10 Ancient and Medieval Japanese Women's Hairstyles

Full color drawing of Japanese women at a tea ceremony.

Yōshū Chikanobu/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Japanese women have long been known to boast elaborate hairstyles to emphasize their social and economic status. Between the 7th and 19th century, noblewomen associated with the elite and ruling families of the dynastic Japan world wore elaborate and structured hairdos built of wax, combs, ribbons, hair picks, and flowers. 

Kepatsu, a Chinese-inspired Style

Ancient mural depicting the Kepatsu hairstyle in Japan.

Mehdan/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

During the early 7th century C.E., Japanese noblewomen 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 depicts this style. It's from a wall mural in the Takamatsu Zuka Kofun — or Tall Pine Ancient Burial Mound — in Asuka, Japan.

Taregami, or Long, Straight Hair

Full color drawing showing an ancient Japanese woman with long, straight hair.

Tosa Mitsuoki/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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. This 11th-century story is considered to be the world's first novel, depicting the love lives and intrigues of the ancient Japanese Imperial court.

Tied-Back Hair With a Comb on Top

Pencil sketch of the shimada mage hairstyle.

karenpoole66/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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 and decorated them 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. For this style, mostly worn from 1650 to 1780, women simply looped the long hair in the back, slicked it back with wax in the front, and used a comb inserted into the top as a finishing touch. 

Shimada Mage Evolution

Sketch of a Japanese woman with an elaborate Shimada mage hairstyle.

Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr/Public Domain

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 woman's 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 its weight for entire days in the Imperial courts.

Box Shimada Mage

Japanese Geisha girl wearing a box shimada hairstyle.

Gerhard Sisters/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

Japanese women wearing vertical mage hairstyles.

Toyohara Chikanobu  (1838–1912)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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 Shimada mage, the vertical mage perfected the form, making it easier to style and maintain for the ladies of the Imperial court.

Mountains of Hair With Wings

Color sketch of Japanese women with elaborate yoko-hyogo hairstyles.

Karen Arnold/PublicDomainPictures.net/Public Domain

For special occasions, late Edo-era Japanese courtesans would pull out all the stops by 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. In this style, a huge volume of hair is piled on top and ornamented with combs, sticks, and ribbons while 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. 

Two Topknots and Multiple Hair Tools

Color sketch of a Geisha with an elaborate hairstyle.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Picryl/Public Domain

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.

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

Color sketch showing a young woman a maru mage hairstyle.

Ashley Van Haeften/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The maru mage was another style of bun made of waxed hair, ranging in size from small and tight to large and voluminous.

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.

Simple, Tied-back Hair

Japanese courtesan writing a letter.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Picryl/Public Domain

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. This style involved pulling the front hair back and up and tying it with a ribbon and using another ribbon to secure the long hair behind the back.

This particular fashion would continue to be worn through the early 20th 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.