The crazy popular Japanese fashion souvenir: the Sukajan

The crazy popular Japanese fashion souvenir: the Sukajan

This style of outerwear has been blowing up the streets and Instagram feeds. And when fashion enthusiasts (and even those who are not) find themselves in Japan, snagging a Japanese bomber jacket is basically senseless — it’s the perfect fashion souvenir. 

While it’s been called various names, the Japanese bomber jacket is more famously known as the sukajan (スカジャン). What is it? How did it come about? How do I get one? All the information you need is here — read on to find out!

The Ultimate Fashion Souvenir

If you’ve never heard of the term “sukajan”, maybe you know it by its alternative names — does “souvenir jacket” or “rebel jacket” ring a bell?

The Japanese bomber jacket is basically a type of outerwear, usually made of silk, that combines a typical varsity jacket style with dramatic embroidery of Japanese motifs including tigers, eagles and, of course, cherry blossoms. Silhouette-wise, they’re based on the classic American baseball jackets popularised by 1930svarsity teams. And Japan is quite obsessed with baseball, so it’s no surprise that this style of clothing caught on.

You probably would’ve seen the sukajan if you’ve watched the 2011 film, Drive, with Ryan Gosling donning a similar one — a white silk quilted bomber jacket with an embroidered golden scorpion on the back.

This puffy and loose, ribbed-collared and cuffed-sleeved, cropped and embroidered jacket is a fashion piece that’s both a staple and a trend, casual and dressy — and is more than just a bold fashion statement; it’s a piece that retells your Japan experience. At least, that was how it began — and also how a lot of sukajan wearers are using it for.

Origins of Sukajan

Like most popular fashion designs, sukajan has a long, rich, cultural origin. In fact, just the name itself will give you a brief insight into where it came from. The term is believed to be a portmanteau — it combines the end half of the name of the naval base city, Yokosuka (横須賀), with the first half of the Japanese katakana translation for “jumper” (ジャンパー) which is just “jan” (ジャン). Put it all together and you get “suka-jan”. 

Let’s travel back in time to the era of World War II — Yokosuga in Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan was the first few naval bases in Japan. American GIs are basically the original creators of this distinctive embroidered style. In fact, there was one specific American serviceman who started it all. When it was around the time their occupation drew to a close, he had the brilliant idea of taking his normal bomber jacket to the local tailor to have it embroidered, converting something that was regarded as a symbol of war into a priceless souvenir. His fellow servicemen followed suit as soon as they laid their eyes on this creative beauty. 

The original sukajan combined the two countries’ symbols like cherry blossom and dragons, and  geisha (芸者) and eagles. These motifs remain, to this day, as common designs on sukijan. What’s not as common nowadays is to see maps as motifs — but back in the day, some American soldiers did request to have them embroidered to commemorate their time there. As each soldier has their own experiences infused in their bomber jacket design, authentic and hand-sewn sukajan never had two of the same styles. 

More and more American soldiers wanted to bring back this one-of-a-kind souvenir to the U.S. as gifts, or even to sell.  The demand for these unique Japanese bomber jackets boomed, and the Japanese tailors had to be crafty — they pieced together leftover parachute silk with other fabrics to feed these demands. 

As the sukajan was getting more popular in America, Japan was adopting the American prep style during the 1950s to 1970s. This whole fascination with American clothing and pop culture is known as the “ametora” effect — publications like Popeye magazine influenced the local trends and those who were looking to “westernise” their fashion style. ‘Bad boy’ icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando were all the rage in Hollywood, and kimonos were being swapped with biker jackets.

But not everyone was into it. Some took on the sukajan as an alternate outerwear and a way of making a statement — a defiant one. Just like how the Schott Perfecto leather jacket acts as a symbol of rebellion in the U.S., sukajan rapidly became associated with Japanese gangs like Yakuza and juvenile delinquents like the Yankii subculture, hence the nickname “rebel jacket”.

The Recent Evolution

The sukajan came a long way from a mere souvenir jacket to a symbol of rebellion, and now a fashion trend. While it has remained in Japan as an iconic fashion clothing piece, the rest of the world didn’t really know what sukajan was — even in America, the souvenir jacket began to fade after the war.

It wasn’t until the mid-2010s did the sukajan see its revival outside of Japan — I’d say we have Ryan Gosling to thank for that. Other Hollywood celebrities like Drake and Kanye West also added the iconic Japanese souvenir jacket to their wardrobe, and fashion magazines like Menswear Style declared the silk bomber jacket to be a “defining fashion item”. 

Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent incorporated silk bomber jackets featuring floral motifs into their collections. Streetwear brands, too, didn’t pass on the chance to be in the loop with this timeless style; Adidas and Converse were quick to release their own rendition of souvenir jackets, by incorporating the style of prints onto other fashion pieces like sneakers. 

We have to admit: sukajan went from an item with a purpose to now holding mainstream appeal and becoming a worldwide fashion trend. Its journey is quite extraordinary, and personally, I see no limit to the reaches of this Japanese bomber jacket.

The sukajan, as we now know, isn’t just a fashion piece — its history and cultural essence is embedded in every stitch. Now that you know what to look out for when shopping for a Japanese bomber jacket, are you ready to own one? It makes a great conversation starter with someone else who has it on, too! Make a friend by buying a sukajan!

Fashion Through the Ages (Podcast Recap! S1E9)

Fashion Through the Ages (Podcast Recap! S1E9)

Introduction

My personal favourite episode so far is episode 9, as we took a walk down Memory Catwalk, looking at  Japanese fashion through the ages.

Japan is full of traditional culture — salarymen in business suits rub shoulders with groups of young women wearing gorgeous floral robes, and trendy hipsters who combine their modern tees and trousers with stilted sandals from centuries past. But Japanese fashion didn’t always look quite like this — the story of how these outfits morphed and developed over the years is the story of Japanese history itself. 

Fashion reflects the times, and if you want the whole shabang of a walk down memory lane, give the episode a listen — this article is merely a summary of what we talked about!

Pre-1600s

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Japan was heavily influenced by the Chinese in these early days in everything from food to language, so it’s only natural that the clothing was as well. Chinese fashion was the primary style of clothing in Japan. It was only in the Heian Era (794-1185) that there was a shift in not only the fashion but the overall culture of Nippon as a whole, when the identity of Japan became more distinct from China. 

We all know what the most famous Japanese traditional clothing piece is: it’s definitely the kimono (着物), a long robe with short, wide sleeves. The short-sleeved style of kimono-like robe popular in those days were known as kosode (小袖). This servedasa base layer upon which the fancier garments would be layered. Commoners were also wearing kosode-style clothing, just without the fancy layers on top. Usually, the kimonos were made from plain material, but high-ranking people at the Imperial Court had theirs made in brocades and top-quality silk.

Even on casual occasions, women would wear at least two or three layers of kimono, with each layer’s hem and sleeves peeking out from underneath the others. Plenty of novels and poems from the Heian Period took the subtle swish of kimono-clad arms past bamboo screens to flirt with the boys as a romantic gesture.

Colour played quite a big role too, as it was an indicator of rank. Want to know how? Listen to episode 9 of the Nihongo Master podcast!

Edo Era (1603-1868)

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When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power during this era, they brought peace and stability to Japan for about 250 years. It was pretty chill, until the Shogun passed some pretty restrictive clothing laws. 

Only the nobles and military class were allowed to wear the most luxurious fabrics. Anything silk and satin, pattern and brocade, was limited to the high ranks. This law allowed people to strut their social status and power, because it would be several centuries until Louis Vuitton shoes and Gucci handbags allowed people to do that without the need for legal backing.

The traditional garment became an art form due to this, and that called for greater manufacturing capabilities and developments embroidery skills for new patterns. The wealth from the higher ups trickled down to the merchant class — and with it a nice helping of the arts, culture and fashion. 

Back in the Heian Era, the yukata (浴衣) was worn by the nobles after a bath. It’s kind of similar to a kimono — only it’s usually made from cotton or linen, extremely lightweight and worn loosely. During the Edo period, when public baths became more common, even the commoners were using yukata, and you’ll still see them worn as a lighter summer kimono today.

As the commoner class became more fashionable, the noble class also took to wearing the haori (羽織), an outerwear piece worn over the kimono. This thigh-length flowing jacket was pioneered by the Geisha, but both genders could be seen wearing it after the craze caught on. Most of the time, it was worn to protect their kimono from getting wet or dirty when they were out and about.

If you’ve been to a Japanese festival, you would most definitely have seen the japanese people wear the happi (法被). What to know what it is? Listen to the episode now!

So, in short: the Edo Era marked an important time in the history of Japanese fashion — as things got a bit more comfortable for everyday people, they could start to enjoy some of the finer things in life. 

Meiji Era (1868-1912)

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We also looked at the Meiji Era, which is arguably the most significant time in Japanese fashion’s evolution. Before this time, Japan was sealed off from the Western world, but thanks to the Meiji Restoration this all changed.

After World War I, there was a huge rise in the middle class. With more people working, more businesses raking in profits, and more taxes to be collected, there was a whole lot of money going around. What’s more, their old wardrobes were hardly going to cut it when the Emperor had issued a mandate in 1871 for all officials to wear Western clothes during work and official events. 

Men were quick to switch to suits and women started wearing Western-style clothing, too, after the empress herself started dressing in the latest Parisienne trends. Hair trends were adopted as well — when the Emperor himself cut off his topknot in 1872, his loyal followers couldn’t resist but to do the same. Western haircuts and facial grooming for the men as well as Victorian updo hairstyles for the women were huge.

Oh, schools changed their look too — the Meiji Era saw the birth of gakuran (学ラン, Western-style clothes for uniform), based on the Prussian Waffenrock, a kind of outerwear worn by German military. The women got the sera fuku (セ-ラ-服, sailor-style school uniform) came into the picture, inspired by the British Royal Navy uniform. 

Do you think the people wore Western clothing at home as well during the Meiji Era, or did they change back into their traditional clothes after work? Listen to the episode to find out!

Taisho Era (1912-1926)

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While the Meiji Era bombarded the Japanese with momentous modernizations day after day, and the Edo Era represented the old traditions, the Taisho Era struck a nice balance between the two.

Even though this era was short-lived, it made quite an impact. When the Emperor basically made everyone give up their comfy robes for woolen trousers, it was an analogy for some bigger societal changes which were happening at the time: the old ideological garb of medieval feudalism was being switched out for a shiny new Westernized liberalism. 

Some of the Japanese people took that as a way out of wearing youfuku and sticking to their traditional garb of robes. The liberalization of fashion to them meant the freedom to go retro traditional. Others took it to mean the complete opposite. 

It was also the time when even the lower middle class and working class were getting in on the Westernization trend. However, not everyone could afford them, so it was be merely adding a new piece of accessory in the outfit, like a short-brimmed hat for the men and a shawl wrapped around the neck for the women.

Chronologically trapped between Japan’s first major wave of modernization, and the more restrictive and totalitarian pre-war days, the Japanese people of the time took what they wanted from Western ideas and fused it with their own culture.

I guess we could say that the Taisho Era was like puberty for contemporary Japanese fashion — when it really started to figure out what it was going to be when it was all grown up.

 

Showa Era (1926-1989) to Present Day

Image Credit: tomoike_2525

The Showa era (1926-1989) pretty much set the fashion scene up as we know it today. With the American occupation came a wave of americanization. This was also the iconic period of time that various Japanese subcultures were formed — if you had listened to one of our previous episodes (episode 7), you’d know the teenage tearaways known as the Yankii started stomping around the streets of Japan during the Showa era. 

Moving through the 70s and 80s, things started to get pretty weird, with the arrival of more subcultures like Lolita and Visual K. These were all about expressing yourself in the most visually ostentatious way possible. 

Everyday fashion here remains quite sedate and modest, though — every man in a business suit, students, mothers, and school-kids on their day off tend to wear simple, loose-fitting pants and t-shirts. I bet Uniqlo got their whole aesthetics from that.

The rise in unique fashion movements and clean-cut contemporary styles weren’t the only things the Showa era had to offer. The good ol traditions stayed alive, and can still be seen today.

Kimonos went from traditionally handmade to mass production. We talked a bit about why traditional kimonos are priced so high in the episode, so check that out if you’re interested. We also talked about the process of handmade to mass production.

Vocab Recap

Here’s the full list from our various vocab recaps in the podcast episode:

 

Kimono (着物) — traditional Japanese clothing

Hakama () — a skirt-like garment worn over kimono robes

Umanori (馬乗り) — a type of hakama with split legs 

Yukata (浴衣) — a loose kimono worn after a bath, or in summer

Haori (羽織) — a loose jacket usually worn over the kimono

Geta (下駄) — traditional wooden raised sandals

Obi () — a thick sash which ties around the waist of a kimono

Happi (法被) — an overcoat with a family crest emblazoned on it

Youfuku (洋服) — Western-style clothing

Gakuran (学ラン) — Western-style male school uniform

Seira fuku (セイラ服) — Sailor-style female school uniform

Chonmage (ちょんまげ) — topknot hairstyle popularly worn by men

Akusesari (アクセサリー) — accessory

Tokei (時計) — watch 

Hōshoku (飽食) — jewelry. Or nowadays people commonly use the katakana version: juerī ジュエリー

Sebiro (背広) — business suit, also known casually as a suutsu 

Kurubizu (クールビズ) — the summer business style

Hana (はな) — flower

ikebana (生け花) — traditional Japanese flower arrangement

Conclusion

We looked at how the Japanese fashion scene came to be the unique blend of tradition, westernization, and crazy experimentation which we know today, just in 500 years all in one podcast episode. If you want to hear more about each era’s fashion, head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast to give Episode 9 a listen!

What has happened to Harajuku Fashion?

What has happened to Harajuku Fashion?

Tokyo is famous for its wild and crazy, pure and creative, limitless and shocking fashion. The locals agree that Harajuku is where all the action happens. There is a special kind of energy that flows in the area, and anyone who’s ever been there has felt it.
 
Gossip began to spread in the fashion world at first about the “death” and the demise of the Harajuku essence.
Recently, this topic of discussion became widespread. Everyone was paying attention. This area was the birthplace of legendary streetwear brands: BAPE, Undercover, and Neighborhood. How can it be out of creativity? 
 
Media, especially international media, can sometimes blow things out of proportion. Here’s a not-so-short rundown and a little insight from a certified fashion pro.

The rise of Harajuku style

person in harajuku fahsion jacket in Japan with glasses in street.

Image Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson
There isn’t a specific style to describe Harajuku fashion. From gothic lolitas and weekend cosplayers. To the retro rock ‘n roll to kawaii put-together. This mix of non-mixing is what made Harajuku oh so special and enticing.
 
There were many “zones” in Harajuku that make up the neighborhood. From the reigns of designer labels such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. To pioneering Japanese streetwear labels like A Bathing Ape and Undercover. It’s safe to say Harajuku had it all.
Even the ones that were not flashy in style were a style. As streetwear became prevalent, subcultures formed. To this date many have studied them, making them legendary
 
Many associate the oversized, laid-back casual look to be Japanese-sty. As well as the all-black look. It took elements from Japanese tradition, as well as Western influence. Like lolita and kawaii made styled neon evocative of Japanese style.
It only goes to show that, even though these looks are total opposites, they still resemble the same thing. There is no one style to Harajuku fashion.

The decline and fall

Lolita girls in full harajuku fashion

Image Credit: Elvin
Many who saw of the shifting of styles said the decline and fall of Harajuku fashion was imminent. The change in Harajuku’s fashion scene judged as drainage of its original essence.
 
Harajuku used to be an organically-born, creative hub. Now it’s become managed by big name brands and companies. Tourism boomed and globalization forever changed the once sacred fashion area.
It became a tourist attraction. 100 Yen stores filled every corner joined by even businesses and banks.
 
Many creatives had to adapt and became main stream. Others disappeared. Having to adapt to different modes of access and prices, it is no wonder the Harajuku scene changed in a huge way.

Evolution of Harajuku 

Harajuku fashion ladies standing in a row posing

Image Credit: Elvin
The styles of Harajuku fashion have changed a lot since its early days. The truth is it’s evolving. The evolution of something means it will not remain in its original form.
 
Harajuku fashion has never been one specific style. And it doesn’t only describe the crazy and loud fashion that are famous. It refers to a special zone of no judgements, and limitless creativity.
If the past few decades have told us anything it is that fashion changes so fast. And those things that create the most change are usually weird!

Harajuku’s present and future

Harajuku fashion girl with denim dress in busy street

Image Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson
The colors may have faded from the streets of Harajuku, the passionate souls still exist. This neighborhood has become the heart of people who want to express themselves.
It has become a safe zone for some, and home to others. People interact and connect. And new talents are often discovered. 
 
People all around the world come to Tokyo to experience the Harajuku vibe. While it may not be what you see in magazines, it is the modern-day Harajuku. It’s still oozing with energy and bustling with new fashion tribes. It’s still the spot where fashion trends are born and made.
 
It is safe to say that Harajuku is not dead. The Harajuku people are always trying out new clothes and styles. It’s a change, not an end. Who knows, in the next century, this is what they could define as Harajuku fashion.
If you really want to be on the cutting edge of Japanese fashion learn Japanese with Nihongo Master! The All-in-one, fun and easy way to master Japanese so you can keep up with all those Japanese bloggers out there!