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Japanese Denim Industry Strives to Regroup

Mostly spared by the catastrophe, denim makers are still dealing with the aftermath.

A fishing vessel in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

TOKYO — Fashion companies working with factories in the region devastated by the March earthquake and tsunami have slowly been trying to assess the damage, despite ongoing problems related to interruptions in communications, infrastructure and the power supply.

For the country’s influential denim industry, there’s good and bad news. On the positive side, the majority of the denim fabric production is centered in western Japan, which was largely unaffected by the natural disaster, according to Tim Calore, managing director for Rivet Japan, a company that connects international brands with local manufacturers, handling production and export logistics. The firm is located in one of Japan’s denim centers — Kojima city in Okayama prefecture — and works with about 10 firms in the area, from fabric houses to sewing factories and trim manufacturers.

“Some of our EU [European Union] customers planning to travel to Japan for spring and autumn 2012 development have postponed or canceled their trips,” Calore said. “But they will be here in the summer, for sure. Maybe the really cautious ones will fly the long way around instead of into Tokyo.”

Calore added that, at this point, Rivet has not had any cancellations or lost any sales due to the disaster.

Japan produces about 80 million to 90 million denim garments, worth about 500 billion yen, or $6.15 billion at current exchange, annually, mostly for domestic consumption, according to the Japan Jeans Association. Denim fabric, however, has long been a key export, but the impact of the disaster has significantly curtailed shipments.

Imports of blue denim fabric from Japan to the U.S. fell 16.6 percent to $12.4 million for the year ending March 31, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel. On a volume basis, blue denim fabric imports from Japan for the 12 months were down 23 percent to 2 million square meter equivalents. Comparing the first quarter of this year with the first quarter of 2010, blue denim fabric imports declined 46 percent on a dollar basis and 44.6 percent in volume.

The situation in eastern Japan, however, where some companies rely on sewing plants to make finished denim garments, shows why exports have been curtailed. The town of Kesennuma in that region was almost completely wiped out by the tsunami.

Kazuhiro Yamazaki, managing director of Lock Stock, another company that acts as a middleman between domestic brands and manufacturers, said, “The factory we use in Kesennuma is on high ground, so there was no tsunami damage. But the inside of the factory was a complete mess because of the earthquake. There was damage to equipment, and since the interior of the factory was damaged, all of the items that were being made at the time were ruined. Some workers’ houses were washed away in the tsunami, but all of the factory workers were safe, so there was no loss of personnel.

“The factory still hasn’t been able to resume operation,” Yamazaki continued. “When I spoke with [a factory representative] in early April, I was told that as far as resuming work goes, they won’t be able to do anything until lifelines, phones and distribution lines have been restored, but the sense was that they want to begin slowly resuming work around the end of May. I personally feel it will take a little longer than this.”

But even if the factory is able to resume normal operations, Yamazaki believes this won’t be the end of its problems.

“This area is not just denim sewing, there are other kinds of sewing plants, as well,” he said. “Because it looks like it will take some time for most businesses in that area to reopen and because some [production] will be changed to other areas, I think this will have an effect on the production and delivery of this autumn [season’s] items.”

Another factory with which Lock Stock works is located further south in Souma, a city in Fukushima prefecture.

“The tsunami reached a place [about two miles] from the factory, and a factory worker whose home is near the coast had her parents go missing because they were sleeping when the tsunami hit. Even now they are unaccounted for,” Yamazaki said. “Chinese factory workers returned to their country, so now, even though the factory has slowly resumed work, it is with only a little over 10 workers, all Japanese. This is only about a third of the usual rate of operation. The next subject of worry is the radioactivity, and they don’t know how long they’ll be able to continue work in this location, or when the Chinese workers will return.”

A spokesman for one of Japan’s major domestic denim brands, Edwin, said the company uses some factories in Akita and Aomori prefectures, north of the disaster zone, to make its finished garments. While these areas did not suffer much in the way of damage from the March 11 earthquake, they were affected in other ways.

“There were transportation and access problems [in that part of the country], so the factories had to close because they weren’t able to receive shipments of materials for about five days,” the spokesman said. “But [since] March 23, they were operating again as usual.”

Edwin and Rivet said at this point, radiation fears from international buyers have not posed a problem for them.

“No one we work with has expressed any concerns about it,” said Calore, although he acknowledged that this could turn out to be an issue in the future. “Before manufacturing, there may be some brands that will look for some kind of assurance that the fabric is all radiation-free, for example.”