Sukajan Jackets: Emblems of Craft and Design

Eagle, dragon and tiger sukajan

   Sukajan are a type of jacket made from glossy fabric, embroidered with quintessentially East Asian designs. Officially branded sukajan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) brought them to the attention of people around the world, and their fan base has grown thanks to sukajan-inspired products from European fashion brands. Let's take a look at their unique appeal.

So What Exactly Is a Sukajan?

   Sukajan are baseball-style jackets made from glossy acetate fabric, embroidered with typically Japanese designs found on traditional Japanese clothing. The embroidery also tends to have a dynamic, three-dimensional quality. The officially licensed Tokyo 2020 sukajan introduced these jackets to a whole new audience and gained a large following around the world after pictures of athletes wearing them started trending on social media.

A sukajan embroidered by an artisan in the 1950s. The embroidery techniques used in Japanese clothing have caught the eye of people all over the world. (by Osawa Kiyomi, a yokoburi embroidery artist)

The officially licensed Tokyo 2020 sukajan was a huge hit with international competitors.

   Sukajan originally started out as souvenirs. They were first sold in Yokosuka City in Kanagawa Prefecture in the 1950s, and were targeted toward US soldiers leaving Japan to return back home. At the time, traditional Japanese clothing and obi sashes made from embroidered silk were proving popular with these soldiers as souvenirs, so the idea came about to apply Japanese-style materials and embroidery to baseball jackets, a more familiar form of clothing for Americans.

   By the 1970s, these jackets had become fashionable among young Japanese people, who nicknamed them sukajan (a portmanteau of "Yokosuka" and "janpa" — the Japanese spelling of jumper, known as sweaters in America).

What Makes Sukajan Embroidery Special?

A piece of embroidery on Japanese clothing, by yokoburi embroidery artist Osawa Kiyomi. Using two colors of thread for a single scale creates a sense of depth.

   The remarkable thing about sukajan embroidery is the dynamic nature of the intricate, three-dimensional patterns. These are made possible by yokoburi sewing machines that recreate the same embroidery techniques developed with traditional Japanese clothing.

Yokoburi machines are no longer produced, so repairs are carried out by embroidery artisans. (courtesy Osawa Kiyomi, a yokoburi embroidery artist)

   Each thread embroidered on traditional Japanese clothing was originally stitched by hand. However, this changed with the invention of yokoburi sewing machines in the Taisho period (1912–1926), which were able to recreate this unique style of Japanese embroidery. Unlike regular sewing machines, the needle of a yokoburi machine moves from left to right, which makes it possible to cover the same area multiple times to create a three-dimensional look — a technique known as ito wo moru ("stacking" the threads). Embroidery made with yokoburi machines came to be known eponymously as "yokoburi embroidery," and was employed to great effect on sukajan jackets.

Covering the same area of fabric multiple times with the ito wo moru technique gives the design a three-dimensional look. (by Osawa Kiyomi, a yokoburi embroidery artist)

   Embroidery on sukajan and other clothing is now commonly done with Jacquard machines, which automatically recreate designs entered into a computer. However, these machines struggle to cover the same area of fabric multiple times with their needles, so the results tend to look more flat. Even today, yokoburi machines are the best way of creating a three-dimensional look.

Sukajan sewn by Jacquard machines are popular because they're more affordable.

   However, there are other embroidery techniques that can be used to create the illusion of a three-dimensional pattern — for example, using pale threads in the foreground of the pattern and darker threads in areas that you want to emphasize. Then there's the technique of gradation, where the color of the thread is changed in the middle of the pattern, creating a three-dimensional look. Or you can create a similar effect by simply altering the direction of the needle by 90 degrees, creating the illusion of different colors even when the same color thread is used because of how the light reflects off of them.

Even if the same thread is used, changing the orientation of the needle (the direction of the stitch) affects how it reflects light, making it look like a different color.

   Alternatively, you can vary the reflection of light without altering the direction of the stitch by combining contrasting colors like red and blue, or using glossy and matte threads together in the same pattern to create eye-catching designs with a three-dimensional feel. The direction of the stitch is also very important in other ways, like moving your needle in such a way that evokes the natural flow of fur when embroidering animals, for an extra element of realism.

The direction of the weave matches the natural flow of this camel's fur. Techniques like this are important for making things look more lifelike. (by Ozaki Fumina, a yokoburi embroidery artist)

Features and Variations on Embroidery Designs

   Some of the most popular motifs on sukajan jackets include tigers, dragons, Mount Fuji, and other typically Japanese images.

Images of tigers and dragons are popular because of their "Japanese-ness." This photo is of reproductions of vintage sukajan. (From the TAILOR TOYO collection)

These are reproductions of sukajan that were made as souvenirs from Japan, so they're embroidered with motifs like Mount Fuji and bamboo. (From the TAILOR TOYO collection)

   In addition to those above, there are also sukajan designs that evoke different parts of the world, such as embroidered hula girls and palm trees representing Hawaii, or polar bears and caribou representing Alaska. Also, influenced by the sukajan of Japan, other countries have come up with embroidered jackets of their own.

A souvenir jacket from Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. The embroidery shows a dancing hula girl. (From the TAILOR TOYO collection)

A German-made sukajan embroidered with a map of Germany. You can tell the sukajan, which came into being in Japan, is influential around the world.

The Future of Sukajan

   Sukajan designs are now branching out in loads of fresh and interesting ways. While the range of designs used to be limited by their origins as a souvenir, European brands are now creating sukajan with all kinds of different motifs, like puppies and roses.

This modern sukajan features a skull-like sun and moon design. (by embroidery designer Yokochi Hiromichi)

While the dragon design and monotone colors are traditional in their methods, it displays modern markings with its motif of the word "metaverse". (Photo courtesy of Yokochi Hiromichi)

   Sukajan are also being worn as a means of self-expression. After all, they're a great way to show off your personality by picking out a design that matches your own attitudes or outlook on life. The glossy fabric, intricate three-dimensional embroidery and striking designs originating from traditional Japanese clothing are now resonating with modern people and gaining a whole new following.