Japanese Coiffure
Japanese Coiffure
Written by
(Translated by M. G. Mori)
Published by
Selling Agents by
Copyright 1939
Total 95 pages

The history of Japanese hairstyles corresponds to structural changes in Japanese society. In the old days, both Japanese men and women grew their hair long. While aristocratic women were expected to wear their hair down, both women of the working classes and men found it necessary to keep their hair tied up. With the rise of the middle class to prominence in the Edo era, women's updos became an art form. During the Meiji era, first men and then gradually women adapted western styles.

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“Sakayaki,” a Style Typical of the Age of Warriors

Tyasen-mage or “ tea-whisk ” style of early Edo period

Tyasen-mage or “ tea-whisk ” style of early Edo period

The Asikaga period, which was so called because the Asikagas then monopolized the office of Syogun or Generalissimo, and which lasted about two hundred years ending in 1568, was not, generally speaking, a period of peace and tranquillity. The second half of it was much worse than the first, being characterized by incessant and universal warfare carried on by innumerable war-lords, greater and lesser, who fought one another for territory and power and gloried in their military exploits, giving little thought to peaceful pursuits. In such an age the civil or non-combatant population consisting of farmers, artisans, tradesmen and the rest, maintained a precarious existence amidst the din and glare of battle, in constant fear of death and destruction. In striking contrast to this miserable life of the common people was that of the warrior, who swaggered upon the highways and byways of the country with triumphal pomp. The Asikaga era was thus par excellence the age of sworded men. In their everyday life they wore ebosiy both at home and out of doors, in accordance with the time-honoured custom; but as soon as they were called out to the field of battle they would change their clothes and buckle on shining armour, discarding their ebosi for steel helmets. And as the civil wars increased in intensity and frequency decade after decade until the whole country became a veritable cauldron seething with strife, the peaceful kanmuri and ebosi were superseded more and more by the warlike helmet; and even when one was enjoying a respite from active service and so wore no helmet, it became customary to avoid ebosi and to remain bare-headed, so that one might put on the helmet at a moment's notice. It is true that warriors above a certain rank wore underneath the helmet a sort of ebosi called kabuto-sita (lit. “under-helmet”); but this privilege was confined to military leaders of the highest class, a small minority, for the great majority of warriors clapped their helmets straight on their bare heads. Now imagine yourself wearing long hair and keeping that heavy metallic covering strapped tight over your scalp for a considerable length of time, and you can easily see that damp warmth about your head would before long become oppressive beyond endurance. Hence the necessity of some contrivance for ventilation, and this need was satisfied by shaving off the forelock. Hair takes time to grow, and it could not regain its former length immediately after the soldier returned home from the campaign to resume his normal life at home. Thus arose the custom of keeping one's forelock shaved all the time, a custom which, originating in an age of unbroken warfare, maintained itself through the succeeding centuries of perfect peace at home, from the Momoyama period to the end of the Edo period. This tonsured portion of the head was called sakayaki. Thenceforward, except for the fact that warriors of exalted rank wore ebosi on ceremonial occasions of prime importance, all military men were hat- less both at home and when attending public offices, and even when taking part in ordinary ceremonies. With his forelock shaven off, the samurai gathered all the locks that remained around it into a chignon or top-knot (called a mage) at the back of his head. This samurai fashion in time spread to the common people—farmers, artisans and tradesmen—until every youth became bare-headed, with the fore part of his head clean shaven and a top-knot behind —a curious style of coiffure indeed, which persisted for three hundred years till the beginning of the Meizi period! It means that a vogue arising solely from a wartime exigency and accepted by the whole warrior class finally spread to all the rest of the nation.

Hairdresser busily plying his trade

Hairdresser busily plying his trade (early Edo period)

This explains why the kuge or Court nobles, who occupied a position in the country entirely different from that of the sworded gentry and had for a thousand years proudly held their own as a special class, alone persisted in their historic style of hairdressing and refused to follow the new fashion set by the soldier. They would neither shave off their forelock nor go bare-headed, but still covered their heads with an ebosi or kanmuri. And there was another exception to the general fashion. Confucian scholars, physicians, and Sinto priests who neither belonged to the common people nor yet had the same social or political status as the samurai, followed the nobleman's example in keeping all their locks intact (i.e. without sakayaki) and wearing them done up into a special form of coiffure, though they refrained from the use of a kanmuri or an ebosi. A Sinto priest performing rites before a shrine, however, was always dressed in an ancient costume with a kanmuri or ebosi on his head. Not a few Confucian scholars and physicians, on the other hand, preferred to have their heads clean shaven, after the well-known manner of Buddhist priests.

Women's Coiffure in the Edo period: Perfection in formal technique

In the Edo period, for the first time in Japanese history, the entire commonalty shared and indulged in the benefits of civilized life. This meant, in other words, that the culture of all the classes whose womenfolk had for a thousand years or more worn their hair in knots instead of in the flowing style of the nobility, had at last attained a degree high enough to enable them to enjoy such conveniences and luxuries. In dress, for instance, their women wore as their outer garment what was known as kosode (lit. “little sleeves”), which had till then been worn only as an under-garment by aristocrats. As compared with former periods life in all its aspects had been simplified in the sense that it was free from cumbersome formalities or restrictions. What had hitherto been an article of underwear was now used as an outer garment, and displayed as such it could no longer remain the unostentatious article of clothing it had been as underwear. It came to be adorned with figures or patterns either embroidered or dyed on it which delighted and dazzled the eye with their gorgeous colours and brilliance, and which in due course of time have made the kimono one of the glories of Japanese culture. The art of beautifying women's hair naturally made commensurate advances in formal technique.



Kyoto maiden's ornamented chignon

Kyoto maiden's ornamented chignon

The time was now past when, with all women of the aristocracy adhering to the pendant coiffure as the standard style, only their sisters in the lower classes had worn their hair done up in simple knots without thought of formal beauty but merely to ensure freedom of movement. Now that the standard of living had risen considerably in these plebeian classes, and their women went about in full dress or still attended ceremonies with their hair in knots, it was only natural that these knots should have been made more beautiful, and much more skill required in tying them up. Manners and customs, however, do not admit of sudden and drastic changes; and even in the Edo period in its early decades many women still adhered to the traditional flowing coiffure, and such knots as were to be seen in those days were of the simplest form. But as the years went by the coiffeur's technique increased in complexity; and while under the influence of the stereotyping tendencies of the time, it became more formal or conventional, on the other hand it still underwent subtle modifications necessitated by the effort to harmonize the coiffure with the forms and patterns of the dress and the manner of wearing it. This progress kept on year after year, generation after generation, until perfection rendered further advances impossible. It would be a wearisome task now to trace step by step this onward march towards consummation; let us, then, content ourselves with the following summary remark : what had at first been simplicity itself became complex and elaborate after the Genroku era owing to the introduction of kyara-abura, the cosmetic of solid fat referred to in our preceding chapter. This pomade enabled the coiffeur to gather all a woman's tresses into one, and to fashion the knob and dispose of the locks around it as artistically as she pleased. Elaborate and varied methods of marking out and arranging the side-locks and the hindmost lock, and of tying the chignon or main knot (mage), were contrived and practised one after another.

Perfumed pillow, or aloe pillow

Perfumed pillow, or aloe pillow, from the aloe-wood incense burnt in it Hairdresser busily plying his trade (early Edo period)

Different modes and shapes were called into being to suit different occasions and places, persons of diverse ages and stations in life, or even of sundry ranks or positions in the same social stratum or occupation, so that if we were to enumerate all the forms that came into vogue through the successive generations, we should find their number to be legion. Two of them, at least, called respectively the marzi-mage (lit. “round chignon”) and the simada (more fully, simada-mage, from a proper name), have survived all the vicissitudes of fortune in fashion to our own day.
Let me here mention by way of digression, a special perfumed pillow, or aloe pillow, from the aloe-wood incense burnt in it article of bedding which was in use during the period under review and whose origin and development were intimately connected with the fashionable modes of hairdressing. I refer to the pillow called the kyara-makura (lit. “aloe-wood pillow ”) which was in vogue about the Genroku era. It was a beautiful square wooden pillow adorned with gold- relief lacquer-work and provided with a little drawer in it. The pillow was hollowed out crescent-shaped, which came immediately under the neck, while in the drawer directly underneath it was placed an incense-burner in which to burn some odoriferous wood. Any woman sleeping with her head on this pillow would wake on the morrow to find her tresses fragrantly scented by the ingenious contrivance!