THE HISTORY AND SUCCESS OF JAPANESE DENIM: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH MOMOTARO JEANS
Momotaro is the name of a hero from the Japanese folklore “Momotaro Densetsu”, often translated as “Peach Boy” in the western world. This story passed down through many generations originates and takes place in Okayama, Japan.
Made with Japan visited the headquarters of Japan Blue Group, the makers and parents company of Momotaro Jeans. They are located in Kojima, a small town in Okayama considered to be the “mecca of Japanese denim.” The company is now recognized internationally for creating high-quality denim and occasionally going over the top. You can watch a video and read a little about their highest-end gold line created using a modified manual shuttle from Kyoto, used to weave kimono silks HERE.
We were fortunate enough to meet and interview Masahiro Suwaki, the Vice-President of Japan Blue Group and the mastermind behind Momotaro Jeans. Many accredit him and his company for reviving the diminishing denim industry in Okayama by employing the original denim and indigo-dye artisans of Japan. Mr. Suwaki goes in-depth to share with us the story behind his company, the Momotaro Jeans brand, and the beginning history of denim in Japan.
A: So, will you tell us a little about the history and background of your company and Momotaro Jeans?
S: Well, we started with jeans in Japan. Our company’s foundation is in textile manufacturing. Our textiles have reached different parts of the globe now. For example, in America we sell our denim to Ralph Lauren and many other companies that seek high quality.
A: I saw a section called Rampuya (Ranpuya) on your website. Can you tell me what that’s all about?
S: Rampuya (Ranpuya) is a company we dedicated solely to high quality Aizome, Japanese indigo dying. Our other company called Collect manufactures and sells textiles. And with those two companies combined creates Japan Blue Group. But we started just as Collect.
A: So the company that has been around from a long time ago is Collect, then you created Rampuya, and now you decided to create the denim brand Momotaro Jeans?
S: Yes. Well we’ve only been around for 19 years actually.
A: So it appears you still sell to brands all over the world. How did you start selling to companies overseas?
S: U–m. As you probably know, there was a huge trend for premium jeans around the world right? So we were the first to create the premium denim material. We were creating the fabric and selling it to luxury brands overseas, for example Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and other companies started buying from us. We were actually surprised in the beginning! After that, the vintage boom in Japan helped our company take off further. (The vintage boom in Japan started with people paying hefty prices for real American vintage Levi’s, Lee’s, and Wrangler but gradually evolved into a style where brands began to recreate vintage styles in premium denim material)
A: Wow, that is amazing.
S: However, there are many business-focused companies in Japan that are geared towards copying textile designs and lowering costs. It was difficult to compete only with our artisan dyed and crafted denim so we split the company into two. Collect became dedicated for purely denim manufacturing. And Rampuya was created to allow us to continue the artisan methods and sell to only people that understand or really care.
A: What was your drive to start the Momotaro Jeans denim brand?
S: It is disappointing, but the population of people who truly understand denim are on the decline in Japan. This I feel is especially true for people who like fashion than the “average” person. When we thought about how we can get high-quality denim in their hands, we figured the best way would be to create our own brand and sell to them directly.
A: Does that mean the concept for Momotaro Jeans is simply high-quality denim?
S: That’s exactly correct. We do care about design, but that isn’t our main focus. We simply would like more people to wear and udnerstand high-quality denim.
A: I was in Tokyo before coming to Okayama and I met a few people in the fashion industry. I can only speak for the people I met, but they seemed to respect Momotaro Jeans so I think your concept is reaching the minds of people who like fashion.
A: So what brought you to this company?
S: Kojima is where I grew up and I was just looking for a job. Back then, this was pretty much the only type of work available. To me, I was following the natural flow of a boy in this area.
A: What was Kojima like when Japan Blue Group first started 19 years ago?
S: It’s not like how it is now. The artisan culture was diminishing because denim manufacturers began outsourcing to Korea and China where the cost was much cheaper. It was right around the time when the economic bubble of Japan burst.
A: Does Japan Blue Group still continue to make everything locally?
S: Yes, everything is Made in Japan and we outsource to various denim makers in the area. All of our manufacturers are the first denim makers in Japan.
A: I’m aware that there are various ways to make denim. For example by using manual shuttles to automated machines. What method or methods do Collect use?
S: We do both manual and by machine. Same for Momotaro Jeans. It all depends on the quality our customers would like and depend on the different lines we have for Momotaro Jeans.
A: I saw two Momotaro Jeans facilities on my way over here. Are they both shops?
S: The one you saw on an average-looking street with rice fields is a shop and also functions as our warehouse. We also manufacture denim there. The other one, on Kojima “Jeans Street,” is our original store and showroom.
A: What processes are necessary to create high-quality denim? How do you distinguish it from the cheaper quality denim?
S: First and foremost is the cotton. I think of it as the same with ingredients in food. The better the cotton, the better the material. That aside, it’s all about paying attention to detail and taking time to make. As for the machines, the older machines are less efficient but can create denim closer to what is handmade.
A: Does that mean denim loses its unique qualities as machines do more of the work?
S: Right. They all become flat like paper and you cannot create a unique material that way.
A: You mentioned earlier that Momotaro Jeans does not emphasize design, but who does the designing? Is this all done in-house?
S: Actually I do. I design the denim material too.
A: You’re Vice-President and Chief-Designer at the same time? You are very talented!
S: Not at all. (Laughs) Well, I don’t see it as design because we are simply sticking to our philosophy of creating everything high-quality and being transparent about it.
A: Are you also the one who came up with the Momotaro Jeans brand name?
S: That was actually the President. It was sort of a coincidence though. There’s a Momotaro emblem on our flashers we used in the manufacturing process and it was our customers who started calling us Momotaro Jeans. Well, and of course, because we felt it is most Okayama-like for it to be named Momotaro Jeans because Okayama is well known for “Momotaro,” the Peach Boy folktale which originates from Okayama.
A: I think the name is cool because it represents Okayama roots very well. There was a time when I was thinking a lot about the name of this project when we started Made with Japan. There are a lot of Japanese that I have met who were embarrassed by the word, “Japan.” So I stuck Japan in the name on purpose with my underlying message that Japanese should be more proud of who they are as people and shouldn’t be afraid to express their identities more openly. What do you think?
S: Well, I think the new generations are changing and I hope it will continue to change for the better. But similarly to the Japanese who hide their Japanese-ness when they go abroad, people from Okayama often hid the fact that they were from Okayama when they moved out to Tokyo. They didn’t want to be made fun of for being from the countryside. I always thought, “Why should we be embarrassed?” This is where we grew up and we have a culture to be proud of like the denim industry. So I began openly appealing to our Okayama roots in the denim industry.
A: The labels on Momotaro Jeans, don’t say Made in Japan, but say Made in Okayama right? Since when have you started this?
S: From the very beginning. I even say that we’re from Okayama when I go overseas too. Today, more and more people in the industry associate more with the name Kojima.
A: I’ve read quite a few articles online written in English where Kojima or Okayama is mentioned.
S: Yeah, it’s gotten to the point where Kojima is a brand name of itself.
A: On that point, is Made in Japan = to Made in Kojima? Do other areas in Japan make denim?
S: There are some, but the majority is in Okayama, especially jeans. It’s because Okayama was first to start making denim in Japan.
A: I did some research on Kojima, and I learned that Kojima started making jeans because of influences from existing industries for manufacturing Sailing Canvases, school uniforms, and Tabi shoes (Japanese working shoes). Can you tell us more about the history of denim in Okayama?
S: Yes, but if you look even further back in history, Kojima used to have a cotton industry. We used to grow cotton and from this naturally came textile factories. And transportation was not nearly as convenient as it is now. This was during a time when it used to take a whole day to go to Tokyo, and while Japan was rapidly becoming a global leader, Okayama was still rural and behind the time so to speak. However, it was because of this environment that most things stayed the same and became what we are present.
A: I assume there was many many factories closing shops, outsourcing the work to take advantage of production costs.
S: Yes, but why things remained, is because of the artisan workers’ pride and spirit. It’s been only 50 or 60 years since Japan started making denim, which means that there are still many artisans of Kojima who have been doing this from the beginning. These people that made denim went through it all including the war. The U.S. Army used to drop relief supplies from helicopters wrapped in denim material. This was Okayama’s first contact with denim. They thought, “What is this material? We’ve never seen such a durable material.” Japan didn’t have the technology to make such material or sew such material so we imported denim and sewing machines and began to experiment, with the artisans determined to catch up and make even better denim than America. The artisans that manufacture our denim today are these people today and they have pride in their accomplishments.
A: It may have been a natural progression, but do you feel the chain of events is a miracle in a way?
S: It can be said it’s a miracle.
A: Are there shops in the U.S. that carry your jeans right?
S: Not that many right now. Blue in Green in New York is one that does. You know, even though things may not lead to big business right away we don’t really care. We would like people to know about us though.
A: This is a personal question, what are some things you like about Japan?
S: To me, it’s the culture of caring and paying attention to detail when it comes to making things. I like the spirit of the artisans. It’s not really me, but the people like my seniors and my parents. Even talking about denim, it was because of their willpower and aspirations to create the best denim in the world that led to the continuation of my hometown’s industry in the present. I have just inherited the history and I would like to further develop it. So, it’s not really Japan that I like, but more Okayama. (laughs)
A: Is it possible to make denim that is even better than what you make now?
S: We’re always creating what is possibly the best we can do at all times. But if we say that this is perfection, that’s the end of it. So, we work with that in mind and strive to create even better. But we don’t have strategic plans for the following year or whatnot. We make progress when we make progress.
A: Then, does your company have goals for next year?
S: Not really. We work hard hoping that next year will be better than this year. That’s just how we’ve lived. This year rather than last year. We are the happiest at the present.
A: Are there any things you dislike about Japan or would like for it to change?
S: The fact that this society tries to undermine people like us.
A: Any closing words or messages?
S: Because of the United States and Japan, the jeans we make exist today so I would like both countries to work harder to create good denim. I am happy that Japanese denim has become highly valued and recognized for its quality. However, I think it would create interesting results if U.S. denim makers come back with something even better or unique. After all, denim is originally a U.S. creation.
Momotaro Jeans (Japan Blue Group) official website: