Japan has always been known for its obsession with quality and an incurable, near-delirious mindset to not stop till they are as close to the best as they can get, a point where perfection becomes nothing more than a matter of practice. From samurai swords to pens, carsto cameras, ‘Made in Japan’ carries a solid guarantee of lasting quality and unmatched innovation that is respected and remains unquestioned in the world even today.
In the 1970s, everybody was buying into America. They’d just recently sent a man to the moon, their music was great, the economy was beginning to boom, there was a sense of security and the American Dream almost became an international fantasy. The Japanese, somehow, ended up finding some denim that came their way and then, in typical fashion, they decided to change the game. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the sophisticated American industrial looms, so they had to make do with traditional hand-run ones. But while America was unknowingly losing a legacy by producing this cheap and efficient denim, Japan was acquiring a new one.
They worked a fabric with a self-finished edge (hence, Selvedge). As this has to be worked at a different width on the loom, it takes the same effort to obtain half the results. Sure, the fabric is stronger and denser; often a red or blue or mix stitch is worked into the edge, to highlight the selvedge, so denims made with selvedge fabric, when turned up at the heel, will show this little detail. It is common to acquire a pair and then not wash it for a year, allowing the denim to take the shape of your body. I used to stick mine in a freezer from time to time to, well, keep it socially sanitary. It was finally washed after two years.
Then, along came Toyoda (the car-making Toyota of today), which designed a new machine to make jeans, and this allowed Japanese jeans to be produced in slightly more elevated numbers. To compare, American denim is smooth, pre-shrunk (or sanforised) and uniform in colour and fade. Japanese denim is raw, often unsanforised, and this is how to tell a good Selvedge denim from a machine-made one. Japanese denims also show uneven fading, and use natural (indigo) dyes.
Today, a Japanese denim is the most sought after form of jeans, and even Italian brands will often try and ape the style. Look out for these popular brands:
Evisu: Popular, Puma owned now and good, thin but stiff fabric.
Momotaro: With prices starting well above $400, these are hard-to-find luxury jeans. Samurai: One of the most precious names in the business.
Kiriko: Some lovely designs that merge tradition Japanese motifs with Western ones
Kapital: These are heavily patchworked, so the look and style are rather distinct and also, not for everybody. The Flat Head: The vertical fade pattern on this jean is rather unique.
Oni: This brand practices a very secretive loom pattern, and that is pretty much their USP. I can never tell the difference. Also, they use a special colouring technique that is considered (no pun intended) a dying art form.
Strike Gold: These are the jeans for a person who has too many jeans. When you look at your wardrobe and realise that you have all fits in most colours, then you have finally arrived at the entrance of Strike Gold denim. It’s the real deal, some serious connoisseur stuff.
As a standard and at the risk of generalising, Japanese jeans are pricier, rarer, heavier and stiffer, but a decade down the line, when they have faded into a new pair altogether and outlived every other garment you own, you will realise why they were a worthwhile investment.