Japanese Women's Hairstyles Through the Ages

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Kepatsu | Ancient Japanese Hairstyle, c. 600 CE

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

Japanese noble women in the seventh century CE wore their hair very high and boxy at the front, with a sickle-shaped ponytail at the back. This is sometimes called "hair bound with a red string."

This hair-style, known as kepatsu, was inspired by Chinese fashions of the time. The illustration is from a wall mural in the Takamatsu Zuka Kofun, or Tall Pine Ancient Burial Mound, in Asuka, Japan.

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Taregami | Long, Straight Hair, c. 794 - 1345

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 CE, 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.

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Shimada Mage | Tied-back hair with a comb on top, c. 1650-1780

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 (1603-1868), 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. The long hair is looped in the back, the front is slicked back with wax, and a comb is inserted on top at the back.

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Shimada Mage | Tied-back hair with a large comb, c. 1750-1868

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, from the late Edo Period.

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!

This particular illustration is from about 1772 to 1780.

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Box Shimada Mage | Tied-back hair with a box at back, c. 1750-1868

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

Another middle- to 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.

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Vertical Mage | Hair piled on top, with a comb in front, 1790s

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.

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Yoko-hyogo | Mountains of hair with wings, late Edo

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.

This style is called the yoko-hyogo. A huge volume of hair is piled on top, ornamented with combs, sticks, and ribbons. 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.

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Gikei | Two topknots and many hair tools, c. 1804-1808

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

This amazing Late Edo Period creation includes huge waxed side-wings, two extremely high topknots (gikei), and an incredible array of hairsticks and combs.

The model here, shown sometime between 1804 and 1808, was a famous actress. This woodcut print was created by Kininaga Utagawa.

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Maru Mage | Waxed bun with a bincho spreader, 18th-19th centuries

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. The 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. The bincho is not visible in this print. This lady is resting on a special type of pillow, designed to preserve her hairdo.

The maru mage 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.

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Osuberakashi | Simple tied-back hair, c. 1850-1912

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

Some court women in the late Edo Period wore an elegant and simple hairstyle, much less complicated than the fashions of the previous two centuries.

The front hair was pulled back and up, and tied with a ribbon. 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. By the 1920s, many Japanese women had adopted the flapper-style bob!