A Brief History of the Sukajan – Clutch Cafe  
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A Brief History of the Sukajan

We take a brief look into the history of the iconic Sukajan or Souvenir Jacket, it’s origins, influence and current production.

The word ‘Sukajan’ (スカジャン) is an abbreviation of “Yokosuka Jumper”. Yokosuka is a port town south of central Tokyo, at the entrance of Tokyo Bay. At the end of WWII the Naval base in Yokosuka was surrendered to the Americans and it became home to the US Military. This large base went on to play very important parts in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Street Stalls on Ginza-dori post WWII. Images from Ginza.jp

During the unrest of post-war Japan, the streets of Ginza (now known for its luxury shopping and fine dining), were once lined with small stalls selling goods to the Americans stationed in Japan. You’d find Levi’s jeans amongst traditional Kimono, children’s toys and home comforts for the GI’s. It was there that a discerning port merchant thought up the idea of the souvenir jacket, combining elements of traditional Japanese Kimono and the iconic American style baseball jacket. This idea made its way back to Yokosuka and into the shops along Dobuita street, where much like in Ginza, GI’s on shore leave would spend their wages on souvenirs to ship back home and thus the Sukajan was born!

Souvenir shop on Dobuita Street. Image from Tokyo Art Beat

G.I's would purchase these jackets from shops like the one pictured above, to commemorate their tours of Asia. Originally made from a lightweight silk, sometimes salvaged from military parachutes or from rayon (which wasn’t a rationed material at the time and therefore easier to get hold of) and featuring intricately embroidered Japanese (or Chinese) dragons, eagles, maps and geisha motifs the Sukajan has gone on to become a cultural Amekaji icon. This wasn’t always the case however, in the early 60’s a ‘working class fashion movement’ known as the Sukaman, adopted the Sukajan as a rebellious statement to the popular Ivy League suits of the time. This style was widely frowned upon until it was spotted in the 1961 Yakuza film Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships) where it gained national notoriety. You can read more in W David Marx book Ametora.

Sukajan featured in 1961 film Buta to Gunkan. Image from Projected Figures

Over the latter years of the sixties, the Sukaman style spread to Tokyo, as young Japanese teens adopted the Sukajan as part of their own style in admiration of the American’s. At the same time the Vietnam War was raging, and the souvenir jacket was evolving. The motifs of scenery or mystical creatures and brightly coloured silk were replaced by black cotton and much darker subject matter, usually a map of Vietnam accompanied by the phrase “When I die I’ll go to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell”.

The allure of the Sukajan remains to this day and has been reinterpreted many times over the years by the likes of Nigo for Human Made, Ralph Lauren, Kapital and Louis Vuitton to name but a few. You also can’t write a piece about Sukajan without mentioning Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive where Ryan Gosling sported maybe the most recognisable Sukajan of all, with a scorpion embroidered on a quilted white satin bomber, which reignited the appeal of these historic garments the world over.

A vintage 1950's Kosho & Co. Sukajan. Images from Tailor Toyo

Nothing quite comes close to the originals however, and this is where Tailor Toyo steps in, an entire brand solely focused on producing some of the best reproductions money can buy. In fact, Tailor Toyo have been producing the Sukajan since the 50’s, originally named Kosho & Co. which later was bought out by Toyo Enterprises in the 1960’s and at one time produced 90% of all Sukajan’s available to purchase in American Bases the world over. Once the Sukajan style caught on in Japan, the jackets were picked up for sale in American PX (Post Exchange) shops, a type of retail store within US military Bases, which is why you find jackets commemorating slightly unsuspecting places like Alaska, Panama, Guam and Morocco.

With a very deep archive of original pieces to draw inspiration from, Tailor Toyo goes to great lengths to ensure that the new versions are every bit as good as their originals. Each jacket is produced using Tailor Toyo’s original acetate satin, which is made in the same weight and colours as the originals in their archive. The same goes with the intricately knitted cuffs and collar, produced from a fine wool and the embroidery, which is all produced by hand in their factories.