Big in Japan: a history of hairstyles and hair ornaments

Junko Abe
21 November 2002

Very high or very long?

Up or down?

VERY HIGH: Ancient Japanese people believed that a thin stick had magical power. They used their hair ornaments as talismans to protect them from evil. But the origin of this style is from China. This was a hairstyle for the highest-ranking lady.

VERY LONG: The longer the hair, the greater the beauty and nobility. But actually, every high-ranking lady had the same hairstyle.

Up and simple: unpretentious taste!

Up, with many decorations: The accomplished period of ‘Nihon-gami’ (traditional Japanese hairstyle).

Lady of Nara period, whose coiffure shows ancient Chinese influence

3rd-4th centuries, Kofun Period:

‘Shimada-mage’: the origin of the hairstyle in the Edo period, coming later.

For farmers, the bun is not on top of the head, because farmers put things on their heads to carry them.

During this period, almost everyone put their hair up in a bun. Noble people put their hair up as well as farmers.

8th Century, Askura and Nara Periods:

A command from the emperor Tenmu (673 -686), from ‘Ninon-shoki’ decrees: “Everybody, women and men, must put up their hair.”

Although the hairstyle isn’t so different from the Kofun period style, there is progress. Women can enjoy their hairstyles, and now there are many kinds of styles.

8-11C, Heian age:

No more hair ornaments! Everything was based on original Japanese customs. They stopped their relations with China.

This was the pure Japanese culture age.

Noble unmarried ladies weren’t supposed to show their faces to men.

The Age of Individuality was rejected.

The common people’s style is to tie their hair up with paper.

‘Bin-sogi’. This can be an accent for beauty, and also a form of protection, to hide their faces from men’s eyes.

Shaven-headed and top-knotted warrior in Momoyama period

Kamakura and Muromachi period

The simplified and rationalised age. People found out their own way to enjoy their hairstyles. There were various newly-devised hairstyles, depending on people’s working styles.

During the Heian period, women hardly moved. That’s why they could put on thousands of clothes and have long hair. But now the age has changed! Now it’s the age for the populace!

16 Century, Momoyama Period

Much more freedom! Close to modernistic styles! Up!

Similar to the Kofun girl’s styles, but more modern. They show the entire of their face, and also show their ears, just as with the Kofun styles. But the biggest difference is that they make the top of their hair stand up. This is a much more masculine look.

Beauty sealing a Love Letter by Utagawa I. Toyokuni

16-17C, Edo period:


Now it was the male ‘Kabuki’ players and the harlots who created fashion. ‘Kabuki’ was the famous and fashionable amusement of this age. Girls admired the Kabuki players, and imitated the styles. Some harlots created their own, original hairstyles.

For example, ‘shimada-mage’… which a harlot from Tokaido-shimada prostitution started.

Compared with the Momoyama style, hairstyles now became more rounded, and escalated little by little, with the use of many ornaments. Finally, it became very far from a practical hairstyle. But still that was what we now call ‘Nihon-gami’, a traditional Japanese hairstyle.


19C, Meiji period:

A tense atmosphere, because of political insecurity. The styles became plain, simple and modest.

Suddenly Western styles came into fashion! (Because of the arrival of American boats, and Japan’s establishment of diplomatic relations with America.)

20C, Taisho and Showa Periods

21C, Heisei Period - NOW!

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