What Has Made Japan So Crazy?

I have no idea about other countries, but I rather feel that “old-fashioned” is an adjective which has a very negative meaning in Japan. This could be my own prejudice but I think this is one of the characteristics of Japan.


"Satsuma-samurai-during-boshin-war-period" by フェリーチェ・ベアト - From the English Wikipedia. Origin source unknown. Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -
“Satsuma-samurai-during-boshin war-period (1868-1869)” by Felice Beato – From the English Wikipedia. Origin source unknown. Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -


After the era when the Japanese military government was brought to an ending, I mean at Meiji Restoration, Samurai had their hair tied up in a topknot cut. The hair style “in fashion” among ex-Samurai was called “Zangiri”, it is normally translated as “crop” in English but more rough and rather disheveled. But it was a new hairstyle which was introduced to imitate that of “Western” people and it had a symbolic meaning of “civilization” of Japan.


"Shinsaku Takasugi" by published by 東洋文化協會 (The Eastern Culture Association) - The Japanese book "幕末・明治・大正 回顧八十年史" (Memories for 80 years, Bakumatsu, Meiji, Taisho). Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -
Shinsaku Takasugi, a famous former Samurai with Zangiri hairstyle
photo by 東洋文化協會 (The Eastern Culture Association) – The Japanese book “幕末・明治・大正 回顧八十年史” (Memories for 80 years, Bakumatsu, Meiji, Taisho). Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -


The new regulation regarding the hairstyle and dressing was issued by the Meiji government in 1871 (the 4th year of Meiji period).

“All the people can decide their own hairstyle by themselves. They can also decide whether to carry swords or not. However, the government officials must carry their swords for the formal attire.”

(Saionji’s own translation)


After this new regulation was enacted, the Meiji emperor had his hair cut in 1873 and many government officers followed him.


"Iwakura mission". Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -
“Iwakura mission”. Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -


Above is the photo of “Iwakura Mission”, a group of ministers, important politicians, and secretaries (48 people in total) and 60 students who visited 12 nations; the United States, England, France, Belgium, Nederland, Germany, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Austria and Switzerland in 1871. On their way back home they visited also European colonial countries, such as Ceylon, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai. Their trip was for nearly two years. It must have been so unusual that political leaders were away from their country for such a long time, longer than expected. But I guess it was indispensable…

In fact, the aims of this mission were;

– to renegotiate the unequal treaties that Japan had been forced to have at the end of Edo period
– to make a research on so-called “Western civilization” such as, education, technology, culture, and military, social and economic structures.

However, it was so difficult to realize the first aim, even though they took more time than planned. The treaty is, once concluded, always difficult or impossible to change or modify, especially if proposed by the side in a vulnerable position. This failure caused the members of the mission some great political difficulties, but they were motivated to introduce the modernization that they saw in the United States and Europe to Japan.

Returning to the topic of hairstyle, you may notice that only the person in the center is wearing traditional Kimono with a traditional hairstyle. That is Iwakura Tomomi, the leader of the mission. He was born in a family of aristocratic class who worked at the imperial court in Kyoto even though low-ranking. He was also a poet of Waka (poetry) such as aristocrats in Heian period. He was proud to be Japanese and he had hesitated to change his hairstyle because he believed that the topknot was the sign of the spirit of the Japanese. So, he went on the trip in the style shown in the photo taken before the departure. However, he was strongly persuaded to have his hair cut by his son and other people in the mission saying that American people were making fun of his hairstyle and the whole Japan was despised. As a matter of fact, some people mentioned that they were not willing to negotiate with the people who had a gun on their head, or called it as a tail of a pig. Having felt strongly ashamed by being fooled, he finally made his decision during his 8-month-long stay in the United States and he cut it down in Chicago. Moreover, he ordered the politicians who remained in Japan to issue a new registration to let people change their hairstyle. Maybe the people who did not experience this kind of humiliating treatment by themselves could not be aware of the unpleasant realities as Iwakura did. So, the new registration regarding the hairstyle (mentioned above) might not have been the one that forced people to cut the topknot but just left the choice to their autonomy.


"Series C 500 Yen Bank of Japan note - front" by Eclipse2009 - Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -
500 yen note used from 1969 to 1994 with an image of Iwakura Tomomi with his new hairstyle
photo: “Series C 500 Yen Bank of Japan note – front” by Eclipse2009 –
Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ -


In the following year, in 1872, the government of Tokyo issued an interesting registration, which ordered women not to have their hair cut. This was because some women misunderstood the new registration of hairstyle and they had their hair cut like men. In 1873, in the area now called Fukui prefecture, 30,000 people who wanted to keep their traditional hairstyle and the way of clothing raised an insurrection against the haircut registration. Unfortunately 6 people had the death penalty for public disturbance…

The new Zangiri hairstyle, did not spread among normal citizens in Japan. It is said that the new hairstyle was that of beggars or criminals who could not afford to make the traditional hairstyle. Thus it took time for the nationwide acknowledgement. It was in 1889, the 22nd year of Meiji period, almost all the people in Japan had the “Western style” haircut. For 18 years they may have had the struggle to choose the one solution whether they would become an “internationally ashamed” or a “historically ashamed”. I guess this struggle between the two different facts may have affected the way of thinking of modern Japanese.

Japan has its own traditions and the own way of thinking that differentiate Japan from other countries. Under the flag of “civilization”, “modernization”, or “westernization”, we were force to change everything and work hard for the innovation. This friction effected negatively and positively at the same time as it is written in Yin and Yang philosophy. Even now many people lack self-confidence toward the United States and European countries where Iwakura Mission visited about 140 years ago. On the other hand, we created the high-tech trains from the knowledge that we had learned from those countries. I think the friction made Japan a country that has multiple personality with two extremes.


Do you want to see the traditional theatrical play Kabuki or do you want to see Visual Kei?
Do you like beautiful Ukiyo-e or do you like Anime?
Do you like women in kimono in a tea ceremony or do you like Kyari pamyu pamyu?
Do you want to take a high-speed railway, Shinkansen which runs at a speed of 240–320 km/h (150–200 mph) with no delay or you want to take pulled_rickshaw in Asakusa?
Do you want to cross a red bridge in countryside or do you want to cross a Tokyo Gate Bridge?


You can find all of them here. Welcome to a crazy nation called Japan!


a small red bridge in Haruna, Gunma prefecture photo by Navis Argenti
a small red bridge in Haruna, Gunma prefecture
photo by Navis Argenti

にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ

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  1. Hilary より:

    This is an interesting topic. H and I have lots of debates about prevailing and persisting beliefs about losing the Pacific war and the Western influence after the opening of Japan. I think that you can’t use the past as an excuse because you have the power to do something different in the present and using the past as justification is being lazy. However, I also don’t think it’s that simple because identity is at stake. How about you?

  2. rei_saionji より:

    Thank you, Hilary!
    I understand what you wrote but I think the history is something which influences the present, as there is no today if there was not yesterday… I think if we want to make a change we have to face the reality and the mistakes that we made very carefully, an appropriate reflection upon the past. I believe that everything is on cause and the effect and I like analyzing possible causes. I don’t think if I am right or not but this is my way for one step forward toward improving!


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