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What’s The Difference: American vs. Japanese Denim

The invention of denim, specifically denim jeans, is deeply knotted and convoluted. There is not necessarily a perfect, certain answer. The same could be said about the question of which country makes the best denim. But the fact that what separates the biggest pillars and player in the denim community – the United States and Japan – is mainly a matter of personal taste, still has not stopped people from debating the virtues of Japanese versus American made denim.

The thing is, the histories of American and Japanese Denim are woven together, tightly. For the last half century, they’ve fired salvos of invention to one-up the other, drawing from one another and influencing each other. At one point, Japanese and American denim was largely the same. Since then, the last 50 years have been a tale of divergent evolution, with Japanese denim stepping dramatically outside of the United States’ shadow, and into their own denim identity. The denim community is dominated by these two countries. But the history of the cotton twill textile precedes both nations – by a wide margin.

Photo: Levi’s

The Fabric Of Denim History

From France, To Italy, To The USA

The word “denim” originates in etymology from the French “de Nîmes,” meaning “of Nîmes” – referring to the French city where the textile was first produced. It was called the “serge de Nîmes” – “serge” translating roughly to “sturdy fabric” – when it first sprung from the looms of French tailors and clothiers. Though the similar Indian fabric called “dungaree” predated denim by several centuries, the twill from Nîmes was not created until much later. Denim jeans and overalls were first produced in America the mid 1800s, when Nevada Taylor Jacob W. Davis constructed a pair of pants using a tough Fabric he had imported from Genoa, Italy. Therein lies the origin of our favorite fabric’s other nomenclature – from Genoa we derive the term “jean” (Genoa is Gênes in French). Davis was looking for a way to strengthen the fabric and make sure they didn’t unravel. So, being the ever-invented tailor that he was, he took some copper rivulets and affixed them to the pockets of the pants. The result was a pair of pants that tougher than hell. He sold a pair, then another, and another. Before Davis knew it, he had an order docket with 220 orders to fill.

Denim clothes were a godsend for laborers and workmen in Western America during the late 1800s, for their durability and rugged composition. This was around the time of the gold rush, and men were doing manual labor in rough-and-tumble conditions. As a tailor of modest means, Davis simply couldn’t keep up with the magnitude of demand for his proto-jeans. He wrote to a brand he thought could help: Levi Strauss & Company. A partnership was formed, and Davis was put in charge of the manufacturing and sale of the multi-cultural conflation that would become a staple of American Culture. And that is how jeans got their start in the New World. But the denim diaspora was not done yet.

What Started The Craze?

Japanese Passion For Jeans

The next step for denim was to head East. The tough fabric seemed to have a universal appeal. When they first appeared in Japan, denim jeans were being worn on the legs of American GIs (soldiers were fashion pioneers on more than one occasion). The Japanese liked the look and utility of the bright blue pants donned by American men. The desire of Japanese consumers for American jeans was also elevated by their post-war popularity in America, a fad that can be attributed largely to James Dean (the second King of Cool, next to Steve McQueen) who wore a pair in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause, brightly contrasting his iconic red jacket. From the textile town of Kojima, Japan began to produce their own versions of the pants that had come to be known as quintessentially American. First, they copied the American pants. Then, they went their own way. As time passed, the differences between American and Japanese denim have mounted. Since the post war era, a veritable culture war has gone on in the denim community, pitting the pants of each respective country against each other.

In order to align yourself with one faction or another, you’ll need to know just what distinguishes Japanese from American Denim. The what of these jeans begins with the how. To start, we must examine how each denim is manufactured.

The American Way

The manufacture of denim is often referred to as selvedge. It refers to “self-edge” fabric, where the natural end of a roll of fabric can be used in the product’s construction. When Jacob Davis forged his first few pairs of blue jeans, he was using unsanforized denim from New Hampshire’s Amoskeag Mill. But when he finally teamed up with Levi to meet burgeoning demand, they shifted their source for raw denim to Greensboro, North Carolina’s Cone Mills. Since the year of that transition – 1915 – Cone Mills has been a name synonymous with denim production (which is why the closure of their White Oak Mill made headlines earlier this year). Cone’s partnership with Levi & Co. became exclusive in 1922, and the company has continued to use Cone Mills denim in their line of vintage blue jeans.

During the 1980s, selvedge denim fell out of fashion with denim producers, in favor of cheaper methods of mass manufacturing. But in the 90s, selvedge denim experienced a resurgence. It was valued for its comparatively better quality to its non-selvedge counterparts. Selvedge sports a denser, tighter weave, and unique idiosyncratic patterns for each pair – a by-the-pair peculiarity that jeans produced in modern looms lack (check the stack at your local Urban Outfitters, you’ll notice little if any variation between pairs). Cone historically uses American Draper X3 Shuttle Looms to manufacture their selvedge denim. Other brands and mills have sought to replicate the beautifully “flawed” allure of the selvedge denim Cone Mills produces, using looms like the X3 Draper to capture the vintage warmth that simply cannot be fabricated in a room full of computer-controlled assembly lines and robotic arms. This is the American approach to crafting beautiful, authentic jeans – and it works, better than well.

The Japanese Way

The Japanese have their own way of doing things, distinct from the American way, but in no way inferior. Most Japanese jean manufacturers use Toyoda looms to produce their stuff. Though the blue jean was a concept the Japanese arrived at with some inspiration from American culture, the looms they used to make their clothes was uniquely Japanese. It came from one Sakichi Toyoda – indeed, the same man who founded the car company, which was the corollary result of Sakichi’s realization that his methods for manufacturing denim would translate perfectly to car manufacturing. Sakichi invented the Toyoda Model G Automatic Loom in 1924, after seeing farmers and their families struggle with hand looms to patch their clothes. Most Japanese denim mills still use Toyoda looms, which differentiates American denim from Japanese in one huge respect. But it’s also the sheer variety of different mills that dapple Japan’s map – and consequently the different styles and takes on denim – that distinguish Japanese denim from American. The breadth of denim birthing-grounds throughout Japan created since the late ’60s, generated a rise in experimentation, which in five decades, managed to bring Japanese denim from a state of American mimicry, to a place of total independence. The first Japanese denim companies had gotten their start using American-made denim; companies like Canton, and Big John, which produced its first prototype M1002 jeans in 1967, used Cone Mills fabric to construct their first pairs in Kojima. As time went on, and the number of Japanese denim mills rose, they sought to create their own, distinctly Japanese manufacturing method. The Kurabo Company contributed the first major step forward in this national ambition by creating their KD-8 fabric, Japan’s first ever self-produced selvedge denim. That was in 1972. In 1973, BIG JOHN produced their “M” Series jeans, becoming the first completely Japanese made blue jeans ever produced. The paths of Japanese and American denim, once so inextricably connected from the start, began to head in different directions. And the divergence never really stopped.

The Same, But Different

Same Genes, Different Traits

American Denim and Japanese Denim are regarded as being at the finest sources of the fabric. While Japan initially sought to emulate the character of the iconic American garment, it wasn’t long before they began to discover their own sartorial spirit that celebrated their culture and history, rather than copying another.

The result of Japanese innovation is two very distinct styles of denim. You may prefer one or the other, but you cannot deny the quality of both versions. Once Japan made its mind up to create its own sort of denim, designers and companies really began to push the envelope. Japanese jeans evolved to become more rugged and abrasive, less form-fitting than American jeans. A hand-dying process using indigo became the norm for Japanese fashion houses, a practice that honored the Japanese tradition of hand-dying fabrics. The unique properties of the indigo they used keeps the Japanese jeans from fading over time – a property that is quite opposite from American Jeans, which are celebrated for the ease with which they fade, and the rapid rate at which they become washed out. Due to the ruggedness of the fabric, signs of wear and tear don’t show up as easily in Japanese denim clothes as they do in American-made denim, which is another quality that can be good or bad, depending on your preference. However, when Japanese denim does fade, a high-contrast patina is usually the result, mostly occurring at the point of the knees.

Whereas Japanese jeans require some “breaking in,” American woven denim jeans are soft-textured and contour easily to the wearer’s shape. They also show signs of wear and begin to fade much more quickly than Japanese denim, a feature that many in the denim community cherish. The high tension weave process of the X3 Draper Looms used by American mills like Cone yields more white weft than is visible on Japanese denim, which is, in general, uniformly dark. In the end, it’s a matter of taste. Whether you prefer the ease-of-crease, proneness softer American-fabric, or the rugged, coarse and uniquely beautiful look of Japanese jeans, all depends on your preference. Good thing the question isn’t pressing. Without reaching too deep in your pocket, you can try them both.

Our Picks

Denim-ize Yourself

Levis 501 Original Fit Jeans

Though Jacob W. Davis independently crafted the first ever pair of blue jeans on May 20th, 1873, Levis is happy to call itself the “originator” of denim pants in America. The 501 model is the most classic kind of blue jeans, not just in America, but globally. Everyone from Kurt Cobain to Kanye West, Marlon Brando to James Dean and even to former President Barack Obama have, at one time or another, rocked a pair of 501 classics. In company with baseball, apple pie, etc., the Levis Original 501 Jeans are among the most American garments you can buy.

Purchase: $30+

Taylor Stitch The Democratic

Taylor Switch demonstrates its fidelity to denim history with this pair of pants, dubbed “The Democratic.” Crafted from 13.5 oz. 1968 Custom Selvage Denim direct from Cone Mills, these jeans offer the trademark soft, easy-contoured fit, with plenty of room for comfort. An indigo warp and natural weft red cast denim
creates a timeless, deep-blue look that is guaranteed to fade into a beautiful patina over the years.

Purchase: $145

Big John Rare Slim

Along with Canton, Big John was the company that brought blue jeans to Japan. On top of that, they were also the first company to produce an all-Japanese made jean, a seminal moment in Japanese culture. From humble beginnings in small sewing factory in Kojima, Okayama, Big John became a household name, and has pushed Japanese denim forward ever since. Their flagship model, RARE, comes in classic and slim fit, and is constructed from unsanforized, or shrink-to-fit material (most American denim is sanforized, whereas most Japanese is not).

Purchase: $300

Evisu Regular-fit Seagull Patch

Named for Ebisu, the Japanese god of prosperity, Evisu represents how mightily Japanese denim has prospered through the years. The company takes credit for a vintage revival in the 1990s, and captivated the Japanese fashion world with their detail-oriented, meticulously hand-crafted designs, which feature patches, and hand-painted adornments. The Evisu company demonstrates just how widely and wildly the Japanese passion for denim has stretched.

Purchase: $400