Denim Distancing: Japanese Denim and Covid-19, Pt.1

As the coronavirus (or, properly, Covid-19) continues its spread across the globe, people are finding themselves confronting anxiety and inconvenience on one end of the scale, through to serious financial trouble and full lockdowns, right down to serious illness, and even death on the other end. It is against this unprecedented and somewhat surreal backdrop that I began to wonder how I might at once provide entertainment, relief, and also important and precise information on how all of this was affecting one of our favorite hobbies, Japanese denim, and those who dedicate themselves to crafting it. If this article in some measure helps you the hobbyist, or the jeans makers themselves, then I have succeeded.

Not knowing where to start, I came up with five simple questions I thought pertinent to the current situation and then got in touch with everybody in the industry I could think of, hoping maybe one or two might reply with something interesting I could post on Instagram. Instead, I was overwhelmed with the positive response, and so here we are with 13 legends in the industry giving their personal takes on what’s going on around them. My only instructions to them were that there were no rules governing their answers – they could write a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or skip a question altogether if they wanted. You’ll notice that the length of each persons’ answer varies widely, but I wouldn’t read too much into this. Each person has their own amount of time for things like this, and overall I was really blown away with quantity and quality of the responses I received. Out of respect for them I have of course translated their replies exactly as received.

As when I do my interviews, I was again reminded not only of what good people these jeans makers are, but also how fragile this industry actually is. If you were ever thinking about making a purchase, now might be a good time as our favorite brands struggle to keep their ageing loom workers and sewing staff out of serious financial trouble, and even bankruptcy.

Two more things I want to mention before I open the starting gates. One is that the Covid-19 situation is of course fluid and ongoing. The replies given here were collected between April 25th and May 4th, 2020. Nobody knows how this thing is going to play out, but just keep in mind that as soon as this is printed, it will already be somewhat dated. We may look back months down the road, when things have worsened, and wonder how everybody was so cavalier about everything. Or hopefully the opposite will be true – that our efforts at social distancing and hygiene prove successful and the situation stabilizes in the near future and we look back, chuckle, and think, “Wow. Remember when we thought the world was going to end?”

The final point I wanted to make is that the situation here on the ground in Japan currently is quite different from what is happening in many other affected countries. The Japanese government is actually unable to enforce an actual lockdown, so while we may be in an official state of emergency, people are still free to do as they please, as are most businesses. Though the infected numbers continue to rise here, there doesn’t seem to be quite the same sense of dread or urgency as is seen in many other places, for better or for worse. Only time will tell.

I have had to break this interview into two parts because of the sheer size of it. I ask for your understanding in this and I hope you will take your time with it and enjoy it or find it helpful on some level. So, who exactly are we going to be hearing from? Well, here we go:

  • Kenichi Iwaya (Pure Blue Japan founder)
  • Shinichi Haraki (Iron Heart founder)
  • Katsu Manabe (Momotaro/Japan Blue COO, son of founder)
  • Toru Nogami (Samurai founder)
  • Minoru Tanaka (Tanuki tactictal magician)
  • Mikiharu Tsujita (Full Count founder)
  • Yoshiyuki Hayashi (Resolute founder, ex-Denime)
  • Merv Sethi (Okayama Denim founder)
  • Tetsuya Suzuki (Graph Zero founder)
  • Mahoto Harada (Denimio founder)
  • Yuji Tamanaha (Studio D’Artisan manager)
  • Toshiaki Watanabe(Cottle founder)
  • Hajime Inoue (TCB founder)

A truly heavyweight denim lineup if ever there was one. Enjoy.

  1. How has the coronavirus situation affected your business? Feel free to talk about production, your stores, sales, shipping, whatever.

Pure Blue Japan: “Production has of course slowed down, but we can’t let it go right down to nothing. If that happens then the mills and sewing factories will also be out of work and the company will be in real trouble. So we’re kind of looking ahead to the time after the virus is gone, and continuing cooperation with the mills and producing things. About sales, we’ll start shipping to our overseas wholesalers little-by-little staring in May. Europe and China are already starting to open back up and even in places where the stores themselves may not be actually open for business, many are still accepting shipments. Our Harajuku store in Tokyo has been closed since the end of March. Unfortunate of course because this is normally our best time of year as far as sales go, but it just can’t be helped this time around. Luckily though we have a lot of domestic customers who are still supporting us by using our online shop.”

Iron Heart: “All three of our stores here have been closed since April 8th. We are continuing with the wholesale side of things, but to be honest, sales are not that good because of the sort of nationwide feeling of restraint at the moment. Aside from that, we’ve managed to keep the online sales going. We have also already made all of our purchases and received our deliveries from the factory, so the company here is kind of starting to fill up with stuff.”

Momotaro/Japan Blue: “Overall, the business has been heavily damaged. Manufacturers can’t sell fabric or even hold exhibitions so it feels like things have ground to a halt as far as production forecasting goes. Most of our stores are now closed for sales so we are only selling online at the moment. If we can’t recover our jeans sales then that means the factory also cannot run, so even though it’s just been for a short time so far, we’ve started making masks. I think from now on we really need to use whatever digital tools we have at our disposal to keep communication going, for example, using things like SNS distribution, live transmission, crowdfunding, etc.”

Samurai: “Yeah, it’s tough. The number of customers coming to the shop has of course dropped off, but then there’s also everyone at the factories you know…at the mills. We don’t know how that’s all going to go. It’s not good at the moment though. I’m not doing any business trips or exhibitions, and can’t really meet my customers or even friends so much. Tough times. I want to get out, but…even if we do go out into the countryside to get away, I think people there will be freaked out like, “What the heck are you doing coming here from Osaka?!”

Tanuki: “As you’d imagine, things have of course slowed down, but I think that because we’ve had such explosive growth over the past year, we aren’t doing too badly compared to some other brands that haven’t had that luxury. Of of the main effects of course is the physical shutdown of so many stores. Luckily we do have our own official website so we can at least continue to offer our products to customers through that. We are also planning to announce a lot of new stuff this year too, so it’s really helpful that we do have the site. Our biggest concern is really the production sites. The sewing factories in Okayama have been hit really hard and many are seriously at risk of going out of business completely now so all that we can do is to try and keep providing them with plans for new items and keep them in work. We really can’t let their work dwindle down to nothing. Our main purpose is to firstly help keep the Japanese denim industry from extinction and revitalize it as much as we can. We really can’t let things go down any faster than they already currently are.”

Full Count: “So far, I don’t think I can say that things are as bad for us as they are in some other industries, but in Tokyo and other really urban areas things have really slowed down due to the whole mood of self-restraint at the moment in Japan. In those areas our sales have dropped by half or even more. On top of that, a lot of orders from shops overseas have either been postponed or cancelled altogether.”

Resolute: “Because all of Resolute’s production is done in Japan, there really hasn’t been any problem up until now. As far as sales go, Resolute deals almost exclusively only with wholesale, and the store owners are of course refraining at the moment but I think things will go back to normal once the whole corona situation improves.”

Okayama Denim: “The outbreak has left a general sense of uncertainty across the Japanese denim industry. When a single input of an entire Made in Japan jeans happens to come from another country, the entire supply chain gets disrupted and producing the same products is no longer possible. For example, let’s say YKK Japan presses and produces all their hardware in Japan, but certain metals are imported from abroad in order to be pressed in Japan. With a complete disruption in global supply chain for many goods, future production is bound to be affected. Not just in denim, but in many industries across the board. The silver lining here of course is our collective understanding that we are probably too reliant on imports that happened through the proliferation of globalization. We made an executive decision to move all our outgoing international packages to be handled by DHL for the foreseeable future. Although at a higher overall operating economic cost to us, we are just making every effort to continue servicing the people who care for the products we curate and create, in a seamless way despite the pandemic. We are also making a concerted effort to minimize the physical interaction between our team, so we are taking turns coming into the office, while the rest of us work remotely.”

Graph Zero: “The coronavirus situation here is a serious threat to the Japanese production industry. At our store the number of customers and amount of sales are of course falling. We are currently making masks at our factory and selling them.”

Denimio: “Due to the virus, we have been closed since April. It’s unfortunate because we had several cool shop events planned, but once the situation improves we will of course reopen and continue. The factory though is really at a critical moment. The government is making subsidy loans, but still the retails sales from the site have cooled down and orders from manufacturers have drastically decreased. And even if the factories could secure a loan it just means their debt is going to snowball. If you’re still in your 30s or 40s, sure, then you might have the energy and means to pay off a 20 or 30-year loan, but these people are in their 60s and 70s. They’ll end up working well into their 80s just to repay the loans. We can’t have a future where these elderly people are going to be working the next few decades just to pay off debts, and as you’d expect most would choose to just go out of business rather than take on that kind of debt. We have been desperately consulting with these manufacturers to work together and support the fabric and sewing factories. It might just be a drop in the ocean, but we ourselves have decided to extend a large loan to support production. Luckily, I’m still only 38 so I’m okay to continue working with a debt, and besides, great denim has no expiration date. Because of all this, it think the shop is soon going to be full with 10,000 pairs rather than the current 7,000 (laughs). Concerning shipping, we always used EMS, but this has completely stopped because they rely on international flights. Since we are also affiliated with other couriers like DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc, we switched to them in areas where we used to use EMS. Russia is the toughest however and it’s taking about 3-4 weeks to deliver to, though we are also now doing surface and sea mail through the regular post office. I think it’s basically the same for any business now in Japan that has to ship overseas.”

Studio D’artisan: “In Japan, our four directly-managed stores are closed due to the state of emergency declaration. Our production is based in Okayama and things are relatively okay there, compared to other areas, so we are managing to somehow continue production. Overseas, things are in a lot stricter state and it seems that most stores are temporarily closed. Our overseas shipping has been seriously affected by collection stoppages and delays.”

Cottle: “The impact of the coronavirus situation on us has been huge. Because overseas exhibitions cannot be held, of course wholesale sales drop right off. With regard to delivery, we are lucky that in this modern world the delivery logistics are so good that we can still continue our online sales and have them shipped, even in a difficult crisis like this. About the stores, I think we are lucky to be in such a rural area. Compared to more badly-affected areas in the cities, we are basically able to keep the shop open. I think overall however these store closures are having an unprecedented negative effect on the apparel industry as a whole.”

TCB: “The stores in Europe and the States are closed right now. We’d heard that they would start to reopen around the end of April, but I’m concerned that things are going to take a while to really get back to normal, especially after so many people have seen their incomes drop or they’ve lost their jobs completely. Another factor that is affecting our business is that, in many cases, even if customers do make an order, we can’t currently ship to that country because of the virus situation.”

2. Aside from work what other effects are you seeing or experiencing, say, in your neighborhood, your family, or just personally for you?

Pure Blue Japan: “Since I live in Okayama, it’s pretty rural compared to places like Osaka or Tokyo and we don’t have the large number of infected people like you’re seeing in the larger urban centers. But I am bit worried that this makes people a bit lax on the whole thing and I’d like to see people take it a bit more seriously and realize that there is a serious crisis going on. I’ve used this extra time to completely clean up the company office – looks pretty awesome now.”

Iron Heart: “Although there’s nobody around us here that is currently infected, we are taking measures in our families and among our employees concerning personal hygiene, not going out unnecessarily, etc. But it’s tough you know, having personal freedom so curtailed, like you can’t go out, eat out somewhere, meet people, chat with friends. It’s hard.”

Momotaro/Japan Blue: “For me personally, I can’t really go out to eat anymore so I’ve been cooking for myself. I don’t hate it so it’s actually been kind of fun. Also, aside from my Dad that I work together with, I haven’t really been able to meet any other family so we’ve been trying to keep up with each other on SNS chat or Zoom.”

Samurai: “At home…hmmm…so my daughter is back home and can’t work so there’s that. My wife works in the medical field, she’s a nurse so she’s really on the front lines of all of this. She’s really working hard and doing her best. Same as everyone too I guess, we’re trying not to go out much. What else can you do?

Tanuki: “The hardest thing for me personally is that my little girl is just constantly running around the workplace! (laughs). The schools are all closed as you know, so she’s off and stuck at home. Also, I’m still in Okayama right now but I really miss my business trips overseas…that has always been a huge part of my work and personal life so that’s been tough. But how can I complain? I’m lucky compared to so many and it pains my heart to see so many around the world suffering so badly, much more than myself. The whole atmosphere in Japan is kind of depressed, but again, I think we’re still better off at the moment than many other places…we’re still somewhat free to move around.”

Full Count: “Overall I’m living like everyone else around right now, being pretty disciplined. I do see a lot of people going out for walks in my neighborhood, and things like Uber Eats are really running frequently.”

Resolute: “Since the end of February I haven’t really been able to attend weekend events or business trips either outside of Japan or even in Japan. Of course at the beginning the whole thing was kind of confusing, but I’m now getting ready for an extended battle and just enjoying my ‘stay at home’ life.”

Okayama Denim: “To be fair, it has been somewhat confusing, and at times even concerning being in Tokyo during this time. We were the second country to report a case outside of China (Thailand was a few days prior), with the first case confirmed as early as mid January. Had the government and healthcare systems been ahead of the curve with Corona, we may not be in the situation we are currently in, with daily increases of Tokyo Corona infections. Furthermore, although the country is now in a “State of Emergency”, if you were to stroll around central Tokyo where we are located, there are still a lot of people out-and-about which is a cause for concern. Overall we are being overly cautious with social distancing and sanitizing, and interaction with people outside our immediate home has been zero. This is probably the hardest part; as humans we really feed on that social interaction with friends and family.”

Graph Zero: “Outside of work I’m really trying not to go out if I don’t have to. I’m also gargling and washing my hands a lot to prevent against the virus. We are doing this throughout our company as well.”

Denimio: “I’m guessing everyone is saying the same thing, but time with family has definitely increased. We are now doing housework together, working together, raising kids together, learning together, playing soccer together. The bonds have grown stronger and I can now see the work and life of my family that I couldn’t see so much of before and I’m grateful for that. Doing housework together is way more fun than doing it alone, and we can also do video chat with other relatives almost every day. I used to leave much of this to the nursery school or school, but now it’s happening right in front of me and I’m so happy to see my child grow.”

Studio D’Artisan: “At the SDA head office we are trying to strike a balance between having everyone work shorter shifts while not inconveniencing the customers too much. It’s funny that the earlier I leave work, the busier I seem to get! (laughs). Like the shorter time you have at work, the busier you are there, then I go shopping, cook etc. I think I’m busier than before.”

Cottle: “I think the fact that we can’t just move freely in our lives like we used to be able to do really shows us the priority and importance of those basic things we need for our life. There are now way fewer places you can actually buy clothing, compared to places that sell food or other necessities. With “Stay Home” as the main slogan now, I don’t think people are going out much anymore, but mainly just staying inside.”

TCB: “From the end of April through the first week of May is Golden Week in Japan. Normally, during this holiday denimheads from all over the world would be coming to Kojima, but this year many shops are refraining from selling from their store or their stores are totally closed. Of course TCB is also closed now so I am just spending every day at home.”

Continue reading with Pt.2 here.

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