My personal favourite episode so far is episode 9, as we took a walk down Memory Catwalk, looking at Japanese fashion through the ages.
Japan is full of traditional culture — salarymen in business suits rub shoulders with groups of young women wearing gorgeous floral robes, and trendy hipsters who combine their modern tees and trousers with stilted sandals from centuries past. But Japanese fashion didn’t always look quite like this — the story of how these outfits morphed and developed over the years is the story of Japanese history itself.
Fashion reflects the times, and if you want the whole shabang of a walk down memory lane, give the episode a listen — this article is merely a summary of what we talked about!
Japan was heavily influenced by the Chinese in these early days in everything from food to language, so it’s only natural that the clothing was as well. Chinese fashion was the primary style of clothing in Japan. It was only in the Heian Era (794-1185) that there was a shift in not only the fashion but the overall culture of Nippon as a whole, when the identity of Japan became more distinct from China.
We all know what the most famous Japanese traditional clothing piece is: it’s definitely the kimono (着物), a long robe with short, wide sleeves. The short-sleeved style of kimono-like robe popular in those days were known as kosode (小袖). This servedasa base layer upon which the fancier garments would be layered. Commoners were also wearing kosode-style clothing, just without the fancy layers on top. Usually, the kimonos were made from plain material, but high-ranking people at the Imperial Court had theirs made in brocades and top-quality silk.
Even on casual occasions, women would wear at least two or three layers of kimono, with each layer’s hem and sleeves peeking out from underneath the others. Plenty of novels and poems from the Heian Period took the subtle swish of kimono-clad arms past bamboo screens to flirt with the boys as a romantic gesture.
Colour played quite a big role too, as it was an indicator of rank. Want to know how? Listen to episode 9 of the Nihongo Master podcast!
Edo Era (1603-1868)
When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power during this era, they brought peace and stability to Japan for about 250 years. It was pretty chill, until the Shogun passed some pretty restrictive clothing laws.
Only the nobles and military class were allowed to wear the most luxurious fabrics. Anything silk and satin, pattern and brocade, was limited to the high ranks. This law allowed people to strut their social status and power, because it would be several centuries until Louis Vuitton shoes and Gucci handbags allowed people to do that without the need for legal backing.
The traditional garment became an art form due to this, and that called for greater manufacturing capabilities and developments embroidery skills for new patterns. The wealth from the higher ups trickled down to the merchant class — and with it a nice helping of the arts, culture and fashion.
Back in the Heian Era, the yukata (浴衣) was worn by the nobles after a bath. It’s kind of similar to a kimono — only it’s usually made from cotton or linen, extremely lightweight and worn loosely. During the Edo period, when public baths became more common, even the commoners were using yukata, and you’ll still see them worn as a lighter summer kimono today.
As the commoner class became more fashionable, the noble class also took to wearing the haori (羽織), an outerwear piece worn over the kimono. This thigh-length flowing jacket was pioneered by the Geisha, but both genders could be seen wearing it after the craze caught on. Most of the time, it was worn to protect their kimono from getting wet or dirty when they were out and about.
If you’ve been to a Japanese festival, you would most definitely have seen the japanese people wear the happi (法被). What to know what it is? Listen to the episode now!
So, in short: the Edo Era marked an important time in the history of Japanese fashion — as things got a bit more comfortable for everyday people, they could start to enjoy some of the finer things in life.
Meiji Era (1868-1912)
We also looked at the Meiji Era, which is arguably the most significant time in Japanese fashion’s evolution. Before this time, Japan was sealed off from the Western world, but thanks to the Meiji Restoration this all changed.
After World War I, there was a huge rise in the middle class. With more people working, more businesses raking in profits, and more taxes to be collected, there was a whole lot of money going around. What’s more, their old wardrobes were hardly going to cut it when the Emperor had issued a mandate in 1871 for all officials to wear Western clothes during work and official events.
Men were quick to switch to suits and women started wearing Western-style clothing, too, after the empress herself started dressing in the latest Parisienne trends. Hair trends were adopted as well — when the Emperor himself cut off his topknot in 1872, his loyal followers couldn’t resist but to do the same. Western haircuts and facial grooming for the men as well as Victorian updo hairstyles for the women were huge.
Oh, schools changed their look too — the Meiji Era saw the birth of gakuran (学ラン, Western-style clothes for uniform), based on the Prussian Waffenrock, a kind of outerwear worn by German military. The women got the sera fuku (セ-ラ-服, sailor-style school uniform) came into the picture, inspired by the British Royal Navy uniform.
Do you think the people wore Western clothing at home as well during the Meiji Era, or did they change back into their traditional clothes after work? Listen to the episode to find out!
Taisho Era (1912-1926)
While the Meiji Era bombarded the Japanese with momentous modernizations day after day, and the Edo Era represented the old traditions, the Taisho Era struck a nice balance between the two.
Even though this era was short-lived, it made quite an impact. When the Emperor basically made everyone give up their comfy robes for woolen trousers, it was an analogy for some bigger societal changes which were happening at the time: the old ideological garb of medieval feudalism was being switched out for a shiny new Westernized liberalism.
Some of the Japanese people took that as a way out of wearing youfuku and sticking to their traditional garb of robes. The liberalization of fashion to them meant the freedom to go retro traditional. Others took it to mean the complete opposite.
It was also the time when even the lower middle class and working class were getting in on the Westernization trend. However, not everyone could afford them, so it was be merely adding a new piece of accessory in the outfit, like a short-brimmed hat for the men and a shawl wrapped around the neck for the women.
Chronologically trapped between Japan’s first major wave of modernization, and the more restrictive and totalitarian pre-war days, the Japanese people of the time took what they wanted from Western ideas and fused it with their own culture.
I guess we could say that the Taisho Era was like puberty for contemporary Japanese fashion — when it really started to figure out what it was going to be when it was all grown up.
Showa Era (1926-1989) to Present Day
The Showa era (1926-1989) pretty much set the fashion scene up as we know it today. With the American occupation came a wave of americanization. This was also the iconic period of time that various Japanese subcultures were formed — if you had listened to one of our previous episodes (episode 7), you’d know the teenage tearaways known as the Yankii started stomping around the streets of Japan during the Showa era.
Moving through the 70s and 80s, things started to get pretty weird, with the arrival of more subcultures like Lolita and Visual K. These were all about expressing yourself in the most visually ostentatious way possible.
Everyday fashion here remains quite sedate and modest, though — every man in a business suit, students, mothers, and school-kids on their day off tend to wear simple, loose-fitting pants and t-shirts. I bet Uniqlo got their whole aesthetics from that.
The rise in unique fashion movements and clean-cut contemporary styles weren’t the only things the Showa era had to offer. The good ol traditions stayed alive, and can still be seen today.
Kimonos went from traditionally handmade to mass production. We talked a bit about why traditional kimonos are priced so high in the episode, so check that out if you’re interested. We also talked about the process of handmade to mass production.
Here’s the full list from our various vocab recaps in the podcast episode:
Kimono (着物) — traditional Japanese clothing
Hakama (袴) — a skirt-like garment worn over kimono robes
Umanori (馬乗り) — a type of hakama with split legs
Yukata (浴衣) — a loose kimono worn after a bath, or in summer
Haori (羽織) — a loose jacket usually worn over the kimono
Geta (下駄) — traditional wooden raised sandals
Obi (帯) — a thick sash which ties around the waist of a kimono
Happi (法被) — an overcoat with a family crest emblazoned on it
Youfuku (洋服) — Western-style clothing
Gakuran (学ラン) — Western-style male school uniform
Seira fuku (セイラ服) — Sailor-style female school uniform
Chonmage (ちょんまげ) — topknot hairstyle popularly worn by men
Akusesari (アクセサリー) — accessory
Tokei (時計) — watch
Hōshoku (飽食) — jewelry. Or nowadays people commonly use the katakana version: juerī ジュエリー
Sebiro (背広) — business suit, also known casually as a suutsu
Kurubizu (クールビズ) — the summer business style
Hana (はな) — flower
ikebana (生け花) — traditional Japanese flower arrangement
We looked at how the Japanese fashion scene came to be the unique blend of tradition, westernization, and crazy experimentation which we know today, just in 500 years all in one podcast episode. If you want to hear more about each era’s fashion, head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast to give Episode 9 a listen!
A reaction is natural and automatic — if someone said something surprising, our first response would be somewhere along the lines of “are you serious?” or “really?” For native and fluent English speakers, we didn’t really need to consciously learn how to react — it just comes out naturally.
The Japanese people have a whole different way of reacting; actually, a couple of ways. If you’ve ever watched an episode of an anime or Japanese drama, you probably have heard at least one on this list. Some of them are pretty unique — so much that it’s pretty much part of the Japanese culture!
So without further ado, let’s dive headfirst into the top 10 common Japanese reaction phrases!
1. “Ehhhhhh?” (えーーーーー？)
The first one on the list — and the phrase that inspired this whole article — is the classic “ehhhhhhh?” It’s pronounced as “え”, but extremely exaggerated: “えーーーー？” I guess how long you drag it out depends on how shocked you are by what you’re told?
I hear this everywhere — on the streets, at a restaurant, even in the ladies’ toilet! It’s pretty much the go-to reaction response to anything. Your friend told you she just got a new dress: “Ehhhh?” Your housemate cooked a big meal for everyone: “Ehhhhh?” You woke up late: “Ehhhh?”
As I said, it’s multi-purpose. It’s kind of like “really?” in English but with a bit of the shock factor — just a bit, like a sprinkle.
2. Uwaa! (うわ〜！)
The next on our list is “uwaa!” (うわ〜！) This expression can be translated roughly to “wow” in English. Unlike the first one, “uwaa” can’t really be dragged out too much — actually, I don’t think I heard anyone drag it out at all, rather the opposite: cut short, like “uwa-!” (うわー！)
Similar to how you would use “wow” in English, this reaction phrase is used when someone told you something surprising or amazing. It’s like you can’t believe what you heard, or something that someone did is impressive.
An example can be of a recent usage personally — when someone told me that they tried surfing for the first time this summer, and I was pretty amazed and surprised that I automatically reacted with “uwaa!”
3. Uso? (うそー？)
This phrase actually consists of the word “lie” in Japanese, but “uso?” (うそー？) is kind of like saying “nah, you’re lying to me.”
It’s a step up from “uwaa!” when it comes to the surprising factor. Let’s say your friend told you that they went swimming with sharks, does that sound believable? In English, you’d go, “nah, that’s not true. That’s definitely a lie.” In Japanese, you cut it short and just say, “uso?”
It’s like calling out someone for lying but in a joking way…in the form of a reaction. I guess that’s the best way of explaining this phrase.
4. Sugoi ne! (すごいね！)
Say “sugoi ne!” (すごいね！) when you feel happy for your friend or find something pretty great. It can be a reaction to someone speaking to you or just an exclamation if you see something randomly that caught your attention. The phrase actually consists of the word “sugoi” (すごい)to mean great and “ne” (ね) as an attachment at the end for a softer tone. You could leave the “ne” out as well.
For example, your friend just found out that she got a whole month off of work so she’s booking a spontaneous trip overseas! That sounds great, doesn’t it? React with “sugoi ne!” Then, she comes back from her trip with a beautiful tan and a new hairstyle — looks so good, right? Tell her that by saying “sugoi ne!”
This phrase can have a less positive impact depending on how you say it. Usually, it’s said with a cheerful tone, but if it’s not with it, it kind of sounds just a little bit sarcastic.
5. Suge! (すげー！)
Yup, you guessed it — “suge!” (すげー！) is the slang form of our previous reaction phrase. It takes the word “sugoi” and kind of change it to have a more masculine tone. Most of the time, “suge!” is used by guys rather than girls as they tend to avoid sounding harsh and risk being less feminine.
The way to use “suge!” is exactly the same as “sugoi ne”, so that’s pretty simple right?
6. Maji?/Majide? (まじ？/まじで？)
This one’s my personal favourite even though I don’t use it as often as I want to. “Maji?” (まじ？) or “majide?” (まじで？) — either way works, there’s actually no difference at all between the two — is kind of like saying “are you for real?” or “are you serious?” “Majika?” (まじか？) works just the same, too.
I’d say it’s a step up from “uso?” — when you really, really, really don’t believe something and is taken aback by surprise, you use “majide?” I feel like it has a cool ring to it — maybe just my gaijin (外人) ears not being used to it.
I was pondering whether this phrase is used by more guys or girls, but at the end of the day, I think it’s pretty much balanced. If it so happens that your guy friends say it more than your girl friends, that’s just coincidence and personal preference for the girls.
7. Honto? (本当？)
Remember out first phrase (“ehhhhh?”) and how I said it sort of roughly translates to “really?” It does, but “honto?” (本当？) actually translates to that meaning better. It’s like “for real?”
You can also say “hontoni?” (本当に？) which is pretty much exactly the same as “honto” — I’d say the only difference is that “hontoni” might have just, ever so slightly, a politer tone. “Hontoni” is like “really?” and “honto” is like “for real?” — see the tiny difference?
If you want to be polite, use the polite form of “honto desu ka?” (本当ですか？)
8. A-! (あー！)
Do you know that moment when you’re trying to remember something or your friend is telling you about something and you’re trying to recall it, and all of a sudden it popped in your head and you go, “oh I know, I remember!” — or somewhere along those lines.
“A—!” (あー！) is pretty much that reaction when you know what they’re talking about or you finally remembered the thing you were trying so hard to recall. Say your friend is going on and on about that one night where you both went out and got dinner: “remember that time when we ate pizza and drank all that beer?” After a ton of racking through the brain, you go, “A—! Yes!”
The “a—” is kind of cut off at the end — no elongation whatsoever.
9. Sounano? (そうなの？)
I feel like “sounano?” (そうなの？) has a polite tone to it as well. It’s like saying “is that so?” In English, saying that doesn’t come as often (or maybe it’s just me), but when it does, it’s usually when you’re speaking to someone who has a softer vibe to them or someone you’re not so familiar with.
There’s another way of saying this phrase and that is “sounanda?” (そうなんだ？) — pretty much the exact same thing; no different for guys and girls.
This reaction phrase is not too polite though, since the polite form of this phrase is “soudesuka?” (そうですか？)
10. Are? (あれ？)
Last but not least is “are?” (あれ？). No, it’s not pronounced like the plural form of “is” — it’s “ah-re”. I would use this when the opposite situation of “a—!”: when I forgot something that was practically at the tip of my tongue.
More commonly used is when you’re confused at what you just heard — maybe your friend is telling you about how much they love cats but you actually thought they loved dogs: “Are—? Don’t you love dogs more than cats?”
Phew — that was a tough one trying to explain the reaction phrases. I hope the examples clarified any confusion, but if not, send our way a couple of “あれ？” so you’re making it clear that you’re quite jumbled up there. Anyway, for those that you did catch, try using them the next time you’re talking to a Japanese friend — or any friend, for that matter!
The Japanese kimono is one of the world’s most fascinating garments, not only because of its beauty but also because of its history, as well as its longevity. While the kimono is an ancient garment with a history going back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), it has stood the test of time amazingly well and is still regarded as one of the most attractive (and comfortable) forms of clothing ever created.
In the beginning, kimono (the word in Japanese is the same in its plural form) were simpler in style and were worn with trouser-like skirts known as hakama. Sometime later the hakama was discarded, and the obi, a wide sash, was added. It wasn’t until the Kamakura period ( 1185-1333) that color combinations became fashionable, and today’s formal kimono still reflect colors and designs based on themes, seasons and even family and political ties.
Since ancient times, Japanese men and women have typically worn heavier silk kimono in the fall and winter, and lightweight linen and cotton kimono in the spring and summer.
A simple kimono, such as a household kimono or man’s casual kimono, is worn much like a robe. A classic formal kimono (such as the style that’s synonymous with geisha entertainers) is a much more complicated affair, enhanced with an elaborate obi, a wide sash that is tied around the middle and enhanced with a makura, an obi bustle pad in the back. A cord, known as an obijime, is tied in front to keep the obi in place.
Are Kimono Still Worn in Japan?
Is the kimono still being worn in Japan? The answer is a resounding yes. The kimono is still a staple costume in many types of traditional Japanese theater, including classic kabuki and noh. In real life, however, most Japanese restrict their kimono-wearing to special events and festivals, such as the November 15 children’s festival Shichi-Go-San, or Shogatsu (January 1-4), the Japanese New Year.
However, you can still see the kimono being worn in the streets of Kyoto, Japan’s center of kimono culture — although chances are that most of the people wearing kimono will be tourists. Kyoto is also the site of Japan’s famed geisha schools and teahouses, and tourists spend hours waiting for a glimpse of these talented kimono-clad performers. According to those in the know, if you want a photo, the best place to wait is in the historic Gion district at around 5:45 pm, when geisha are on their way to their evening engagements.
While in Kyoto, you can purchase a kimono from one of the town’s many specialty kimono shops, as well as rent them by the hour. When you do, be sure to pick up the proper tabi socks (with a separate big toe) and zori (kimono sandals) to complete your outfit. You can even get a geisha makeover, complete with fancy kimono, makeup and studio photos of yourself, for a reasonable price.
Taking a Language (and Kimono) Trip to Japan
Each year, thousands of people in the US learn Japanese online, teaching themselves Japanese words and vocabulary via websites. If you’re wondering how to learn Japanese online or how to read kanji, be sure to visit Nihongo Master, which offers a wide range of Japanese language lessons for every level. While you learn, Nihongo Master online also entertains you with manga-style comics and puzzles, making lessons not only more fun but easier to relate to and remember.
One of the best ways to learn Japanese is to take a language trip, where you can immerse yourself in the written and spoken language — as well as the culture — of this fascinating country. If you love the history of kimono, you can make it a kimono trip as well by taking a journey to Kyoto. For many, a trip to Japan isn’t complete without seeing at least one kimono-clad geiko (the Kyoto word for geisha) or maiko (apprentice geiko), either in performance or walking to a gig. While you’re there, be sure to treat yourself to an authentic kimono from one of Kyoto’s many kimono shops. It’s the best possible souvenir you could bring home from a trip to Japan.