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Clothing and Food of Feudal Japan

Samurai Clothing

As may be expected, the basic clothing item in a samurai's 'everyday' wardrobe was the kimono, which for men normally consisted of an outer and inner layer. Heavier kimonos were worn in the winter, while lighter examples (those made of finer silk, for instance) were worn in the summer. In fact, there was a ceremonial day where winter kimonos were exchanged for their summer counterparts, traditionally on the 1st day of the Fourth Month (by our reckoning, in the first week of May). A samurai's kimono would normally be made of silk, a material considered superior to cotton and hemp not only for its feel and appearance but for it's relative coolness in the hot Japanese summer. (Incidentally, kimono makers traditionally reckoned on one roll of silk measuring about two feet by 20 yards for one kimono). Naturally, the quality of a kimono a given samurai might wear largely depended on his personal station and income, though, at least prior to the Edo Period, there were no hard and fast rule in this regard. Hojo Soun, for instance, touches on the matter of clothing in his 21 Articles, "Don't think your swords and clothing should be as good as those of other people. Be content as long as they don't look awful. Once you start acquiring what you don't have and become even poorer, you'll become a laughingstock."1 Exceptionally bright colors and outlandish patterns were typically avoided or sneered upon as a show of immodesty or conceit. On the same token, women of samurai families tended to wear kimono layers and colors dependant upon the station and/or power of their husband. Samurai children, however, were dressed rather flamboyantly, and a more subdued appearance was one of the results of the coming-of-age ceremony. Older samurai tended towards shades of gray or brown, in keeping with their dignified age.

Beneath the kimono, a loincloth (fundoshi) was worn, of which there were two varieties. One was essentially a wrap that, for lack of a better description, resembled a diaper (familiar to anyone who has witnessed or seen footage of some of modern Japan's more esoteric festivals); the other type (more often worn under armor) was a long piece of material worn down the front of the body. A loop slung around the neck fastened the top of the loincloth while the other end was pulled up around the other side of the abdomen and tied around the front of the lower waist with cords. Samurai had the option of wearing socks, called tabi, which included a space to separate the big toe from the other toes (to facilitate the wearing of sandals). Tabi worn in an everyday capacity were normally white and were tailored to the season.

Footwear generally consisted of sandals (waraji) and wooden clogs (geta). Sandals were made from various sorts of material, including straw, hemp, and cotton thread. Clogs were generally associated with the lower classes (geisha, for instance, and kabuki actors are often depicted wearing geta) though samurai wore them from time to time. The Tale of the Heike, for instance, mentions that the powerful Taira Kiyomori wore clogs, though it was considered sufficiently unusual to find its way into puns composed by his rivals. Bearskin boots were at one time popular, especially with armor, but by the 16th Century had come to be considered archaic.

For rainy days, samurai, like everyone else, wore raincoats made out of straw (kappa) and availed themselves of folding umbrellas (which looked rather like Victorian era parasols, complete with decoration).

Between the 12th and 17th Century, the hitatare style of dress was popular. Unlike the common kimono, hitatare was a two-piece costume, though comparably flowing and ample (Yoroi hitatarewas a snugger version for use under armor). This costume, for a possible frame of reference, is what most of the samurai wear in Japanese movies set prior to the Edo Period (the oft-mentioned Kagemusha, Ran, Throne of Blood, Heaven and Earth, ect…). Generally worn when in some 'official' capacity, the hitatare were normally adorned with the crest (or mon) of their immediate family or clan, or, in the case of relatives or direct retainers of the lord, the crest of the daimyô or shugo. Decorative bows also often adorned hitatare, normally worn on the breast.

As with the standard kimono, the samurai's swords were normally thrust through a belt (obi) worn wrapped around the waist and tied in front. Alternatively (and again in 'official' circumstances) the main sword could be slung by cords from the obi (in a fashion more akin to a western dress uniform convention) while the short sword (Wakizashi) or knife (tanto) was worn through the Obi. Regardless, the sword was ALWAYS worn on the left side, probably a case of a practical consideration (ease of drawing) that became more fashion oriented (after all, there were certainly some left-handed samurai…).

Indoors, the samurai might dispense with his long sword, but always kept some form of weaponry on his person, even if the simple dagger. A daimyô could expect a page to carry his sword for him, though typically only in the most formal of circumstances. (Traditionally, pages or trusted or honored men would carry a lord's sword and bow for him, especially in ceremonial circumstances. By the 16th Century, few daimyô bothered with keeping bows around their person, even for formalities.). In addition, a simple folding fan might be tucked in the obi, as well, perhaps, as a few tissues.

The hitatare could be worn 'half-off', that is, the upper half was allowed to hang about the waist, and this would be done when engaging in impromptu wresting matches or, occasionally, shows of swordsmanship or archery (in other words, for martial purposes).

By the Edo Period, the hitatare gave way to the kamishimo. The kamishimo consisted of a two-piece costume worn over a kimono. This is probably the most well known samurai dress. The upper piece was called the kataginu, and was essentially a sleeveless jacket or vest with exaggerated shoulders. Alternatively, a long sleeved coat, the haori , could be worn, especially when traveling or in bad weather. The lower piece was the hakama: wide, flowing trousers somewhat like those found in the older hitatare. The kamishimo would normally be composed of the same material, and was more likely to reflect the status of its wearer than not. The Edo Period was an extremely status-conscious time in Japanese history and this was nowhere more the case then among the samurai. Style was, as always, important, but subject to much greater regulation.

The kamishimo was normally worn outside of the house, or when expecting visitors. Otherwise, the trusty kimono would do.

The samurai's hair was an important part of his appearance, and most texts and house-codes of the samurai make reference to the importance of its neat appearance. The traditional hairstyle (for the better part of a thousand years) was the topknot, a fashion by no means exclusive to the samurai. Nearly everyone, with the exception of Buddhist priests, wore topknots, making the genesis of this style nearly impossible to guess at it with authority. There is reference to the use of topknots in ancient China, and it might have been one of the many cultural imports introduced to Japan between the Asuka-Nara and Heian Periods. Needless to say, there was any number of styles of topknot by the Edo Period. The chasen-gami , for instance, was produced by wrapping a piece of string around the length of the topknot, producing a spray of hair at the end that resembled a tea wisk. The topknot would then either be worn back or forward, hanging over the center of the head. The mitsu-ori was a style popular in the later 16th Century. The hair was well oiled and formed into a queue and folded forward on the head, then back again, and was tied in place. An abbreviated version, the futatsu-yori, was only folded forward before being tied, and was trimmed with a razor to give the front an almost solid appearance. Interestingly, these styles were not uncommon among the lower classes.

The style of shaving part of the frontal part of one's head was supposedly developed as making helmet wear more comfortable. By the early Edo Period it had become a simple fashion, and was adopted by many outside the samurai class. There seems to have been no special ordnances or something of the sort regarding the wear of one's hair, though doubtlessly 'house rules' applied.

Facial hair was common prior to the Edo Period, and was, unsurprisingly, a show on manliness on the part of the wearer. Moustaches were popular, and among generals these could become quite distinctive. Beards (while typically thin) were also worn, particularly because they made wearing helmet cords more comfortable (as anyone who has worn a military helmet for an extended period of time might sympathize with). Beards appear to have fallen out of favor and/or popularity in the Edo Period, and to this day they are rather rare among Japanese men.

For headgear out of armor, powerful samurai (daimyô/shugo or their important retainers) would wear eboshi, a cap of black silk gauze stiffened with a black lacquered paper lining. The cap was held in place either by a white cord, or was pinned to the samurai's topknot. The size and shape of the cap was largely dependant on the samurai's rank, though the use of eboshi was reserved for only the most formal of events by the 16th Century.



1. Sato, Hiroaki Legends of the Samurai Overlook pg. 251


Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan Tuttle 1969

McCullough, Helen C. The Tale of the Heike Standford 1988

Morris, Ivan The World of the Shining Prince Peregrine 1985

Sadler, A. L. (trans.) The Code of the Samurai Tuttle 1993

Turnbull, Stephen Samurai Armies 1550-1615 Osprey Military 1979

Yamamoto Tsunetomo Hagakure Kodansha 1983

Food of the Samurai period



In the best of times, the Japanese have always had a variety of foodstuffs from which to choose, both from the land and sea. Of course, one's diet depended to a great extent on social class. As those considered samurai could range in means from very poor to very rich-and thus experienced diets that crossed classes-we'll examine some generalities.

Unsurprisingly, rice was a staple food, and was so important as to be considered a measure of wealth. Farming in Japan has never been an especially easy affair, and the life of a farmer could be a difficult one indeed. Much of Japan is mountainous, and yet even after the land was unified under the Tokugawa, each province needed to have some rice-growing potential. A few areas were idea and by the 16th Century had come to the realm's 'breadbaskets' - especially Ise Province and the Kanto Region. The Kanto in particular was well suited to agricultural development, with wide, flat stretches of land for fields and rivers to provide irrigation. Other, more mountainous provinces, like nearby Kai, presented their lords and farmers with many problems, and required a great deal more effort to optimize production. Rice fields were cut into the sides of hills, and rivers arduously dammed and diverted. Yet the work was vital - famine was an ever-present danger, and one from which few were immune.
      The production of rice followed a set pattern every year, and began with the preparation and seeding of a nursery bed. Here, the sprouting rice seeds could be more easily monitored while the main fields were prepared for use. The fields were ploughed by either horse or oxen, enriched with manure, and provided with water, with the implementation of the last task depending in large measure on where the field was. After about forty days the seeds were transplanted in the fields (this was typically in June), quite often by the young women of the village-whose own fertility, it was hoped, would rub off on the rice seeds. For the villagers, this was a most important event, often accompanied to music and a festive spirit.
      Aside from keeping weeds and insect pests in check (the latter were one of a villager's worst nightmares), the rice fields would now require little attention until harvest-time in October or early November. Harvest was another festive occasion for the farmers, and perhaps the most exciting time in the year.
      Needless to say, as has ever been the case, the fruits of the peasant's labors were hardly for them alone. Every province throughout the period of the samurai saw to the collection of rice, although the amount demanded as tax varied. Some idea, though, may be gleaned from the daimyô Hôjô Soun's control of Sagami. There, he was looked upon favorably by the peasants for taking a mere forty percent of their crops each fall, as opposed to fifty or even sixty percent. Even the generous forty percent tax rate left a village with a thin reserve in case of emergencies, and so many maintained secret fields. Quite often, prior to the 16th Century, local samurai (jizamurai) or Jito might well look the other way - this changed with the coming of the daimyo. Land surveys or growing efficiency were organized to ferret out fields that had avoided taxation, and were quite unpopular as a result. Resourceful villagers also grew alternate crops-such as beans or sweet potatoes-to augment their diets.
      Ironically, many peasants, for various reasons, ate millet as opposed to rice. Rice was an all-important commodity, and nowhere in Japanese culture was frugality more rigidly practiced then among the farmers. Rice could be used in a number of ways, and included being boiled, cooked into a paste, turned into sake, and mixed with vegetables. A popular roadside treat was the rice cake, which could be sweetened with honey or pieces of fruit and was wrapped for sale in a large leaf.
      Most samurai ate husked rice, and the daily ration for a common foot soldier was thought to be about 900 grams (or five go). Nobles preferred polished rice, which they often ate sweetened.

Other foodstuffs
In addition to rice, the following foods were eaten when and where available… Potatoes (there were reputedly 24 types), radishes (of which there were nine kinds), cucumbers (fourteen types), beans (which produced the ubiquitous bean curd), chestnuts, persimmons (another popular road side treat), various nuts, tofu, yams (or tororo, which was often made into a soup), sour plums (particularly popular with soldiers on campaign if they could be found), apricots, peaches, apples, oranges, ect… The sea provided seven types of seaweed, abalone, carp, bonito, trout, tuna (hunted with harpoons), octopus, jellyfish, clams, and, at least off Awa Province (Shikoku), whale. In a particular pinch, the Buddhist/Shinto injunctions that tended to prohibit the eating of meat could be lifted, allowing the hungry to catch pheasants, wild geese, quail, deer, and boar. Soldiers under siege, when hunger became as dangerous a foe as the enemy, often killed and ate their horses. Nonetheless, the eating of red meat did not become common until the Meji Restoration - and then only amongst the upper classes.
      Fifty types of plant were available to facilitate cooking, such as daizu (soya) and azuki sasage (red beans); flavorings included sake, shoyhu (soya sauce), imported pepper and rice vinegar, as well as kelp (kombu). Vegetables were often prepared with a great deal of oil and this style of cooking was known as shojin ryori and involved soya, sesame, and camellia. Salt, important for the preservation of fish and other foodstuffs, was a vital commodity, and may have been a factor in the warlord Takeda Shingen's invasion of coastal Suruga Province in 1569.
      A mention should be made of the meal traditionally served to a samurai before setting out for war. This included dried chestnuts , kelp, and abalone, served on small lacquered plates - as well as sake. The sake was served in three cups - as the number three was considered good luck.

The most popular drink among the samurai - aside from perhaps tea- was sake.
      As mentioned, sake was made from rice and was normally produced during the winter months. Over the centuries many different types of sake were perfected but in general the alcoholic content of the drink tended to be low. At the same time, the Japanese diet tended to heighten the effects of the alcohol that was present.
Drinking was fairly common, at least among the samurai class, and found its way into many occasions-from social gatherings to the aftermath of battle. Drunkenness was generally not considered odious (nor is it still), and it could in fact be considered impolite NOT to get drunk at a drinking party. Breeches of etiquette were often overlooked while drunk, with many slips of manners forgiven afterwards.
      Needless to say, alcoholism was by no means unheard of among the samurai, and a number of daimyo are said to have died of the effects of over-indulgence, including Môri Okimoto and Uesugi Kenshin.
      During the Edo Period, sake production gradually became specialized in the area just to the west of Osaka, and a fair number of Edo Period breweries still exist.

Selected Glossary of Japanese Foodstuffs

Abura-age Fried bean curd
Awabi Abalone
Azuki Red beans
Daikon Giant radish
Daizu Soya
Ebi Shrimp
Genmai Unhusked brown rice
Ginnan Gingko nut
Hasu Lotus root
Kaki Oyster
Katsuobushi Dried bonito
Koi Carp
Kombu Kelp
Kuri Chestnuts
Kyuri Cucumber
Miso Fermented soybean and rice dish
Misoshiro Bean paste soup
Mochi Rice cake
Negi Green onion
Niboshi Dried sardines
Sake Rice wine
Sanhso Red pepper
Sashimi Raw fish
Shiitake Mushroom
Shoga Ginger
Takenoko Bamboo shoot
Tempura Food dipped in batter and deep fried
Thoyhu Sota sauce
Tofu Soybean curd
Tororo Yams
Unagi Eel
Wasabi Horse radish
Zoni Rice cake soup







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