By Yuki Saka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer KURASHIKI, Okayama — Many pairs of jeans were flapping against a blue sky in the Kojima area in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, known as “the birthplace of Japan-made jeans.”
“Kojima Jeans Street” is a section about 400 meters long of the Ajino Shotengai shopping street. Here you’ll find a line of 30 jeans shops with a diverse range of features.
The shops use different methods in producing their jeans: for example, indigo dyeing methods with natural colorants to produce bright blue colors. Some jeans are processed to look worn, and some manufacturers hand-weave fabrics.
“Shops with highly skilled makers have gathered here. They manufacture products that can be made only in the Kojima area,” said Hisao Manabe, 64, the president of Japan Blue Co., which operates a shop near the entrance to the street.
The first domestically manufactured jeans were made and sold in 1965 by Maruo Hifuku, the predecessor of today’s Big John.
Cotton farming has been widespread in the Kojima area since the Edo period (1603-1867). Beginning in the Meiji era (1868-1912), many sewing factories were concentrated in the area.
As a result, many companies here entered the jeans manufacturing industry. They include a maker of school uniforms based in the Kojima area with the highest market share in the nation.
Shinsaku Sugiyama, a professor emeritus of brand strategy at Shujitsu University, said: “In the Kojima area, there were companies making highly durable school uniforms with thick fibers. So there were machines capable of sewing thick denim fabrics and skilled craftsmen who could use the machines.”
Sugiyama, author of the book “Nippon Jeans Monogatari” (Tales of Japan-made jeans), believes such factors contributed to the Kojima area’s development as a production site for jeans.
However, the Ajino Shotengai shopping street that was the central part of the Kojima area gradually declined, partly because JR Kojima Station was newly built about one kilometer from the area in tandem with the opening of the Seto Ohashi bridge in 1988. In the latter half of the 2000s, 70 percent of the about 70 shops in the street closed.
To overcome this situation, local makers including Manabe and the Kojima Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others, set up a council to promote the Kojima Jeans Street in 2009.
The council called on about 40 companies that have factories or other facilities in the Kojima area to open shops in the vacant spaces in the street.
At that time, only two shops in the street sold jeans. Many people were nagative about the plan, saying it was impossible that many people would gather there given the circumtances. Some of the property owners of the vacant shops were reluctant to lease them.
Manabe and his fellows persistently worked to persuade the skeptics, telling them, “All the more because jeans factories are concentrated in this town, we can promote the Kojima area to the rest of the world as a production site for jeans.”
For people who wanted to open shops, they proposed using the city government’s subsidy system. In addition, the city government paved a corner of the street in a denim-blue color. It also designated Oct. 26 as “the day of denim” and held events to celebrate the day.
The Kojima area was initially praised mainly by jeans lovers, but an increasing number of other people became interested as well. Partly due to the high quality of the goods produced there, people from outside the prefecture now come to buy jeans, a pair of which goes for about ¥20,000.
Taxis bearing jean patterns over the entire body of their cab operate in the area. The Kojima area has become a tourist spot visited by about 150,000 people annually.
In 2015, the Michelin Green Guide Japon, a guidebook issued by Michelin of France, introduced the Kojima area as a key place for jeans in Japan. Since then, a sizable portion of the visitors have been foreigners.
Because there have been times when jeans made in the Kojima area struggled to compete with lower-priced foreign products, an urgent task is getting tourists to spend a longer amount of time in the area and increasing the percentage of repeaters among visitors.
But Manabe expressed his optimistic outlook.
“We make high-quality products that can compete with those produced anywhere in the world. We want to raise the appeal of the Kojima brand and make this a town where jeans lovers from all over the world will interact,” he said, expressing his pride and his dream.
Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, and Ibara, Okayama Prefecture, are also actively vitalizing their local communities through jeans. Both these cities are leading producers of denim fabrics.
Fukuyama and Ibara have made various efforts. For example, city government officials wear denim clothes, and photo and illustration contests are held to promote the cities’ appeal as production sites for denim.
According to the Japan Jeans Association, the number of denim products made by major manufacturers in the nation was about 95 million items in the peak year, but in recent years, the number has hovered at around 65 million.
An official of the association said, “The boom for stretchy jeans has ended, so production numbers have remained almost level.”
The association annually selects celebrities as “Best-Jeanists” — the people who look best in jeans — in an effort to boost the popularity of jeans.