Here is a really great Japanese woodblock print… it depicts an actor playing the role of Moriguchi Kuro, a hero from the great Japanese novel Hakkenden inu no soshi no uchi (The Story of the Eight Dog Heroes). Everything about this print shines – the dense and crashing patterns of the kimono and the textiles, the geometry of the sword-points, the delicacy of the printing, the brevity and sophistication of the drawing and the shorthand of the portrait. What remains outstanding (especially to the non-specialist), are the extraordinary expression and the bizarre hair style. To deconstruct this elaborate design we must first recognise that the blue of the chin signifies stubble and the same is true of the top of Nakamura’s head. His scalp has been shaved right around the top and the hair at the back has been allowed to grow very long, combed out and oiled and then tied in a loop with cord. The sides of the head have been allowed to grow and again oiled and combed out to create the appearance of a grotesque mane. This portrait is of a kabuki actor however and it is he who is representing the archaic coiffure of the feudal samurai class. The hair in this portrait is a heavy and solid wig, and like the make-up, it is all artifice. Examination of, (at least nineteenth century) photographs of samurai do show the actual hairstyle as still being very extraordinary, as the example below demonstrates. Ukiyo-e artists were at pains to show accurate depictions in their musha-e (warrior or historical prints) and noticeable variants in hairstyle exist between genres, classes and ages. The question is what do these extravagant hairstyles mean and how do they give us clues to the subject and narrative of the prints?
The archaic dress for men’s hair was a mandatory pigtail called the motodori. The origin of the pigtail probably dates from ancient China before the Heian period. The commonest hair-do that we see in Japanese prints is the chonmage, the topknot, where the long pigtail is oiled and gathered up to the top of the head and the head is shaved. The elaborate string seen in the print at the top of the page was a binding used to rigidify the loose hair in order to create ornamental designs. In this print, Nakamura is wearing a style known as chasen gami. The binding here is wound around the lower half allowing the end to stick out in the manner of a make up brush.
In the great print of Sawamura Tossho (below left), we can see that the motodori has been tied only a couple of times and the hair pushed forward in a single fold. This style was popular with the ‘tough guys’ (otokodate) of the late Edo and known as the futatsu-ori. But what of the shaved portion of the head that varies between the forelock and the whole scalp that is seemingly ubiquitous in ukiyo-e representations of men? It is believed that the shaved head and long, elaborately tied pigtail were the invention of the eighteenth century general Honda Tadakatsu. The hondamage as it was called, spread rapidly through the Japanese samurai class and it is widely believed that the design enabled the secure fit of the increasingly elaborate samurai helmets. Japanese culture being so regimented at this time however, meant that there developed eight variations that were worn according to class, rank and status.The fashion did spread and it became common practice for boys to shave their heads at the age of thirteen to signal their development into manhood.
Ukiyo-e artists used hair style as a visual shorthand to signify the status of characters depicted. Generally, the wilder the hair, the more of an outcast was the character. Depictions of the archetypal bandit and robber, Ishikawa Goemon, always show him with wild and untamed black hair roughly tied like a flower head (below right). Whereas depictions of the young Minamoto Yoshitsune (called Ushiwaka maru in youth) show him with the bizarre hair style of the aristocratic youth – forehead unshaved (below centre).
With the late Edo, discipline about hair was less proscriptive and most urban males adopted some form of the chonmage and shaved scalp. Sudden change in men’s hair fashion was like most things in Japan caused by the modernising government following the Meiji revolution of the early 1860’s. The euphoria (and some resistance) that greeted the national decision to modernise, westernise, and to trade enthusiastically exploded through every class of Japanese culture. The enthusiasm for change and the national shame at how other countries viewed its traditions meant that extraordinary laws were invoked to force americanisation upon the populace. In this case, in 1871 the Meiji government issued a law, the Dampatsurei Edict, according to which the samurai were banned from wearing topknots and were forced forced to adopt Western hairstyles. This was the end of the chonmage; only Sumo wrestlers were allowed to wear a topknot but even they were not allowed to shave. A fascinating example of national shame survives from 1863. Two Japanese visitors to Holland, Uchida Masao and Enomoto Takeaki, were attending the theatre and had hitherto hidden their traditional hairstyles under western hats. Their hats obstructed the view of the stage however and they were asked to remove them. There followed such hilarity and ridicule throughout the auditorium that the performance was stopped and the newspapers reported the incident the following day with the headline, ‘Two Japanese Stop Play’. In the face of such reactions the Japanese felt there was little option but to change. There were other reasons for change: the Meiji national subscription army that was the bedrock of Japanese militarisation had quickly adopted western clothes, including western hats and helmets. The traditional Japanese hairstyle simply could not be accommodated under the new uniforms. Accordingly, Japanese men in other parts of society started to adopt western styles known as jangiri or zangiri, which roughly translates as ‘random cropping’.
There is much to be lamented here. Hundreds of Meiji woodblock prints exist of the Imperial family and their entourage dressed in a pastiche of their counterparts in western aristocracy (compare above with below). It is saddening to see this unique and embedded culture with all its great richness being squeezed into the garb of etiolated European monarchy. This swamping of the richness of Japanese life unsurprisingly caused the collapse of traditional Japanese cultural identity, something that many would argue remains unresolved.