There’s something special about brands that make clothing in the good ol’ U.S. of A. There’s a sense of pride in wearing it, and you can often expect that pride to last for a long time, as durability is a common theme among American-made garb. That said, particular garments from elsewhere have a certain cache. If you talk with denim enthusiasts enough, you know that the best destination for a new pair of jeans is Japan. Simply put: The brands in Japan know denim using high-quality materials.
What’s Special About Japanese Denim?
Quality denim is made around the world, from small European brands to affordable jeans under $100 in every fit and cut. In Japan, brands often take things up a notch when it comes to attention to detail.
Some of the characteristics that make Japanese denim special include:
Raw denim: Japanese denim is often made from raw, untreated denim fabric, which is not pre-washed or distressed. This allows the denim to age naturally over time and develop a unique patina based on the wearer’s lifestyle.
Selvedge denim: Selvedge denim refers to a type of denim fabric that is made on narrow looms and has a finished edge, which prevents unraveling and gives the fabric a clean, finished look. Selvedge denim isn’t unique to Japan makers, but it’s often used in high-end jeans made in Japan, and it’s prized for its durability and appearance.
Attention to detail: Japanese denim brands are known for their attention to detail and craftsmanship. They often use traditional techniques and high-quality materials, such as pure indigo dye, to create long-lasting garments.
Innovative fabrics: Japanese denim brands are also known for experimenting with different fabrics and techniques to create innovative products. For example, some brands use recycled or organic cotton, or blend different types of fibers to create new fabrics with unique properties.
Note that top quality comes with a price. If you’re looking for budget denim, stick with the tried and true brands (Levi’s, Lees, and Wrangler). But, if you’re willing to cough up a little more dough, you can end up with a pair of Japanese denim jeans that will last you a lifetime.
The Best Japanese Denim Jeans
A carefully guarded weaving method is just one of the reasons Oni jeans are prized. The small company based in Okayama, Japan, is fairly secretive compared to others on this list. It’s said that all the jeans are woven by the owner on a single loom. Though, since he doesn’t often speak to press, very little info is out there to corroborate that claim. What is out there is a collection of (often) slimmer-fitting jeans that are incredibly slubby, meaning they’re more textured and feel rougher than most jeans you’ll find at Macy’s. This is a characteristic loved by many hardcore denim fans. A lot of Oni options are a bit hairy and demand to be touched. Of course, the time-consuming production and lack of a large staff mean getting your hands on a pair isn’t always easy.
Momotaro is a hero in Japanese folklore. The story goes that Momotaro came to Earth in a peach that was discovered by a married couple. The couple raised the child, and when he was a bit older he helped defeat a bunch of demons. What does that have to do with jeans? Nothing. But that didn’t stop Kojima-based Momotaro from using the story as inspiration for its brand. Elements of the story can be seen on the leather patch, in the pocket “battle” stripes on some models, and on the ID, which has pink/peach lines. The jeans have been made by hand since the company started in 2006. Vintage shuttle looms, vintage sewing machines, and human hands give each pair its own flair.
Good denim from Japan is going to cost you. Don’t expect to find prices similar to the jeans stacked on tables in department stores stateside. If you are a bargain shopper, however, Japan Blue may be the brand for you. With prices in the $125 to $225 range, Japan Blue offers selvedge denim jeans for less than most others on this list. We know, $200 doesn’t sound like a steal. But we’ve seen raw denim jeans go for up to $800, so have a little perspective here. But don’t let the discounts fool you, the quality is still there. Started in 2010 by Hiroki Kishimoto, Japan Blue makes slim and modern jeans from durable fabric sourced from its own mill and one other. The brand’s focus is on simplicity, so don’t expect bells and whistles. These are just well-made jeans that will last and fade with use, and they can be yours for a (relatively) reasonable price.
When it comes to newer Japanese denim brands, few stand out as much as Tanuki. Tanuki specializes in unsanforized denim, which means it hasn’t been pre-shrunk. While this can lead some buyers astray when it comes to sizing, there are many who prize unsanforized denim for its pure nature. Since unsanforized denim wasn’t touched after the jeans were made, the denim is usually rougher and more lively. We’re also big fans of the Tanuki mark stitched into every pair. The two lines can be found on the back pocket, with one representing the past and Japanese tradition, and the other representing the future and the strength to change. As for the colors, the red and white are pulled from the Japanese flag.
One of the main reasons people turn to raw denim is to achieve unique fades. The worn back pocket where you keep your wallet and those honeycombed knees all help tell a story. Samurai is all about fades and has been since the brand was started in the late ’90s by Tohru Nogami. The label drew inspiration from Levi’s, even naming its first jean the S510XX, after the famed 501s from the American brand. The brand has worked hard to develop jeans that fade in unique and interesting ways, so you can really put your own stamp on a pair. The silver strand on the selvedge ID is in reference to a Samurai’s sword and offers an original look when cuffed.
Sugar Cane & Co.
Sugar Cane has been making vintage-inspired workwear since the ’70s. When it comes to jeans, that means durability is paramount. Think old-school American jeans that were put to the test and you’ll get the idea of what you’re in for when you buy some Sugar Canes. Often the brand will blend sugar cane fibers in with the cotton, which can be seen in models like the Hawaii or Awa. The idea is that such a move is better for the environment. Just keep in mind that the brand’s jeans have a tendency to run a bit small, so size accordingly.
The Flat Head
Japanese labels have long turned to Americana for inspiration. That’s why you have brands like The Flat Head, a Nagano-based outfit that uses the California coast as inspiration for all the goods. While the brand does craft everything from leather jackets to wallets, it’s known for its denim. Founded in 1996 by Masayoshi Kobayashi, The Flat Head makes a great number of jeans, none more prized than the iconic 3XXX series. These are jeans built for the long haul. And over that long haul they will fade beautifully and far quicker than other pairs. That’s because Kobayashi is fond of things that are old and believes a pair of jeans is better with some wear. If you want unique vertical fading and you want it fast, The Flat Head has you covered.
You need some durable denim if you’re going to be riding a motorcycle every day. For that, turn to Iron Heart, a Japanese brand that makes heavyweight denim for riders. That means you can expect insanely heavy denim — up to 25-ounce denim on some models. For reference, most of your jeans probably clock in between 12 ounces and 18 ounces. If you’re riding on a bike and the wind is slapping you, you’ll be happy you turned to a pair of Iron Hearts. While the label has an outpost in the UK, its roots are in Tokyo.