Okayama uniqueness in its jeans?

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

As the birthplace of Japanese jeans, Okayama Prefecture is more passionate than other areas in demonstrating the cross-generational appeal of denim.

In what organizers say is a first for Japan, local governments, labor unions and groups in Okayama have joined hands to create an accreditation program for aspiring “jeans sommeliers,” a term coined for people who are experts in jeans, to give consumers better advice on the right pair of jeans based on desired quality, design and price.

Spearheaded by Kurashiki Fashion Center Co. and Okayama Prefecture Apparel Industrial Union, with the support of the prefectural government and other entities, Japan’s first examination for jeans sommeliers was held Nov. 14 simultaneously in Tokyo, Osaka and Okayama.

“I hope that people will have the correct knowledge about jeans by knowing the process of jeans production from cotton to the final product and the attention to detail being paid in producing jeans,” said Tomohiko Hanafusa, a jeans sommelier project manager at Kurashiki Fashion Center, a third-sector firm based in Okayama.

The idea of cultivating jeans sommeliers has attracted 510 examinees comprising jeans-related professionals and aficionados ranging in age from their teens to 70s, highlighting the broad reach and business potential of the jeans market.

Those passing the exam will receive the title of “jeans sommelier” and a certificate bearing a design of a leather patch as well as a pin badge patterned after a tack button for jeans, Hanafusa said.

According to the official textbook for examinees, annual jeans production globally has surpassed about 2 billion pairs and demand is continuing to grow for jeans, which vary from affordable to high-end ones.

Hanafusa said the exam, for which there is no age limit, will be held once a year and he hopes more people will become interested in learning about jeans.

The history of jeans in Japan spans around 50 years, since secondhand pairs from U.S. military personnel began circulating in the country after World War II. The first Japanese-made jeans were produced in Okayama in 1965.

The textbook, compiled with the help of local makers, contains a detailed history of jeans and the process of their production, distribution and sale.

Just before the 90-minute exam, Yoshiharu Kaihara, chairman of Kaihara Corp., a major denim supplier in Japan, delivered a lecture to the Tokyo test-takers in which he spoke of the importance of every detail in jeans production.

One of the examinees, Yoshiaki Yajima, said the textbook is a rare, comprehensive trove of information about jeans.

“I decided to take the test so that I can deepen my knowledge of jeans,” Yajima, account manager at G-Star International K.K., said after the test.

“I believe it could also be useful in my work,” he added.

Another examinee, Minako Doke, president of Atelier Twin Co., said while her day-to-day work does not deal with jeans, she considers her study of jeans as a form of “value-added learning” that will come in handy when meeting with clients.

Okayama production of jeans started flourishing in the 1970s, paving the way for the districts of Kojima in the city of Kurashiki city and the city of Ibara to develop into key areas of the jeans industry.

Industry experts say “Japan-made” jeans have come into their own through the use of unique production methods such as the traditional “aizome” indigo dyeing process.

In a sign of the potential expansion of the jeans sommeliers project, Hanafusa said creating an English version of the textbook and conducting the test in English in the future are also being considered.

“I hope to see people certified as jeans sommeliers share their knowledge about jeans and train others, and by doing so provide a boost to the jeans market,” he said.