Japan Today

'Sukajan' — A look into the history of Japan's souvenir jacket

By Hilary Keyes

Japan’s sukajan, the embroidered satin college or letterman jacket you’ve no doubt seen a million times in Japan, has really come a long way: from being nothing but a wearable souvenir to covering Kanye West’s shoulders. And we’re pretty sure Kim Kardashian has touched it too. But while to many this gaudy at a glance jacket may seem like nothing but a kitsch sold at souvenir stores, it carries a long history with deep American and Japanese cultural roots. These satin jackets are also known as “souvenir jackets,” “Yokosuka jackets,” or sometimes even as “rebel jackets,” although this term seems to have fallen out of use in recent years.

Simple sukajan and limited edition brand styles are available in most clothing stores in Tokyo, but if you are looking for the original, heavily embroidered type, you’ll have to head out of the city to Yokosuka — where the sukajan originated.

From a souvenir to a wearable statement

Yokosuka, Kanagawa became renowned for sukajan all thanks to its long military history. This area was the home of Japan’s first naval bases, naval arsenal, and, after the Second World War, home to United States Seventh Fleet and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Sukajan are based on letterman or college jackets from the U.S., which were first popularized during the 1930s. These styles found their way to Japan during the post-war period, when departing American soldiers sought out souvenirs and ways of commemorating their time in Japan. As not many had the means or space to carry a lot of items back home with them, many turned to their clothing for inspiration. The original sukajan were often bomber jackets, simple coats, or even jackets fashioned from old parachute material, with embroidered patches featuring Japanese animals, patterns, or writing. Each jacket was typically hand-stitched — which meant that no two jackets were alike.

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© Savvy Tokyo

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Personally, I like them, and I have a now-collector's-edition of one issued by North American pay-tv channel, Superchannel. But, they are not practical from a warmth standpoint, and rain stains them. Best to wear them only in nice weather (and not too hot, if they're mainly black because they'll still absorb heat). Thought of getting one during my last trip to Japan in autumn, 2017, but the weather was cool enough for me to reject that idea. What's the good of something you only take out of your closet once or twice a year? And if it's a souvenir and you pin it up (or hang it) on a wall, what's the good of that?

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I still have my 1981 West Pac US Navy fully customized from my time at CFAY in the 80s. Wear it in the states sometimes. Turns heads and always asked where I got it. Problem is both my daughters want it. Gotta get back down to Yokosuka and have a replica made.

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Somebody touched Kanye West? Eww.

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