Kanzashi ()

The term "kanzashi" means Japanese traditional accessories used by women in doing up their hair.

Kanzashi is a hair ornamentation used by Japanese women. Various kinds of kanzashi were produced and especially used during the latter part of the Edo period.

In producing Kanzashi, a variety of materials were used including, without limitation, lacquered woods (boxwood, paulownia, ho, cherry), gold/silver plated metals (brass was generally used in the modern times thanks to its durability), tortoise shell and silk. Plastic (there are many kinds of plastic) is also used these days. Coral, agate, jade and crystal were also used for the ornamental part of Kanzashi. Although rare, Kanzashi were also made from crane bone for good luck. Existing Kanzashi produced during the early days of the Edo period are now scarce valuable collectors items since they are regarded as very precious in terms of both product quality and their materials they're made of. Above all, Kanzashi made from bakelite that were produced in the early days of the Meiji period are highly valued antiques now.

There are a variety of ways to wear Kanzashi. In the case of geisha (Japanese female entertainers at a drinking party), for example, guests who are versed in geisha parties called 'tsu' or 'suijin' can judge the status of the geisha in question from the quality of kanzashi and the way she wears them.

Among women belonging to Karyukai (world of geisha), the way they do their hair up in Japanese style or the position of Kanzashi are pre-determined based on their status or position. Maiko (apprentice geisha) wear hanging Kanzashi, which is more splendid than the ones for geigi (geisha), her senior. In the event she is promoted,. however, her hair-style and Kanzashi change into the those suitable for her status.


The origin of kanzashi in Japan dates back to the Jomon period. In the ancient period of Japan, people believed that magically signified power resided in a thin stick and the devil could be exorcised by inserting it into hair. Artifacts bundles of these sticks, which could be the origin of the comb, are in existence.

During the Nara period, hair ornamentation was introduced from China together with various cultures. Although being introduced into Japan, it declined later because long flowing hairstyle called kokufu-yoshiki (native Japanese style) prevailed during the Heian period. At that time, therefore, the term 'kanzashi' referred to hair ornamentation in general and referred to comb decorations and kogai (ornamental hairpin) also.

Kanzashi came into use as hair ornamentation during the Azuchi-Momoyama period when women's hairstyle gradually changed from long and straight hairstyle called 'tarekami' to various kinds of 'nihongami' (Japanese coiffure). Kanzashi were used for various purposes during the Edo period and the idea has been passed down that kanzashi was also used for self-defense.

With hairstyles becoming complicated during the middle of the Edo period, Kanzashi, along with combs and kogai, became the necessities of women while it disappeared from men's customs of clothing except for the purpose of court function.

Metallic kanzashi called 'jifa' were used both by men and women in the Ryukyu Kingdom and its material was designated based on a person's status.

Kanzashi was most popular during the middle of the Edo period and ornament artisans using their refined techniques specializing in hair ornaments produced various kinds of kanzashi, such as hirate-kanzashi (kanzashi of flattened metal), tama-kanzashi (kanzashi with balls), hana-kanzashi (flower kanzashi) and birabira-kanzashi (kanzashi with hanging ornaments).

Due to the increasing popularity of western hairstyles, the use of kanzashi slightly declined during modern times and it was mainly used by a bride during a wedding with Shinto rites, geisha and geigi when they did their hair up in nihongami. These days, kanzashi are again attracting the attention of young Japanese women who want to add the elegant beauty of kanzashi to their ordinary western style clothing.

Word origin

A Chinese character '簪' (kanzashi) refers to hair ornaments used in China. The character resembling 牙 that is included in the Chinese character 簪 is 旡 (san) to be precise and it is a hieroglyph representing kanzashi inserted into hair. As kanzashi made of bamboo were mainly used, it is said that the Chinese character 簪 came to be in use by adding take-kanmuri (top character of bamboo) and '曰' (a mark representing the word and deed of human beings) to 旡.

In China where both men and women commonly wore their hair long, kanzashi were important practical items for men to attach a court cap, which represented their status or type of job, to their hair. Court nobles used those made of ivory and ordinary people used those made of wood. Hair ornaments used by women were called 'sai' (釵) (hair ornaments with a forked stick) or 'den' (鈿) (a piece of handy work made of flattened metal attached to the forehead), not kanzashi (簪). Although the character '釵 ' was often used for women's 'kanzashi,' it is believed that its use ceased during the Tenpo era.

Meanwhile, in the Japanese language 'kanzashi' was derived from 'kamisashi' (hair insert) and its origin is believed to be flowering plants by which people of ancient times decorated their heads when they invited the deities. However, some people assert that the phrase 花を挿す (hana wo sasu) (put a flower) changed into 花挿し (kazashi). We can gather the images of 'kanzashi' of that time from the scene where Hikaru Genji attacked shiragiku (with a white chrysanthemum) on his court cap, which was described in 'Koyo no ga' (An Autumn Excursion) of the "The tale of Genji." This practice survives at present as 'Aoi no Kanzashi' in the Aoi-matsuri festival.

Types of kanzashi

Various types of kanzashi were produced according to the change of times and hairstyles.

Kanzashi were produced based not only upon seasonal flowers or events, but also complicated traditional rules. A typical example is tsumami-kanzashi (flower kanzashi) of 12 months which maiko or hangyoku (a child geisha) wears each month. Details are covered in the next section.

Metal such as silver, tin, and brass (platinum was also used during the Meiji period), hard-to find items such as glass and tortoise shell, scented wood such as agalloch and sandalwood as well as crystal for summer season-products (few are existing today because such products were too fragile for practical use) were used as the materials for a main body. Ordinary people used products made of the hooves of oxen or horses instead of wood or tortoise shell, but plastic is mainly used for such products at present. Tortoise shell with no spots was the most valuable one and it was specifically called shiro or shiroko.

As for materials used for the ornamental part, precious metal, precious stone, quasi precious stone, amber and coral were used and celluloid was also sometimes used.

Hirate-kanzashi: flat circular-shaped ornament with one or two sticks. An ear pick was attached at the back. Products made of silver or other silver-plated metal, which were commonly used by the women of samurai family, were specifically called ginhira. In the past, such products were produced by carving them out from flattened metal. While women of samurai families carved their family crest on it, carving the family crest of their beloved person prevailed among geisha during the late Edo period. In addition to products made of wood or tortoise shell, those made of plastic or other materials are being produced at present.

Tama-kanzashi: Kanzashi with an ear pick and a ball and the most popular types. An ear pick was initially attached for practical use, but later just for design. Various materials were used for ornamental balls. Coral, agate, jade, tortoise shell, ivory, glass (from the end of Edo period), and celluloid (from the Taisho period) were used. There were two types, namely the one with one stick and the one with two sticks.

Chiri-kan: A kind of metallic kanzashi which geisha used as maesashi (front insert). The characteristic of this type of product is that its head sways slowly because it is supported by a spring. Its name derived from the fact that a sound "chiri chiri" was made when the ornaments touched each other. Long and thin plate-like hanging ornaments are attached at the bottom.

Birakan: Metallic kanzashi which was also called 'ogi' or 'himegata.'
There are two types, namely one with a fan-like top and one of circular shape, and a family crest is carved on it. Long and thin plate-like hanging ornaments are dangling around the flat part of the head. Its shape looks like hirate-kanzashi, but long and thin plate-like hanging ornaments are attached instead of an ear pick. Contemporary maiko uses it as maesashi (she no longer uses it after becoming geigi). In this case, she wears birakan on the right temple and tsumami-kanzashi (tweezing kanzashi) on the left temple.

Matsuba-kanzashi (pine needle shape kanzashi): Simple kanzashi made of tortoise shell, etc. with a shape similar to pine needles. They are included in a set of kanzashi for tayu (the highest ranking yujo) in the Kanto region (Yoshiwara).

Yoshicho: Long and thin kanzashi that looks like an ear pick. Metal or tortoise shell were mainly used as materials for this type of kanzashi. Plastic is mainly used at present. The reason why the shape of its tip is an ear pick is because it was originally produced for such practical use. Kanzashi with an ear pick already existed in the Kofun period (tumulus period). A document exists that says kanzashi with an ear pick was received well by people during the Kyoho era of Edo period. However, in view of the fact instructions prohibiting extravagance were often issued during the Edo period ('Jochu irui jikidan no sadame,' which targeted samurai and chonin or town people, was issued during the third year of the Kanbun era), it may be said that these types of products were produced in order to evade the crackdown on luxury goods. It seems that married women wore a piece of yoshicho somewhere near the left temple. While geisha were not allowed to wear two pieces or more, yujo (prostitute) wore many yoshicho in their hair. Products with carvings on the surface or those with ornaments can be categorized into kiccho if they were produced for maesashi (birabira kanzashi if hanging ornaments are attached) and they can be categorized into kanzashi with ornaments if they were produced for ushirozashi (back insert) (because hanging ornaments are not attached to kanzashi for ushirozashi in case of Japanese coiffure). An ear pick was originally for practical use, but later used just for design. It is believed that round shape products were used in the Kanto region and square shape products were used in the Kansai region.

Birabira-kanzashi: Kanzashi for unmarried women invented during the Edo period (Kansei era). It is luxurious kanzashi from which several chains with ornaments of butterfly or birds dangle. These product were used by daughters of rich merchants, but were not used by married or engaged women. A record exists that says that products with seven or nine chains with glass ornaments dangling were popular among young daughters of wealthy family in Kyoto and Osaka from the second to third year of Tenpo era. This type of product was inserted into the hair somewhere near the left temple.

Tsumami-kanzashi: Firstly, patchwork representing a flower is prepared by folding and pasting on small pieces of cloth with bamboo tweezers. Tsumami-kanzashi was produced by bundling patchworks together. It was also called 'Hana-kanzashi' (flower kanzashi) because most of products were designed to look like flowers. Pure silk was used in principle and in the past craftsmen dyed cloth by themselves. Few old products are still in existence since they were cloth products. The above reminds us about the life of flowers. At present, this type of products are used by maiko as well as for the ornamentation of a festival for children of three, five and seven years of age.

Contemporary kanzashi: With western hairstyle became popular, kanzashi also changed into western-type products. All products with two sticks with a shape similar to the plectrum of a shamisen are produced as western-style products. Various materials are used such as metal with cut glass and lacquered plastic. Many kanzashi on sale because of the Japanese kimono boom are products with one stick and the technique to bundle hair using such products is also becoming popular. However, the above is a way to use the western stick and the reason why such technique became applicable to Japanese women is because their hair quality has changed and the number of women with firm black hair has decreased due to hair dyeing and permanents. Because of strength, metallic products are mainly used for the above purpose. Many of products are devised to fit western dress though the design itself is Japanese style. In addition to newly devised products such as those with artificial flowers like a rose or western orchid and those with plastic jewelry parts (imitation jewels made of plastic or glass), traditional products such as those with beads are also popular.

Kanoko-dome: Short kanzashi used for fixing tegara (cloth used for holding or decorating mage or chignon), tie-dyed crepe with a pattern of minute rings is often used). Unlike ordinary kanzashi, its stick is attached vertically to the ornamental part. This type of product is used by maiko or geiko and they are high-priced art objects since they are fine works of silver or platinum with jade, amber or cloisonne ware attached. These products are basically used as the gift from patrons, rather than products that maiko might purchase for herself, and are regarded as the barometer to measure maiko's popularity or the quality of her guests. This type of product is used for young maiko's hairstyle called 'wareshinobu,' with two projections of their body supporting the mage. They are attached to the center of 'wareshinobu' mage.

Ichi-dome: Very short kanzashi used for fixing a hairpiece called 'hashi no ke.'

Kusudama: Kanzashi with kusudama (lucky ball)-like round-shaped ornament of silk-made petals attached. This type of product is used by teenage girls.

Tatesashi (vertical insert): Kanzashi which is vertically inserted into bin (sideburns). The holding pin is long. Uchiwa-kanzashi, which is designed after uchiwa (round fan), is well-known as seasonal kanzashi for summer.

Ryoten kanzashi: Kanzashi with a pair of ornaments attached on both sides of the body. Its ornament was mainly family crest or flower and such products were used mainly by girls or young women of relatively rich families.

Silver hollyhock kanzashi: Kanzashi popular in Edo from the seventh to eighth year of Tenpo era. It was a product made of flattened silver with two small leaves of hollyhock engraved and used not only by young women, but also by yujo thanks to its simple but pretty design.

Musashino kanzashi: Novelty kanzashi popular only for a short period from the 11th to 12th year of the Tenpo era. Its body was made of bamboo and bird feathers were used as the ornament. This type of product was used by young women as well as young yujo. Due to the fact that these products were made of only bamboo and bird feathers, however, people felt they were too simple and as a result, the products didn't become as popular as the silver kanzashi, which were widely used, and were used only for fun on the occasion of small events. Though the origin of the name 'Musashino' is unclear, it is presumed that bird feathers were compared to Japanese pampas grass.

Silver Edo kanzashi: Short silver kanzashi, about four sun (about 12 cm), which was widely used in Edo (Tokyo) from the latter half of the mid-Edo period to the Meiji period. Initially it's length was slightly longer, five to six sun (about 15 cm to 18 cm), but short length products became the mainstream from the late stage of the Edo period. Most of these types of products were tama-kanzashi with coral, a ball of gold dust stone or a gourd attached as an ornament. Also, products designed to look like kacho-fugetsu (beauties of nature), daily utensils such as a rice bag and uchiwa, vegetables and small animals were produced by the same technique with hirate-kanzashi, also called kazari kanzashi (decoration kanzashi). Some products had no ornaments. Although their bodies were commonly made of solid silver, gold plated products of the kamigata style (Kansai-area style) appeared during the late Edo period. Also, splendid products made of silver for the lower half and copper with gold-encrustation for the visible part, were produced. Although products made of a base metal such as brass and iron are also called silver kanzashi, such products were not so common as silver products. During the late Edo period, brass kanzashi, which was widely used up to then, became unpopular considered as unrefined products, and even women of poor families didn't wear such products as they lived in Edo. Brass kanzashi were mainly used by poor young women who had recently come to work in Edo. By contrast, iron kanzashi, especially refined products of top craftsmen, were appreciated by geisha because of their mild gloss compared with silver products.

Kogai: Originally, a small knife-like object that was inserted into the hilt of Japanese sword was called kogai. One side of kogai is a handle (which looks like an ear pick) and the other side gradually tapers off to a point. It was used not only by women, but also by men in order to bundle hair. Mage was tied by putting hair around it and the side which originally tapered off became a stick of same width with the other side. Eventually, it changed from a tool to tie mage to hair ornamentation to be inserted into finished mage. Products used for hair ornaments consists of two pieces connected by inrotsugi placed in the center and users can easily insert it into mage (this type of product is also called nakasashi because it is connected inside mage). Products for a bride undergoing Shinto wedding rites are luxurious with ornaments attached to both ends of the kogai.

Kushi: As its name shows, it is a comb-shape kanzashi. It can be inserted into tightly-done hair. Although it is usually distinguished from kanzashi, the word 簪 (kanzashi) or 髪飾り (hair ornamentation) was often used for a gift catalogue because 'kushi' (櫛) (comb) can be translated into 'kushi' (苦死) (painful death). Most of these types of products were made of tortoise shell or wood with glue or lacquer. Some products used pearl or makie (Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold powder) as ornaments. Most of their bodies (backbone) were wide so that ornaments could be attached there. The difference between the western comb and the Japanese one is that the latter have no comb teeth from one side of a comb to the other. This is because this type of product was invented for the unique hairstyle called Japanese coiffure and they were used as maesashi by inserting them into the middle of forehead and at top of the head. As the cross section of a bundle of bangs at the above-mentioned part of the head is almost circular, there is no place to insert the comb except at this part and no teeth are needed other than those situated in the middle section of comb. Other than Japanese traditional combs, Spanish combs (comb made of tortoise shell with splendid ornaments attached) were popular in karyukai (world of geisha) during the Meiji period.

Tsumami kanzashi

Tsumami kanzashi (flower kanzashi) is a unique one worn by maiko in Kyoto and hangyoku in Tokyo.

Colorful flowers made of habutae (type of silk) or mizubiki-saiku (string works) are used for this product. Flower kanzashi worn by maiko are designated for each month and it represents the changing seasons and reflects the entertainment career and the taste of maiko in question.

Maiko whose career is less than a year wear kanzashi to which small flowers and 'bura' (a hanging ornaments) are attached and from the second year onward, she wears kanzashi with no bura. The size of flowers become bigger according to maiko's age.

January: 'Shochikubai' (pine, bamboo, and plum trees) or 'kangiku.'
During New Year period (until January 15th at hanamachi or entertainment district in Kyoto), maiko attach 'inaho' (rice ears) on the right side and geigi on the left side of mage. They sometimes also attach tsuru (crane) and Kame (tortoise) (a symbol of longevity).

February: 'Plum tree flowers' as well as 'kusudama' and 'kazaguruma' (pinwheels) are attached to setsubun festival costume.
(daffodils are also used from time to time)

March: 'Rape blossom' as well as 'daffodil,' 'peach blossoms,' and 'peony.'
April: 'Cherry blossoms' and 'gorocho'
May: 'Fuji' (Japanese wisteria) and 'iris.'
June: 'Willow' (flowers of fringed pinks are attached) and 'hydrangeas.'
July: 'Uchiwa' and 'Omatsuri' (festival), which is attached during the period of the Gion-matsuri Festival (July 10 to around 24)
August: 'Susuki' (Japanese pampas grass) and 'asagao' (morning glory).
September: 'Balloon flower' and 'bush clover.'
October: 'chrysanthemum'
November: 'Colored autumn leaves' and 'ginkgo.'
December: 'Maneki' (wooden signboard on which kabuki actor's name is written) (decoration of rice cake flower is sometimes attached)
Maiko customarily visit dressing rooms on the occasion of a kaomise performance (traditional kabuki performance in Kyoto) and asks her favorite actor to sign the 'maneki' of her kanzashi.

Names of kanzashi based on the position of insertion

Maesashi: kanzashi which is inserted into the both sides of the bangs (around both temples). Bira-kanzashi: Small kanzashi, such as small flower kanzashi, is used, but those who actually wear them are girls or maiko. Often seen in girls' hairstyle such as wareshinobu or ofukumage.

Tatesashi: Kanzashi which is vertically inserted into binmado (upper part of bin or sideburns).

Magesashi: Kanzashi which is inserted into the base of mage at the front. It is the most common position for inserting kanzashi and hirate-kanzashi, tama-kanzashi, hime-kanzashi and/or kazari-kanzashi are used for this purpose. Magesashi is seen in most types of Japanese coiffure. When kogai is inserted here, it is called nakasashi.

Ichidome: Used for attaching 'hashi no ke' (long and thin hairpiece) to mage.

Nezashi: Kanzashi inserted into the base of mage's back. Kogai and hirate-kanzashi were used for nezashi, but are seldom seen at present. Nezashi was seen in Japanese coiffure called ichogaeshi and sakikogai.

Kanzashi appeared in traditional customs or literature

The terms 'kazashi' and 'kanzashi' which frequently appear in "The Tale of Genji" written during the Heian period refer either 'kazashi' (flowers worn in one's hair at shrine rituals) or 'kamizashi' (appearance of hair) and the term 'kamisashi,' hair ornamentation, refers to a comb which was inserted over a person's forehead during the ceremony of kamiage. Therefore, these shouldn't be confused with kanzashi. Chinese '簪' was a tool to fix a court cap by inserting it from the base of cap's arch and it was a product for men.

As seen in Du Fu's poem saying 'as my grey hair is short, it seems to be impossible to use kanzashi even though I bundle it,' the original meaning of the Chinese character '簪' was a tool which male officials used in order to fix their court caps. Gold 'kanzashi' of the empress Yang Guifei which appears in Chokonka written by Bai Letian was '釵' (sai). As can be expected from the letter 叉, it had two holding pins and when facing her death, Yang Guifei promised her eternal love for the emperor, who remained alive, by snapping her memorable hair ornament.

During the Edo period, women usually undid their hair in the bedroom of shogun or daimyo (feudal lord). It was not an ancient tradition, but a measure to prevent assassination. As kanzashi could be used as a weapon, it was prohibited to enter a bedroom while wearing it.

Kanzashi which was used in Ryukyu's old martial arts was called jifa. In Ryukyu, both men and women used to wear kanzashi and it was the sole weapon which women could use. In many cases, women stabbed a thug with a jifa when they were attacked and she escaped while the thug was wincing. However, it was also used for assassination since it was difficult for other person to notice jifa. During the early Edo period, women of a Samurai family in Edo core kanzashi made of solid metal in place of brass kanzashi, which was commonly used in Kamigata (Kansai region), with the aim of using it as a weapon for self-defense.
An old senryu (comic haiku) says; 'kanzashi becomes a formidable item when it is held in the reverse grip.'

There continued an era of peace during the late Edo period. Naturally, society became a commerce-centered one and merchants became wealthy while ordinary people also were able to obtain various favorite goods. Under such circumstances, the number of women who wore combs or kanzashi also increased. In order to distinguish themselves from ordinary women, probably, dayu, the highest ranking yujo, wore three combs and 20 tortoise shell hair ornamentation including kanzashi and kogai.
These splendid hair ornaments were gifts from patrons and expressed figuratively as 'the value of the part from the neck up is equivalent to that of a house.'
Tortoise shell with no spots was the most valuable one and it was specifically called shiro or shiroko. In the mean time, a set of hair ornaments for dayu at Yoshiwara in Edo (Tokyo) consisted of three combs, two tama-kanzashi, two matsuba, one kogai (a bar-shaped ornamental hairpin) and twelve kiccho (other than these items, braided cord ornament to be attached to the back of mage were also included). At Shimabara in Kyoto, a set consisted of three combs, one kogai (a bar-shaped ornamental hairpin), six to twelve hirate-kanzashi, two birabira-kanzashi with long hanging ornaments, one flower kanzashi and katsuyama (a large-size tsumami-kanzashi) (other than these items, kanoko that were attached around mage were included). Some sumo wrestlers in Edo wore two combs, like yujo, aiming to draw public attention.

[Original Japanese]