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Kanji, Kana & Pronunciation
Kimono junihitoe 01.jpg
Woman's Heian era Jūnihitoe court attire
Romaji Wafuku
Kanji 和服
Kana わふく
Audio Coming Soon
(n) traditional Japanese clothing

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Wafuku (和服, literally Japanese clothes) is a general term for all types of traditional Japanese clothing, including kimono and other items. The term was originally coined to differentiate Japanese-style clothing from Western clothing in the Meiji era, prior to which "kimono" or "kirumono" had been used as general terms simply meaning "clothing."

The history of wafuku starts in the period of prehistory known as the Jōmon period, which began circa 14,000 BCE. The previous Paleolithic age (which covers a period starting some time after 50,000 BCE and ends with the end of the last ice age, which corresponds roughly with the start of the Jōmon period) was a time during which people were probably already living on the Japanese archipelago.[1] However, it is in the Jōmon that the first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared.

Wafuku (mostly kimono and related garments) is still regularly worn in Japan both by those who have an interest in traditional clothing and for religious, artistic, or occupational reasons.

Wafuku, kimono, and gofuku

The term wafuku originates in the Meiji period, when it was coined to differentiate Japanese clothing from Western clothing, called youfuku (洋服). Previously, Japanese clothing had been referred to as kimono or kirumono (着物、着る物), simply meaning clothing. In the Meiji period, "kimono" continued to be used to refer to Japanese clothing, but also came specifically to denote the full length, wide-sleeved robes known as kimono today.

"Gofuku" (呉服) originates in the Chinese Three Kingdoms period (220–280), when fabrics and sewing techniques were taken to Japan. Originally, silk clothing was referred to as "gofuku," and cotton clothing as "futomono" (太物), and they were sold by different merchants. Today, shops that sell kimono are often known as gofukuya.


The oldest extant written histories of Japan, the Nihonshoki, Kojiki and Fudoki, begin in the 7th century, so little is known about clothing prior to this period.

Jōmon and Yayoi periods (14,000 BCE to 300 CE)

The Jōmon or "straw-rope pattern" period is so-called because it is known for clay vessels decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord. Weaving was still unknown in the Jōmon period and clothes were often made of furs.[2] Jōmon people probably wore decorations of stone and shell, but little archaeological evidence remains.

The start of the Yayoi period marks the influx of new practices such as weaving, rice farming, and iron and bronze-making. It is likely that people wore wide robes and wore their hair braided. During the Han and Wei dynasties, Chinese travelers to Kyūshū recorded its inhabitants and claimed that they were the descendants of the Grand Count of the Wu. They described tattooing, teeth-pulling, men with braided hair, and women wearing large, single-piece garments. Yayoi culture quickly spread to the main island of Honshū mixing with native Jōmon culture.[3]

Kofun period and Asuka period (250-710) (Yamato period)

Both men and women in the Kofun period are assumed to have worn two-piece body coverings. In the 5th century Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China and to base its administration and imperial court system on the Chinese model.

Tomb paintings from the 7th and 8th centuries show both men and women wearing collars crossed left over right. Based on the paintings it is also conjectured that people were wearing Obi made of cloth rather than leather.

Nara period (710-794)

Nara-era women's clothing

What is known about clothing from the Nara period comes from writings like the Shokunihongi. The Taihō Code, promulgated in 701, included rules regarding clothing. The Taihō Code is no longer extant, but it is known to have contained guidelines regarding imperial court dress such as ceremonial wear (礼服 reifuku); morning wear (朝服 chōfuku); and uniforms (制服 seifuku), but not clothing for common people.

Ceremonial dress included clothing to be worn on important occasions such as the first ceremonial offering of rice by a newly enthroned emperor. Morning wear was for daytime dress at court functions. "Uniforms" were clothing worn by government officials who did not have special positions. Court clothing in the Nara period was heavily influenced by T'ang China, and colours and styles were strictly restricted according to rank and position.

Heian period (794-1185)

Much is known about court clothing in the Heian period, often from diaries of court men and women and from fiction. Some types of Heian court attire continue to be worn at court on ceremonial occasions today, but very little is known about clothing worn by the lower classes in this period.

Clothing for civil officials and warrior classes included kosode; ōguchibakama; hitoe; uenohakama; shitagasane. For women, court attire included Jūnihitoe; kosode; nagabakama; hitoe; itsutsuginu; uchiginu; uwagi; and karaginu.

Kamakura period and Muromachi period (1185-1573)

The basic garment worn by common men was the suikan (水干) and the hitatare (直垂), short, wide-sleeved two-part robes. By the Muromachi period the hitatare became standard wear for the warrior classes. Women wore layered kosode.

Edo period (1603-1868)

Samurai-class man wearing a kamishimo

Clothing became more simplified in the Edo period. Men wore kamishimo, an outfit consisting of a kimono with Hakama and matching sleeveless jacket (pictured). The kosode became common among the lower classes, and even townsmen wore luxurious clothing, to the increasing concern of the bakufu shogunate government. Some Edo-period clothing was influenced by the tastes of Tea ceremony masters, and obi began to be tied at the rear.

In the later Edo period, the policy of national isolation was introduced, and contact with foreigners was largely curtailed. In 1785 sumptuary laws were introduced which restricted low-status people to cotton and hemp clothing in a narrow range of colours. The ban was lifted in 1864 when Western military uniforms were adopted by the bakufu.

Meiji period (1868-1926)

Chikanobu Western hairstyle dress b.jpg

With the coming of the Meiji period the government began to focus on modern silk factories. Because the country had been reopened, the silk export trade became very important and silk prices within Japan rose. Women's wafuku began to incorporate a variety of fabrics. There was also an increase in different types of silk, such as Chirimen, Rinzu, and Omeshi. Dyeing became a secondary industry.

In the Meiji period people had increasing contact with Japanese nobility and with foreign people, and Western clothing quickly became established. In order to give an appearance of civilization and modernity and to ease negotiations, government officials switched to Western clothing, particularly in their dealings with non-Japanese. For most people, however, Western clothing remained prohibitively expensive and traditions remained strong.

Soon, however, Western-style clothing began to be manufactured within Japan. To distinguish Japanese clothing from Western clothing, what had previously been called "kimono" (i.e.: "clothing") became known as "wafuku" ("Japanese clothing"), and the term "kimono" came to be used in its much narrower modern sense of traditional long- and wide-sleeved robes which are wrapped over the body and secured with obi.

Yōfuku first appeared on the mass market in "kashi-ishōya," or clothing loan shops where people could rent Western clothing, and more and more shops selling Western clothes began to appear. However, during the Meiji period Western garments remained as clothing for outings or ceremonial wear for men, while for women and for daily wear for both sexes, Japanese clothing remained the norm.

In 1871, the uniform of both the military and of the bureaucracy became Western by imperial decree, and police, railworkers and teachers switched to Western clothing. Boys' school uniforms were modelled on Prussian military uniforms; they feature black jackets with gold buttons and white plastic collar inserts, and are still commonly worn by junior high school- and high school-age boys throughout Japan today. In the Meiji period and into the early Shōwa period, daily dress for school girls was andon-bakama. Many young women still wear hakama at school opening and graduation ceremonies today. Particularly among the nobility and in educational settings, Japanese-style clothing continued to be the norm for women until the late Taisho period when the sailor-style school uniform still common today was introduced.

There was, however, a movement among some women to encourage others to switch to Western clothes. In the 1920s many women advocated a permanent change to Western clothing, on the grounds that it was more modern, convenient, comfortable and economical. Following the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923, during which many women whose movements were restricted because they were wearing Japanese clothing were injured, in 1924 the Tokyo Women's and Children's Clothing Union was formed to promote the Westernization of women's wear.

Also contributing to the demise of wafuku was the fact that it had originally been influenced by hanfu (漢服; Japanese: kanfuku), the traditional clothing of China. Among Chinese revolutionaries in the 1900s Japanese clothing became a symbol of resistance to the Manchurian Dynasty's rule in Manchukuo (the Manchurian prewar Japanese puppet state) because of its resemblance to traditional Chinese clothing.

Early Shōwa period (1926-1945)

Kimono hakama 01.jpg

Between 1881 and 1945, school girls had had lessons in sewing Japanese clothing by hand. Rather than teaching girls a trade, this education was intended to give them the ability to sew clothing for themselves and their families upon marriage.

In 1935, the American company Du Pont successfully created synthetic silk; it was in mass production by 1939. The success of nylon meant that Japan's silk exports declined dramatically. In mid 1940, the Law Regarding the Manufacture and Sale of Luxury Goods was passed. Figured goods, embroidery, gold and silver thread, Pongee, and other luxury items were prohibited.

In late 1940, the National Uniform Law was promulgated by imperial decree, and military dress became the "national uniform" for men. The law prescribed the details of every item of clothing from underwear to shoes, gloves, and outwear. Every item was Western style, with open collars, narrow sleeves and buttons. Every item from trousers to hats was required to be a yellowish brown colour. Wealthier men had the uniform tailored for them. In effort to promote the uniform, the Dai Nippon Kokuminfuku Kyōkai (大日本国民服協会, Japanese National Uniform Association) published and distributed a magazine called "Kokuminfuku" (National Uniform).

Until 1942, the Ministry of Health and Welfare studied the issue of women's clothing. That year, the Ministry announced the new women's clothing, known as fujin hyōjunfuku (婦人標準服), or standard women's wear. One purpose for this was to economize on materials. There were two standard forms: Western-style, with a top and Western-style skirt-like trousers; and Japanese-style, a 2 piece outfit with short sleeves and monpe. Until the 1930s, the wearing of monpe, a style of hakama designed for farmers and cold weather, had been largely confined to Hokkaido and the northern regions, but they were judged suitable because they did not require elastic waistbands, and elastic was in short supply during wartime.

Because there was never a law passed regarding women's standard wear, and because women were expected to sew their own clothing at home, there was never a true national standard, however suggested patterns were published. Although monpe were not initially popular and were indeed considered by many unattractive, they became more popular due to the increase in air raids, because they allowed free movement and because women who wore monpe during air raid drills were highly praised. Towards the end of the war, air raids became a daily occurrence, and more and more women began to wear monpe.

In 1943 the Law Regarding the Simplification of Clothing During Wartime was passed following a decision by the cabinet. Restrictions on the colour of newly made men's clothing were lifted, but the style still had to resemble the National Uniform. This also applied to school uniforms for boys other than those in elementary school, for whom clothing was unregulated. For female students above vocational school, clothing was to resemble as much as possible standard women's clothing, which the government now made efforts to promote throughout the country.

Late Shōwa period (1945-1989)

When the war ended, women were once again able to wear wafuku. Monpe, a reminder of the war, were largely discarded. On the other hand, wafuku, which was expensive and harder to put on, also fell out of favour as daily wear, replaced by cheaper Western clothing. Nevertheless, until about 1975 it was still common to see women wearing Japanese clothing as daily wear. Until the 1960s men continued to wear Japanese clothing at home, but this began to decline after that decade. The relative surge in the popularity of kimono among women at the same time was spurred by the new use of wool in their manufacture. Wool kimonos could be made in attractive colours, were casual and easy to wear, and became popular with women throughout Japan. Nevertheless, the increasing popularity of Western clothing drove the gofuku industry into decline.

In an effort to increase sales, the industry promoted "required Japanese clothing" for various situations; however, this only served to increase the population's image of wafuku as difficult and inconvenient, and the industry declined even further.

Heisei period (1989-present)

Kitsuke books kimono hime 04.jpg

Very few Japanese people still use kimono as daily wear, however it remains common for women to wear kimono at important functions like weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies and certain festivals. Many women, even those who do own their own kimono, require the help of a professional kimono dresser to wear them, however. Yukata, in contrast, are easier to wear and continue to be very popular for summer festivals, fireworks displays and other casual events, and are made in various fashionable designs. Department stores regularly compete with each other with sales and special events to promote them.

Men are also beginning to wear fashionable yukata, but not as frequently as women. Even fewer men than women choose kimono as daily wear, and a very small number wear Japanese clothing such as Samue and Jinbei in connection with their vocations.

Since the 1990s, the number of vintage and recycle kimono shops has significantly increased, and a kimono boom among women has been driven by fashion magazines such as "Kimono Hime," which have promoted new hybrids of Japanese and Western wear, such as wearing kimonos with high heels, or using lace for Obiage.

Wafuku compared with Western clothing

In general, wafuku is characterised by garments that are tied around the waist, have sleeves that are wider than the arm, and are wrapped over the body with the left side over the right (except for burial clothing). Whereas Western clothing is fastened with buttons, buckles and belts, Japanese clothing is fastened with obi and Himo and does not have open collars as on Western shirts and blouses. Japanese fabrics tend not to be elastic. Japanese sashes (obi) are fabric rather than leather.

Wafuku are cut from bolts of fabric called tan. Pieces are cut in straight lines for length only, not for width. Western clothing patterns tend to be more complex, and require cutting curves and other shapes.

Types of wafuku

Wafuku as religious and artistic wear in modern Japan

Wafuku is still worn in the following arenas:

  • Arts
    • Geisha and Maiko
    • Kabuki theatre
    • Kadō (flower arranging)
    • Kagaku (court music)
    • Kōdan and rakugo (traditional story-telling)
    • Nihon buyoh (traditional dance)
    • Noh theatre
    • Sadō (Tea ceremony)
    • Shigin (poetry chanting)
  • Religion
    • Buddhist clergy
    • Shinto clergy and shrine maidens
  • Sport
    • Aikido
    • Iaido
    • Judo
    • Karate
    • Kyudo (archery)
    • Kendo
    • Naginata (halberd fighting)
    • Sumo (by athletes, referees, announcers, and ushers)
  • Other
    • Nakai (servers at traditional restaurants and inns)
    • Shogi (Japanese chess) players (at championship games)

See also


This article is a partial translation of the Japanese Wikipedia article 和服.

  1. Japanese Palaeolithic Period, Charles T. Keally
  2. "The earliest known pottery comes from Japan, and is dated to about 10,600 BC.China and Indo-China followed shortly afterward" ("Past Worlds" The Times Atlas of Archeology. p. 100, 1995).
  4. underclothing worn by shrine maidens
  5. women's coat
  6. scarlet hakama worn by shrine maidens
  7. medieval men's hakama
  8. Edo-period men's jacket
  9. Heian-era men's clothing
  10. Heian-era jacket
  11. apron for use with kimono
  12. light jacket worn by high-ranking Heian-era girls
  13. robes of Buddhist monks and nuns
  14. Heian-era jacket
  15. Kamakura-era men's kimono
  16. Edo-period men's kimono
  17. part of a jūnihitoe ensemble; can also refer generally to unlined kimono
  18. jacket worn by imperial family members from the Heian period by imperial family members from the Heian period
  19. Kamakura-era men's kimono
  20. Heian-era garment worn by the imperial family
  21. outer garment worn by shrine maidens
  22. Heian-era clothing worn by courtiers, aristocrats and the emperor at court; still in occasional use
  23. silk footwear worn by young imperial family members, Shinto clergy and shrine maidens
  24. Heian-era men's garment
  25. imperial court servants' costume