Back in the early-2000s, the sneaker industry—and Nike in particular—was experiencing an evolution of sorts.

Jordan Brand was expanding its vast and dominant retro line, bringing back all types of updated versions of the best sneaker collection in history. A nascent Nike SB was beginning to test the limits of creativity on the iconic Dunk silhouette. Overseas in Japan, Nike was releasing some of the most elusive and trendsetting sneakers of the era as a part of its “CO.JP” or “Concept Japan” program. Fittingly, "" is the suffix for Japanese websites, so the name is essentially a double entendre—both an abbreviation and a subtle hint that these could only be picked up in Japan.

The United States and Japan have always had an intertwined, almost symbiotic relationship when it comes to sneakers, streetwear and cultural influence, so the program made plenty of sense. Sneakerheads in Japan were on the Air Max 95 early and were wearing Dunks long before Nike SB was born. Japan was a hotbed for sneakers and Nike would soon drop exclusive products there in an effort to expand its reach, capitalize on the booming sneaker scene and experiment with designs and colorways. The byproduct of the Concept Japan program proved to be a who’s who collection of rare sneakers exclusive to the Japanese market that left sneakerheads back in the States salivating.

In a pre-Internet-dominated industry without the existence of sites like Grailed, Concept Japan was more of an “if you know you know” existence for sneakerheads in the United States. It forced people to get creative and find back-channel ways to secure sneakers, back in a time where you waited in line outside a store and prayed they had your size. The hunt had effectively expanded around the world.

Count Ronnie Fieg, owner of NYC-based Kith, among those inspired by the experience of trying to track down sneakers thousands of miles away. “I was doing everything possible from my bedroom in Queens to get my hands on them,” said Fieg via Instagram. “Hunting online, trying to make connections overseas, etc. To this day, the CO.JP AF1s are some of my favorite ever.”

“Moments like these are why I truly love footwear,” he added.

That nostalgia has propelled Fieg to be one of the torchbearers of the CO.JP legacy through his own brand. He released a retro version of the Air Force 1 “Linen”, arguably the most popular CO.JP release ever (more on that in a minute). More importantly, on the eve of his store’s opening in Japan, he designed a “Kith” Air Force 1 to be released solely at the launch, old-school CO.JP style. Like he did 20 years before, Stateside sneakerheads had to get creative (or wait and pay resale) to secure a pair of his Japan-exclusive Air Force 1.

With the release of the silver “Tokyo” Jordan I looming on August 7, it’s a great time to look back at the legacy of the Concept Japan program and the sneakers that came from it. What started out as a legend you could only admire from afar, eventually evolved into an important part of sneaker culture. Here are a few of the best and most important releases from the Concept Japan program over the last 20 years.

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