Contemporary writers insist that it was possible to determine a Japanese woman’s approximate age, marital status, and social class based primarily upon her hairstyle. Men also had distinctive coiffures, but with less variation. Babies of both genders had their hair cropped short, with decorative patterns shaved onto their heads.
All women’s hairstyles were formed from the same base. A part was drawn across the top of the head from ear to ear. The hair in front of the part was divided into 3 sections. Each section was puffed out, resulting in a small pouf above the forehead and two larger (hollow!) side wings extending over the ears.
The hair behind the part, meanwhile, was drawn back tightly into a thick ponytail. Once the front sections were formed, the excess hair was swept back to join the ponytail. The ponytail was then styled differently depending on its owner’s age and marital status.
As far as I have been able to determine, bintsuke oil was the hairstyling product of choice for both men and women. It seems to have gone on wet and then dried stiff, sort of like modern super-hold hair gel. However, other accounts (such as of geisha-in-training putting dry rice grains around their little headrest/pillows as incentive to sleep perfectly still) seem to indicate that it remained slightly sticky even once set.
Young girls wore their hair in the ichou-gaeshi (literally “butterfly loop”) style. The ponytail was divided in two and each section was formed into a rounded loop lying sideways against the head. Some old pictures show a more bouffant loop – perhaps this was a more formal variation.
Shimada (also called shimada-mage)
Girls of marriageable age wore their hair in the shimada. In my opinion this style is the most difficult and seems a bit fragile. The ponytail was folded up and forward, forming a small flattened bun pointing backwards. This was tied down to the original base of the ponytail. The excess hair pointing forward was heavily oiled/stiffened and then tucked under, forming a large airy pouf lying forward across the top of the head. Viewed from the side, the shimada looked like a lopsided figure 8, with a larger loop/pouf at the front and a smaller one at the back.
Married women wore the marumage. This style is graceful but sturdier looking than the shimada. The hair from the ponytail was either rolled around or over a twisted/scrunched paper filler that looped through a long flat pick stuck through the hair in front of the base of the ponytail. Essentially the principle was the same as the modern “hair rat” for making rolled buns, but instead of joining the ends of the rat at the back to form a bun, the roll was secured flat against the top of the head, forming a gently arched silhouette from the front and back.
All styles were generally ornamented with a fairly wide, fanning comb at the front set between the front small pouf and the ponytail effects. The back could be ornamented with stick hairpins with bangles hanging from their heads, colorful fabric ties, etc. Sometimes stick hairpins were also put through the front sections at a slant. Paper and cloth ribbons and flowers were used for festive occasions, but cut fresh flowers were never worn – real flowers, wilting quickly, were symbolic of death and thus were only used in vases or placed at graves.
A widow would cut her hair off at shoulder length when her husband died and bury half of the hair with him. The rest would be buried with her.
Buddhist nuns shaved their heads under their veils; this was referred to as “taking the tonsure.”
Buddhist priests and monks shaved their heads bald. Other men engaged in some form of shaving, but less drastically.
Traditionally-minded samurai shaved roughly the top 1/3 of their heads. Basically they drew 2 parts from the top corners of their foreheads back toward a high ponytail, and then all the hair between the parts was shaved off. The rest was gathered in a high tight ponytail, but it was thinner than the women’s because the front top hair was cut off. It was folded forward and tied off like the root of the shimada, but the excess was oiled into a neat log and laid forward over the shaved part of the scalp. The log was generally cut off sharply about where the head started to slope down again toward the forehead. Foreigners referred to this style as the topknot or queue, and it was quite a pain for older men with thinning hair, because they had to wear false topknots in order to maintain the look. Going bald wasn’t considered a good enough excuse for slacking off on one’s appearance. Samurai were uniformly clean-shaven. While barbers generally did the shaving, a man’s wife was expected to do his hair every morning.
Samurai advocating the Imperial Restoration, primarily younger men from Choshu and the other southern provinces, stopped shaving the tops of their heads and wore their front hair tied back under their queues. Old photographs make it look like their queues were tied with string or some other fastener rather than simply oiled. This was supposed to replicate an older hairstyle from a period when the emperors theoretically had more power than they did under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Ronin, samurai who had separated themselves from their lords and families (so as to free them from any legal responsibility for their often wild actions), often let their formerly shaven top hair grow, since they were on the road and/or couldn’t afford a barber. The uncut hair made messy bangs of sorts. They were also more likely to sport facial hair.
Young men who had not “come of age” retained a forelock similar in size to the women’s forehead pouf, but shaved the rest back toward the queue. The forelock was tied off and its tail slicked back to join the ponytail, which was folded forward like the older men’s queues. Somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15, boys went through a ceremony called genpukku, during which the forelock was shaved off. After that they were considered full-grown men and were married off quickly.
Young active men, ronin, or daring fellows simply fed up with styling their hair in the impractical queue (it tended to come apart during fencing practice), sometimes wore their hair with the top section cut short and loose and the rest done up in a simple ponytail. Alternatively they left it all long and gathered it into the ponytail, but this seems less common. The length of the ponytail depended on how long they had been wearing their hair that way, but some cut the ponytail off very short like a brush.
Students of western culture and education cut their hair short all over in imitation of the foreigners, but the effect was often a bit ragged.
Merchants, artisans, peasants, and the like also wore some form of topknot, but the result was less pristine than the mandated samurai appearance.