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All About Vintage 'Sukajan' Japanese Souvenir Jackets in Tokyo!

All About Vintage 'Sukajan' Japanese Souvenir Jackets in Tokyo!

Date published: 16 April 2020
Last updated: 27 July 2020

Japanese souvenir jackets, called sukajan in Japan, are best known for their impactful, eye-catching designs. The jacket's popularity has been on the rise in recent years ever since international celebrities like Katy Perry and Pharrell Williams were regularly spotted wearing them.

To shed more light on the popular appeal of these interesting jackets, New York-native Timothy and London-native Cassie from Live Japan's editorial team have investigated the origins and allures of Japan's sukajan fashion and will be sharing their findings with us, along with a few recommendations from popular sukajan shops in Ueno's Ameyoko. Let's see what they've got for us!

Table of Contents
  1. Sukajan: A jacket that originated as a U.S. military souvenir
  2. Top 3 sukajan recommendations from the huge variety available at Hinoya One
  3. Top 3 recommendations in Freak Market, from the affordable to the lavish!

Sukajan: A jacket that originated as a U.S. military souvenir

Sukajan: A jacket that originated as a U.S. military souvenir

Our first stop is Hinoya One, an old-time establishment that first opened in Asakusa in the year 1949. Some time after that, they relocated to Ueno and started dealing with the U.S. army's military surplus supplies. There are currently three branches in Ueno's Ameyoko alone, with Hinoya One being the original.

The main bulk of clothing being sold at Hinoya shops is jeans, with a number of casual American clothing options - all from highly fashionable brands. There's an impressive variety of Hawaiian shirts to pick from as well.

Needless to mention, the shop has a wide range of sukajan available for sale. These jackets were originally created by American soldiers soon after World War II as souvenirs or commemoration goods to bring home from Japan. They thus came to be known among post-war soldiers as souvenir jackets.

As for why they're called "sukajan" in Japanese? One commonly-accepted theory says it's because they were being made in Yokosuka town, located near the American military base. "Sukajan" is therefore a contraction of the name "Yokosuka jumpers." Another theory states that it's the short form of "sky dragon jumpers" because motifs of flying dragons were commonly embroidered on the back of these jackets.

Since sukajan were primarily created as souvenir jackets, most of the embroidery features Eastern or Japanese-flavored designs, such as tigers, dragons, and eagles. Some also have the names of a town near a military base or Japanese and American flags sewed onto them. Timothy and Cassie listen with great interest as the shop manager sheds more light on the origins of this interesting jacket.

Even among sukajan, there is a wide range of designs and prices to choose from. The price is naturally determined by the type of materials being used, the method of embroidery, and a few other factors. Sukanjan in the higher range tend to use acetate rayon as their main material, whereas those in the lower range usually use a mix of polyester and nylon.

Embroidered sukajan are absolutely mesmerizing. The images are hand-sewn thread by thread using vintage machines by expert craftsmen, incurring a huge time and labor cost. However, the result is high-quality embroidery art that seemingly pops up from the clothing they've been emblazoned on. The manual sewing also means artisans can implement subtle color changes and gradations that are impossible to do with machine embroidery.

Top 3 sukajan recommendations from the huge variety available at Hinoya One

Top 3 sukajan recommendations from the huge variety available at Hinoya One

As mentioned earlier, Hinoya One is a one-stop-shop for all your souvenir jacket needs. The shop deals with countless products that were made using vintage machines manufactured around the time of the sukajan's birth, and there is a mind-boggling amount of materials, embroidery designs, zippers, and other small parts you can pick from.

Our first recommendation from Hinoya One is "Tailor Toyo Hinoya 70th Anniversary Commemorative Acetate Suka, Alaska x Japan Map (49,500 yen, tax included)". This is a custom-made limited edition model ordered from clothing specialist Toyo Enterprise for Hinoya's 70th year anniversary. The jacket is designed to be reversible - another sukajan feature that makes it appealing to many. Timothy and Cassie are each showing off one side of the jacket in this photograph.

The side Cassie is wearing has the popular Alaska (polar bear) motif, while the pattern on Timothy's back features an embroidered map, one of the more recognizable designs of souvenir jackets!

As you take a closer look at the map of Japan on the back of this sukajan, you'll see that the name of the shop, Hinoya, is also emblazoned onto the design alongside names of cities with American military bases. On the front side is an embroidered "70th" label.

Our second recommendation from Hinoya is "Tailor Toyo Kosho Special Edition Suka, Dragon x Eagle Print (79,200 yen, tax included)". This jacket is also reversible, and our editors are each wearing one side in this photograph as well.

This model faithfully reproduces a sukajan that was manufactured in the 1940s to 1950s by Kosho & Co., the name Toyo Enterprise was known as when the company first started out. The dragon and eagle designs exude an exotic flair that is uniquely Eastern. The side with the eagle is especially distinct, as it features a print instead of the usual sukajan-style embroidery. The acetate rayon material keeps the jacket's fundamental vintage feel without compromising on quality.

This jacket comes with Cassie's personal seal of approval as well! Apparently, it caught her eye the moment she stepped into the shop. In her own words: "I prefer black jackets myself, but I thought the vivid contrast between black, pink, and white was pretty nice. The Mt. Fuji print is awesome too! I like dragons, so the embroidery on the reverse side is really cool."

In case you didn't know, sukajan are unisex by design, so the only thing you have to worry about when shopping for one is the design and size. The latest trend these days is to wear them slightly loose, so many people - even ladies! - have been picking out souvenir jackets one size larger on purpose.

The third item on our recommendation list for this shop is "Tailor Toyo Acetate Suka Aging Model, Dragonhead x Eagle (63,800 yen, tax included)". Another reversible jacket made with acetate material, this one has been deliberately aged to sport a weathered look. Check out the designs on both sides in this photograph as well.

Featuring the classic sukajan dragon and eagle embroidery with bright colors, the well-worn look of this jacket is unusual for brand-new clothing, and putting it on will surely add a touch of style to your swagger.

Here's another version of the same jacket with different colors - Timothy's personal favorite!

"I love color gradations, and the deliberately aged look makes it extra cool! The red and white pipings on the shoulders are great additions that accentuate the design too," remarks Timothy. If you're not familiar with the term piping, it refers to a special design quirk of sukajan that helps you quickly tell which side is which. The side with the piping is the top side.

"I love the quality of the fabric - it's not too glossy or over the top, and it feels great to the touch. I reckon it would go well with jeans or casual wear," said Timothy, praising the sukajan jacket.

Timothy is just full of praise for this jacket. "The quality of the fabric is truly solid. I like that it's not too glossy too. Looks really mature! I think it'll complement jeans and casual styles of clothing best."

Come to Hinoya One if you're looking to pick something out from a wide variety of meticulously made sukajan. The shop's fixation with fabric and embroidery quality is off the charts, for example, even using zippers manufactured by machinery that are remade versions of the ones used 50 years ago so as to maintain that vintage look and feel. Staff here are used to seeing international guests because of the shop's location in tourist-friendly Ueno, so you can expect to receive a warm welcome no matter which country you're from! This is the shop to visit to learn all about the ABCs of sukajan fashion.

    ヒノヤワン(HINOYA ONE)
    • Address 6-10-16 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo-to
    • Phone Number 03-3831-0385
    • Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
      Closed: Open daily (except on New Year's Day)

Top 3 recommendations in Freak Market, from the affordable to the lavish!

Top 3 recommendations in Freak Market, from the affordable to the lavish!

Our next stop is Freak Market, an American casual wear multi-brand shop with 30 years of history behind it. The shop started out selling jeans, but has since expanded to include all manners of American casual fashion, including sukajan souvenir jackets!

About 10 years ago, the shop started to focus on accumulating casual fashion items that sport distinctly Japanese designs. Thus, when you walk into the shop, you'll find yourself surrounded by plenty of items with that design theme, including sukajan, T-shirts, jeans, and other accessories.

While the shop faces Ameyoko Street, there's a side entrance along the walkway as well. Step in and be amazed by the seemingly endless rows of sukajan on display! Without further ado, here are our recommendations.

We got our editors to try on jackets with different designs this time. Timothy is wearing a powerful-looking phoenix design, whereas Cassie's jacket is modeled after one of Japanese artist Jakuchu Ito's chicken paintings.

It usually takes about 500,000 stitches to complete a phoenix design on a sukajan, but there's a jaw-dropping 1.2 million or more stitches on the phoenix of the jacket Timothy's wearing! The rich green gradations also make the image look extra vivid. Immense skill and experience is needed to properly embroider the shoulders and sleeves of a jacket, so much so you're almost guaranteed to have at least one failed attempt out of a few. The ones that do make the cut are therefore all masterpieces in their own right.

Cassie's jacket is designed after Jakuchu Ito's chicken paintings, and even shop staff find the fine embroidery work here impressive. Each and every tree or leaf has been carefully sewn on with a special machine using color-changing threads.

The souvenir jackets of this shop are reversible as well! Most sukajan here have an eye-catching embroidery on the top side but a plain and simple design on the under side. If you would very much prefer to get two vibrant designs for the price of one jacket, however, there's definitely something among the huge number of souvenir jackets here that will cater to your preference as well, if you just search for it!

These two jackets are our recommendations from this store. Rayon is the material used to make both, and the embroidered shoulder and sleeves make them look absolutely gorgeous!

Cassie's jacket features the internationally known tidal wave design by Edo era ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, framed by beautiful sakura flowers. As for Timothy, his jacket is designed after the magnum opus of another ukiyo-e artist from the Edo era - Kuniyoshi Utagawa's Gashadokoro, or starving skeleton painting, the sheer "Japan-ness" of which pleasantly surprised even him. These jackets show off Japan's delicate and high-quality embroidery work excellently.

Now let's see what Timothy and Cassie's personal picks are!

Cassie chose a jacket that has been boldly embroidered on the front and back with wolves. Timothy's choice features the well-known Monkey King (known as Sun Wukong in Chinese) from Journey to the West.

Timothy: "There are so many designs to pick from here, but I don't recall seeing monkeys very often and thought this one was unusual! The color contrast between gold and black is great, and it's full of Japanese symbols like Mt. Fuji and sakura as well. Love it!"

Cassie: "I like wolves, so the powerful presence of this design impresses me. The contrasting moods between the wolf and sakura embroidery are as impactful as their contrasting colors, too!"

For the budget-conscious, the shop has an affordable lineup of jackets priced at around 20,000 yen per piece. Kid-size sukajan are also available for around 6,000 yen a piece.

Depicted in the photograph here from left to right are some of the more affordable products. The sukajan on the left costs about 20,000 yen, the middle one is more than 30,000 yen, and the one on the right is in the 70,000 yen range. They can be easily differentiated by the type of fabric used and how elaborate the embroidery work is. Jackets that use mainly rayon will usually cost at least 30,000 yen.

If you inspect the jackets closely, it becomes clear that the lower range ones have rougher embroidery work. For those who are particular about the thread thickness, stitch direction, thread density, wavelike gradations, texture, and other details, you would be better served by the jackets in the higher range. Feel free to use this information as a reference during your jacket hunting!

Of course, there's more to Freak Market's sukajan than classic designs. The jackets that proudly bear anime or pop culture designs are worth a look as well! The wide range of designs and prices available here means there's a special sukajan that belongs just to you waiting to be discovered.

  • Freak Market
    • Address 6-10-7 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo-to
    • Phone Number 03-3833-2700
    • Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
      Closed: Open daily

Whether it's the old and historic Hinoya One or trendy and popular Freak Market, Ameyoko is one of the best places in Japan to search for a souvenir jacket that speaks to your heart.

Besides the two shops we've featured, there are also places like Ookuma Shokai in the same area known for these uniquely Japanese souvenir jackets as well. Your trip to Ueno's Ameyoko definitely won't be a wasted one if you look up potential treasure troves beforehand and plan your trip accordingly!

Written by:

Naho Jishikyu

Naho Jishikyu

After working at editorial production and publishing companies for manga, novels, and magazines, she started working as a freelance editor and writer. She's usually in a good mood when with a drama series, music, or a drink. She loves tofu.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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