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Made in Japan

Philomena Keet, School of Oriental and African Studies

My research on denim in Japan looks at the premium denim manufactured in Okayama in the West of Japan and sold throughout Japan and the world, but there is an equally rich market for cheaper jeans (between the equivalent of $20 and $80) that I will introduce briefly here.

Levi's Japan produces more decorative versions of the famous 501s for the Japanese market.The 24-hour chain store Jeans Mate

Most of the brands sold in ‘Jeans Mate’  are domestic brands, but such is their American image that many customers apparently believe them to be imports (this is often said of ‘Edwin’ for which Brad Pitt has often modelled in Japan). 

Even the Levi’s sold in these shops are the products of Levi’s Japan and are not identical in provenance therefore to Levi’s sold in America and Europe. Levi’s Japan not only modifies the standard Levi’s models for the Japanese market but also produces Japan-only editions, for example those decorated with coloured prints as shown in the photographs. They are not marketed however as Japanese limited editions: in Japan there is no brand value in having special ‘Japan’ versions of jeans that hold their symbolic value in being American. This is in contrast with the aforementioned ‘premium denim’ which invariably emphasises that they are ‘Made in Japan,’ even if they are close copies of famous historical American jeans models.

Fake selvedge produced by overlocking with a red thread.'The Jeans' are promoting themselves as authentically American with their promotional design and heavy use of English, including reduntant (and often nonsensical) translations of Japanese explanations.

Japan is often regarded as a nation that frequently copies and in doing so, improves on the original (e.g. Cox, Tobin). The history of denim in Japan includes many attempts by makers to replicate as closely as possible the appearance and shape of Levi’s 501 xx model, considered to be the pinnacle of jeans models.  They achieved this aim so successfully in some cases as to have got into legal hot water.  Japan’s denim history is also one that involves the input of many ‘fanatics’: this led to the reintroduction of the production of selvedge denim in Japan. Selvedge denim has a non-frayed edge that results from being woven on an old shuttle loom. It is more expensive to produce than the denim woven on newer machines which can cope with twice the width.  Jeans Mate, being a lower-end chain store, does not sell any real selvedge denim, but sells a selvedge-like pair of jeans that reproduces the edge using new techniques, not old looms. There is much lore about how selvedge denim is of a better quality, but this definition of ‘better’ is subjective, deriving more from the story and history of selvedge denim than its intrinsic qualities. So in Jeans Mate we see a ‘fake’ copy (achieved by modern technology) of a Japanese-revival reproduction (using old equipment) of historical denim weaving. 

These Miss Edwin boot cut jeans are promoted as warmer than regular denim. The copy on the red background reads: Warm, pleasant. 'New function Body Fire' fireJapanese jeans maker Edwin boasts a wide range

Jeans Mate displays a somewhat overwhelming range of denim, impressive not only in its diversity but in the precision and detail of classification and innovative ways of creating ever finer distinctions. One of these newer innovations is that of denim with greater than average insulating properties. Edwin’s website boasts that thanks to its new ‘Wild Fire’ jeans, you can be warm without having to wear layers. Other dubious distinctions are concocted such as ‘shoe-cut’ denim to complement the well-known ‘boot cut’.  This micro-branding is often seen in the Japanese marketplace, appealing to Japan’s many ‘micro-masses’, collectivities of consumers finely attuned to the significant differences between products and identification possibilities they engender. 

In contrast to this diverse jeans market in which the basic jeans shape is forced into numerous variations as the seasons and trends change, the premium ‘Made in Japan’ denim that I am looking at in greater detail is concerned more with origin stories and achieving a certain perfection that supposedly lies independent of fashion.  The same high degree of sensitivity in making consumption choices can be seen at both ends of the market, concerning in one case the differences between and within various denim lines, and in the other the approximation to an ideal form.


Cox, Rupert (2008) The culture of copying in Japan: critical and historical perspectives, Routledge

Tobin, Joseph (1994) Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, Yale University Press