Jeans on the Japanese counterculture, early 1970s. (source)

Ametora Footnotes: Chapter Four

“a Kojima businessman” (p. 75): Zempei Yamori (家守善平) was the Kojima businessman responsible for introducing sewing to the city as an industry. He’s enough of a hero in the area that they erected a bronze statue of him in Kurashiki, Okayama.

Maruseru (p. 76): The first store to sell jeans in Japan, Maruseru (マルセル), was originally a soap store. Ken’ichi Hiyama opened a little store in 1948 along the alleyways of Tokyo’s bustling Ameyoko black market to sell olive oil soaps imported from France. The shop name Maruseru came from the pre-war pronunciation for the French city of Marseille. In this time of hunger, poverty, and chaos, however, few spent their precious cash on high-end European soap. Hiyama needed more popular items to peddle, and so he started also selling surplus American military wear.

Modern day Maruseru in Ameyoko (source)

Toshiyuki Kurosu on jeans: Long before VAN’s Toshiyuki Kurosu knew about Ivy League clothing, he encountered jeans on the streets: “You can’t imagine how fresh jeans looked to us Japanese who only knew soldier’s uniforms, student uniforms, and mompe farming pants. I think even now we all have a psychological complex about jeans buried deep in our minds. I still have strong memories of a pair of jeans worn by an American I saw in the 1950s.” (Trad Saijiki 174–175)

Early pronunciation for Levi’s (p. 79): Since no one had heard the brand name pronounced in English, hawkers screamed about “rebisu” jeans. In a 1961 article in Heibon, Kensuke Ishizu spells out the pronunciation as “riibusu.”

Fake jeans (p. 81): The first companies to make jeans in Japan likely used a lightweight, chambray-like material in place of heavy denim. Illustrator Yasuhiko Kobayashi recalls seeing them in the early 1960s, “They were terrible. Cheap material, a terrible silhouette with a high-waist and tapered legs. They were meant for workers and sold for ¥300 on the side of the roads.” I have not found any good images of what these looked like, but they may be like what Yūjirō Ishihara wears throughout Eagle and Hawk.

Trailer for “Eagle and Hawk” (1957). Note Yūjirō Ishihara’s fake jeans and Rentarō Mikuni’s real jeans.

Early “workwear” textiles (p. 81): The heartiest Japanese materials used in work uniforms maxed out at 6 oz. Kurabo executives also gave me a sense that they had to completely retool their machines to make thicker denim in the early 1970s.

Article on “G-Pan” (jeans pants) by Kensuke Ishizu in celebrity magazine Heibon, 1961.

G-pan’s early appearances in the media (p. 79): As Japan entered the 1960s, magazines started to introduce jeans as an important component of the American wardrobe. Kensuke Ishizu wrote a primer on “G-Pan” for celebrity magazine Heibon in September 1961. Two years later, Men’s Club attempted to bring denim into the trad genre with a short article called “All About ‘Blue Jeans.” The editors asked readers to stop thinking about the pants as the Ameyoko-sourced jīpan and see them as fashionable imported jīnzu. The accompanying photo in Men’s Club showed two young Japanese models uncomfortably posed in stiff denim — imported, rolled-up selvedge Levi’s and a now-defunct Western wear brand called Old Kentucky.

Jeans vs. trad (p. 79): Ivy never really absorbed jeans into the American collegiate trend. Yasuhiko Kobayashi remembers, “Jeans weren’t fashionable. They were more like a kind of work gear for your lifestyle.” When he joined the Men’s Club staff as an illustrator in 1962, he was the only one in the office to wear jeans, matching them with a tweed jacket and button-down collared shirt.

Big John‘s political maneuvering (p. 81): To figure out how to get denim cloth, Shizuo Kashino of Big John first stopped into the Tokyo office of Hideo Okada, an Okayama native who ran the Small and Medium Business department of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. After handing over a basket of fresh Okayama peaches, Kashino explained that Maruo Clothing needed to import real American denim as a way to revive the manufacturing sector in Kojima. Okada agreed with the premise and disappeared for two hours to research the issue.

Big John sales tags (p. 82): The attached paper sales tag borrowed the English text of its previous Canton sales copy, promising “Authentic Western Jeans” while showing a man being thrown off a rodeo bull.

Advertisement for Big John’s Road Runner color jeans (1971)

Color denim: Big John created Japan’s first color denim line Road Runner, (renamed Road Colors). Cone Mills pushed the fabric on them as a precursor to being able to buy their higher-quality blue denim.

Shinjuku in the 1960s (p. 86): Despite the Russian vibe and socialist protests, many Americans hung out in Shinjuku. Yasuhiko Kobayashi remembers, “When the Vietnam War started, there were a lot of soldiers in Shinjuku again — especially African-Americans. They’d go to Shinjuku and listen to modern jazz. If Americans were there, it felt like a real jazz club.”

Hippie hangouts (p. 87): Famed artists, writers, poets, and architects hung out at a cramped cafe called Fūgetsudō (風月堂), described in 1964 by English Olympics guidebooks as “Japan’s answer to Greenwich Village.”

Fugetsudō in the 1960s (source)

John Bull origin (p. 92): With the success of Big John reviving Maruo Clothing from near extinction, other companies in Kojima followed its path into making jeans. Maruo enjoyed a competitive advantage in having the only hook up to real American denim through an exclusive deal with Cone Mills. Kojima’s Kanewa Clothing, famous for its split-toe tabi socks, wanted to make denim but hit a wall on the issue of supply. Former Kanewa chairman Kazuyoshi Fukuda remembers, “Big John was a company we all looked up to. We wanted to also make jeans but there was no denim material.” The company got its start sewing Edwin’s jeans from lower quality Burlington Mills denim.

Big John’s license plans (p. 94): In 1969, Maruo flew to America to ask for licensing agreements with denim giants Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler but came back empty handed.

Ryōji Kaihara, now Chairman of Kaihara. (source)

Kaihara’s denim origins (p. 93): Kaihara and Kurabō both secretly studied American denim in the late 1960s so they could start up production once the economics made more sense. Kaihara first tried “cheese dyeing” — where yarn is wrapped up on bobbins and then soaked in a vat of dye. This produced mediocre results. The president’s young son Ryōji Kaihara researched further and figured out somewhere that Cone Mills used rope dyeing. The company decided to make an investment into the process, and Ryōji traveled to Kobe to buy up old cylinders and vats from distressed companies. Rope dyeing also required more expensive ring-spun yarn, so they worked to secure better materials. Once Kaihara dyed the yarn, Kurabō wove it into denim. The entire process took both companies several years to perfect, and on the eighth attempt in 1973, Kurabō created Japan’s first true American-style denim.