Hairstyles in Japan have historically held great significance. Today, they're used as a statement of individuality (or conformity, as the situation warrants), but in the past hairstyles indicated a person's place in society and even marital status. Japanese ancient hairstyles could dictate how others acted around you and the amount of respect you could command. Today, Japanese hairstyles are considered a fashion accessory. But in ancient Japan, hairstyles were integral to the culture and daily way of life.
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Documented in Heian Period works of art, the hime (or princess) cut is considered to have been widely used by women of the Imperial Court at that time. The hairstyle is completely straight, with short fringe covering the upper part of the forehead and the sides cut just below the jaw line. The back of the hair is worn long, often past the shoulders. This hairstyle is making a comeback in recent years as the Gothic Lolita subculture grows in popularity--the hime is often the style of choice for many members of this fashion.
In the years leading up to and including the Edo Period, men of high rank and status wore a hairstyle called "chonmage" (or topknot) that most Westerners are familiar with. The chonmage is created by shaving the middle of the head halfway back on the crown, then oiling and tying the remainder of the hair back into a ponytail. The end of the ponytail is then laid on the back of the head, facing forward. Common belief holds that the hairstyle began because it helped warriors in battle keep their helmet on their head. Only men of the samurai class or high-ranking nobles were allowed to maintain this hairstyle. Consequently, having your topknot cut off was considered a greater disgrace than being killed outside of combat. The chonmage is still worn today by sumo wrestlers.
The Edo period saw many changes in hairstyle, especially among the women, but the traditional hairstyle that's usually considered typical of the era is the yoko-hyogo that came into fashion towards the end of the period. Worn by courtesans and other high-ranking women, the hair was often gathered on top of the head and tied together with various ornaments and combs. The hair on either side of the head would be heavily waxed and fashioned into mounds; the hair near the centre of the forehead was shaved, to make the forehead appear higher. This hairstyle is typically found on many wood block prints (ukiyoe) and paintings of the era, making the yoko-hyogo easily recognisable even today.
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