Japanese denim has a reputation among denim enthusiasts as being the best in the world, and for a good reason. While it doesn't have as long of a history as American jeans like the Levi's 501, Japanese selvedge denim is known for its premium construction and the skilled, artisanal craft required in the making process.

Setting sights on Japanese clothing brands, the country has mastered the process of fabric making and design, taking it to an unrivaled level. After jeans were popularized by pop culture in the US, Japanese denim's fabrication and dyeing process are what followed. Approaching it from an angle of art rather than a workwear staple, Japan created its own, a more refined version of jeans.

To understand why Japanese denim is significantly better, we must first understand how selvedge jeans are constructed and what makes some of them much more valuable and sought after. Some of the best Japanese denim brands, EVISU, EDWIN, Visvim, or Kapital’s patchwork designs, are defining Japan’s jeans output.

Here we'll explore the relatively short but significant history of Japanese denim to discover how it earned the reputation it has today and debunk a few myths along the way.

Scroll below for the complete history of Japanese denim.

Japanese denim’s unique traits

First of all, what is Japanese denim, and how is it constructed? Denim is essentially a thick cotton twill textile in which the weft (the transverse thread) passes under 2 or more warp threads (the longitudinal threads) that is dyed blue. The most popular type of denim, and what most people think of when they think about jeans, is indigo denim.

Indigo-dyed denim colors only the warp or longitudinal threads. If you look closely at a pair of jeans, you'll notice the weft or transverse threads maintain their white color, as does the inside fabric. Historically, indigo denim was dyed with a natural indigo dye from Indigofera tinctoria plant leaves. Today, most indigo denim is colored with synthetic dye as it is cheaper. This isn't the case with Japanese denim, as all threads are dyed fully.

The other important trait of denim's quality is the cloth the denim is made from. Selvedge, from the phrase "self-edge," refers to the natural end of a roll of fabric that prevents the unraveling of the material when made into a pair of jeans. Selvedge fabric edge is one of the most distinctive aspects of Japanese denim.

But what is Japanese selvedge denim, and what makes it so unique? It is mainly the way it is made. Producing selvedge denim is more costly since it can only be woven at a width of 31", about half the width of non-selvedge denim, and is woven on old looms requiring more skill and adeptness. This leads to a tighter, denser weave, along with various imperfections. Japanese selvedge denim edge is usually woven with a signature red stripe, although green, white, brown, and yellow are not uncommon.

Combining these two characteristics gives each pair a distinctive composition that becomes more unique over time.

Japanese denim’s production process

Most Japanese denim fabrics were woven on slow, inefficient machines until the world's 11th biggest company, Toyota Motor Corporation, came along and set our gaze toward the future. Before Toyota rolled out the world's best-selling cars, they produced textile looms under Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (yes, with a "d"). The company's founder, Sakichi Toyoda, introduced the Model G Automatic selvedge loom. Featuring new innovations, like the ability to change shuttles without stopping, among a range of other improvements, led to a 20-fold increase in productivity compared to other looms in use at the time. It wasn't until a few decades before the machines were used to create denim. Still, for now, they were an impressive and significant development toward what lay ahead.

Until World War II, jeans had been the garment of choice for the working class and American GIs when they were off duty. After the war, jeans became a symbol of youth rebellion when James Dean was filmed wearing a pair in the iconic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. American clothing, culture, and vintage apparel quickly became a fascination among Japanese youth, with the most entrepreneurially minded importing classic American jeans to sell for top dollar. This high demand, in combination with the culture's obsession and search for perfection, caused jean production to take off in Japan, mainly in the town of Kojima, located in the Okayama Prefecture.

Kojima district, located in Okayama Prefecture, Japan, had always been a hotbed for textile production. Thus, it only made sense to produce the first pair of jeans in Kojima at Kurabo Mills, one of the world's longest-operating mills, now running over 130 years. These jeans were made on those previously mentioned Toyoda machines from American-made denim in April 1965 under the Canton Brand by Maruo Clothing. In 1967, BIG JOHN jeans were produced alongside Canton jeans and were made of denim from Cone Mills. The same mill provided Levi's with their unmistakable denim. While the jeans were successful, the Japanese still craved a pair made from their own Japanese selvedge denim.

In 1972, after 8 tries, Kurabo finally produced Japan's first-ever selvedge denim, aptly titled the KD-8, Kurabo Denim 8. Now, all the pieces were in place for Japan to introduce to the world what would later become a global phenomenon. One year later, in 1973, those pieces came together.

The "M" series, produced by BIG JOHN of Kurabo KD-8 denim, became Japan's first pair of jeans made entirely by their fellow countrymen. A revolution in jean production led by the same people at the forefront of the vintage craze followed.

Japanese denim has become renowned for perfecting those 2 defining qualities in jeans ever since. Initially made by being woven on an old loom to produce selvedge fabric and using natural dye. But, of course, not all Japanese denim is created equally, and there's plenty of variation among different factories, manufacturers, and pairs of jeans. Still, denim heads in Japan already knew the true value of a perfectly made pair. Still, it wasn't until the explosion in luxury denim in the late 90s that the rest of the world began to take notice of this quietly growing art form.

One of the first on the premium denim scene was Hidehiko Yamane, the founder of EVISU, who, along with creating some of the world's first premium denim. Using the same methods as his predecessors, Yamane was able to create 14 pairs of selvedge jeans in one day on old looms, along with hand-painted seagull symbols, which have since become iconic. Originally done as an homage to classic Levi's 1944 501 xx, the brand took off and gained him a cult following among those in the streetwear scene. Evisu quickly earned the reputation of being the best of the best in denim and was soon able to sell each pair for over $100 - the first denim brand to do so.

Other brands continued experimenting with Japanese selvedge denim searching for the perfect pair, and the global luxury denim market blew up. Japan Blue Group, based in Kojima, was already known for its premium denim in Japan and soon began selling to the world's biggest luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, among many others. Soon every fashion house in the world had a line of Japanese denim jeans. Japan Blue created the label Momotaro Jeans to stay within their love and respect for jeans.

Momotaro's G001-T Gold Label jeans are the pinnacle of denim artistry. Priced at roughly $2,000, the jeans are entirely hand-made and dyed using natural indigo from the Indigofera tinctoria plant. This process goes against what most denim heads look for in a pair of jeans in that the jeans don't fade because dye penetrates the core of the cotton. In fact, they often get darker with age. Woven by hand on a loom used to weave Kimono silks, the denim takes up to 8 hours for every 3 feet of material. The fastening button is made of silver and silk lines on the back of each pair. Once finished, the jeans are washed in Seto Sea water. Each pair can take up to a year to produce and even becomes a community event with locals involved in each pair's creation. Many would scoff at paying $2,000 for a pair of jeans. At the same time, denim enthusiasts find the price reasonable considering the years of tradition, training, craft, and skill involved in creating each unique pair.

In short, Japan's obsession with recreating the American jeans they crazed over led Japanese denim brands and manufacturers to become the world's best in terms of knowledge and production. From then on, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on to the craftwork behind Japanese denim.

Now, the market is saturated with Japanese denim brands, leading to a dizzying amount of "Made in Japan" jeans. Although it's often difficult to find the exact origins of a pair, it's best to research beforehand to ensure you get what you're looking for. Classic brands are always a sure bet, but plenty of new Japanese denim brands, too, have the same passion and respect for jean-making as those that came before them.

Next up, check our style guide for the best jeans to buy online and read up on the history of skinny jeans.

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