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History of Kimono, Part 1: Prehistory through the Asuka Period

Updated on December 11, 2013

What periods of Japanese history are we looking at today?

Paleolithic (pre–14,000 BCE)
Jōmon (14,000–300 BCE)
Yayoi (300 BCE–250 CE)
Kofun (250–538)
Asuka (538–710)
Nara (710–794)
Heian (794–1185)
Kamakura (1185–1333)
Muromachi (1336–1573)
Azuchi–Momoyama (1568–1603)
Edo (1603–1868)
Meiji (1868–1912)
Taishō (1912–1926)
Shōwa (1926–1989)
Heisei (1989-Present)
"Hey, there are gaps and overlaps in this timeline!" Yup--Japanese history has been tumultuous, and transfers of power didn't always occur right away, or last long enough to have a significant impact on clothing, e.g. the Kemmu Restoration.

Kimono: A (Pre-)History

The prehistoric past of Japan isn't as distant as you might think--strangely enough, Japan had entered its Iron Age before the written word had come to the archipelago. The earliest evidence of writing in Japan is on a gold seal, presented to the 'King of Wa' by the Chinese Emperor as a symbol of power in about the 1st century CE, but even at that time, there was no written Japanese. Scholarly men of the ancient Yamato court wrote in Chinese, and one of the great culture heroes of Japanese history, Prince Shotoku, was famous for being literate (as well as for having magical powers gained from his literacy and his practice of Buddhism). Literacy would not be widespread in the Japanese aristocracy until the Heian period, when unique systems of Japanese writing finally emerged.

Much of what we know of Japan from its prehistoric period comes to us from classical Chinese texts, such as the Records of the Kingdom of Wei, from ancient Korean inscriptions, and from recent archaeological finds. Japan leads the world in its number of active archaeological sites, and new discoveries are being made daily. It's an exciting time to study Japanese prehistory!

Sadly for us, the objects we are interested in, clothing, cannot survive the vast amounts of time we are talking about in the humid conditions of the Japanese archipelago. What we do have are secondary portrayals and hints from Chinese historians, though, making the study of ancient Japanese clothing something of a riddle to solve. Let's look at this 'riddle' together.

Prehistoric Riddles

We know from Chinese accounts of contact with the Yayoi culture that Japanese people did, in fact, wear clothing--but not hats, as the Chinese explicitly noted. The people of the Yayoi period had learned how to weave, as Chinese texts from the 3rd century CE record that the men and women of Wa wore cloth (not animal skins, as the Jomon people would have worn before the discovery of weaving). Archaeological evidence also shows that the Yayoi people had primitive looms, which included the weaver's body as one of the anchor points for the warp threads, and thus resulted in lengths of cloth which were the same width as the maker's body. If two of these lengths of cloth are sewn together at the edges, with an opening in the middle for the head, you have produced a poncho--what the Chinese recorded the Japanese as having worn in the late Yayoi period.

(Modern kimono are also made from bolts of cloth which are approximately the width of one's body--approximately 14 inches wide. Though narrower and wider specialty bolts can be had, this standard width will fit almost anyone when the kimono is tailored, and moreover, can be re-tailored to fit someone smaller or larger, due to all of the excess cloth being retained in the seams.)

This poncho-making technique also gives a hint to a ubiquitous feature of Japanese clothing: the back seam. All traditional Japanese clothing has a seam running down the back, which is considered lucky. Even young children's kimono, often made with 3 standard-sized widths of cloth rather than an adult's 4, would historically have a 'seam' darted in the back in order to bestow the garment with the lucky seam.

This ancient style did not seem to be dyed, or otherwise decorated--at least in the case of the common people. The Chinese historians did note, however, that the ancient Japanese had elaborate tattoos and wore body paints to mark their clans and relative ranks therein.

A haniwa statue, showing the significant changes in style from the Yayoi to Kofun periods--namely, pants and hats.
A haniwa statue, showing the significant changes in style from the Yayoi to Kofun periods--namely, pants and hats. | Source

The next major development in prehistoric clothing is only seen in the haniwa figures of the Kofun period. These clay figures were buried in a large, protective ring around the massive earthen tombs for which the Kofun period is named. Haniwa figures often depicted shamans and shamanesses, as well as soldiers in full armor, animals, and objects such as swords and shields. The differences in clothing between what the Chinese described people to wear and the outfits the haniwa were crafted to wear could indicate any number of things: social class, religious vestiments, changing social structures, or even simply a revolution in fashion resulting from sustained contact with China. We don't have a definitive answer yet, though; it's an area of ongoing study by archaeologists.

While we don't have a lot of extant physical articles of clothing from this time period, we have tomb paintings from within the kofun themselves. While finding an unlooted kofun is rare (rather like finding an unlooted tomb in Egypt!), some kofun have managed to avoid looting and destruction all the way to present day. One unlooted tomb, the Takamatsuzuka Kofun, has tomb paintings depicting constellations (a common feature in kofun frescoes), and courtly ladies dressed in fashions from the Korean peninsula. At this point in history, the Kings of Wa had very favorable relationships with the kings of Silla and Baekje, while practicing tomb-building very similar to that found in the Goguryeo kingdom--it's possible that fashions from Korea could have been popular in the archipelago at one time as well. (Though another possibility is that this was the tomb of a Korean living in Japan!)

Prince Shotoku, wearing the Chinese fashions popular in the Asuka Period.
Prince Shotoku, wearing the Chinese fashions popular in the Asuka Period. | Source

The Asuka Period and the Introduction of Writing

A glance at the timeline might make you wonder about the significance of 538 CE. Why did the Asuka Period start in that specific year, when all of the earlier periods are marked by approximate centuries?

There was not a shift in rulers separating the Kofun and Asuka Periods, but a shift in religion. The Kofun Period kings and queens were all practitioners of Shinto, and for the most part, the only literate people on the archipelago at the time were immigrants from China and the Korean peninsula. The Asuka Period marks the point at which Buddhism was introduced to Japan's ruling class. With Buddhism came the written word, and thus, recorded history. For the first time, Japanese people could write their own poetry, their own courtly records, their own letters, their own history and, for the first time, their own name--no longer was the kingdom known as Wa, but would for all time be known as Nihon. The ability to read and write solidified the power of the Yamato rulers, and established them as the Emperors of Japan--a position they have held all the way to present day.

Now that communication with China was a simple matter, and now that the Japanese could model their government explicitly on Chinese governance, the next matter of business was dressing like the Chinese. The imperial court ordered in piles of silk brocades in the bright, office-specific colors of the Chinese government, and gave everyone hats. At the same time, though they stopped paying tribute to China--the Japanese emperors saw themselves as equal to China, now that they had all of China's mystical secrets blown wide open for them by being able to read. Though the Chinese government was a bit miffed, they allowed Japanese scholars to come to China, and for Chinese scholars to travel to Japan, resulting in strong economic and academic ties between the two empires.

Strong economic ties mean that fashion is free to travel, and travel it did--women, who were not allowed to hold official courtly ranks but had all of the money and power of their fathers/husbands/brothers/sons available to them dressed themselves in the latest Sui and Tang Dynasty fashions, though they avoided the tall Chinese hairstyles, preferring to keep their traditional ponytails and let their hair fall all the way to the floor, and both men and women evidently retained their tribal tattoos, based on Chinese records of the period.

Up until this point in history, the Yamato court did not have a permanent home--a new capital was built every 20 years or so, due to Shinto beliefs regarding ritual purity. However, the establishment of a permanent capital would usher in a new period of Japanese history, and a new perspective on what it meant to be Japanese. But that is another story for another day.

Further Reading

Check the Wikipedia articles on these periods of Japanese history--they're rather sparse, as most of the research on these time periods are both ongoing and untranslated, but give a good overview!

Paul Varley's Japanese Culture is an excellent overview of Japanese history, with specific attention paid to the influence of Buddhism on Japanese culture.

Liza Dalby's Kimono: Fashioning Culture is an excellent resources on clothing and history (specifically Heian and Meiji culture), and is very readable. Geisha is one of the leading English-language resources on the Karyukai, though it is somewhat drier than her other books (though considering it is a Ph.D thesis, it's highly informative!).

Summary

  • Prehistoric peoples of the Japanese archipelago tended toward simple clothing; Jomon people wore skins, while the Yayoi people had woven cloth produced on simple looms
  • Early Japanese clothing was heavily influenced by Chinese styles, though sporadic early contact with China kept Chinese fashion from spreading for several hundred years
  • With the introduction of writing to Japan, a massive restructuring of the government took place, and improved trade made the import of Chinese clothing easier than ever; soon, the entire Japanese court was dressed in Chinese garments.

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    • Katie Armstrong profile image
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      Katie Armstrong 3 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Thank you very much!

    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

      Jo_Goldsmith11 3 years ago

      This is so amazing to read. I learned so much about the culture and the photos are amazing! I always thought the Japanese clothing was so beautiful. Well worth reading! :-)

      Up ++++, shared & tweeted.

    • Katie Armstrong profile image
      Author

      Katie Armstrong 3 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      I expect I'll have Part 2 (Classical Japan) up within the next few days. I couldn't help but notice the rather sparse info here on kimono, and the large stack of information I have on the subject, lol

      Hopefully, by the time I get to the 20th century, I'll have some space cleared so I can use photos of my own collection. I look forward to having you as one of my readers!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      What a great hub - I look forward to read the sequels. I was fortunate enough to buy some 2nd hand kimonos in Japan - they are exquisite set works which are a delight to wear. Voted up, thanks