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Japan: A history of sukajan souvenir jackets

By Alisa Chau 20 November 2020

Header image courtesy of @wdavidmarx via Twitter

Also known as “souvenir jackets” or “rebel jackets,” Japanese sukajan (スカジャン) are a piece of clothing with a rich transnational history. From the port city of Yokosuga to Hollywood, these unmissable statement jackets exude an effortless cool, and are still found in the collections of numerous streetwear and prêt-à-porter clothing brands of today.

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Origins: Post-WWII

Even the name ‘sukajan’ is useful for tracing the origins of the jacket. The term itself is believed to be a portmanteau, combining ‘suka’ (すか) from the naval base city of Yokosuka with the Japanese phonemicization of ‘jan’ (じゃん) which is short for the mispronounced prefix of the English word ‘jumper’.

Situated in the Kanagawa prefecture, Yokosuga was one of the first naval bases in Japan, and played host to the United States Seventh Fleet of the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. As the time of their occupation drew to a close, many American GIs and troops wanted something to commemorate their time there. They resorted to creating jackets out of leftover parachute material and decorating them with kimono-style appliques of Japanese cultural symbols.

Usually made of silk, the jackets would feature embroidered icons like dragons, local Japanese flora, tigers, geisha portraiture, and more. Some of the animals were a stand-in for the military units to which the soldiers belonged. These one-of-a-kind pieces were then brought back as souvenirs—hence its alternate moniker— to the United States and given away, traded amongst soldiers, or sold as gifts. Since each soldier infused their designs with their own experiences, memories, and creative vision, no two hand-sewn authentic sukajan from the post-war period were the same.

The silhouette of the jacket was based on classic letterman jackets and baseball jackets, as popularized by high school and university varsity sports teams in 1930s America. The sleeves would usually be of a contrasting colour, and bright colours were often used. It was a perfect stylistic marriage, merging visuals from life in Japan with an Americana cut.

Ametora: 1950s to 1970s Japan

In the mid-1950s to 1960s, the American prep style had begun to bleed into Japanese fashion, gaining popularity with many youths. A phenomenon that sparked from a Japanese fascination with American clothing and pop culture had started brewing the decade after the war, which culminated in the ‘ametora’ effect. This was largely due to the popularity of publications—such as Popeye magazine—that brought in overseas influences. Japan had just started opening up culturally, and travelling was a possibility for few until the mid-1960s. As a result, these magazines and photography books quickly adopted a rather instructional role, as teens whose parents had never come in contact with foreign influences had to rely on editorials for ideas on what to wear.

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By Scott Dunn 4 November 2020
By Gianni Simone 7 January 2020

Towards the end of the 60s, the imported ivy league aesthetic was being overridden by the new counterculture. Letterman jackets were being traded for leather biker jackets, and to parallel that change, the sukajan was being transformed by the Japanese into a symbol of rebellion. Fashion historian W. David Marx characterizes ametora as not only the adoption of American clothing into Japan, but also Japanese creators and brands making American clothing, or hybridizing something from the two cultures into something entirely new—a dialogue of fashion, of sorts.

It could be said that such connotations were being assigned to the jacket due to a mixture of two main factors—the Japanese becoming more informed by American pop culture, alongside working-class gang youths taking a liking to the sukajan. Hollywood of that time had fallen for the ‘bad boy’, having icons like Marlon Brando and James Dean brooding in their archetype-defining jackets on the big screen. The sukajan was like a homegrown answer to their statement outerwear, functioning as a symbol of youthful defiance. This was exemplified when mass production of sukajan begun to pick up and it was seen being worn by numerous yakuza gang members.

For some, the sukajan may have served as a reconciliatory tool, in response to wartime trauma. By reclaiming an item that was left behind by the enemy, the significance of the history-laden jacket could be recalibrated to represent a Japanese perspective instead.

During the ensuing Vietnam and Korean wars, souvenir jackets took on a darker tone. Still a popular item amongst American troops, the jackets were popping up at the numerous cities where the soldiers were being stationed. In contrast to WWII, however, these were wars that the majority of the American public greatly disapproved of. To reflect the air of disillusionment in fighting a war with no winners, sukajan of that time featured quotes like “When I Die, I’m Going to Heaven Because I Served My Time in Hell”—with hell referring to the city that was being occupied. This was an instance of the American interpretation of sukajan as souvenir jackets, manifesting outside of Japan but still retaining its military implications.

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By Rosamond Chung 3 November 2020
By Scott Dunn 29 October 2020

Western high fashion and street style: 2010s

Following its popularization in the United States, and later on in Europe, stylish folk in the Western world are not unfamiliar with this iconic jacket. The most recent instance of its re-emergence as a trend was linked to the quilted white sukajan (with a giant embroidered gold scorpion on the back) that Ryan Gosling wore in the 2011 Nicholas Winding Refn film ‘Drive’.

The mid-2010s saw a revival of the sukajan, with a massive spike in popularity amongst high fashion retailers and Hollywood celebrities that made the jacket the ‘defining fashion item’ of 2017, as declared by Menswear Style magazine. The recognizable template and satin texture have been reinterpreted by top designers, from Louis Vuitton infusing the design with light floral prints, to Japanese streetwear brand Neighbourhood replacing the intricate embroidery with gnarly hand-stitched details. The jacket was also seen being worn by globally known stars like Drake, Kanye West, and Harry Styles.

What to keep in mind when buying a sukajan

A starting point is deciding between a vintage sukajan or a new one. For starters, a pre-owned jacket is definitely much more unique. Especially if it is an authentic military souvenir jacket, each stitch would be embedded with a story specific to its original owner. Some practical concerns with buying vintage, however, include the greater amount of effort you will need to put into preserving the jacket, in addition to its generally more expensive price. In addition, above or below average sizes may be harder to come by when buying vintage.

Sukajan are also more ‘style over substance—they are a jacket worn for a specific ‘look’, not to shield from the cold or wet weather, although some may come with accessories such as a zip-in lining to add a layer of warmth on windy days. Satin sukajan should be kept out of the rain at all costs in order to prevent damage, but you may find rayon alternatives as an option if you are going for more of an everyday piece.

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By Rosamond Chung 28 October 2020

There are several aspects you need to keep an eye out for in terms of clothing-care, since the focal point of the jacket is the embroidery. To avoid fraying, you should wash it on a gentle machine setting, in cold water, with non-abrasive detergents. Depending on how old your jacket is, and if it is mass-produced, your jacket should last between two to six seasons of regular wearing.

Sukajan style

Traditionally, sukajan is meant to be well-fitted to your build. Aim to find your jacket in a size that is tapered to your frame, with the elasticized cuff and the hem hitting just right—not too tight, not too loose.

Since the embroidery usually takes up a large portion of the jacket, you may consider keeping the rest of your outfit clean and minimal, as to not detract attention from the beautiful artwork that is the pattern. Hailing back to the Ametora era with a classic unisex look, throw it over a simple t-shirt, some jeans, and casual motorcycle boots. Prefer a pop of colour? Maybe go for a brightly coloured sukajan that you can wear over a complementary yet equally as vibrant monochrome matching set. If you are feeling more adventurous, you could throw all the rules out the window by pattern mixing—go ahead and try pairing up the jacket with some loud prints. Those who are looking for a middle ground can layer a pastel-toned sukajan over a casual outfit to add an elaborate highlight to an otherwise pedestrian getup.

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Alisa Chau

Contributor

Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.

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