How Japan Saved American Blue Jeans

Photograph by Talia Herman

W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fascinating cultural history that tells the story of how the country emerged from the Second World War and took now-iconic American styles – from the Ivy League look to classic workwear – made them their own, and maybe made them better. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from the book, Marx explores the country’s postwar vintage denim obsession that is probably the reason you paid so much for that pair of Selvedge jeans at J. Crew. 

Workers at the city’s top uniform maker, Maruo Clothing, watched in sorrow as stacks of unwanted vinylon garments piled up in its warehouse. Founder Kotaro Ozaki needed to act. In the fall of 1964, he summoned his two lead salesmen, Shizuo Kashino and Toshio Oshima, back to headquarters for a meeting on the fate of the company. After strange dreams each night about ninth century scholar-poet Sugawara no Michizane, he decided to take the two men on an impromptu overnight pilgrimage to Dazaifu Tenman-gu, the Kyushu shrine where Michizane was deified. After paying religious tribute, the Maruo team received their divine inspiration at a nearby hot springs resort. Ozaki asked what kind of clothing Maruo needed to make to rescue the business. Without hesitation, Kashino and Oshima both answered jiipan, or “G.I. pants.” Americans knew them as “blue jeans.” 

Kashino first learned about jiipan from the store Maruseru in Tokyo’s Ameyoko district. While no longer a black market, the area was still chaotic in the late 1950s; packed crowds roamed hundreds of stalls selling pickles and fish, pilfered hotel supplies, smuggled contraband, semi-legal parallel imports, and luxury items illicitly procured from PXs. Maruseru’s proprietor, Ken’ichi Hiyama, found his own lucrative niche reselling surplus American military garments, as well as new American-style work coats and pants from makers like Maruo. During the Occupation, American soldiers often paid Pan Pan girls in old clothing rather than cash, and the streetwalkers went straight to Ameyoko stores like Maruseru to sell it off. Hiyama noticed that many of the women came in with faded, indigo-blue work pants, which rumors identified as the bottom half of American prison uniforms. Anyone who had visited U.S. military bases knew that soldiers often wore pants like that while off-duty. Lacking a better descriptor, Hiyama nicknamed them “G.I. pants,” and the shortened term jiipan (or “G-pan”) became common parlance around the neighborhood. 


RELATED: How Much Should You Actually Spend On a Leather Jacket?

Read article

By 1950, jiipan made up more than half of Maruseru’s sales. Hiyama’s wife Chiyono told Shukan Asahi, in 1970, “We would buy them at ¥300–¥500 a pair and then sell at ¥3,200. Jeans were so scarce that when you put them in the store, they would sell out before you even put on the price tag.” At the time, most men’s pants came in wool, and the cotton jiipan was much better suited to Japan’s temperate climate. ­The blue color also stood out in the khaki sea of wartime kokuminfuku (“citizen clothing”) and American soldiers’ uniforms. In the words of writer Masatake Kitamoto, jeans glowed with the “blue of victory.”

In the hunt for more jiipan, the Hiyamas noticed that boxes sent from America to family members stationed in Japan often contained torn-up jeans as packaging material. ­ey bought up these scraps and hired companies to patch the holes. ­The results were Frankenstein-like creations that stitched together disparate elements of mangled pairs, but even these sold out immediately.

By the early 1950s, Ameyoko stores had developed a brisk trade in used jiipan, but no one in Japan was able to buy a new pair. There was one notable exception—elite bureaucrat Jiro Shirasu. The handsome, Cambridge-educated businessman and diplomat first discovered jeans while living in San Francisco in the late 1930s. After the war, he played a critical role in facilitating relations between the Japanese and American governments, and it was this intimacy with General Douglas MacArthur’s GHQ that allowed him to purchase a crisp new pair of Levi’s 501s from a PX. Shirasu nominally wanted the denim to wear when tinkering with his car, but he ended up living in them. When he boarded a flight to San Francisco in 1951 to sign the peace treaty with the U.S., he immediately shed his suit and spent the rest of the flight in his Levi’s. In 1951, the entire country learned about his love of jeans when a photographer captured the graying gentleman lounging in his favorite outfit.

Excerpted from Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style by W. David Marx. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!