As with many American style staples, like the t-shirt and the flight jacket, the souvenir jacket (or sukajan) finds its origin in American military garb. But whereas the t-shirt and flight jacket translated directly from military use to civilian wear, the souvenir jacket has a more complex — and controversial — entry into modern style.
A sukajan is an American military bomber jacket embroidered abroad and taken home to family and friends as souvenirs. They first appeared during World War II, with adornments of dragons, geishas, or local flora and fauna. They were often crafted with silk military parachutes, hence their silk and satin counterparts today. In the ’60s, just after the Korean War, souvenir jackets also became symbols of rebellion in the Japanese city of Yokosuka, where an American air force base was located. Some believe the name sukajan derives from the term “Yokosuka jumpers,” paying homage to the city in which these jackets gained popularity. Others point out that since dragons often adorned these jackets, and since the Japanese for “sky dragon jumper” sounds a lot like “sukajan,” this might be the origin.
But no matter the official etymology, the sukajan’s popularity is heavily tied to American style (and exists in reaction to it), as perceived from overseas. American “Ivy” culture — preppy, collared, polished — became fashionable in Japan in the ‘60s, and a silk, embroidered jacket was the antithesis to Ivy style. Sukajan jackets were visual rebellions against the buttoned-up look. After Vietnam, the garments took a darker turn, and were embroidered with images and messages that were offensive or controversial. Some American soldiers wore the jackets to express political protest against the Vietnam War; a famous slogan embroidered on sukajans during this time was, “When I die I’m going to heaven, because I served my time in hell.”
The complex political history behind the sukajan means that buying one isn’t as simple as buying a t-shirt, despite the fact that souvenir jackets are “in” and being made by a variety of reputable brands. On the one hand, you don’t want to buy something overly adorned or obviously mass produced; it goes against the original intent of the souvenir jacket, which is customization. And since these jackets are political in their origin, if purchased without care, you may end up donning a symbol of political protest or oppression without knowing it. That said, here are five modern takes on the souvenir jacket that are understated, thoughtful and stylish — in line with the best of the sukajan’s history.
Souvenir Jacket by Topman $120
Sukajan Shirt Jacket by Gitman Bros Vintage $216
MA-1 Souvenir Shinto Flight Jacket by Alpha Industries $225
Embroidered Loopback Cotton-Blend Jersey Jacket by Kapital $400
Thorson Flag-Panelled Washed Satin-Twill Bomber Jacket by Visvim $3,100