Jeans On

Takumi – from Japanese ‘artisan’ or ‘skilled’, can also come from taku; ‘expand, open, pioneer’ combined with (mi) ‘sea, ocean’ or (mi) ‘truth’...

So begins the opening credits of Weaving Shibusa, a documentary by Devin Leisher on the almost spiritual cult of Japanese denim and indigo culture. ‘I was just fascinated by the whole thing about denim and Japan, especially as there was so much speculation about the history,’ says Leisher. According to David W Marx’s 2015 book Ametora, the Japanese denim story began with prayers at a shrine on the island of Kyushu.

Kojima had become the centre of Japan’s cotton industry in the 1930s, and while searching for inspiration for the future of their company, Maruo, in the late 1950s, two executives from the town visited the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine. When asked by Maruo’s founder what divine inspiration they found there, the two executives replied in unison ‘jiipan’, meaning GI pants.

The Japanese love of denim grew from necessity rather than aesthetics. ‘During the occupation, American soldiers often paid Pan Pan girls in old clothing (including jeans) rather than cash, and the streetwalkers went straight to Ameyoko (in Ueno, downtown Tokyo) to stores like Marasura, the American vintage specialist, to sell it off,’ writes Marx in Ametora. Old Levi’s jeans were also sold by GIs through the black market. A thriving trade in second hand ‘jiipan’ denim soon took off through vintage stores with names like Amerika-ya. In the early sixties the two Maruo executives finally convinced their boss to make Japan’s first blue jeans.

Using denim imported from Canton Mills in Georgia, Maruo manufactured its first jeans under the Canton brand at the Kurabo Mills in Kojima, followed by its most famous jeans, Big John. By the mid-seventies Big John was joined by brands like Bobson, Nerry Smith, Bison, John Bull, and Edwin as Japanese youth started to swap their vintage jeans for homegrown versions. To feed the demand, Kojima’s old cotton mills, indigo dyeing factories and sewing operations were revitalised…

You can read this article in full in the current issue of Selvedge.

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