The rich culture of Japan is woven into their clothing. Both the past and present of Japanese fashion tell the story of a society with deeply rooted traditions that nevertheless continues to innovate, create and lead the world.
Take a look at Japanese clothing over time to see what has changed - and what has stayed the same - since the nation's ancient beginnings.
- Jomon Era (300 BC).
The amazing thing about Japan is that many of its cultural foundations can be traced back thousands of years. This is certainly the case with clothing. It was sometime in the Jomon period before Japanese civilization had even really developed.
At that time, the Japanese were still a loose collection of hunter-gatherer tribes that slowly transitioned to settled agriculture. Toward the end of this period, their clothing became more elaborate. Agriculture gave them civilization and more time to focus on culture. Toward the end of the Jomon period, as it transitioned into the Kofun period, the kimono, perhaps Japan's most famous garment, was born.
- Nara Era (710 AD).
What we in the West usually think of as traditional Japanese culture developed in the Nara period, which began around 710 AD. The emperor moved the capital to Nara, and the country expanded culturally and socially. Perhaps most significantly, Japan began to trade extensively with China, bringing with it high culture and fashion.
During the Nara period, clothing began to reflect class and social status. The more of one's body one covered, the higher the status. This was especially true for women, who wrapped themselves in long, flowing kimono robes that covered them from shoulder to toe and usually had sleeves that reached to their fingertips. This provided them with privacy and security from the speculative gaze of others, whether from the lower classes or rivals within their own class.
This idea of hiding the body eventually took on religious significance as well. Clothing not only signaled social status and granted privacy in public, but also protected against the evil spirits that were common in the Shinto religion. Of course, it was felt that the upper class deserved more protection than the lower class who performed manual labor.
Through international trade, Japanese clothing eventually reached the world stage during the Nara period. The West got its first glimpse of the kimono and developed the stereotypes we think of when we think of Japanese clothing.
- Edo Era (1603 A.D.)
During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate came to power. They cut off foreign trade and instituted a policy of sakoku, or total isolation. The goal was to prevent Western influence and stabilize the country under one ruler, the shogun. They also eliminated the traditional four-class system in Japan.
Taken together, these things led to a kind of renaissance in Japanese fashion. Without the importation of Western culture and the need to signal social class with clothing, people became much more creative in the way they dressed.
- Meiji Era (1853 AD).
In 1853, an American naval expedition led by Admiral Matthew Perry landed in Tokyo Bay. The Americans forced Japan to open up to foreign trade.
The Japanese quickly realized how far behind the rest of the world they were technologically and militarily, and they wanted to catch up.
They did not want to simply become Western colonies like many other nations in Asia, and they wanted to be a major power in the world community.
During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese ousted the Tokugawa shogunate and returned authority to the emperor, who had previously played only a symbolic role.
They devoured Western technological and philosophical discoveries and quickly developed an industrial economy and an advanced military.
Both their economy and military were based on Western ideas, and so it is not surprising that clothing was also heavily Westernized.
This was especially true of uniforms. Japan's new public school system required Western-style uniforms, and the military adopted uniforms and rank insignia similar to those of the then-famous Prussian army.
In business, men began to wear the Western suit and tie.
Japanese Clothing Today
Today, in the 21st century, Japanese clothing can easily be divided into two categories.
Traditional clothing, based on thousands of years of Japanese customs, is still common. It dominates formal dress, especially at traditional religious ceremonies.
In addition, many older people still prefer traditional dress, and traditional Japanese occupations often require one to wear traditional Japanese clothing. These include athletes such as sumo wrestlers and entertainers such as geishas and their apprentices.
Traditional Japanese clothing is known for its focus on traditional art. Since Japanese culture and its Shinto religion includes a deep respect for nature, natural symbols like waves and animals are incorporated into the designs.
Aside from traditional clothing, people, especially the younger generations, wear Western clothing in casual situations and on the street.
This does not necessarily mean that you will see the same outfits in Japan as in the US and Europe. Since the 1990s, the Japanese have experimented and created a wide range of unique fashion trends.
Traditional Japanese Clothing
The kimono is perhaps the best known and most basic part of traditional Japanese clothing. In fact, the Japanese translation of the word is literally "thing to wear".
Moreover, the variations in kimono are endless. Kimono can range from formal to casual and can signal marital status and age.
Formality is determined by the number of crests, or kamon, with five being the maximum and most formal. Usually, they must also match the season.
Women's kimonos, in particular, are quite complicated. They can consist of 12 or more different pieces and often require help to put on.
Men also wear kimonos, but they are much simpler and usually consist of no more than five pieces. Unlike women, they also use much more subtle colors, usually black, but sometimes dark blue or green.
They rarely have decorative patterns. The sleeves are also much smaller and less flowing. This allows the wearer to tuck the obi belt underneath.
This is a casual kimono worn in the summer. They are made of cotton and are relatively simple.
They can resemble a bathrobe and are mainly worn indoors. Traditionally, these kimonos were white or light blue, but their designs have become more elaborate in recent decades.
Haori are very similar to the kimono, but they resemble a jacket rather than a full robe. Traditionally, they were worn only by men, especially those of the warrior class. They symbolized wealth and status and also served the practical purpose of covering armor.
In the early 19th century, geishas also began to wear haori. In the early 19th century, geishas also began to wear haori. Since these were normally reserved for men, this seemed novel and stylish.
Obi are traditional sashes usually used as part of a kimono costume. As with the kimono, there is a much wider range of variations and embellishments for women.
They are very colorful and often the most eye-catching part of a young woman's outfit. There are precise rules regarding the measurements of an obi so that it harmonizes with the rest of the body.
While women's obi can be up to 30 centimeters wide, men's are much plainer. The sashes are usually only 10 centimeters wide and without decoration or fancy styling.