Denim

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Shinsaku Sugiyama

    Main guest

    Vice president of Shujitsu University in Okayama Prefecture, where, as a professor in the Faculty of Business Administration, he lectures on marketing strategy and leadership. An interest in denim prompted by the thriving denim industry in his home prefecture of Okayama led him to write “The Story of Japanese Jeans,” a book based on research into the activities of numerous domestic makers.

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November 8, 2017

Denim

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Though the words “Japanese clothing” are perhaps most likely to conjure up images of items such as traditional kimono, two-toed workman’s boots and wooden geta clogs, Japan’s modern status as a fashion leader has brought other types of garment to the fore.

One category for which Japan has established a particularly good reputation since the latter half of the 20th century is denim, with several Japanese brands making great waves on the global stage, and other workshops offering superlative fabric-processing techniques to the world's top manufacturers.

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Denim produced using traditional looms in Japan has earned global recognition.

The place of pilgrimage for any fan of Japanese denim is the laid-back town of Kojima in Okayama Prefecture, Western Japan, on the banks of the Seto Inland Sea. For centuries the town was known for the production and dyeing of cotton fabrics, particularly using aizome, traditional Japanese indigo dyeing techniques. In the early 20th century, with the nation in the throes of rapid modernization, local producers shifted their emphasis to school uniforms.

But in the 1960s, with a small number of large firms starting to dominate the schoolwear sector, one plant in Kojima decided to embark on a new adventure with denim, a fabric that had been introduced by the occupying US forces in the years that followed World War II.

They released the first Japan-made jeans in 1965, produced using denim imported from the USA, and key features of the rest of the Japanese jeans story are covered in the show.

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Nowadays, Japanese denim is noted for the use of a variety of distressing techniques.

In the 1960s, for people of Peter's generation, jeans came to be associated with rebellious attitudes that were closely tied to the golden years of rock & roll. For teenagers (then a new concept) and students, such fashion also became linked with political protest.

In fact, in this edition of Japanology Plus, Peter makes a reference to 1968, not only the zenith of hippie culture (bellbottoms) but also a peak year for student protests in various cities around the world including Paris and Tokyo. One thing linking youthful rebels with a cause everywhere was a penchant for blue jeans.

Denim came originally from the French city Nimes ("serge de Nimes"), and it seems that "jeans" derives from Genoa, where denim was first made into trousers that were dyed blue using indigo. Jeans as we know them today can be traced to US manufacturers in the late 19th century.

In the years since then, Japanese makers have made many innovations in denim production techniques, from the first stretch denim, to perfecting stonewashing and acid-washing techniques, and sanding jeans over a mold placed under the thigh area to create distinctive “hige” creases around the crotch, their name invoking the whiskers of a cat.

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Some brands even use laser technology to achieve the desired look.

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A sander is used to apply “hige” creases.

In this week’s show we also see time-honored techniques such as aizome indigo dyeing. If you're planning a trip to Japan, you might like to try out this type of dyeing at one the many aizome taiken (hands-on) workshops dotted around the country. You won't be able to dye your denims, but you'll get an idea of the process, and you may well end up with your very own tie-dyed aizome handkerchief.

*You will leave the NHK website.