The five pocket jean is said to be classic Americana, perhaps more American than apple pie, baseball, and even obesity. Who then could possibly make a better pair of jeans than the land of muscle cars and blue collars? Japan, apparently. Over the decades, those blue collars have largely been exported to other regions, especially Asia along with the culture and clothing of the USA. Initially, the country that soaked it up the most after an unthinkably destructive world conflict was ironically Japan and while American legends such as Levi’s, Lee, Converse, and Red Wing were outsourcing their jobs overseas, Japan was learning to make American products. Eventually, over the years, they got better at doing so than America itself.
At the time the Japanese raw denim and heritage clothing craze invaded the land of Stars and Stripes the way that the Japanese navy never could, it was almost impossible to argue against the notion that Japanese products in this scene were superior overall. However, with the revival of American made clothing, the land of opportunity had its shot at taking its own crown back from the Land of the Rising Sun.
American style perfected by Japanese brands The Flat Head, Conners Sewing Factory, Clinch boots, and Globe Specs glasses
With successful brands such as 3Sixteen, Roy, Role Club, and Good Wear, has the country that gave the world drag racing and Starbucks beaten the country that gave the world drifting and anime? To find out, I will discuss several categories of this hobby in order to find a winner. The categories will include denim (duh), shirts/knits, boots, and leather jackets. There are other categories of course, but if I went over everything, this article would be more pedantic than James May. With that said, let us take a look at these categories and see which nation overall makes the higher quality clothing.
Roy obviously is one of the greatest jeans makers of all time. I cannot argue that he has the cleanest stitching in the denim world because I have said this myself on multiple occasions. However, I cannot in good conscious say that he is the best denim brand in the world right now. Ooe Yofukuten have nearly equal sewing and have done much more in terms of design, and denim innovation with their many unique denim and trouser models as well as their time worn denim. Some may argue that the Cone denim Roy uses is quite special as well and while that could be argued, it is not as innovative as the time wash denim is.
Roy jeans are beautifully stitched with some fantastic details
For argument’s sake, let us say that Roy is the undisputed best denim maker in the entire world. Does that mean that overall, the US makes better denim jeans than Japan? Absolutely not. The truly high end denim scene in the US consists only of one man brands including Roy, WH Ranch, the more absent than not Grease Point Workwear, and now Bowery Bluemakers, a small brand that is yet to fully be proven, but appears to be promising. After that, there are no brands that reach the level of the high end Japanese makers.
Railcar Fine Goods, Shockoe Atelier, 3Sixteen, Rogue Territory, and Tellason make good jeans for sure, and in some ways, you could argue that Railcar and Shockoe match some Japanese brands for details, but certainly not all. 3Sixteen, Rogue Territory, and all other brands at their level and below fall short because they are making jeans for a market, not to make the best product that they possibly can. Details can be argued to a point. The American brands tend to fell their inseams more often, something I do not understand why more non-repro Japanese brands do not do, but the Japanese tend to do better with hardware aging, back pocket rivets, custom hardware and details, and overall sewing construction. Looking at the average pair of Japanese raw denim and the average pair of American raw denim, the sewing is denser and neater on the Japanese jeans. I have seen this first hand countless times.
Epic fades via Pure Blue Japan jeans
By far the biggest win Japan has is in terms of fabric. The fact of the matter is that even when Cone Mills was still around, the Japanese made a larger amount, variety, and more interesting and innovative denim. Highly innovative and textured fabrics were developed by Japan and not America. Extremely heavy weight jeans were developed there as well. There are no makers in the US that match the weights of Samurai, Iron Heart, and Pure Blue Japan. Both Railcar Fine Goods and Freenote Cloth offer 23oz denim, but you guessed it, the fabric is from Japan. The texture of Oni, Pure Blue Japan, Tanuki, and The Strike Gold is untouched stateside. The fades of The Flat Head, fully integrated production of Momotaro, and details of Stevenson Overall Co cannot be matched (especially since Rising Sun fell apart at the seems).
Not only this, but the art of natural indigo-dyed denim is available in Japan, not the US. The fact that most of the higher end American denim brands obtain their fabrics from Japan proves just how well respected and highly sought after Japanese denim is. The country certainly has pushed modern raw denim further than any other country. This is the country that made raw denim what it is today. Without Japan, this craze would likely never exist and you would not even be reading this article right now.
Interestingly enough, the Japanese have also done better with reproduction jeans as well. There are several highly respected reproduction denim brands in Japan including The Real McCoys, Sugar Cane, Full Count, TCB, Freewheelers, and Warehouse. Still, one could argue that nothing beats the original. With LVC around, the best reproduction should still go to America, right? Wrong. Conners Sewing Factory makes the most accurate 1940’s Levi’s reproductions in the world. For example, LVC makes a WWII jean they call the 1944 that has some of the proper details from WWII production restrictions.
However, Conners Sewing Factory has three WWII models that are all slightly different as there were in fact different types of WWII jeans produced by Levi’s during the war years. This is only the tip of the Iceburg. LVC has often sent out products with incorrect details to stores without any recall, something that the Japanese would almost certainly never do. With so many more people involved at LVC vs. a one man brand in CSF, it is not surprising that more details slip through the cracks at LVC. In addition, early LVC jeans were made with Japanese fabric and not Cone Mills fabric. The fact of the matter is that there is a guy in Japan with a purple mohawk who makes better old Levi’s jeans than Levi’s do themselves.
No brand does reproduction Levi’s as well as Conners Sewing Factory
There are American brands that make some pretty nice shirts. Unfortunately, the best shirtmaker in the US is Michael Masterson (in our niche, of course. I am not discussing dress shirt makers here) who makes absolutely jaw dropping works of art in shirt form. Unfortunately, he has not been making shirts lately and may not be for some time. The other best US shirtmaker is unsurprisingly, Roy Slaper. He makes incredible shirts, and I can attest myself from personal ownership that both of these one man brands make some of the most beautiful, well made, and uniquely-appointed shirts in the world. As with jeans, however, the problems for the US come when you look at the brands and companies that are not one man shows.
Wearing all North American brands… never mind that the jacket is Canadian
I have seen some nice shirts from other brands, but in terms of overall quality and fabric, they frankly pale in comparison to Japanese offerings. All of my Japanese shirts have fully felled seems on the insides. Freenote Cloth, 3Sixteen, and Railcar all have overlock stitching in places on the inside of their shirts (I don’t know about Rogue Territory).
Aside from stitch work, there is the issue of fabrics. Most American brands get their shirt fabrics from Japan. Even then, these fabrics do not match the best ones made in Japan for Japanese brands. The shear variety offered by brands such as Freewheelers absolutely dwarf what is available from US brands. Then there are brands such as The Flat Head and 9 Lives who make insanely complex patterns that cannot be found anywhere else. Add this to the epic flannels that Iron Heart make and there is no comparison here.
This insane detail on this Nine Lives shirt fabric is not available in any US brand
T shirts and sweatshirts are an even more unfair comparison. Quite simply, the Japanese have loopwheel machines and the US does not. The Flat Head makes the most sturdily crafted T shirt around, Stevenson Overall makes beautifully designed and textured t shirts, and the Japanese sweatshirts do not have equal except for Merz B Schwanen in Germany. Lady White does make some very nice T shirts and I like my Mister Freedom Ts, but neither come close to matching Japan’s best.
This Stevenson Overall Co. T shirt has the best fabric and details available
Even in terms of value for money, Japan wins handily here. Shirts from Rogue Territory and 3Sixteen for example cost from $175-$255. Shop at the right place, and you can Japanese shirts for less money with equal or better fabrics and superior construction including Momotaro chambrays for under $130 and Suvin Gold cotton Studio D’artisan denim shirts for under $200. Obviously, not all Japanese brands can be found for such affordable prices, but enough can that this point stands. The brands that are more expensive, such as The Flat Head and Iron Heart, both offer fabrics that are simply unavailable from American brands regardless of price.
High quality rayon and denim from RJB and boots by Clinch
America can definitely make up some ground in this category. With Alden, Red Wing, Wolverine, Thorogood, Frye, Julian/Mister Freedom, Ace, Truman, Nicks, Whites, Wesco, and a plethora of cowboy boot brands that often make some killer work boots, the Stars and Stripes make a strong case for a win here with such an impressive group of true heritage brands that pioneered designs and created some impressively durable and well made boots. Certainly, they are better at making boots than they are at playing Association Football. The only downside here is that several of the brands have fallen since their heyday with Wolverine, Thorogood, and especially Frye having lost much of their quality and respect as of the writing of this article.
However, the revival of Red Wing with their heritage line (nevermind the fact that this was done by Japanese men) and the continued prominence and quality craftsmanship from Alden, Nicks, Whites, and Wesco along with strong newcomers such as Julian/Mister Freedom, Ace, and Truman, there are certainly a wide array of well made boots in the USA. The best part about this for ‘Murrica is that all of this is without mentioning their trump card: Role Club.
Role Club is easily the best bootmaker in North America
One man brand phenomenon Role Club is the most impressive and high quality boot brand in the United States of America. Brian has mastered construction, design, and specifically, hand welting to a degree that approaches dress shoe levels. In fact, there there are only two bootmakers I can think of that can match him and guess what country they are in?
That’s right, Japan boasts the two boot brands that can match, if not best Role Club. Brass Tokyo/Clinch boots from Tokyo are not a one man shop, but they are a completely in house boot brand that is very small and dedicated to making the best boots they possibly can. In my experience, owning boots from and having met with and visited both brands, I can say that they are on the same level. Both have beautifully designed engineers, lace up boots, and shoes, both utilize hand sewn welting, and both have some of the highest quality around. In fact, the only work boot brand with greater quality is White Kloud of Japan. Another one man brand, White Kloud is the most fanatical and dedicated boot craftsman in the industry and is an absolute master of bootmaking. With two brand at the very top of the spectrum, Japan has a slight edge here.
Just look at that perfect stitching on my Japanese-made Moto boots
The upper tier is also firmly in Japan’s favor with John Lofgren, Rolling Dub Trio, Moto/Motor, The Flat Head, The Real McCoy’s, Zerrow’s, and Old Joe being in their corner with only Julian/Mister Freedom in this tier for the USA. The mid tier swings back to the other side of the Pacific with Japan only having Attractions, Lone Wolf, and Monad in this category while America has Wesco, Whites, Nicks, Truman, Alden, and Ace at this level. The entry level tier essentially does not exist in Japan to my knowledge so the US sweeps this level with Red Wing, Wolverine, Thorogood, and Oak Street.
Clinch boots are only beaten in quality by another Japanese brand… White Kloud
Overall, this is a very difficult category to call. I personally would lean toward Japan because I think they have the overall edge at the two uppermost levels and I value quality and passion above all else, but there is no doubt in my mind that someone could make a convincing argument for the US, especially now with Role Club existing. At this point, I have to give it to Japan due to the fact that their boots are more neatly and carefully constructed in nearly all ways save for Role Club. There are far less quality control issues with Japanese boots than their are with American boots. Even at the higher end of the American footware game, Whites, Alden, Wolverine, Truman, and Oak Street are all known to have at least a moderate amount of quality control issues with Oak Street being infamous for such problems.
Wesco boots are well made and extremely tough
Leather jackets, however, are a wash for Japan. One of the best leather jacket makers in the world, Good Wear, is in the USA, but aside from that, the country with the world’s best geography only has Mister Freedom, Vanson, Langlitz, and Lost Worlds on the higher end with Diamond Dave, Schott, Cockpit USA, and a few others on the mid or lower end of the construction spectrum. The land of humid, mountainous forests has The Real McCoy’s, Buzz Rickson, Toys McCoy, The Flat Head, Freewheelers, Fine Creek Leathers, Four Speed, Mushman’s, Rainbow Country, and Tenjin Works all on the high end and these are just the ones that I know of.
My Real McCoy’s jacket is stitch perfect
Furthermore, all of the Japanese brands are made better or at least more neatly than all of the best US brands with The Real McCoys, The Flat Head, and Freewheelers having the neatest stitching of any leather jackets in the world, even neater than Good Wear (neatness is not actually Good Wear’s aim) with Freewheelers really at the top of the list here. It would certainly have helped the USA to have Himel Bros in their corner, but as much as I love this Canadian brand, I would still have to call this one for Japan. As with most of the categories, the US has a lot of solid options, but the higher end of the spectrum is consistently won by the Japanese.
Good Wear Leather is the best leather jacket maker in the US
After all of this, there are the X factor brands that exist only in Japan. For example, Momotaro is a completely in house unit that does everything from manufacturing the fabric, to dying the fabric, to designing and constructing the garment entirely in house. This does not exist in the United States. Freewheelers make everything from trousers, to jeans, to flannels, to chambrays, to caps, to jackets, and leather jackets all at incredible quality in Japan. Mister Freedom does this too, but a majority of his high end garments are made by Sugar Cane in Japan, not in the US. The Real McCoys also makes everything from boots, t shirts, shirts, leather jackets, hats, sneakers, and more in Japan to insanely high quality standards.
Finally, and most importantly, there is The Flat Head. There is nothing like The Flat Head in the US. There is nothing like The Flat Head in Japan. The Flat Head makes everything you could want in our clothing niche from wallets and jewelry to hats, boots, sneakers, jeans, chinos, shirts, and leather jackets. All of these are made to the highest standard using the highest quality materials. It is hard to imagine a brand like this ever existing in the United States.
Wearing nothing but RJB/The Flat Head here… including the rings and the keychain
I know that there are some people who are reading this that are ready to bring up the issue of fit and I will admit that in many cases, Japanese brands do not make large enough sizes for Western buyers. However, this discussion is about the quality of the product itself, not about fit options. Moreover, brands like Iron Heart specifically cater to the Western market and have many items that go up to quite large sizes. Also, some of the biggest offenders of vanity sizing jeans while inexplicably undersizing shirts are Rogue Territory and 3sixteen, meaning that fit is an issue for all brands, not just Japanese ones.
I do own a couple 3Sixteen shirts that I like
Another issue people may have is that many of the Japanese brands I mentioned are rather obscure. However, this does not invalidate them. They do exist and how easy it is to find and purchase them is not weighed the same as how high their quality is. Furthermore, pretty much all of the brands mentioned here are available to purchase from foreign countries, even if it may seem difficult at first. The only exception is White Kloud, but anyone is allowed to set an appointment to meet him at his shop in order to be measured for and order a pair of boots.
This idea started with me wanting to genuinely compare the two countries in terms of raw denim and repro-style clothing and see who was better overall. However, I had barely started when I realized that it was going to be a nearly complete and utter walk over in favor of Japan. This article may come off as condescending and negative and I hope it does not because I really do love a lot of American brands. I adore my Wesco boots. Role Club is one of the top three work boot makers out there in my opinion. My Mastersons shirts are some of my most prized possessions. I could stare at the stitching on my Roy jeans for hours. I think that the individuals that are insanely passionate about there craft are equal to their Japanese counterparts (except for probably White Kloud, he is in his own class). The issue that I saw here was that the larger companies in the USA are not on the same level as their Japanese counterparts.
I cannot help but notice and feel that while their is passion from the owners of the US brands, their products often appear to be made to fit needs and appeal to markets more than they are made to be the very best they can possibly be. 3Sixteen is never going to be as good as The Flat Head because they genuinely have no desire to be. I don’t necessarily blame them for this, but it does exemplify the differences between Japanese and American denim brands.
Japanese denim jacket and rings blended with American trousers and boots
Surely, there are Japanese companies work to a price and target as well, but it is not to the same degree. Overall, the the passion is higher for this in the land of Shibas and Skylines than it is in the land of mustangs and Mustangs. There are those in America such as Brian Truong, Roy Slaper, Michael Masterson, John Chapman, and more who are beautifully dedicated to making the best items they possibly can, but there needs to be more of them in this country. I would personally love to see it happen.
The fact that I buy products from Masterson, Roy, Brian, Isaac from Pigeon Tree Crafting, and Nicholas Hollows of Hollows Leather all show that when someone local does put all of their effort into making the best product they possibly can, I will buy their products. There are just more of these types of people on the other side of the Pacific right now. At the end of the day, the Japanese are the best because there are more of them who strive to be the best. It’s as simple as that.
White Kloud boots in all their glory
I want to express my gratitude to my friend @dr_heech for the highly invaluable information on Levi’s Vintage Clothing and Conners Sewing Factory. Follow one of the coolest vintage denim experts here https://www.instagram.com/dr_heech/ .
*If anyone has any questions or wants to request further details on brands or comparisons, please let me know. I would be happy to discuss any of this. I do have more information, but this article was already too long.