The Roots of Japanese Hairstyles
Japan has a rich history of hair. Some styles survived the centuries and stand as a traditional symbol while more modern styles tend to express more about the individual person. Let’s go back to the roots of Nihongami and see how it’s changed over the years.
What is Nihongami?
Nihongami literally means “Japanese hair,” and it’s the word used for traditional Japanese hairstyles. It generally refers to styles from the Kofun Period, which started in 250AD, to the Showa Period, which ended in 1989.
Hair, especially traditional styles, has long been used as a status symbol. In fact, only Japanese nobility were allowed to wear certain looks. Others had their place at special occasions, and some styles were worn only by married women.
We can’t possibly cover every traditional hairstyle in one blog post, but here are some you might recognize (and a few you might not):
- Taregami: One of the simplest styles, taregami was popular during the Heian Period and mostly worn by women. This long, straight hairstyle started as a way to reject Chinese beauty standards of the time.
- Shimada mage: Shimada mage isn’t just one style, but an evolving one. It’s an elaborate look that involves waxing the hair to keep it in place and styling it with buns, sticks, ribbons, combs, and other accessories for an elegant look. You might recognize it as a style traditionally worn by geisha. That version is called geigi. Other types include the box shimada mage, vertical mage, and maru mage.
- Gikei: When it comes to volume, gikei is pretty much unmatched. It involves making two topknots to boost the hair vertically, making side wings with waxed hair, and keeping it all in place with different styling tools. Gikei was worn by women in the Imperial Court and by artisan geisha. Those who did wear it kept the style for days at a time because it took so much effort to create.
- Chonmage: One of few traditional men’s styles, you’ll probably recognize it as samurai or sumo hair. Originally, it was used to help samurai keep their helmets on during battle. Men would shave the top of their head all the way back to the crown, tie the rest of their hair into a ponytail, and create a topknot at the back of their head. If a samurai had their topknot cut off, it was considered a disgrace.
- Yoko-hyogo: This late Edo Period style was one of many that piled the hair on top of the head and held it in place with plenty of hair ornaments. The hair was waxed into wide wings at the side of the head. It also shaved the hair back at the temples and forehead for a dramatic widow’s peak. Seeing this style was a sign that the person wearing it was on their way to an important occasion.
- Simple, pulled back hair: This simple, late Edo Period style pulled the top hair back and tied it up at the crown of the head. Then, the rest of the hair was tied behind the back. People—especially women—wore this style until the 20th century when they began cutting their hair short.
What Do Modern Japanese Hairstyles Look Like?
Today, people tend to wear their hair based on preference rather than social rank. Styles have gotten more varied to include layers, bangs, updos, braids, and more. It all depends on how the person wearing the style feels comfortable and wants to present themselves.
Buns give a smart, put-together look. Bobs frame the face and accentuate the person’s facial features. A lot of people go for short hair, too, for its flexibility. It can create a smooth, cute look or a less conventional, daring look.
These days, men are also more attentive to their hair than they used to be. And luckily, cutting your hair is no longer a symbol of disgrace. Men wear their hair at any length, from shaved to longer styles that involve layers, volume on the top, combed back, and ponytails clipped at the back. That last one works for a cute messy look, and it’s a great option if you’ve skipped a bath.
Despite that a lot of hairstyles are targeted toward specific genders, they’re not limited by that. Androgynous mid-length styles have become more popular in Japan over the years, and we’re slowly seeing a breakdown of gender norms. Japan might stick to a lot of rigid gender and societal rules, but it’s opening up to different ideas.
As that acceptance spreads, people are exploring their identities. A lot of pop culture figures, like model Ryuchell, identify as genderless and have adopted more androgynous fashions that reject the male-female binary. Most people with that identity show it through fashion and modern hairstyles that aren’t so focused on appearing masculine or feminine.
Hair Colors and Trends
Cuts and updos aren’t the only ways to express your style in Japan. Plenty of people dye their hair, and it goes far beyond the typical brown, gray, and even blonde shades that once dominated the scene. These days, louder and wilder colors like red, green, pink, and blue have all gotten popular enough that they turn fewer heads.
The trend started picking up steam in the early 2000s as anime rose in popularity. Even today, you’ll usually see younger people sporting these vibrant colors, rather than a businessperson. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t make those colors classy. Look at the recent mermaid hair trend!
Hair can transform people and make them feel validated in their identities while making for a stylish expression. Whatever you do with yours, just make sure you take care of it. Keshoume has plenty of products to keep your hair happy and healthy. Check out our shampoos, conditioners, and hair masks, and remember that 10% of proceeds from your purchase goes toward a cause that aligns with our mission!
Sarah Wood - June 23, 2021
“Chonmage, Shimada, and Other Traditional Japanese Hairstyles.” KCP International Japanese Language School. https://www.kcpinternational.com/2015/05/chonmage-shimada-and-other-traditional-japanese-hairstyles/. Accessed 11 June 2021.
Robertson, Jennifer. “Exploring Japan’s ‘genderless’ subculture.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/genderless-kei-fashion-japan/index.html. Accessed 11 June 2021.
Szczepanski, Kallie. “10 Ancient and Medieval Japanese Hairstyles.” ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/japanese-womens-hairstyles-through-the-ages-195583. Accessed 11 June 2021.
“The Importance of Hairstyles for the Japanese.” Yabai. http://yabai.com/p/2890. Accessed 11 June 2021.
Wallin, Lisa. “Nihongami: Japanese Hairstyles through the Ages.” Tokyo Weekender. https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2018/01/nihongami-japanese-hairstyles-through-the-ages/. Accessed 11 June 2021.
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