Mehervan Sethi isn’t your typical Japanese guy, nor is he your typical non-Japanese — for a start he didn’t come to Japan for work or a career, or even for the experience. He’s always been here.
His grandfather first immigrated from India to Japan in 1952 and found a new home in Kobe. His father was born a decade or so later, and is full of tales of what it was like growing up in Japan in the ’60s and ’70s as a Sikh Indian.
“You hear these stories over the generations about how things have changed,” Sethi says, “even from me and in my life.”
Sethi’s Japan is instantly fascinating.
I meet up with him at a cafe in Tokyo’s trendy Daikanyama neighborhood on a hot, stifling day. He is naturally chatty and full of energy about his business, Okayama Denim — the company he founded himself, born out of his urge to help Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Sethi tells me that he had an idea to create bracelets from hundreds of meters of belt loop jean fabric and sell them to make money for the Japanese Red Cross.
“It was the very first thing to do with denim that I produced,” he says. “The idea was called the Okayama Denim Project. I hopped in a car and drove down to Okayama and I was just hoping I could meet somebody.
“I met the right person who worked in the factory and that was the birth of everything.”
The project was a success, selling out in stores from London to New York and gaining traction online thanks to nods from sites like Hypebeast. Aiming for something more than a one-off project, however, Sethi was able to use the relationships he had begun to build with the denim factories in Okayama, and combine them with skills he picked up from a previous job of selling products online in Japan.
“It was never something planned like a manufacturer website where you try to make millions a year,” he says earnestly. “It was very organic.
“I would say, ‘Hey, I’m Merv from Kobe and this is my idea and this is where I’m coming from, this is what I want to do and I want to work more with denim, so let’s do this project together.'”
Out of these relationships with the mills and his love for the Japanese denim industry, the 33-year-old has spent the past few years building up Okayama Denim into a well-loved brand that customers seek out for its quality jeans and Sethi’s knowledge of denim; fans even name-drop the company in dedicated denim Reddit threads.
“I’ve been into Japanese denim since I was 14,” Sethi explains. “Back then, Uniqlo wasn’t a thing so you would support local companies more than you would (that kind of) fast fashion. I think the money at the end of the day should go back to Okayama, as much as possible, to the factories doing all of the work.”
It’s clear after a few moments of chatting that Sethi has more than just an interest in the denim industry: His obsession with the fabric goes deeper than just style and cuts. He is a supporter of Japan and its homegrown textiles, in love with the history of the old Japanese techniques and has a deep knowledge of the process, from the yarn dying to the stitching. He’s keen to help the industry.
“A shuttle loom in one eight-hour day can only produce 50 meters, so it’s tenuous and labor intensive,” Sethi says. “A lot of people who manage the shuttle looms are aging, and their kids and the younger generation don’t want to live in Okayama, but if you have been doing something for so long, then what you have is specialized.”
And the aim for Okayama Denim is to illuminate and celebrate that specialization, specifically the manufacturing industry in Okayama Prefecture, whose jeans and products could not be produced anywhere else in the world.
“We want to share the beauty of indigo and slow craft from Japan,” Sethi says. “The fabric speaks for most of the story. You just need to have the right eye.”
His time spent studying international relations and economics in Boston and working at the United Nations in New York might not have been the traditional background for a career in the fashion industry, but it seems that Sethi simply followed his gut and saw something that would work.
“I’ve never been to design school,” he confesses. “I’m just lucky with denim and indigo because it is fabric first. I live by that. I have it written on the whiteboard next to my desk. Everything that we do is fabric first.”
Sethi has been able to build a successful business not only based on his interest in Japanese denim — it’s also his desire to help Japan, be it victims of the Tohoku quake, or the country’s traditional industries. He has not been deterred by the fact he is an Indian man born to an immigrant family. Instead he sees it as an advantage, in some aspects.
“I think it has been a positive in business because it’s very interesting for a Japanese person, particularly in Okayama,” he says, “where they don’t even have much interaction with someone from Tokyo, and then on top of that someone from Tokyo that’s ‘foreign.'”
His hometown of Kobe boasts the only standalone Sikh temple in all of Japan. It was founded in the 1960s by Sethi’s grandfather and two other immigrant Sikhs. But the already small Sikh community in Kobe was affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, when many families moved back to their countries of origin.
“The current community of Sikh families in Kobe is pretty small, somewhere between 100 and 200 people and everyone knows each other,” Sethi says. “There’s a strong presence and we have a strong association with the city. The mayor will come to the temple, for example, and there is an awareness, so I didn’t feel like the nail sticking out.”
But living among the millions of people in Tokyo, and only ever moving between three of its 23 wards (at most), Sethi finds himself ironically more conspicuous.
“For lack of a better way of saying this, I’m literally the only turban around,” he says. “And I think that it’s two-sided, but it’s more positive than anything.
“When you’re the only person that looks this way, I will meet you one time and it’s more than likely that you will remember me.”
There may be an advantage in looking different and also knowing about the layers of Japanese business and the intricacies of social norms, but life in a famously homogenous island nation as somebody who looks like an outsider is not straightforward.
“I like it when people come up and ask me questions,” Sethi says. “But to be completely honest, it’s not all positive. Almost every day I will walk down the street and I might get pointed at, or someone might snicker, or whatever it may be … it’s definitely there but that’s just part of the puzzle, it is what it is and it is what I am.
“If you don’t let it bother you, it won’t bother you.”
However, it must be undeniably hard to come to terms with your own identity in a country that is your home, somewhere that your family have been living for generations, but to always be seen as an outsider.
“There are days when it’s more frustrating than others. Sometimes I’m more culturally Japanese than Japanese people, from the food I eat, to the way I might do business — whatever it may be,” he says. “All the positives outweigh the frustrations. They’re like a wave that goes away quickly, because there’s so much positive to living in Japan — it’s a beautiful country; it’s safe and has great food, great people. It’s hard to not really like it here.”
Being Japanese might be more of a frame of mind. Once you can speak the language and understand Japanese culture, the differences will disperse and boundaries begin to break down. Whether it’s an interest in a shared aspect of Japanese culture or something else, Sethi muses, getting to know Japanese people can be the start of a long-lasting relationship.
I ask him: Do you feel Japanese?
“No,” he replies instantly. “No, I don’t, because society hasn’t allowed me to.”
There isn’t a ready-made box for someone like Sethi to fit into — instead he’s made one for himself. He has taken on the role of spreading Japanese quality and culture to the rest of the world, something he sees as his responsibility to the country that has given him a home.
“The five years I spent in America I had more incidences of fear rooted in racism than I’ve ever had in my entire time of living in Japan,” he says in a serious tone. “Japanese people are peaceful. The culture is rooted in commonalities rather than finding difference and so I think that it’s a good place for someone like me to be.”
Sethi is now using his passion for the Japanese cottage industry and his denim company to try and push things forward in a sustainable future for Japan and the denim industry. His newest line utilizes hemp yarn, he is developing smart fabrics using techniques such as mixing bamboo and cotton, and there’s another line in production where the yarn is dyed with matcha.
While his impact may be small, the efforts he makes with Okayama Denim to push for a more sustainable and socially responsible fashion industry in Japan, and to help Japanese textile manufacturers move forward, he thinks, will help add to the change and the larger companies will eventually follow suit.
“I started doing what I’m doing because I want to give back to this country, this society and the people who have done so much for me and my family,” Sethi says. “All you can do is do the right thing. I almost feel like it’s the least I can do.”
For more information on Okayama Denim, visit www.okayamadenim.com and follow Sethi on Instagram @tokyoturban.