Trends in hairstyles and facial hair changed dramatically over the centuries, and were often markers of status, cultural refinement, or identity otherwise.
The samurai's hair was an important part of his appearance, and most texts and house-codes of the samurai make reference to the importance of its neat appearance. The traditional hairstyle (for the better part of a thousand years) was the topknot, a fashion by no means exclusive to the samurai. Nearly everyone, with the exception of Buddhist priests, wore topknots, making the genesis of this style nearly impossible to guess at it with authority. There is reference to the use of topknots in ancient China, and it might have been one of the many cultural imports introduced to Japan between the Asuka-Nara and Heian periods. Needless to say, there were numerous styles of topknot by the Edo period. The chasen-gami, for instance, was produced by wrapping a piece of string around the length of the topknot, producing a spray of hair at the end that resembled a tea whisk. The topknot would then either be worn back or forward, hanging over the center of the head. The mitsu-ori ("three folds") was a style popular in the later 16th century. The hair was well oiled and formed into a queue and folded forward on the head, then back again, and was tied in place. An abbreviated version, the futatsu-ori ("two folds"), was only folded forward before being tied, and was trimmed with a razor to give the front an almost solid appearance. Interestingly, these styles were not uncommon among the lower classes.
Boys typically had the crown of their head shaved around age 11 or 12, and then had what remained cut into right-angles at age 14 or 15 into a squared-off hairstyle called sumi-maegami. This partially-shaved hairstyle was a mark of one's identity as a "youth" or wakashû, and was seen as somewhat alluring or erotic. One finally came of age completely around age seventeen or eighteen, at which time one's forelocks, or bangs (maegami) were shaved off as well, completing the shaved pate look of an adult.
The style of shaving part of the frontal part of one's head was supposedly developed as a means of making helmet wear more comfortable. By the early Edo period it had become a simple fashion, and was adopted by many outside the samurai class. There seems to have been no special ordinances or the like regarding the style of one's hair, though such sumptuary regulations did exist for clothing.
Facial hair was common prior to the Edo period, and was often seen as a sign of manliness. This trend was strengthened in the latter half of the 16th century by the popularity of Nanban (European) fashions, including Nanban styles of mustaches and beards. Beards were also said to have made wearing helmet cords more comfortable. Facial hair was so closely associated with masculinity, or simply so perceived as an essential part of one's appearance, that examples are known of otokodate (street toughs) painting mustaches or beards onto their faces using ash or iron filings; Toyotomi Hideyoshi is known to have done something similar, using various materials in order to darken his facial hair and eyebrows.
This trend is illustrated, for example, in portraits of emperors. In the medieval period, emperors were typically depicted with beard and moustache; however, Emperor Go-Yôzei (r. 1586-1611) was the last to be depicted in this manner. Similarly, though Tokugawa Hidetada (the second Tokugawa shogun, r. 1605-1623) sported facial hair, his successor Tokugawa Iemitsu (r. 1623-1651) did not, and though later shoguns in fact did grow out their facial hair again, for the most part, facial hair was far less common, among all ranks of society, throughout the rest of the Edo period. Indeed, by the 1630s or so, many daimyô mandated that their retainers maintain a clean-shaven face, and sakayaki 月代 hairstyle, in emulation of the precedent set by the shoguns. Sakayaki meant shaving the pate (the front and top of the head) while leaving the sides and back long, and then gathering one's hair into a topknot, worn oiled and tied atop the head.
Beards and moustaches did not return until the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods, as the samurai class and its associated culture and sumptuary regulations were abolished, and as Western styles came to be seen as more "modern" and stylish. The Meiji Emperor, along with a great many of the most prominent figures of the time, sported facial hair both as a show of masculinity, and of being cultured and modern.
The practice of maintaining both a beard and mustache was quite common among Ryukyuan men. Men and women also allowed their hair to grow quite long, avoiding cutting it in accordance with Confucian beliefs; they then wrapped it up into a bun atop their heads, secured with a hairpin.
While Ming Dynasty Chinese practice was similar to that in Ryûkyû, wearing the hair long in accordance with Confucian prohibitions on cutting one's hair, the Qing Dynasty government obliged all Han Chinese men to wear a "queue," shaving four sides of their head, and braiding the long portion that remained.
- Joshua Mostow, "Wakashu as a Third Gender and Gender Ambiguity through the Edo Period," in Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 19.
- Ronald Toby ロナルド・トビ, "Sakoku" toiu gaikô 「鎖国」という外交, Tokyo: Shogakukan (2008), 210-211.
- Toby, 212.
- Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 173.
- Toby, 256.