22 Oct 2018


When I watched English historical drama, I felt that the monk's shaved head 'tonsure' was very impressive. Why did they have such weird hair-styles? It is said to be a sign of religious devotion or humility. According to Wikipedia, the term originates from the Latin word meaning clipping or shearing, and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. And then I thought, Oh, our Japanese people had weird "Chonmage" hair-styles, too. The chonmage is a form of Japanese traditional topknot haircut worn by men. It was originally a method of using hair to hold a samurai helmet steady atop the head in battle, and became a status symbol among Japanese society. It was only a hair-style, but it was still Japan‐shaking matter.

If you hit Chonmage-atama, it makes the sound of anachronism,
If you hit Zangiri-atama, it makes the sound of Westernization.

This is the part of the song lyric that was popular in the Meiji period (1868-1912), when modernization in Japan was beginning. Zangiri-atama means the hairstyle with cutting off the topknot. When I learnt this lyric at school, I thought it's rhythmic, comic and humorous.

Kido Takayoshi (1833-1877) was one of the principal promoters of the Meiji Revolution of 1868. When the American Commodore Matthew Perry reached Japan in 1854 and Japan signed the treaty, Kido felt the position between America and Japan was not equal. Being accepted as a modern nation by western countries and being equal, he thought Japan needed modernization. He was the person who always tried to take cutting-edges. He had an eye on the700-year-old 'Chonmage-hairstyle' which was despised and denigrated by Western people. He promoted cutting chonmage hair, and he became a role model. It is said that some men who had chonmage-cut, were called 'gross' by their wives and divorced. Modern people think it's ridiculous, but they had such a sense at that time.

On another front, Iwakura Tomomi (1825-1883) was extremely disapproving of Kido's hair-idea. He had believed the chonmage hairstyle was symbolic of Japanese soul and identity. When he led the 2-year-around-the-world-journey, visiting the United States and several European countries with the purpose of renegotiating the unequal treaties and gathering information to help effect the modernization of Japan, he was the only person who wore traditional Japanese clothing with chonmage hairstyle among the members. There is a picture of the them, Iwakura looking proudly with Japanese style in the middle. And also the other people's jackets look too big for them!

Source; Wikipedia
During the mission, Iwakura realized that Japan was not in any position to challenge the western powers in its present state. Also he noticed he was publicly derided, and he decided to have chonmage-cut and to wear western clothing.

To promote modernization, the key person was the Meiji Emperor. They had thought if he changed his hairstyle, people might follow him. That idea was successful. Of course, it wasn't easy, but the Meiji Emperor decided to have his chonmage cut. Cutting hair is nothing for us, but it must be hard for them. They were so brave. I know it take a lot of grit to depart from tradition and accept new things. It's interesting to know that there was a deep connection between 'Chonmage' and 'Modernization' and the fact that Japanese nation moved and stepped forward together to Modernization. Without Chonmage, we are Japanese.