August 11, 2014 7:00 am JST

Aloha shirts have Japanese roots

YASUSHI MOCHIZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- It was in late December in 1997 when Ryoichi Kobayashi discovered a holy grail for clothes collectors in Kyoto. The silk shirt he found featured Mount Fuji, goldfish and Japanese folklore characters. It was as colorful as a kimono.

     Kobayashi, president of Toyo Enterprise, had found one of the world's first Aloha shirts. It was one of the first set of 12 to hit the Hawaiian market in 1937. Musashiya Shoten, a tailor run by one of the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, made the shirt.

     Hawaiian businessmen today wear aloha shirts even on formal occasions. Though the colorful summer shirts are popular worldwide, they have Japan roots. Japanese immigrants who headed to Hawaii after 1868, at the very end of Edo period (1603-1867), were the first to make the shirts.

     The first aloha shirts are believed to have been made out of material from worn out kimonos, brought from Japan by the immigrants. Many Japanese immigrants started their lives in Hawaii cultivating sugar cane and other daily goods. But some began tailor businesses, making colorful aloha shirts that fit local tastes. The kimono-like shirt tailors gradually expanded their businesses, importing fabric from Japan. 

     Shirts that used the Japanese yuzen dyeing technique were a sensation. One, named "Land of Aloha" and made in 1956, features an intricate portrait of Hawaii's landscape and people, using 21 colors. "At that time, yuzen transformed conventional patterns for Aloha shirts," said Kobayashi.

     World War II disrupted business. Once over, however, Japanese immigrants did their bit for postwar reconstruction. Mainly second-generation, Japanese-Americans in Hawaii began marketing kimono-like shirts again around 1950. They bought fabrics from the predecessors of trading houses such as Kyoto Marubeni and Toyota Tsusho in bulk. "Aloha shirts became a major industry," said a Kyoto Marubeni official.

     At the same time, textile businesses of emerging Japan began exporting worldwide and became a growth engine.

     Now, nearly 60 years after the golden age for Japanese textiles, one Kyoto yuzen dye house is pinning its hopes of a turnaround on aloha shirts.

     "With sales of yuzen fabrics (for kimonos) falling, we had no choice but to make that decision (to focus on aloha shirts)," said Kazuaki Kameda of Kamedatomi. The Kyoto-based company, which was founded in 1919, began specializing in Aloha shirts in 2002 and now has a store in Thailand as well.

     Kamedatomi is now capitalizing on its 5,000 or so traditional yuzen patterns. Its staff are hard at work preserving the tradition of Japanese-inspired Hawaiian attire.