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Kojima, the Jeans Town in Japan

Philomena Keet, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

(This is a work in progress. Please give source if citing)

billboard

These are the words on a poster, showing a young couple in a rustic setting in their jeans, that one is greeted with on arrival at the small railway station at Kojima.  What is the poster advertising? A denim-production company located in the vicinity? There is no sign of a company name on the advert.  No, this is a poster promoting Kojima itself, perhaps partly for purpose of raising its profile in the textile industry (although it seems strange that anyone in field would need this reminder), but primarily for the purpose of ‘denim tourism’.  Kojima, declares most of the promotional material, is the ‘origin of jeans’ (ji-nzu no hassyou)One pamphlet calls it a ‘Jeans Mecca’. 

jeans sign

There are signs of denim tourism everywhere.  If a visitor came to the area ignorant of its denim fame, the proliferation of jeans related tourist leaflets, the shops signs written in white on dark denim, pairs of  jeans on display and general denim paraphernalia make the relationship between the area and its meibutsu (famous thing) clear enough.  

There is even a ‘Kojima jeans bus’ which, despite conjuring up images of bus-loads of tourists and guides, is actually a regular city bus that goes on a loop taking it to a number of denim related spots.  The denim tourist can buy a day pass for 500 yen (about £3 currently) which allows them to hop on and off the bus that is plastered in a the image of a huge pair of jeans.  This a scheme that is operated by the vast, staid company Japan Rail West, indicating this is not some local wheeze, but an established operation giving further legitimacy to Kojima’s status as Japan’s denim Mecca.

jeans bus

Kojima is an industrial town situated on a coast in the west of Japan’s main island, facing the ‘Seto’ inland sea.  It is in the prefecture of Okayama, and its other claim to fame is the engineering feat that is the Seto Ohashi (big bridge), connect the smaller island of Shikoku to the mainland. These two attractions – the bridge and denim - are brought together in tourist material, and in the Seto Bridge Memorial Hall where a ‘Made in Japan’ jeans superstore is in place.  In the early twentieth century Kojima became a location for the production of textiles, making school uniforms, work wear and so on and it is still famous for all aspects of textile production.  Japan’s first jeans were made there in the 1960’s by ‘Big John’, and its first ladies jeans followed in the 1970’s from ‘Betty Smith’.  These names show how jeans were still then inextricably associated with ‘Americana’, with Japan-made jeans mimicking the image of the ‘real thing’.  Now the situation is very different: as well as visiting Big John and the Betty Smith Jeans Museum on the Kojima Jeans Bus, one can also stop of at Momotaro Jeans at the Rampuya shop, and the Nukiemon jeans next door.  Now, ‘Made in Japan’ has become a cachet in and of itself and is a phrase that is everywhere in the Kojima jeans scenery.

Japanese jeans

Even jeans that mimic Levi’s, right down to the image of the jeans being pulled in two directions by animals on the label, are now more sought after than ‘the real thing’.  An employee of Dania Japan explained that now Levi’s were not made in America.  What was the point of buying American jeans if they were not made there?  This quest for authenticity is somewhat ironically fulfilled by these Japanese Levi’s rip-offs, precisely because they are ‘Made in Japan’.  Mr. Nakata from Dania said, people want ‘the real thing’ (honmono) and in this perspective, Levi’s are ‘fake’, no longer coming from the place they seem to embody.   The brand name ‘Dania’ comes from combing the AI of aizome (Japanese indigo dyeing) with DNA, since, according to the company, aizome goes back a long way in Japan, it’s in their DNA.   The Levi’s label picture is parodied by having the jeans pulled apart by a horse and a deer, the words for which in Japanese get shortened to ba and ka.  ‘Baka’, the man in the shop said, ‘for baka shojiki’.  This is a Japanese saying to the effect that fools are honest, real.  Again, the emphasis is on ‘keeping it real’. 

But who are these ‘people’ he is referring to?  In Japan, there is a not insignificant group of people for whom denim is anything but ‘the blindingly obvious’, as Miller and Woodward (2007) suggest that denim has become for many.  These are the ‘denimu mania no hito’, the ‘denim maniacs’.  These are the type of people who are concerned about which machine the denim is stitched together with, which machine the fabric is made on, whether the jeans have certain internal rivets (invisible on the outside) or not.  These are the people who will digest the many special magazine issues devoted to denim in Japan.  Nakata san admitted to being one of these people himself, unsurprisingly.  He had been wearing his pair of jeans since April the first, he informed me, and wore them every day without washing them.  He intended to do this for one year, when he would retire this pair and start on a new one.  His previous effort to do this was thwarted by his small child throwing up on the jeans, forcing a premature wash.  This highly ritualistic style of jeans wearing results in a pair that is entirely unique, moulded to your body, its creases and fabric wear testament to the wearer’s devotion to the jeans. 

loom

A good pair of jeans, woven on the right kind of loom and stitched on the right kind of machine costs on average 30,000 yen, or roughly £200 pounds.  In Momotaro Jeans, a showroom and shop on part of the Kojima Jeans Bus tour, there is an exceptional pair of jeans that costs 170,000 yen, over £1000.  The cotton is dyed by hand using natural plant dyes, a very lengthy process.  The denim fabric is then woven from this cotton by hand on a loom that used to be employed in Kyoto’s Nishijin district for weaving elaborate Kimono silks.  The resulting denim is incredibly soft and flexible and a little fuzzy almost like a peach (very appropriate for the company, since Momotaro is a legendary boy who emerged from a peach).  It is also very durable.  The button is made of pure silver, and the back of the jeans is lined with silk.  This is the height of authentic ‘Made in Japan’, using historical techniques and machines that require artisanal skill.

sewing

Kojima is a locus of such artisanal activities.  A network of establishments, ranging from artisanal work rooms to industrial factories has emerged from Kojima’s textile industry history.  There are places for stitching, for rivets, for buttons, for washing, for processing (kakou), ironing, patterning and so on all concentrated in this one town.  Kojima also has the sought after old sewing machines that give a special puckering effect on hems, sought after as another symbol of authenticity by the denim maniacs.  It also has the old weaving machines, which produce a roll of denim that is only half the width of the newer machines, and also leaves a ‘selvedge’ edge to the fabric.  Non-selvedge denim is unthinkable for denim maniacs and it is a tighter weave and slightly tougher fabric. 

Japan’s regional areas all have their own specialities, ranging from fruit and vegetables, to other foodstuffs, cuisines, crafts and so on.  Kojima as ‘denim Mecca’ can be seen as part of this ubiquitous regional branding, designed to boost both tourism and industry.  When people send peaches as gifts in Japan, it is always the Okayama peaches that are the most valuable:  peaches are an Okayama meibutsu, and the connection is fortified by Okayama being Momotaro’s legendary birthplace.  In the same way, both denim maniacs and ‘ordinary people’ wanting to spend a little more for the authentic jeans experience come to Kojima, Okayama, for the best ‘Made in Japan’ jeans.

References:

Miller, Daniel and Woodward, Sophie (2005) ‘A Manifesto for a Study of Denim’, Social Anthropology 15: 335-351