Kiseru (Tobacco Pipe with Metal Tipped Stem) (煙管)

Kiseru is one of Japanese smoking tools and similar to a Western pipe (tobacco). For drug pipes, see each item in Drugs.

Origin of the word

It is assumed that kiseru is a corrupted form of the Khmer word, 'ksher' although there are different speculations on the origin of the word. However, the Khmer word, 'ksher' means only a pipe to smoke tobacco and therefore, it might be better to think that the word, 'kiseru' is a derivative word of 'ksher' or was derived from the original word of the kiseru.

The Portuguese word, "sorver" and the Spanish word, "sorber" have been newly suggested as the possible origin of the word.
Both of them mean 'suck in.'
When the relative pronoun, "que" is placed before the words to make "que sorver" and "que sorver," they are pronounced 'kisoruberu.'

Kiseru parts

Roughly speaking, the kiseru is made up of 'gankubi' with a bowl to be filled up with shredded tobacco (the term gankubi suggests the part from the base of the bowl to the joint of rau), a mouthpiece to be put in mouth, and 'rau' - also pronounced 'rao,' a pipe connecting between the gankubi and the mouthpiece. It is generally believed that the word, "rau" originated in the fact that bamboo (patterned black bamboo) in Laos near Cambodia was used. There is a strong doubt that the 'kiseru' or the kiseru part was originated in Southeast Asia, and some say that it is more natural to think that the Portuguese and Spanish word, "rabo" was the origin because it means "stalk" in Portuguese and "stem" in Spanish.

Kiseru materials

The gankubi, the bowl and the mouthpiece were made out of metal for durability, and a certain kind of rao for luxury kiseru are made out of ebony, but the great majority of rao seem to be made out of bamboo.
Kiseru with wooden rao is called 'rao-kiseru.'
Mouthpieces decorated with sculptural flowers or plated with gold were seen after the end of the Edo period.
On the other hand, kiseru whose entire body is made out of metal is called 'nobe-kiseru.'
A wide variety of metals are used for kiseru, such as gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, zinc and alloy of those metals, and some kiseru are plated with gold or marquetry-inlaid. Furthermore, some kiseru were made out of ceramics or glass (different in shape from the current glass pipe), and there were simple kiseru made of bamboo or wood as well.


Tobacco is smoked as follows:

Form finely-shredded fibrous tobacco into a ball of a suitable size.

Fill up the bowl on the gankubi with the ball of tobacco. Some smokers fill it up by sticking the gankubi into a tobacco pouch.

Fire up the kiseru, moving the gankubi closer to charcoal fire on a tobacco tray.

Inhale the smoke of tobacco slowly and softly.

Remove ashes by tapping the kiseru lightly on the edge of haifuki (tobacco ash receptacle) when the tobacco burns out and smoking is stopped.

Blow air into the kiseru to blow away remained ashes in the bowl if any.

Repeat the above process of 1 to 6, unless satisfied with a bowl of tobacco.

Some smokers smoke tobacco without a break by putting a lump of burning ashes on the palm to replace it with new tobacco and then lighting the kiseru with the embers on the palm before the old tobacco burns out.

Maintenance of kiseru

Put something thin such as a twisted paper string through the pipe to remove tar. If the entire body of the kiseru is metal, keep it submerge in warm water to clean easily because tar gets soft.

The kiseru can be rinsed with alcohol to remove tar from the pipe.

Rao shops

It is pronounced "rau-ya" or "rao-ya" in Japanese. There used to be stallholders called rau-ya that remove tar from a rau or replace an old rao with new one. They cleaned the kiseru with steam generated from a small boiler, and what was characteristic about is noise like whistle which was heard during the cleaning. The last rau-ya opened in front of the Senso-ji Temple and closed around the year 2000. However, a peddler-like rau-ya (carrying a wooden rack on the back) has been revived recently.

Shredded tobacco

Although it is called kizami (shredded), it is not finely-shredded like leaves in a cigarette, but dried leaves are layered and cut thinly like a thread by a knife or a plane. It is one of the least processed tobacco products in the world and there are many enthusiasts because the original taste of tobacco can be enjoyed. Before a tobacco monopoly was implemented, private tobacco shops manufactured and sold individual shredded tobacco. There were thousands varieties, but the number of brands were reduced to one because of the mass production promoted under the monopoly and decrease in demand caused by increase in cigarette consumption, and finally the domestic production was stopped. Because of growing demand for the revival and survival of the shredded tobacco as Japanese traditional culture, however, tobacco farmers were asked to resume cultivation of domestic varieties and then only one brand ("koiki") came back as traditional quality shredded tobacco.

Kiseru and culture

The kiseru often appears on many dramas including period dramas as an important prop, but those dramas are not true to fact at all if it appears on stories of the 16 century or earlier. Even if it appears on stories of the 16 century or later, it is also strange that commoners had good kiseru in the old days when smoking population was small. In addition, some samurai families and mercantile houses banned their servants from smoking to prohibit luxury and prevent fires and therefore, not all the people hung tobacco pouches.

Samurai placed a special order for desired kiseru as an expression of their aspiration as well as their status symbols. Some samurai carried iron fans or heavy iron kiseru for self-defense because wearing swords was prohibited after the Meiji Restoration.

In the Edo period, in many cases, banto (head clerk) and owners of large stores ordered their custom-made tools for a kind of fashion or a status symbol rather than liking for smoking. Furthermore, it is said that tobacco pouches or kiseru pipes had a trend. There was related craft culture such as netsuke (miniature carving attached to the end of a cord hanging from a pouch), and the netsuke attracted more fans in the UK after the introduction to overseas in connection with trading in the Meiji period. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an exhibition room for the netsuke collection.

As a practice among tayu (geisha of the highest rank) at omise (high rank brothel) in places like Yoshiwara (Tokyo) in the Edo period, when they were ranked higher, their obi (kimono sash) got wider and then red lacquer rao of their kiseru to be tucked into obi got longer according to the widened obi. The length of the kiseru was able to show the rank of joro (prostitutes).

When a geisha presents kiseru to her favorite customer, if the customer takes it, it means that he likes the geisha. The line of "Sukeroku", the Kabuki story, 'rain of kiseru' implies Rokusuke's manliness.

In period dramas or gekiga (graphic novel) of period pieces derived from the period dramas, characters such as yakuza or samurai move tobacco in their mouths or perform gesture of hitting the kiseru on a tobacco tray. Especially in yakuza movies, the kiseru is used as a prop to express boss's decision by waving the kiseru in his mouth. For example, raising up the gankubi of the kiseru in mouth emphasizes anger or discomfort expressed by biting it hard and pushing his lower lip out. In addition, hitting the kiseru hard on the tobacco tray (discarding ashes) shows a shift of emotional gears such as ending a repose to move to action. Furthermore, as a familiar rod-like tool, a boss waves the kiseru held or put in his mouth like a stick to give directions to his subordinates.

Current kiseru

The absolute number of kiseru users for smoking is small now, but its culture has been continued for the following reasons:

Joy of tasting natural tobacco, which is the best way to smoke unflavored shredded tobacco.

Issue on tar on cigarette paper, which is said to cause cancers.

Reuse of cigarette butts

Hobby (Period drama fans or kiseru collectors)

There is an example of young people in the Heisei period who smoke a cigarette with it attached to the end of the kiseru.

There is an example of fetishist's favorite use of the kiseru where they inserted it into the women's genital area and then put a fire into the bowl.

Kenka-kiseru (Kiseru for fight)

Kenka-kiseru refers to the kiseru used by machi-yakko (a city servant) in the Edo period. The machi-yakko were prohibited from wearing swords or long knives because they were townspeople. As a weapon to rival servants of a Hatamoto samurai, they ordered iron kiseru to wear. It was 40 to 50 cm in length and several centimeters in width, and the rao was made by shaping it into hexagon or putting bumps on it like a club.

Organism name

There are cases where organisms looking like the kiseru were named after it because of their unique figures.
The following names have been adopted as formal Japanese names:

Clausilid Species: There are many varieties of the species, which are called names with "giseru".

Mirus reinianus is similar to them, but belongs to a different family.

Aeginetia indica (Orobanchaceae)
It was called 'omoigusa' in the Manyoshu (the oldest anthology of tanka).
Carpesium divaricatum and cirsium siebolbdii (Asteraceae)
Buxbaumia aphylla (Bryophytes)

Kiseru in Kabuki

It is big enough to draw audience's attraction, but not heavy. Each kiseru appearing on Kabuki and Kyogen (farce played during a No play cycle) is different in shape, such as Goemon ISHIKAWA's silver nobe-kiseru in the 'Sammon Gosan No Kiri' (The Temple Gate and the Paulownia Crest), Kuemon KEZORI's big kiseru with Netherlandish patterns in the 'Hakata Kojoro Namimakura' (voyage of geisha girl in Hakata) and amongst others.
Among them, Sukeroku's red lacquer rao is familiar with theatergoers, as well as his famous line, 'It is like rain of kiseru.'


As a job related to the kiseru, there were people who ran a business replacing old rao with new one.

In the Edo period, many fires were caused by smoking in bed. See Fire in Edo.

There is an idiom of "gankubi o tareru" meaning "hang head down."

If smokers smoke the kiseru with the gankubi downward, they look cool but it tastes worse because tar is slid down. That's how men who smoke first for appearance are phrased with 'yani sagatta' (tar is slid down).

[Original Japanese]