Denim enthusiasts know that the birthplace of Japanese denim is in Kojima District, Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture. How did this happen? Let’s examine Kojima’s history.
Kojima’s History of Turning Adversity into Opportunity
Currently part of Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture, Kojima used to be one of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea during the Nara period (710-794 CE), as recorded in Japan’s oldest historical record, the “Kojiki” (A Record of Ancient Matters).
Located right in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, Kojima was an important transportation hub between what was Shikoku and Western Japan at the time. Time passed, and at the beginning of the Edo period, the systematic development of new rice fields to increase national power advanced. Kojima was reclaimed, and it became the “Kojima Peninsula.” However, because it used to be an island, its soil has a high salt content, rendering it unsuitable for rice cultivation. Kojima switched gears and planted cotton (which is resistant to salt) and hit pay dirt. With Kojima’s mild climate and little rainfall which is ideal for cultivating cotton, Kojima cotton became a luxury product on par with long-established Mikawa cotton.
Edo Period (1603-1867)
Along with the times, Kojima’s cotton weaving industry has been growing dramatically. It all began during the late Edo period. Kurashiki started producing sanada himo, a type of cord used in sword straps and geta sandal straps. Travelers who visited popular shrines in Kurashiki started buying sanada himo as souvenirs, instantly popularizing them throughout the country.
Meiji Period (1868-1912)
During the Meiji period, demand for sanada himo gradually decreased because of the prohibition on sword-wearing. Amazingly, the weaving industry in Kojima did not disappear. When Shimomura Spinning Shop, the first private spinning company, was founded in 1882, the textile industry had an even greater impact on the region’s development. Power sewing machines imported from Europe made mass production possible, and split-toed socks, which were essential in everyday life at the time, became a major part of Kojima’s new cotton weaving industry. Eventually, production of split-toed socks exceeded ten million pairs, and Kojima became the number one producer of split-toed socks in the country.
Taisho (1912-1926) to Early Showa (Showa: 1926-1989)
However, after the First World War, the use of split-toed socks declined as people’s lives changed at a dizzying pace, especially when Western-style clothing became more common. Ultimately, in place of split-toed socks, school uniforms kept Kojima’s industries alive. The production of school uniforms, which started with the introduction of foot-pedal sewing machines, rode the tidal wave of Japan’s turbocharged adoption of Western culture. Kojima overcame reduced production during the Pacific War (1941-1945) and produced about ten million pieces of clothing in 1963, an all-time high a year before the Tokyo Olympics.
Late Showa (Showa: 1926-1989) to Heisei (1989-2019)
Kojima has always been finely attuned to the times and to cultural trends, successively producing items that supported Japan during its period of rapid economic growth, such as school uniforms and work clothes; and has protected its cotton textile industry through several changes in direction. However, during this time, demand for school uniforms was already declining, and Kojima used the Tokyo Olympics as a chance to come up with something new.
In the midst of this all, blue jeans, which was among the used clothing of American G.I.s circulating after the war, caught the eye of the Japanese as the jeans were an indigo color known to them as “Japan blue.”
Making the most out of the cutting and sewing techniques cultivated through split-toed sock and school uniform manufacturing, the idea of creating original jeans was the starting point of the history of domestically made jeans produced in Kojima, Kurashiki City.
The Emergence and Trajectory of Domestically Produced, Uniquely Japanese Jeans
A clothing manufacturer in Kojima, Maruo Hifuku was the pioneer of domestically produced jeans. Utilizing its know-how in producing school uniforms and work clothes, Maruo Hifuku made the first domestically produced jeans using denim imported from the United States. Maruo Hifuku continued to create jean sensations, fueling one boom after another, including Japan's first colored jeans. It also began to investigate producing denim domestically, instead of using imported fabrics. However, the bar was high because at the time, there were no machines in Japan that could weave denim which was twice as thick as school uniform fabric. Nevertheless, through the manufacturing ethos of the Japanese known as monozukuri and their drive, a spinning company in Kurashiki succeeded in creating Japan's first domestically produced denim in 1973, and denim completely made in Japan was born. This was how jeans of Japanese quality, from fabric to sewing, came to be produced; and how Kojima in Kurashiki City developed into Japan’s foremost jeans production area, in both name and in substance, in Japan and abroad.
Why do denim enthusiasts around the world love Japanese denim?
Denim produced in Okayama Prefecture is not only beloved by jean enthusiasts, but it has also been used in the products of luxury brands such as Chanel and Gucci.
Exceptional Technical Expertise
Most domestically produced jeans are handmade by skilled artisans. With fast fashion gaining ground in recent years, many machine-made, mass-produced jeans have no character, compared to jeans that are sewed and processed by hand and exude exceptional individuality.
Jeans of Japanese quality are born when artisans demonstrate their distinctive characteristics in each step of the production process.
Original Patterns Yield Beautiful Silhouettes
Kojima's pattern makers thoroughly study their customers to create beautiful silhouettes that suit different body types. Depending on the brand, each customer’s measurements are taken, and each customer receives a one-of-a-kind, custom-made pair made from an original pattern.
Sewing Techniques with a Long History
In the manufacture of sewn products, perfect sewing is achieved by accurate and precise sewing machine work, while harnessing the unique know-how that has advanced many cotton industries. Because there are enthusiasts who are particular about quirks and twists in their jeans, there are companies that sew their jeans using special machines that once produced vintage jeans.
World's First Processed Jeans
There are various methods used in processing jeans. One is stonewashing where pumice stones of varying sizes are included in the washing process to produce unique, faded parts on the jeans. There is shaving which gives jeans a worn-in or used look, as well as crushing and distressing methods. While carefully considering the overall balance of the jeans’ appearance, an artisan creates unique textures by hand. Kojima is known for being the first place in the world to process jeans, and for having top-class processing techniques.