It’s pedal powered, 590 feet in the air and on the edge of a cliff. You actually have to will yourself to pedal to your own demise.

More street details, an ode to denim’s heartland.

Last stop: Shiro greets visitors at the entrance to Kamikaze Attack, “mad quality clothing” made for motorcycle punks and rebels, which started life as a clothing and tattoo shop housed in a rusty freight container underneath a bridge in Okayama city. Signatures include using recycled selvedge stripe offcuts as accents.

Rivet manhole covers and selvedge denim road markings: the homage to denim continues.

Selvedge denim is often recognisable by a red and white yarn at the edge, and so is familiarly known as ‘akamimi’ which translates as ‘red ear’. There’s some vocab to drop next time you go jeans shopping. And so concludes our journey down the yellow blue and red brick road, Dorothy.

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