10 Japanese Women's Hairstyles

Courtesan with long pipe, Hachiman temple in inset on left, 1856, ukiyo-e art print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) from Famous places of Edo, Uchiwa-e woodcut (rigid fan), Japanese civilization, Edo period, 17th-19th century
Courtesan with a long pipe, Hachiman temple in the inset on the left, 1856, ukiyo-e art print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) from Famous places of Edo, Uchiwa-e woodcut (rigid fan). Japanese civilization, Edo period, 17th-19th century. De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Japanese women have long been known to boast elaborate hairstyles to emphasize their social and economic status. Below, you'll find classical depictions of these various modes.

Kepatsu, a Chinese-inspired Style

Chinese-inspired hairstyles in Japan, c. 600
Wall mural depicting Japanese women, c. 600 A.D. Public domain due to age.

During the early 7th century, Japanese noble women wore their hair very high and boxy at the front, with a sickle-shaped ponytail at the back, sometimes called "hair bound with a red string."

This hairstyle, known as kepatsu, was inspired by Chinese fashions of the era. The illustration to the left depicts this style and is from a wall mural in the Takamatsu Zuka Kofun—or Tall Pine Ancient Burial Mound—in Asuka, Japan.

Taregami: Long, Straight Hair

Illustration from the Tale of Genji, c. 1130 A.D.
Heian-era beauties from the Tale of Genji. Public domain due to age.

During the Heian Era of Japanese history, from about 794 to 1345, Japanese noblewomen rejected Chinese fashions and created a new style sensibility. The fashion during this period was for unbound, straight hair — the longer, the better! Floor-length black tresses were considered the height of beauty.

This illustration is from the "Tale of Genji" by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The eleventh-century "Tale of Genji" is considered to be the world's first novel, depicting the love-lives and intrigues of the ancient Japanese Imperial court.

Shimada Mage: Tied-back Hair with a Comb on Top

Heavenly being with beautiful hair, late 1700s
Print by Toyono Bulshikawa, 1764-1772. Library of Congress, no restrictions

During the Tokugawa Shogunate or Edo Period from 1603 to 1868, Japanese women began to wear their hair in much more elaborate fashions. They pulled their waxed tresses back into a variety of different kinds of buns, decorated with combs, hair sticks, ribbons and even flowers.

This particular version of the style, called the shimada mage, is relatively simple compared with those that came later.This style, mostly seen from 1650 to 1780, simply looped the long hair in the back and slicked it back in the front slicked with wax, with a comb inserted into the top as a finishing touch. 

Shimada Mage Evolution: Add a Large Comb

Japanese court ladies, c. 1772-1780.
Print by Koryusa Ilsoda, c. 1772-1780. Library of Congress, no restrictions

Here is a much larger, more elaborate version of the shimada mage hairstyle, which began appearing as early as 1750 and until 1868 during the late Edo Period. 

In this version of the classic style, the top hair is threaded back through a huge comb, and the back is held together with a series of hair-sticks and ribbons. The completed structure must have been very heavy, but women of the time were trained to endure it weight for entire days in the Imperial courts.

Box Shimada Mage: Tied-back with a Box at Back

Woman Painting, c. 1790-1794
Drawing by Yoshikiyo Omori, 1790-1794. Library of Congress, no restrictions

During the same time, another late-Tokugawa version of the shimada mage was the "box shimada," with loops of hair on the top and a projecting box of hair at the nape of the neck.

This style looks somewhat reminiscent of Olive Oyl's hairstyle from the old Popeye cartoons, but it was a symbol of status and casual power from 1750 to 1868 in Japanese culture. 

Vertical Mage: Hair Piled on Top, with a Comb

Lady with Up-do and Combs, c. 1791-1793
Print by Utamaro Kitagawa, c. 1791-1793. Library of Congress, no restrictions

The Edo Period was "the golden era" of Japanese women's hairstyles. All kinds of different mages, or buns, became fashionable during an explosion of hairstyling creativity.

This elegant hairstyle from the 1790s features a high-piled mage, or bun, on the top of the head, secured with a front comb and several hair-sticks.

A variation on its predecessor the shimada mage, the vertical mage perfected the form, making it easier to style and maintain for these fanciful ladies of the Imperial court.

Yoko-hyogo: Mountains of Hair with Wings

Ladies with elaborate mage or buns, 1790s.
Print by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1790s. Library of Congress, no restrictions

For special occasions, late Edo-era Japanese courtesans would pull out all the stops, styling their hair up and cascading it over all types of ornamentation and painting their faces eloquently to match.

The style depicted here is called the yoko-hyogo wherein a huge volume of hair is piled on top, ornamented with combs, sticks, and ribbons and the sides are waxed into spreading wings. Note that the hair is also shaved back at the temples and forehead, forming a widow's peak.

If a female was seen out wearing one of these, it was known that she was attending a very important engagement. 

Gikei: Two Topknots and Multiple Hair Tools

Gikei, the "butterfly wings" hairstyle, c. 1804-1808
Print by Kininaga Utagawa, c. 1804-1808. Library of Congress, no restrictions

This amazing Late Edo Period creation, the gikei, includes huge waxed side-wings, two extremely high topknots — also known as gikei, where the style gets its name— and an incredible array of hair sticks and combs.

The model here, shown sometime between 1804 and 1808, was a famous actress. This woodcut print was created by Kininaga Utagawa and illustrates the sheer volume of the style. 

Although styles like these took considerable effort to create, the ladies who donned them were either of the Imperial Court or the artisan geishas of the pleasure districts, who would often wear it for multiple days.

Maru Mage: Waxed Bun with a Bincho Spreader

Prostitute with special hairdo pillow, 1888
Print by Tsukyoka Yoshitoshi, 1888. Library of Congress, no restrictions

The maru mage was another style of bun made of waxed hair, ranging in size from small and tight to large and voluminous. This illustration shows a particularly huge example, worn by a high-class prostitute in the late 19th century.

A large comb called a bincho was placed into the back of the hair, to spread it out behind the ears. Though not visible in this print, the bincho — along with the pillow the lady is resting on — helped maintain the style overnight. 

The maru mages were originally worn only by courtesans or geisha, but later common women adopted the look as well. Even today, some Japanese brides wear a maru mage for their wedding photos.

Osuberakashi: Simple Tied-back Hair

Simple pulled-back hairstyle, 1904
Print by Mizuno Toshikata, 1904. Library of Congress, no restrictions

Some court women in the late Edo Period of the 1850s wore an elegant and simple hairstyle, much less complicated than the fashions of the previous two centuries wherein the front hair was pulled back and up and tied with a ribbon with another ribbon securing the long hair behind the back.

This particular fashion would continue to be worn through the early twentieth century when Western-style hairdos became fashionable. However, by the 1920s, many Japanese women had adopted the flapper-style bob!

Today, Japanese women wear their hair in a variety of ways, largely influenced by these traditional styles of Japan's long and elaborate history. Rich with elegance, beauty, and creativity, these designs live on in modern culture — especially the osuberakashi, which dominates schoolgirl fashion in Japan.