2018 NO.23

Souvenirs of JapanSouvenirs of Japan


Traditional Ornaments to Embellish Hair
Japanese-Style Combs

Photos: Ito Chiharu, courtesy of The Kushikanzashi Museum

The comb has quite a long history in Japan. The earliest find is a wooden comb dating back about 7,000 years, which was discovered at some ruins in Saga Prefecture. Its thin vertical shape suggests it was a decorative piece worn as a hair ornament. During the Heian period (8th to 12th century), Japanese women wore their hair long and straight. The comb was both a practical and decorative item for pinning the hair and for holding it away from the face.

It was in the Edo period (17th century) that the hairstyle now known as the classic traditional Japanese woman’s hairstyle emerged. This style required waxy oil to help pull locks of hair together into complicated shapes. This took a great deal of time and effort and meant that Japanese women at the time did not often wash their hair. Combs were therefore not only decorative, but also served as a tool to remove dirt and to smooth loose ends and fly-aways.

Flexible yet strong, Japanese boxwood is said to be the best wood for Japanese combs because the teeth do not break even when pulled through the hair with force. These traditional combs are carefully crafted, sanded and polished with a file. They are also designed with great attention to the spacing of the teeth, which differs depending on the length of hair the comb is intended for. Finally, the combs are rubbed with camellia oil for a smooth and shiny finish.

Since the Meiji period (19th century), as women’s hairstyles have become increasingly diverse, traditional Japanese combs have become more practical than decorative. Today, these combs come in an assortment of shapes depending on their purpose, including compact combs carried by men and combs with long, thin handles for making neat parts.