Monday 3 October 2016

Of hair and hairdressers in historic Japan by Debra Daley

The ways in which women of low social class earned a living in the 18th century, outside of prostitution and domestic service, always arouses my curiosity. During a recent research session, I came upon a print made around 1776 in Japan of a kabuki actor dressed as a kamiyui, a female hairdresser. It interested me to read that a woman who worked as a kamiyui was likely to make enough money to earn her own keep and to feed her husband and family and I decided to see if I could find out a little more about them.

The Actor Segawa Yujiro I as Osai, a Female Hairdresser. Katsukawa Shunsho, c.1776. Art Institute Chicago.

At the time that Segawa Yujiro posed for this print with boxes of combs, hairpins and oils, the freelance female hairdresser would have been a fairly novel role, I think. Until the heyday of the Edo period in the mid-18th century, Japanese women of means had tended to have their hair dressed by live-in maids. Women’s historical styles had hung down before being swept up and although hairstyling was subject to strictures that indicated a person’s social class, marital status and occupation – the samurai’s folded topknot, for instance – it had been relatively manageable at home for the middle classes.

Samurai. Hand-tinted photograph, 1881. Capital Collections, Edinburgh Libraries.

The indigenous faith of Shinto regards one’s body and physical attributes as a gift from the ancestors, handed down from generation to generation. In that sense, hair symbolises life and continuity – and maintaining it in good order was regarded as a devotional duty. In prehistoric times, it was said that combing the hair, using wooden combs infused with shamanic qualities, animated each strand’s spiritual energy, allowing it to act as a conduit of the divine.

Heian Period, Suihatsu Style. Image: The Kimono Women of quality wore their hair long and unbound in the Heian period (794–1185). A greater quantity of hair intensified spiritual energy and earthly beauty as well as being a mark of elevated rank. The lower classes were obliged to cut their hair and tie it back in order not to impede their labours.

Lady Murasaki. Adachi Ginko, 1890.
The words kami 神meaning ‘deity’ and kami 髪meaning ‘hair’ have a close relationship, which is reflected in the ceremonial treatment accorded to human hair in Japan. Peasants in ancient times burned their hair to encourage a good harvest. Hair was, and still is, offered at temples and shrines. The collected hair, broken combs and cut nails of the emperor or high-ranking persons used to be offered at official shrines and burned in a ritual fire. Even today, when a sumo wrestler retires from the ring, his topknot is ritually shorn and presented at the family altar or at a shrine.

For utter volume of votive hair, nothing beats the massive, somewhat creepy, rope of hair at Higashi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto that was donated by female devotees in the late 19th century. The rope was used to hoist massive wooden beams during the temple’s reconstruction in 1895. Image:

Evidence of the supernatural associations of hair and its accoutrements have been found as early as the Jomon period (12,000–300 BCE), when pins fixed in the hair were thought to act as a kind of mystical lightning rod, which neutralised malevolent forces. The prophylactic power of these hair ornaments derived from the sacredness of the hair to which they were attached. (The defensive aspect of Japanese hair ornaments was expressed in more literal terms in late medieval times, when some forms of hairpins and combs were crafted to function as concealed weapons.)

Since hair was life and vitality and beauty, the loss of it was to be lamented – and nowhere more so than in the story of Japan’s most famous ghost, Lady Oiwa. She is the subject of the hugely popular kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Strange Tale of Yotsuya), which made its debut in 1825. The play tells the story of Oiwa’s poisoning by her faithless husband and the vengeance exacted by her ghost. The moment in which she finds herself deprived of her hair is also the instant in which she loses her humanity. In the play’s centrepiece, she sits before her mirror plying her comb. As the poison in her body does its work, hanks of hair begin to fall from Oiwa’s head in great handfuls. By means of the ingenious stagecraft that is a hallmark of kabuki, the fallen hair piles up in an enormous heap and begins to bleed as Oiwa, in rage and despair, grasps at raven locks that were once a representation of beauty. Now, torn from her head, they symbolise her dehumanisation. Edo audiences watching Oiwa’s ghastly transformation would have recognised in it a twisted parody of the sensuous hair combing scenes that were a mainstay of kabuki romances. They would have noted, too, the significance of the use of a comb in this scene. The words ku, meaning suffering, and shi meaning death combine to make the Japanese word for comb – kushi.

Oiwa with disfigured face clasps a bloody clump of hair. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1847. British Museum.
Unsurprisingly, the precautionary attitude toward hair and hair ornaments, that has endured through the ages in Japan, applies even more particularly to wooden combs. These objects have always been held in special regard – in Japan’s ancient origin-myth, the deity Izanagi broke off a tooth from the comb in his hair in order to light his way into the hall of the lower world in search of his consort – and people think of them with a certain amount superstitious circumspection even today. Numerous etiquette guides for foreigners in Japan advise against giving a comb as a gift. According to an account in D.C. Holtem’s 1922 study of Shinto, the source of this wariness can be found in a story concerning the vestal virgin of Ise. As she was about to leave to begin her long service at the Great Shrine, the emperor lodged a wakare no kushi, ‘the comb of separation’, in the vestal virgin’s hair, thus placing her under the taboo of comb and hair. The idea of ‘the comb of separation’ has lingered – nobody wants to receive an object that may cause anguish and sever them from their home.

Traditional Japanese combs (tsuge-gushi) are usually carved from durable boxwood and soaked in camellia oil to maintain their lustre. Camellia oil was also used to condition hair. Image: Daruma Archives,

Combing the hair. Torii Kotondo, 1933. Japanese Art Open Database. The anti-static quality of boxwood allows the combs to impart a smooth sheen to the hair.
It is considered bad luck to pick up a cast-off comb for fear of taking on another person’s suffering. If you do find a comb, you must compensate for keeping it by discarding one of your possessions in its stead. To allay its mysterious workings, a comb must be treated with respect. There is, in fact, an annual Comb Festival in Kyoto, which honours the service that these objects have performed. Women in traditional dress bring their used combs and hairpins to the Yasui Shrine where a memorial ceremony is held to express gratitude to them. Prayers are said for the spirits of the worn-out combs, before they are burned in a purifying fire.

Women parading in the Kyoto Comb Festival. Image: Daruma Archives,

Long, unbound hair prevailed among the upper echelons until the Edo period (1603–1868), when the tied-back style favoured by common women began to spread among courtesans and entertainers in the pleasure districts – the ‘floating world’ – that had been set up in Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka. As time passed, courtesans tinkered with the tied-back styles. The look became increasingly elaborate and the style (shimada) needed to be secured with large numbers of pins and combs. Hair ornaments, known collectively by the word for hairpin, kanzashi, were lavishly deployed.

Portrait of the courtesan Tsukioka of Hyogo-ya. Chokosai Eisho, c.1790. Japanese Art Open Database.
The shimada style became popular in the Edo period. Image: Daruma Archives,

The upswept shimada style, popularised by the exuberant courtesans of the floating world during the 17th and 18th centuries, exposed the subtle eroticism of the nape of the neck and encouraged a way of dressing, known as nukiemon, in which the collar of the kimono is draped to reveal the naked nape.

Image: Daruma Archives, 

When local townswomen and their daughters began to adopt the style, and to dress in the manner of the conspicuously fashionable courtesans, moralists, the 17th-century Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken for one, began to mutter among themselves. They did not approve of the wives of merchants and artisans going about in floating-world hairstyles and apparel tainted with sexual connotations. But women were charmed by the vivid courtesan style. It was a trend that they were determined to follow.

The commercial expansion of Edo society offered greater opportunities for women as independent wage-earners. While women of the samurai class were expected to dedicate themselves to their husbands, this kind of subservience was not practicable for lower-class women, who were obliged to earn money. They did so in various capacities as wet nurses, seamstresses and general servants in the houses of samurai and wealthy merchants. Eventually, when the opportunity arose, many of them became hairdressers. Shimada styles were complicated, requiring pads and frames, oiling and folding, weaving and pinning, to achieve the required shape. Difficult to create and to maintain, these styles were a financial godsend to women with hairdressing skills. 

Historian Shiho Imai reports that the first self-employed female hairdressers were spotted out and about in Osaka in 1764, catering mostly to women of the pleasure district, but by the turn of the decade, flocks of entrepreneurial hairdressers were going from house to house to tend to clients of the artisan and merchant classes. Their clients appreciated the convenience of having a style set that could last for a fortnight as long as they were careful to prop their heads on a wooden neck rest when they turned in for the night.

The Oiran Yoso-oi seated at her toilette. Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1799. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hairdresser. Katsukawa Shuncho, c.1780-1795. Harvard Art Museums.

Hairdresser (from series Twelve types of women's handicraft). Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1797-98. Google Art Project.

By the 1780s, female hairdressers were doing brisk business in Kyoto and Edo; some had even opened their own shops. It was a display of independence that offended the keepers of public morals, who began to rail against these uppity coiffeuses, disparaging them for dressing with a flamboyance that was not appropriate to their station – a reproach also directed, I might add, at ladies’ maids in Georgian England, when they went out costumed in their mistress’s cast-off clothes. 

Edo’s female hairdressers were castigated for consorting with harlots and actors and, more ominously, given the deteriorating economy of the time, for encouraging extravagance and wastefulness by luring merchants’ wives and daughters into squandering money on non-essential fancy hairstyles. This latter accusation proved the sticking point. In the annus horribilis of 1787, Japan suffered a series of floods, which devastated crops and led to severe food shortages and subsequent riots. The bakufu, the military government of the time, imposed a policy of economic austerity and a series of reforms that prohibited, among other interdictions, the use of barbers and hairdressers, who were accused of corrupting public morals.

But within three years the hairdressers were back in business and more popular than ever to no one’s surprise. In a society where dishevelled and uncombed hair was a defining feature of malevolence and disgrace, the hairdresser’s work was practically godly, even if she herself was still regarded as common.

Ghost. Shibata Zeshin, 19th century. Los Angeles County Museum. Ghosts (yurei) are often depicted with bedraggled, tangled locks.

By the mid-19th century, more than 1,400 female hairdressers were in business in Edo alone, and they were so successful that the phrase kamiyui no teishu ­– ‘the hairdresser's husband’ – fell into general use to describe a man who lived off a woman’s income. That these hairdressers’ earnings could match those of tradesmen remains a feat to be saluted, especially in the oppressive lower-class world of 19th-century Japan.


Karen Brazell, James T. Araki. Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. Columbia University Press, 1998.

D.C. Holtom. The Political Philosophy of Modern Shinto, a study of the state religion of Japan. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 1922.

Ed Jacob. Japanese Combs and Hair Ornaments.

Kazuko Ide. Article on tsuge-gushi, Japan Times, April 24, 1999.

Shiho Imai. The Independent Working Woman as Deviant in Tokugawa Japan, 1600-1867. Michigan Feminist Studies, University of Michigan, 2002.

Na-Young Choi. Symbolism of hairstyles in Korea and Japan. Asian Folklore Studies, Wonkwang University, 2006.

On traditional crafts: Tokyo Metropolitan Government.


Spade and Dagger said...

Very interesting piece - I've never given any thought to the earning power of historical hairdressers before.
The idea of celebrating the life & use of a comb is very much in line with a recent book I was reading on 'decluttering', in which the Japanese author encourages the thanking of objects for their use & service before they are removed from the house during a 'decluttering' tidy up. Somehow it seems appropriate to be thankful to our belongings - certainly in previous times these items were cherished as replacements were very difficult to obtain or afford.

Susan Price said...

Fascinating! Thank you. This is a subject on which I knew nothing and I was very entertained.
To regard the body as a gift from the ancestors, and its maintenance a sacred duty! What a sensible, wholistic way of thinking - and so much better than the idea, still lurking in Christianity, that the body is an object of sin, to be punished or, at least, disregarded as much as possible; and to take care of it or adorn it is 'vanity.'
I shall offer thanks to my ancestors by going and buying a large bar of chocolate, I think.

michelle lovric said...

How fascinating. The potency of hair in western literature is also worth exploring. For example, in some cultures, baby hair or adult hair caught in combs had to be burnt as otherwise witches might deploy it in sympathetic magic. And in Ireland, hair cuttings were tucked into church walls on the principle that at the Last Day, God would want our entire bodies assembled, including every last hair. So it was good to know where the hair was ...

Joan Lennon said...

What a fascinating post, and those images are riveting - thanks for this, Debra!

Erik Von Norden said...

Great article, no doubt, but the fantastic art that went along with it really sets this piece apart.

Arnoldpeter said...

Ancient hairdressing and their Culture related article was good to see. Thanks for sharing this post. very Informative

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