Honouring the Founding Father of Japanese Denim: Toshikiyo Hirata

Toshikiyo Hirata sadly passed away last week. He was a legend to anybody interested in Japanese clothing, and his death marks a sad day in fashion history. Hirata was known as the founding father of Japanese denim, but what’s interesting about Toshikiyo is that he was never interested in jeans to begin with.

Growing up in Kobe, Japan Toshikiyo loved martial arts and considered himself a jock. He wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a pair of jeans, as they were the closet staple of hippies, or as Hirata called them, “long hairs”. Toshikiyo’s favourite martial art was karate, and he was quite skilled in the sport. During a 1970’s Osaka Expo tournament, foreign competitors and coaches approached Hirata to encourage him to travel overseas and teach karate. 

Travelling by plane from Japan to America in the 1970s was extremely expensive. Hirata decided to hop on a Brazil-bound ship and chose to get off at the ports in Hawaii. Fortunately for Hirata, since it was the 1970s, he was able to slip past everyone without any papers. Toshikiyo spent some time in America, teaching martial arts and exploring the culture of a new and foreign country. Through his exploration, and to his surprise, everybody in America wore jeans. So, to fit in, he bought himself his first pair.  

Toshikiyo returns to Japan, meets his wife, and together they decide to move to her hometown of Kojima, Okayama, in 1975. Kojima, Okayama, was already established as the denim capital of Japan, and Hirata, desperately in need of a job, applied to most major denim companies in the district.  

Hirata gets hired by John Bull and quickly becomes a local sewing legend. A karate jock who thought jeans weren’t cool had some of the most superior denim craftsmanship in Kojima. While working at John Bull, Toshikiyo realizes how all the denim brands in Kojima follow American trends to stay relevant in the Japanese market. Perhaps this was the turning point in Hirata’s denim journey, and he became determined to change the practice of using American trends as inspiration for Japanese jeans.  

All of the denim brands in Kojima followed the Levi’s Classic 505 recipe, with a distinguishing logo on the pocket and a back leather patch tag. Instead, Toshikiyo wanted to make something completely unique and Japanese. In 1985, he decided to leave John Bull to form his own label, Capital, with the idea of creating Japanese denim that exceeded American standards. 

The first ever sample pair of jeans Hirata created had a handmade patina finish, like the vintage pairs he’s seen in secondhand vintage shops. This design, which started Hirata’s denim career, perfectly embodies the ethos of combining American aesthetics with Japanese craftsmanship. He showed the jeans to the owner of Hollywood Ranch Market, Gen Tarumi, who absolutely loved the design. Tarumi told Hirata, “Let’s make something Japanese that leaves an impression on people." Through the late 80’s and early 90's, Capital manufactured jeans for other Japanese clothing brands, including Hysteric Glamour, Studio D’artisan, and Denime. 

In the mid-90's, Toshikiyo joins his son Kiro to work at 45rpm. Just like Capital, 45rpm loved American aesthetics and elite Japanese craftsmanship. Since Kiro was 45rpm’s designer, he allowed his father to weave his ideas and concepts into the brand. In 2000, 45rpm opened their very first New York SoHo location, and later that year, Toshikiyo asked his son to quit his position at 45rpm to start something of their own. 

Together, the Hirata’s created their own denim brand: Kapital. They decided to base the company in the downtown region of Kojima, where Toshikiyo began his denim journey. Kapital mixes American bohemian aesthetics with the Japanese concept of monozukuri, which translates to the forever pursuit of perfection. Ultimately, Kapital sticks to their strength, which is denim production, but what is notable about the brand is that through their collections they always strive to tell a story (often times of a minority culture). Consequently, this allows Kapital to simply create without any major limitations and adds to the growing success of the brand. 

Toshikiyo Hirata created Japanese jeans. Without his influence in the fashion industry, it’s hard to tell that denim would have developed as much as it did in such a short period of time. Although most people probably know Kapital by the crazy boro and sashiko-style jackets and jeans, the brand has a rich background and story that starts off with a jock who hated the idea of denim to begin with. I hope that Toshikiyo Hirata’s legacy will be carried on by his son and others who believe in the supremacy of Japanese denim. 



Marx, David. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. Basic Books, September 26th, 2023. 


Written by: Anastasia Steshkina 

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