History of Hair: The Japanese Kanzashi Hair Style 2021

A Journey Through Japanese Hair Decoration

The history of the unique style of hair decoration in Japan has come a very long way with many interesting twists and turns (pun intended). There are two common themes for hair in Japan that can be seen throughout most ages. They wanted their hair DECORATED, and they wanted their hair LONG. Writing this blog has taught me some new Japanese terms in fashion, some “wild and crazy” or “Kabuki” styles, and a new understanding of what people are looking for when they decorate their locks today. I will touch on how these conservative hairstyles turned down a road of creative Kanzashi decorations, the hairstyle of the Geisha, and finally how japanimation is effecting modern hairstyles.

Put Up Your Hair!

Let’s set the stage for hair with a very strange decree. This was a command from the very paranoid and jealous Emperor Tenmu (673 -686). The decree stated “Everybody, women and men, must put up their hair.” At first, hairstyles in Japan demonstrated a clear Chinese influence. Everyone was doing the updos in these days, so what started to make these buns stand out?E

A new trend for hair began in Japan - the higher, the better (they would have loved expression clips). The height of your hair along with how it was decorated told a story about your social status. “Commoners” would decorate their hair with paper. They were told to wear their hair up and keep it simple. Farmers would not be able to have their buns as high because they were expected to carry things on top of their heads. The most fashionable Japanese people during this age had gorgeous long hair fastened high on their heads with talismans (usually purchased from China). If you saw this hairstyle, you would know that this was a high ranking woman.

Similar to people in ancient Egypt, the ancient Japanese people believed that a thin stick held magical powers and could protect them from evil. This was a hairstyle for only the highest-ranking females. This was the beginning of Kanzashi. Kanzashi () are hair ornaments referring to a wide variety of accessories. These include long, rigid hairpins, fashionable barrettes, handmade fabric flowers, and fabric hair ties. These accessories are created from various materials including, wood, gold, silver, silk, tortoiseshell, and plastic. This is also the time that hair combs were introduced to Japan. Many of the Kanzashi have seasonal themes. In September, it is typical to have Japanese bellflower in your hair since the purple tones are associated with Autumn.

“Nihongami” - The Traditional Japanese Hairstyle

We have all seen pictures like this of the traditional hairstyle in Japan. It was so big and heavy, it is obvious that this hair is far from practical. The shape of any nihongami consists of two "wings" on the sides of the head that point out and curve towards the back. The bottom of the hair usually features a topknot or ponytail. The hair below is used to create a long loop and is drawn into the topknot. Forget hairspray! Most styles of nihongami were hardened and shaped with wax (called abura). Nihongami require special tools to shape and construct, which typically include bamboo or paulownia wood combs and heated tongs used to straighten the hair. After the hair was finished? Accessorize, accessorize, ACCESSORIZE!

This traditional hairstyle is still worn today by Geisha, Maiko, sumo wrestlers, and brides. Wigs are also available in this style so the person sporting the ‘do would not need go through all of the extra work to keep their hair in place.

Another name for this hairstyle of this type is the “Shimada-mage” (topknot). This beautiful style is related to the scenery envisioned through a "tōrō lantern.” They say it is similar to how the scenery behind a person could be seen through the wings on the sides of their heads. There were even Annual Shimada-Mage Festivals held in Japan in September.

Heian Era - Matching Your Teeth to Your Hair

If you lived in Japan between the 8th and 11th century, here’s what you need to know! The Heian beauty queen was supposed to have narrow eyes, a pouty smile, a thin nose, and rosy, round cheeks. How could they achieve these features? The women would use a heavy rice powder to paint both their faces and necks as white as possible. They also would draw bright red “rosebud" lips on over their natural lip shapes, creating a more narrow mouth.

Their eyebrows were even more complicated. The women in ancient Japan were just as tedious about their eyebrow shapes as we are in modern times. They, however, had their own unique style of drawing them on. Everyone had to have the perfect “butterfly” eyebrows. In a fashion that looks very unusual today, Japanese women of this era would shave off their eyebrows and then paint new eyebrows high on their foreheads. They put their eyebrows so high, they were almost at the hairline. They plunked their fingers into black makeup powder and then would smudge it across their foreheads.

Another feature that seems unattractive according to today’s standards was the fashion need to blacken your teeth. This makes sense when you think about just how white these women would make their face and necks. Their teeth would look yellow in comparison. Who wants yellow teeth when you can just paint them black!?!? Heian women painted their teeth black. Not only were black teeth better (?) then yellow ones, black teeth also would complement the women's black hair.

This was the age that Japan stopped their relations with China. During the end of this age, everything became based on Japanese customs and Japanese women were finally able to enjoy the many new types of hairstyles. Instead of being forced to wearing your hair up, it could now be worn long (whether it was natural hair or not). Updos could now be tied back relatively low on the backs or the sides of their heads.

The Style of the Geisha

What would a Kanzushi blog be without the mention of this very distinctive Japanese lifestyle!

FUN FACT: The first Geisha were all men!

Men that were entertainers (including dancers, singers, musicians, poets, and artists) were known as Geisha. It was the male Kabuki (wild and crazy) entertainers who created fashion in this time. Women admired the original Kabuki men, and would copy their styles. The Geisha have been predominately female since 1800, and they gained in popularity until WWII (when more women were needed for factory work). These women were entertainers or hostesses in the art forms such as dance, games, music, and conversation. They were armed with the makeup fashion of the Heian beauties, their hair was combed up in a Nihongami ‘do, and this hairstyle was decorated with multiple Kanzushi. Geisha still exist in Japan today in areas called hanamachi (meaning “flower town”). They begin training after high school to learn skills in traditional instruments, games, and dancing from the past.

The Deadly Hair Pin

Women were also able to use their kanzashi as a weapon (typically seen in Samurai movies). Kunoichi (female ninjas) practiced ninjutsu (the martial art of guerrilla warfare) and would use kanzashi to stab the eyes of their victims. Another method of warfare involved dipping their hairpins in poison to immobilize or harm their victim. Truly a killer hair accessory! Some of the Kanzashi were modelled into weapons (and you can still buy them today). Some of the weapon designs I have found online include Katana (samurai sword), Jitte (traditional weapon in feudal Japan), and even a Matchlock Rifle.

Anime Hair

Distinctive hairstyles from today are even shaping our hairstyles through Japanimation. Yes, they have made this “Anime Hair” catchy term used for anime, manga, cartoon, and comic characters with huge, bizarre, and likely improbable hairstyles.

Typically, very important characters of the story will have a hairdo that will make them stand out among the other characters (similar to big hair in ancient Japan and modern times). These unique hairstyles also create a distinctive character outline that will stand out in branding, media, and sales. These characters will often choose one or more different colors that don't appear naturally in human hair (Ice Breaker is a popular choice for hair extension color).

The Anime Hair trend seems to be headed towards more socially accepted styles: compare the hairstyle of Goku (Dragon Ball manga series) to the more modern hair worn by Ichigo (Bleach manga series). A simple google search reveals multiple pages of anime haircuts, how-to guides for Japanimation, even ideas for your children to wear similar hear to school. Anime hair is not leaving modern hairstyles alone anytime in the near future.

How Modern Hair Reflects Ancient Japanese Hair Decoration

Hairstyles in Japan have contributed some very important features to modern hair we lust over today. Bigger is better! Longer is better! Hair decoration (whatever form you may choose) is required to stand out. Confidence is the main ingredient for looking amazing in whatever hairstyle you choose to create for yourself. Adorn yourself with some new fashion ideas and be fabulous!

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