When Japan's Emperor Dropped His Kimono - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Japan's Emperor Dropped His Kimono

When Japan's Emperor Dropped His Kimono

By Libby Coleman


Because there’s a reason Japanese emperors now wear suits.

By Libby Coleman

Emperor Meiji sat for a photograph in 1872 wearing a courtier’s robe and hat that reached for the sky — a symbol of tradition in the East. But to Europeans? Not so much. The 20-year-old leader, despite all the pomp, looked baby-faced and scrawny. But by the time he sat for a new photograph one year later, Meiji was sporting a beard and military regalia, and had parted his hair in a fashion not unlike Jefferson Davis.

In the 1850s, Japan ended its entrenched isolationist policy on the world stage to open its doors. The West rushed in and built trading hubs in Japanese cities like Sapporo and Yokohama. The Meiji emperor, meanwhile, was coming of age, and the young leader — thanks to Japan’s newly minted Western ties — influenced generations to come on how they would look and dress in Japan.

In 1865, men are in skirts. A decade later, an elite man is to be wearing a suit or growing a beard.

Robert Hellyer, Wake Forest University

He was made into a “public figure in the European mold,” says Robert Hellyer, associate professor of history at Wake Forest University, who teaches about East Asia and Japan. “In 1865, men are in skirts. A decade later, an elite man is to be wearing a suit or growing a beard.” Throughout his youth, Emperor Meiji was traditionally Japanese. He drank sake (rice wine), wore a kimono like his predecessors and even had 15 children by five different concubines, according to Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912, by Donald Keene. As a young man, he arrived in Tokyo — then still called Edo — in a palanquin, a covered sedan chair carried on poles by men. His subjects were not given a chance to see him, and he lived his days sequestered in the palace, inaccessible to his countrymen and the world.

For more than 200 years, the Tokugawa government “micromanaged the nation’s vestments,” according to Ametora, a history of Japanese fashion by W. David Marx. Class barriers dictated some styles — only nobles and samurai, for example, were allowed to wear silk. In the earlier mid-Heian period, those in the Japanese court became less influenced by Chinese fashions. Japanese leaders were rarely seen in public depictions until after they had passed away. But when Japanese ambassadors traveled to the West in the early 1870s, the envoys noted how diplomats carried photos of their leaders around with them. This knowledge led to the staging of photographs of Emperor Meiji, and from there his image spread throughout Japan.

The emperor wasn’t the only one to lead Japan toward Western ways: Author Fukuzawa Yukichi helped usher in Western culture to Japan more broadly. Born in the 1830s, Fukuzawa proved adept at learning foreign languages like English and Dutch, and was among the first group to travel to the United States in an official manner in the 1860s, later penning An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, which promoted imitation of the West.

After the emperor embraced Western fashion, it quickly caught on in Japanese military and diplomatic circles. The emperor went so far as to declare the Dampatsurei Edict, which forced samurai to forgo their traditional top hair knots and instead go with more Western cuts. “[The emperor] is converted into what looks like a Prussian general by the 1880s,” Harvard history of art professor Yukio Lippit says. Boys and schoolgirls slowly changed their attire, adding boots, hair bows and high collars, and creating a generation that grew up accustomed to Western clothing. 

It wasn’t just fashion that changed. The emperor also became more involved in the military, like European leaders, and began inspecting troops atop a white horse. The emperor’s birthday was made into a holiday, a new national anthem was written and Meiji’s multiple concubines took a backseat, at least in public, to a single wife who was depicted in images as his only spouse. Stylish Empress Masako Ichijō assumed a publicly social role by establishing Japan’s Red Cross, among other organizations.

But much of the change was merely superficial. Meiji’s use of European dress was “aspirational,” Lippit says, noting how “change was very slow” nationwide. Pre-modern habits were not unusual far into 19th- and early-20th-century Japan, he says, explaining that while homes might have had desks, chairs and tables, people often still preferred to sit on the floor. Some, of course, were opposed to modernization altogether: Military leader Saigo Takamori, for example, famously protested Westernization and even sparked a futile rebellion.

Emperor Meiji died in 1912, having laid the foundations for today’s more Western Japanese culture. Today’s Emperor Akihito is even contemplating stepping down. And when he said so, he was wearing a sharp black suit, complete with a white pocket square to accent his gray hair.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories