History of the Sukajan - Where to Buy Japan's Iconic Retro Souvenir Jacket in Tokyo

Now an iconic clothing item representative of Japan’s fashion culture, sukajan or Japanese souvenir jackets are a statement piece coveted by fashionistas around the world. From their origins to their rise into pop culture and debut on international runways, this article will cover everything there is to know about sukajan, including the best shops to buy them in Tokyo and how to choose and style one.

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What Is a Sukajan?

Sukajan are retro Japanese bomber jackets made of silky fabrics like rayon, satin, and velveteen. Some sukajan are reversible, in which case they often sport a quilted side that both keeps the padding in place and serves as a design accent. Sukajan are inspired by letterman jackets and baseball jackets, and feature quintessentially Japanese designs, a distinctive silhouette, and contrasting color sleeves. They can be recognized by the use of bold colors and carefully crafted, eye-catching embroidery typically placed on the back of the jacket, but sometimes stitched on both sides.

These iconic Japanese jackets are also known as “souvenir jackets” as they were brought back as souvenirs by American soldiers after the post-war occupation of Japan. 

The name “sukajan” itself is a hint about the jacket's origins, as it combines “suka” from the naval base city of Yokosuka and “jan” which is the Japanese contraction of the English word “jumper.” Even now, you can find sukajan shops along Yokosuka’s Dobuita Street which leads to the main gate of the U.S. Navy Base. According to another theory, the word “sukajan” derives from the English “sky dragon jumpers,” as flying dragons were a very common design chosen for the embroidery of these jackets.

History of the Sukajan

Sukajan originated in the postwar period. American soldiers returning home from Japan started turning bomber jackets, flight jackets, or even jackets fashioned from old parachute material into keepsakes by getting traditional Japanese designs hand-stitched on them. Each sukajan's design contained the soldier’s experiences and memories of their time in Japan, making them one-of-a-kind pieces. Motifs included dragons, cherry blossoms, geisha, Japanese artworks, and even decorations representing the soldiers’ naval bases or hometowns. Some of the first designs such as tigers, hawks, and eagles are also thought to derive from the emblems of the units the soldiers belonged to.

During the 1960s, American trends and styles were massively assimilated into Japanese culture in what was called the "Ametora effect," or the love of all things American. This eventually resulted in the rise of a subculture of young Japanese people who didn't want to conform to this trend and ironically used the sukajan to show their defiance. Over time, this changed into general cultural nonconformism, and the sukajan began to be heavily associated with gangs and juvenile delinquency. It was not uncommon to see sukajan as the choice attire for the yakuza and other criminals in films, which only further pushed its negative connotation.

Sukajan in Japanese Pop Culture

Only in recent times has sukajan experienced a huge revival, becoming an iconic part of Japanese fashion culture. Sukajan’s spike in popularity started in the 2010s, supported by the popular movie “Drive” where Ryan Gosling wears an eye-catching, white sukajan. Adopted by celebrities and pop culture icons around the globe, the Japanese souvenir jacket was brought back in vogue and reinterpreted by top designers and streetwear brands such as Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Adidas. 

Where to Buy Your Sukajan Souvenir Jacket in Tokyo

Ueno

・Okuma Shokai

Hidden in the vibrant alleys of Ueno’s market street Ameya Yokocho is the long-established Okuma Shokai, one of Tokyo’s most well-stocked sukajan specialty stores. Coming in a wide variety of colors and sizes, Okuma Shokai’s selection offers classic designs such as dragons, cherry blossoms, koi carps, and Mt. Fuji as well as sukajan embroidered with your favorite anime characters. The shop even accepts completely customized orders, so you are sure to find the perfect souvenir jacket for you. 

・Freak Market

Another great place in Ameya Yokocho for your sukajan shopping spree is Freak Market. With 30 years in the business, Freak Market specializes in American casual fashion sporting Japanese designs, including a wide range of sukajan at a variety of prices. From classics to sukajan inspired by Japanese anime culture, you can find hundreds of different designs in store.

・HINOYA ONE

If you are wandering around the streets of Ameya Yokocho in search of the perfect sukajan, you should also check Hinoya One. Opened in 1992, this shop has an ample choice of meticulously made sukajan. It strives to innovate the souvenir jacket fashion scene by combining great craftsmanship, contemporary style, and traditional designs.

Harajuku

・SUKAJYAN Dept.

Located in the backstreets of Harajuku, SUKAJAN Dept. specializes in high-quality, vintage sukajan, attracting those aiming to bring some truly unique pieces back home. Over 100 types of souvenir jackets are available, so it’s a real treasure trove for sukajan lovers.

・Kinji Harajuku Store

If you are in Harajuku, stop by Kinji. This vintage clothing store is not a specialty sukajan shop but they often carry a small selection of souvenir jackets. You might find some surprising pieces waiting for you.

How to Choose Your Sukajan

There are a variety of aspects you should consider when purchasing your very first sukajan.

For starters, you should decide if you want to buy a vintage sukajan or a new one. Vintage sukajan tend to be one-of-a-kind pieces that are embedded with the original owner's story and experiences. While this sounds great, this makes them rarer to find and more expensive, and you'll be very limited in terms of sizing. Vintage pieces also require cautious care and meticulous preservation, with the exact steps differing based on the sukajan material. Expect to have to wash your vintage sukajan either by hand or on a gentle washing machine setting, in cold water, with non-abrasive detergents.

That said, even with mass-produced pieces, sukajan are not made to shield from cold and rain. Opt for rayon pieces if you are thinking of using your sukajan as daily wear.

Try to pick embroidery and colors that go well with the rest of your clothes, as it will be easier to create multiple outfits. Bold embroidery and bright colors might be harder to pair, but you’ll be sure to have a statement piece in your wardrobe. Don’t forget that the more embroidery you have, the heavier, stiffer, and warmer the jacket. Simple embroidery and muted tones create a cleaner look.

Finally, pay particular attention to the measurements as sukajan are meant to be well fitted, meaning not too tight or too loose. Make sure to measure one of your jackets and pick a sukajan which is around 2 - 3 cm bigger than the jacket you measured. Do not rely on letter sizing.

How to Style a Sukajan

Thanks to the wide variety of colors and patterns, sukajan are very versatile clothing items. Lavish embroidery will brighten up any look, even a simple t-shirt and jeans combo. Those who love colors can create tone-on-tone outfits or even try mixing prints. If you choose a muted or dark sukajan, it can embellish sophisticated looks. Or maybe you can even go for something experimental! No matter your style, you are sure to find a sukajan that fits your wardrobe.

Ready to Level Up Your Style With a Sukajan?

Sukajan have a fascinating history that makes them incredibly unique souvenirs. With such a wide variety of colors, designs, and patterns, you are sure to find something special that will add that extra element to your personal style.

Title Image: PIXTA

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Stefania
Stefania Sabia

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