It may come as a surprise that the Mecca for top-notch denim is a small seaside town called Kojima in the Okayama prefecture, north of Hiroshima. For aficionados who obsess over the textile of their jeans – the durability, the weight of the material and the texture – Kojima is an established denim production hub, with close to 30 premium denim companies clustered in this small region.
Kojima’s cloth legacy
How did this tiny seaside town end up producing 40 per cent of the denim output in Japan? Bus driver Yasufumi Kawabata, who is known locally for driving the famed Jeans Bus (below) – a denim-themed bus with denim upholstery – offers a history lesson.
“The volume of sediment had become shallow, so the land was reclaimed. Salt content rises in places that are filled, so the area became a cotton-growing province, as cotton is resilient to salt. As a result, Kojima became a textiles region,” Kawabata explains.
“The technology to create sanada himo (cloth cords historically used to secure swords, kimonos and Japanese armour) was established and later, a tatami-beri (the edging of tatami mats) industry developed as well. The culmination of these crafts, alongside dye technology, led to the blossoming of the weaving industry and the production of canvas.”
Kojima became a manufacturing hub for heavy-duty cloth, which was used for sailcloth, and traditional tabi footwear (shoes with a split-toe design). In the 1920s, the region started manufacturing school uniforms, and by the ’30s, was responsible for 90 per cent of the nation’s uniforms.
Post-World War II, American soldiers unwittingly became ambassadors for stateside fashion and black markets in places such as Ueno in east Tokyo flourished, selling second-hand US military clothing such as jeans. The uniform companies adjusted these clothes so they fit the Japanese.
In the 1960s, a company that later became Big John, one of Japan’s largest denim brands, started to stitch jeans for American companies. By the ’70s, it produced its own cloth as well. As such, Big John was the first company to make a pair of jeans entirely in Japan, and this set the precedent for other companies to follow suit.
Given the technical skill of the artisans already present in the region, and the strong heritage of creating and stitching high-density cloth, denim production in Okayama flourished.
Quality over quantity
Nowadays, visitors to Kojima can shop at the aptly named Jeans Street, a roughly 10-minute walk from Kojima Station. Home to over 30 stores selling stylish, quality jeans, the street also boasts denim-coloured roads, denim-themed taxis and vending machines (below) emblazoned in denim graphics. Even the ice cream – blueberry-flavoured – is blue.
Kojima-based denim companies are known for eschewing mass-production methods, instead utilising vintage looms operated only by artisans who have the required skills and expertise. The resulting cloth is of outstanding quality.
Danny Hodgson, founder and CEO of Rivet And Hide, a select store that introduces niche denim brands to discerning Londoners, first came across Japanese denim in his previous job as an airline cabin services director. He says of the discovery: “I’d never seen denim with so much texture and character. I was instantly hooked.”
“Shuttle looms are slow and not as efficient as the modern projectile looms,” he says of the machines that are used in the production of Okayama denim. “If you go to the trouble of using a vintage loom, you’re serious about the quality of the fabric produced, and will take great care in choosing high-quality cotton and employing the best indigo-dyeing processes.”
He adds that the notion of kodawari is also a reason for the high quality. “It roughly translates as ‘an obsessive attention to detail’,” he says, “and the Japanese never cut corners. They strive hard to make the best in everything.”
Indeed, denim made in Okayama is sought after not only by denim connoisseurs, but also by brands such as Gucci and Chanel. It is utilised in various projects too, from Onitsuka Tiger’s limited-edition sneakers to Kyoto-based Denim Dosu’s casual kimonos (above).
“I think denim has a lot of atmosphere and is a material almost everyone is wearing globally,” says Denim Dosu CEO Kenji Nonaka. “Aged denim is better than brand-new denim, and in that respect, it has the same kind of value as kimonos.”
Top of the range
While the Okayama denim used by brands such as Momotaro Jeans and Japan Blue Jeans is consistently of a high standard, it is the incredibly thick, textured cloth used by Pure Blue Japan (below) that is especially highly regarded.
“The brand’s knowledge and expertise in this field,” says Hodgson, “is widely recognised by those who enjoy quality denim – the way wine lovers recognise a great viticulturist or those with a passion for coffee follow the best roasters.”
I take a drive with Pure Blue Japan CEO Kenichi Iwaya (above) to its factory in rural Okayama to see what the fuss is about. Inside are several rows of Toyoda looms that were manufactured by car company Toyota in the ’60s and ’70s. They make a rhythmic clanging noise, like a locomotive engine, and several artisans in denim workwear watch over them with hawkish attentiveness.
Iwaya points out that American denim companies used to have such machines, but shifted to mass production. “When you increase the speed, the cost goes down, so they threw out all their old looms,” he explains. “Japan, though, still has these machines, and there are many artisans who know how to fix them. Compared to mass-production methods, I think ours is less than a third of the efficiency. But we’re really partial to the texture, colour and feel of the textile.”
Iwaya adds that his company not only uses vintage looms, but also customises them specifically for their purposes. “My artisan is incredible,” he tells me proudly. “There’s no one else who can do this kind of work. I’m grateful for his experience; he has been working these machines for 50 years, and can tell what’s going on just by listening to them.”
In fact, the more Iwaya explains, the more it sounds like the looms have a life of their own. “The machine is made to weave flat material,” he says. “If you make textured cloth, it judges that to be a mistake and stops! It eventually ‘learns’ to make this textured material, but if you switch it to make flat material again, it will stop again.” To avoid this, Iwaya makes his textured material continuously, even if he doesn’t have an immediate need for it, so the machines ‘remember’ these peculiarities.
The factory is hot, dusty and noisy – it is unglamorous work and the machines are deafening – but the production process is mesmerising. Compared to the newer projectile looms, which are computerised, move at lightning speed and make a gentle whirring noise, there is a heavy-duty, masculine quality to the work done at these old-school mills.
The result of all this hard work is luscious and luxurious denim, of a quality that is easy to discern – even for a denim neophyte.
Singing indigo blues
There is another reason for Japan’s denim quality, one that’s tied to the legacy of indigo production. Indigo is a deep, impressive blue dye extracted from the leaves of the Japanese indigo plant. It is one of the oldest dyes used in Japan, and was introduced from India via the Silk Road, sometime in the 6th or 7th century. While it was initially used by the samurai and the aristocracy, the dye was popularised by Tokyo commoners in the Edo period.
The production of denim can be seen as an extension of this culture and many denim companies, including Pure Blue Japan, have their jeans dyed with natural indigo, in much the same way they were during the samurai times.
“Making natural-indigo-dyed jeans is a really slow and expensive process – everything is done by hand,” says Iwaya. “Indigo plants are planted and harvested, and then made it into a dye by steaming and fermenting. With artificial dye, you can do it in a big machine, but with natural dye, you can only do it manually.”
While premium denim is pricier than mass-produced denim, for many consumers, products made with artisanal expertise are worth the extra expense. Hodgson says the interest is part of a general shift towards higher quality, and a respect for the production process.
“The credit crunch made many people question the throwaway culture common in western societies and encouraged a nascent interest in quality goods built to last, goods that get better with age,” Hodgson sums up.
– TEXT BY MANAMI OKAZAKI
PHOTOS: MANAMI OKAZAKI, KIMONO GIRL MAKEUP: RISA HOSHINO, KIMONO MODEL: IKUMI MATSUKI/LIGHT, SNEAKER PHOTO: JULIAN KRAKOWIAK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.