MY PERSONAL SUKAJAN – ATSUSHI MATSUSHIMA

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WE HAD THE PLEASURE AND HONOUR TO ASK A FEW QUESTIONS TO A JAPANESE EXPERT, CLUTCH MAGAZINE, ABOUT THE SUKAJANS’ HISTORY FOR THIS FOCUS; 

 

SOME SAY SUKAJAN COMES FROM THE JAPANESE WORDS ‘SKY-DRAGON-JUMPER’, BUT OTHERS TELL IT ISSUES FROM YOKOSUKA – WITH SUKAJAN BEING A MIX OF ‘YOKOSUKA’ & ‘JAN’, THE JAPANESE TERM FOR ‘JUMPER’ – WHO’S RIGHT? AND THEN, I NOTICED THAT OLD SUKAJANS ‘HAND-MADE’ BY GI OFTEN HAD JAPANESE & CHINESE ELEMENTS-FABRICS TOGETHER… WHAT WAS THE JAPANESE POST-WAR PEOPLE’S REACTION? DID THEY ALWAYS WEAR SOUVENIR-JKTS TOO?

Suka is from Yokosuka. That is right. There is a US naval base <USN> in Yokosuka. During the late ‘40s, after the WWII, in Tokyo – in the Ginza area (a very expensive one, now as well) above all – there were so many stalls on the street like flea market selling products to American officers, so everyone in Ginza was trying to sell ‘em souvenir-items; memories like Japanese dolls or the Obi especially – the traditional sash to close the kimono dress (with very nice fabrics and patterns). Ginza was popular amongst those posh people despite the fact that it was a time when there was nothing in Tokyo – due to the bombing – and even if Obi sashes were very famous you couldn’t find anything new, because there were restrictions from the GHQ (General Head Quarters for the allied powers). Not by chance a lot of stuff was sold as second-hand goods even inside local people houses. Japanese people couldn’t create quite anything, for instance you couldn’t make silk or cotton since you had to need a certification from the GHQ in Tokyo – so in that time they used rayon fabric to basically create a sort of baseball styled-jkt (which is the sukajan) to imitate the baseball-jkt so beloved by Americans, who then asked Japanese tailors to stitch graphic elements on its back mostly with rayon threads (which were ok to use). The jackets of the time weren’t very up the standards – rayon is difficult to make things with – but the stitchings and embroideries were very good (and made by Rising Sun’s old-school tailors) so they showed the jkt the Americans for sale and those silky-jackets sold well – in fact they begun creating other apparel as well (for kids too)… An interesting anecdote is that those sukajans had also a sort of lining between the front and back layers, like a down filling, obtained recovering cloths similarly to the Boro technique, given Japanese people back then couldn’t get cotton and silk etc (so those rayon jackets weren’t only summer garments but also winter sometimes). Moreover, given that rayon velveteen in Japan used to be destined for cheap Japanese Tabi socks’ making for winter, Japan’s citizens at the time were amazed about the rayon sukajans since in a way they were made with their socks’ fabric (surprisingly it was sold like it was silk or velvet although it was just rayon)… Rayon fabric was then called man-made silk fabric, or imitation silk, and it was then a very popular fabric for Japanese people. Then sukajans begun being officially sold in Post Exchange stores (PX) in all the American camps based in the Pacific rim like Hawaii, Alaska and Korea; that’s why you can find all those sukajans claiming Alaska, Guam, Hawaii etc… In Yokosuka there was the US Navy base already, so Japanese people started there selling a lot of sukajans to Americans, and they were also showing them how those hand-made embroideries and stitchings had to be done etc – they also took their orders there and made sales displays, but orders were placed to the factories directly… Some young Japanese people started to wear souvenir-jkts in the late ‘70s, copying the Americans dressed in sukajans; until then, souvenir-jkts were just a souvenir of course – after the end ‘70s, Japanese people went very familiar with the souvenir-jkts, as Americans used to call them – at the time sukajan name wasn’t born yet. Anyway when Japanese people were trying to find souvenir-jkts, someone must have said they were available in Yokosuka area; that’s why probably the name given the jkts by Japanese youngsters came from Yokosuka jumper and then suka-jan. Sukajan is the Japanese way of calling the souvenir-jkts, while Americans say either souvenir-jkts or embroidered-jkts… During the American wars against Korea and Vietnam the GI based in Japan wanted to buy all those souvenir-jkts – they were very popular souvenirs – like all those Korean and Vietnamese jkts made for civilians too (such as the ‘vetojan’: the hand-embroidered souvenir-jkt from Vietnam, with the country’s traditional sky-blue lined clothing which is Aozai). Back then, Okinawa was conquered by the USA and their GI asked Japanese tailors to get embroideries on the back of their jackets (not only the varsities, but also their MA-1 or other military jkts too) – it really was a usual custom to them – so Okinawa people started to make many of those jackets, noticing they were going big. Think that in the Kadena air-base they still have some of the very first custom sukajan sketches from the ‘50s-’60s.

WHEN DID THE FIRST JAPANESE LIKE TOYO ENTERPRISES START TO CRAFT OR RE-MAKE SUKAJANS? PLUS, I SAW A LOT OF JKTS INSPIRED BY THE EDO PERIOD’S ICONOGRAPHY AND STYLES SUCH AS UKIYOE, GEISHA, YOKAI ETC: DO THEIR EMBROIDERIES AND HUES HAVE ‘SECRET MEANINGS’ MAYBE?

In Yokosuka, especially in Ameyoko – the very traditional street where Japanese people started selling to American ones – there are companies from the late ‘40s still making souvenir-jkts (unlike for example Tailor TOYO which stopped a bit after the ‘50s-’60s starting back in the ‘80s, followed in the ‘90s by EVISU, DryBones, Pherrow’s, Histeric Glamour and more streetwear brands)… Regarding the sukajans’ designs, GI soldiers on their jkts didn’t want only Oriental images like eagles or tigers and dragons used as motifs, but they also started to mix several iconographies simply to make things (and souvenirs) different.

TODAY ALSO HIGH-END LABELS CREATE SOUVENIR-JKTS, YET I THINK IN JAPAN THEY SOMEHOW SEEM ‘TIED’ TO GANGS & YAKUZA (EVEN IN THE ‘YAKUZA APOCALYPSE’ FILM BY MAD DIRECTOR TAKASHI MIIKE TWO YAKUZAS WEAR ‘EM); DO SUKAJANS REALLY HAVE A ‘BAD-ATTITUDE’? WHY?

The main reason why sukajans have that ‘bad reputation’ is due to the influence of TV movies and series; since Japanese people actually started wearing sukajans copying the Americans in the late ‘70s, similarly to the leather-jkts’ rebellious aura for example, or just like with jeans in the USA ‘50s with James Dean and the rebels… in Japan it was like that in the ‘70s, and that’s why in the TV-shows etc it was easy for their showrunners to mark out the yakuza guy or the bad character dressing him with a sukajan indeed. So sukajans became a symbol for those bad people, and the same happened to aloha shirts; when I was very young I used to wear aloha-shirts – and I remember that always my grandfather was everything but happy about it. In the ‘80s they started to wear sukajans as a fashion but there’s no bad image behind that garment here (maybe just in the ‘70s or ‘80s there could have been a kind of bad image, not nowadays). So if outside Japan sukajans still have that bad attitude is more because of the TV and cinema.

A QUESTION FOR THE VINTAGE-DIGGERS: WHICH ARE THE DETAILS LIKE EMBROIDERIES & FABRICS THAT MAKE YOU SPOT AN ORIGINAL RETRO SUKAJAN? DO THEY HAVE TO GO CRAZY ABOUT STYLES ETC?

The embroidering’s quality is the most important detail. It’s like that because originally sukajans were made only with old vertical embroidery machines, and it’s very difficult to create graphic-embroideries like a tiger or dragon with that kind of equipment (you really have to be a top-notch tailor) – but if you use a modern embroidery machine there’s no chance you could ever get the same feeling, the surface of the embroidery goes flat and around the fabric it gets really tight…

IN THE END, IS THERE A PARTICULAR SUKAJAN (OLD OR NEW) THAT MADE YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH? WHO’S THE MANUFACTURER AND WHICH ARE THE SPECIFIC MARKS OF ITS ‘NATURE’?

I like the classic sukajans such as the Tailor TOYO ones, and regarding designs I love the tiger, which is very traditional. Speaking of vintage we can’t forget an old souvenir-jkt with the graphic of a snake coming out of a skull (it should be worth more than a million yen). This year we really saw a number of sukajans, young people in Harajuku and Shibuya wearing a lot of them, especially girls boast amazing styles.