On Japan’s Outerwear Obsession
- Words Alex Rakestraw
- Date October 11, 2017
In the pantheon of menswear, Japan sits on the main altar. Through a reputation for quality (and a dash of inaccessibility), the island nation’s native brands have consistently floated to the top of their category, no matter how eclectic. Yet, whether it be Visvim’s handsewn tribalwear or Descente’s high-performance ski gear, a single red thread links each collection: for both Japanese brands and their customers worldwide, outerwear is king.
Japanese menswear brands live and die by their outerwear. While logo tees are a financial necessity, it is coats and jackets that give logos meaning. For technical brands like nanamica and White Mountaineering, coats are a proof of concept; for workwear brands like Kapital and Nonnative, jackets are the final touch; for designer lines like Undercover and Junya Watanabe, outerwear is the largest canvas of all, a space for the artist to isolate signal from noise with one cocooning garment. Western brands have even tried to capitalize on this penchant for parka, with The North Face and Tilak launching Japan-only diffusion lines focused almost exclusively on sleek outer layers.
It’s no surprise, then, why Uniqlo has staked so much on producing the best cheap down sweaters: in Japan, the coat rules all categories. Yet, despite this broad cultural foundation, the history of Japan’s outerwear obsession as we know it is less than eighty years old.
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Long before the present, Japanese outerwear took a different from: the kimono. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan practiced a form of isolationism called “Sakoku” (literally: “closed country”) starting in 1633. This policy largely barred foreigners from economic exchange with the island, but just as importantly, barred cultural exchange as well. During this period, traditional dress—kimonos in public, farming clothes for labor—was the de facto rule. It would take US Commodore Matthew Perry sailing gunboats through Tokyo Harbor in 1853 for Japan to “open” to the world once again.
At first, only the military wore Westernized apparel. By the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the shogun’s army and navy had adopted all the hallmarks of Western uniforms: wool overcoats, belted trousers, and button-up shirts, to name a few. A beefed-up (and victorious) military may have brought these garments more public attention, but at home, Japanese citizens dressed much the same as they did in the days pre-Perry.
By the 1920’s, Japan’s post-WWI wealth had spurred a nationalism-tinged modernization. While this movement may have incidentally put the country on a collision course with fascism, it also created a vibrant consumer culture.
As detailed in “The Brittle Decade,” Japan edged away from traditional garb (kimono for daily wear, noragi for manual labor, etc.) and towards a distinctly-Japanese form of Western clothing. Businessmen wore suits and shirts; “Mogas” (modern girls) walked Tokyo in imported pumps. Department stores, embracing trends both industrial and sartorial, even loosened traditional rules against wearing shoes indoors.
Ultimately, this wave of Westernization peaked in 1931, with an attempted military coup shaking up the social stability that had allowed for cultural exchange. After the failed coup, Japan plunged into a chaotic period known as “government by assassination,” and by the time the terrors stopped in 1937, a stabilized yet right-wing military government had made war with China all but avoidable. It would take nine years of World War before peace was restored.
Post-war, Japan was devastated. European readers may understand the scale of destruction, but to Americans who have never lived in a country that recovered from total war, it’s impossible to describe the hole torn through society. Entire cities—their industries, their histories, their peoples—were quite simply gone. Allied bombing had reduced both industries and infrastructure to rubble, yet from that rubble, Japan was expected to rebuild.
It’s here that our story begins.
Rather than risk populist rearmament à la Weimar Germany, the US military officially occupied Japan beginning September 1945. All over the country, streets swelled with American soldiers: distributing food, keeping order, and most importantly, trading with the locals.
During the occupation, American military surplus—both clothing and gear—was a white-hot commodity. By 1947, American forces had banned commercial import of textiles and garments to the mainland and closed many department stores, replacing Japan’s formerly-busting consumer culture with a ration system. A thriving black market soon emerged. Military jackets specifically made for frequent bargaining chips. Functional and durable, jackets like the standard-issue M-43 also had the advantage of a war’s end oversupply. It’s not hard to imagine “one off the stack” as a tempting gift, given either in charity or exchange.
By occupation’s end in 1952, however, the wounds were still too fresh. America was the paternalistic conqueror, and outside of valuable imports, its clothing was the exception, not the rule. Yet, the occupation-era influx of cash and culture (both largely Western) had given the recovering Japanese population both an image of modern materialism and the means to copy it. What Western fashion needed was a shameless champion.
In 1954, clothing entrepreneur Kensuke Ishizu founded VAN Jacket, postwar Japan’s first proper designer menswear label. Ishizu, a natural salesman, realized he needed to win hearts and minds at scale if VAN was to succeed. To this effect, he and his staff began secretly contributing articles to Men’s Club, Japan’s first serious post-war menswear magazine. While ethically questionable, the press campaign worked—before long, VAN Jacket was selling out at all accounts. While the line featured shirts, trousers, and all manner of accessories, one item remained a consistent bestseller: an American-inspired high-end sport coat.
Ishizu’s success was only just beginning. Riding the wave of a restructured Japan’s “Economic Miracle,” VAN Jacket embarked on a decades-long campaign to popularize menswear and essentially create its own customers. The company’s effort peaked with Take Ivy (1965), a menswear bible detailing the shirt-and-coat style of the students attending Ivy League schools. For VAN, Take Ivy was more than a book – it was a catalog.
It was also an instant national success.
In one fell stroke of content marketing, Japanese clothing promotion had a secret sauce. If you were a brand, starting a trend would now require research, production, and ruthless publication. If you were a magazine, a surefire way to sell issues involved overseas travel and product-focused documentation. Working in tandem, entire cultures could shift between seasons.
It didn’t take long for theory to become practice. Catalyzed by magazines like Ski Life (1974) and Made in USA (1975), disinterest in now decades-old “Ivy” gave way to “Heavy Duty,” a vision of outdoorsy American workwear equals parts Red Wing and The North Face. Down jackets and chore coats replaced navy blue blazers. Loafers gave way to Danner Mountain Lights. The style stuck. Then it morphed. Then it stuck again.
Two decades after the end of occupation, four-pocket field jackets and brown leather boots were back to stay.
Today’s Japanese outerwear brands owe both their reputations and their obsessions to the wave that crested with Heavy Duty. While later punk movements would introduce the MA-1 jacket to this military-inspired lexicon, brands like Visvim and White Mountaineering lean heavily on the rough, cotton/nylon utility aesthetic first introduced by surplus garments then stoked later by Heavy Duty. Even the “trendiest” styling of this period remains just as relevant today—a testament both to its creative influence and its continued reproduction. In fact, in many ways, the rugged Westernized styles imported during Heavy Duty have never gone out of style.
With a past this storied and a future decades in the making, outerwear-obsessed Japanese brands continually present some of the world’s true grails.