A Walkthrough of Japan’s Fashion, Through the Ages! (Podcast Recap! S1E9)

A Walkthrough of Japan’s Fashion, Through the Ages! (Podcast Recap! S1E9)


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!


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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

Image Credit: tomoike_2525

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.

Vocab Recap

Here’s the full list from our various vocab recaps in the podcast episode:


Kimono (着物) — traditional Japanese clothing

Hakama () — 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 () — 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!

All You Need to Know About Japan’s Emperors (Podcast Recap! S1E13)

All You Need to Know About Japan’s Emperors (Podcast Recap! S1E13)

In our 13th episode of Nihongo Master podcast, we came to you as an ambassador for the royal family of Japan — chatting about the lives and times of the emperors. The royals are still a pretty big deal here. 

The imperial monarchy of Japan is the oldest royal dynasty anywhere in the world. We know for sure that this same family has been in power — in one form or another — for at least 1500 years. Although, if Japanese legend is to be believed, that number is closer to 2650 years!

If you want to understand how the Japanese people relate to their imperial family, you only have to look at a select few — a greatest hits of some of the most influential royals ever to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

This is a recap of the full episode, so if you’d like to hear more about it, head over to Apple Podcast or Spotify to check it out!

#1. Emperor Jimmu

We looked at the very first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, linked to the Shinto myths about the creation of the world itself. Jimmu, the very first Yamato Dynasty Emperor, reigned for an impressive 75 years, from 660 to 585 BC. He’s believed to be the grandson of the sun — the actual sun. 

We won’t go into detail about how it all came about — so if you’re interested, the quickest way to get your answers is if you head over to the Nihongo Master podcast and have a listen to episode 13!

Jimmu did what all emperors do: he started conquering kingdoms. While moving through modern-day Osaka, he eventually met his match in a local warlord who served the ruler of modern-day Nara and had to back off to lick his wounds, losing his brother along the way. 

Because he was the grandson of the sun, he didn’t have to lay down and accept defeat. His godly grandma sent a vision to one of his advisers which showed a magical sword hidden nearby. He then brought the sword to Jim, and they continued on their way. 

That’s not all — because the eastern approach to ancient Nara was pretty tricky to navigate, the sun goddess sent a guide to help: a three-legged crow called Yatagarasu. We mentioned him before, in our Fantastic Beasts episode (episode 4). 

With a magic sword and a talking animal companion, of course, Jimmu succeeded in his conquering of the cities and established a dynasty.

So do the Japanese people themselves genuinely believe in these myths? We had a bit of contemporary discussion in the episode, so give it a listen to hear more about how these myths came about and what the Japanese people really believe happened.

#2. Empress Suiko

We jumped forward around 1000 years to 593 AD for a healthy dose of girl power. The legal ban of having a ruling empress is a pretty recent development — throughout history, Japan has actually had eight different empresses sitting on its throne. The longest-reigning of them all was also the very first: Empress Suiko. As the 33rd head of the dynasty, she was the ruler of Japan for a full 35 years, from 593 to 628 AD.

There were a lot of deaths involved that put her into power — and we broke it down briefly in the podcast episode. Empress Suiko had to step in to put an end to all of the bickerings between the boys of the two clans, the Mononobes and Sogas. They had fought a war over the last emperor, and it looked like they would be going at it again unless a neutral leader could step up to quieten things down. So that’s exactly why Empress Suiko was chosen to take on the proper title of empress. 

Together with her nephew, the crown prince, they spread Buddhism throughout Japan, established diplomacy with China, and brought a lot of Chinese innovations to the country, including the calendar and political system. 

So Empress Suiko’s ruling sounds like a huge win for women in Japan, but why the ban on women becoming empress? Similarly, we had a contemporary discussion in the podcast episode — talking about how the imperial palace was made into a boys-only club, and how the current Emperor only has a daughter…what would become of Japan’s royalty line? Will we finally see another empress on the throne in this lifetime? 

#3. The Meiji Emperor

We jumped way forward down the line of succession, to 1868, when one Prince Mutsuhito inherited the throne after the death of his father the year before, and with it took the name, Emperor Meiji. This was the start of probably the most important part of Japanese history: the Meiji Era.

If you’ve ever been to Japan before, you’ll know that it’s not all kimonos and pagodas; this is a thoroughly modern country with a lot of international influences. After visiting a centuries-old shrine, you can go grab a hamburger. And after a long hard day at work, you can slip out of your business suit and into a traditional yukata robe for a dip in an onsen. This mix of the familiar and uniquely Japanese is part of what makes Japan such an easy place to travel in. And for that, the first person we have to thank is Emperor Meiji. 

Before the Meiji Era, Japan was pretty much completely closed off to the outside world, but, seeing how the rest of the world was racing ahead of them, some influential feudal lords of the day decided it was time to leave the old feudalist ways behind. 

The first step was to get rid of the Shogun — the military leader of Japan, who actually held more power than the emperor himself — and they did. With his full power restored for the first time in almost 700 years, the emperor went about giving his country a total Western makeover. 

This meant business suits and Western casual clothes; trams on the avenues and railways connecting the cities; flushing toilets and modern sewage systems; street lights and paved roads; newspapers and the Gregorian calendar; and universities to educate the public; oh, and Western food.

But…there was a darker side to all this modernization because at the same time, Japan was upgrading its military with lots of deadly new tools. In fact, some of the samurai who helped put the Meiji Emperor on the throne found themselves at the wrong end of his new guns during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, as they felt short-changed by the fact that they’d lost nearly all of the privileges they once enjoyed.

After putting down the angry samurai, Meiji-san went on a bit of a rampage of wars around Asia, conquering Korea, parts of China, Taiwan, and part of Russia. What’s more, the government also fought a political war against Buddhism, and promoted Japan’s native Shinto religion instead. And for the first time ever, they started promoting the idea that the Emperor himself was a literal Shinto god…

Things kind of went a bit crazy, and Japanese nationalism was at an all-time high. About 30 years after Emperor Meiji’s 1912 death, all of this mad propaganda would eventually lead to…well…

Our contemporary discussion for this part talked a bit about Japanese politics — nothing too heavy, but some stuff that you’d want to know if you’re ever thinking about settling down here permanently. The wounds from those wards with China and Korea are still pretty raw…

#4. The Reiwa Emperor

The final emperor we talked about was the current one. Although his name is Emperor Naruhito, Japanese monarchs traditionally take a new name to match the new era they ring in, so he’s now technically named Emperor Reiwa. 

And you might well be wondering, who chooses the name for the era? Well… it’s a whole traditional process that we discussed in the episode, so you should definitely listen to it for the answer to that question! 

Emperor Reiwa’s enthronement ceremony was quite a big deal too. It took place in October 2019 and representatives from pretty much every country on earth joined. The area around Tokyo’s imperial palace was also packed with royalists and tourists looking to absorb a little history in the making. If those crowds were any indication, it seems like the Japanese royal family is still doing pretty well. 

Naruhito and his wife — Kōgō Masako — enjoy a pretty decent amount of admiration. Kyodo News puts the figure somewhere around 75%, meaning about three-quarters of the country have a generally favourable opinion or better — they’re charitable, gentle, maybe a little boring. However, there’s still a sense among a lot of Japanese people that… they don’t really matter. 

Since they don’t get involved in politics, they’re basically just symbolic. The new Japanese constitution stated that the emperor was totally banned from participating in politics. Nowadays, the Japanese royal family stays waaaay away from all of that — the emperor is even less politically powerful now than in the days of the shogun. 

But, remember, he is still the head of the Shinto religion.

Vocab Recap

Densetsu (伝説) — legend

Tennō (天皇) — emperor

Amatsukami (天津神) — the original heavenly gods in Japanese shinto

Karasu (カラス) — crow

Mon (紋) — a Japanese family clan emblem.

Kiku (菊) — chrysanthemum,

Kōgo (交互) — the wife of the emperor

bukkyō (仏教) — buddhism

Daimyō (大名) — a feudal lord and head of a family clan in old Japan

Musuko (息子) — son

Musume (娘) — daughter

Daigaku (大学) — university 

Yōshoku (洋食) — Western-style food

sensō (戦争) — war

Gaijin (外人) — a slang term for foreigner, which is short for the more polite term gaikokujin (外国人). 

Uyoku dantai  (右翼団体)— right-wing groups

Sayoku (左翼) — left-wing

Kenkoku Kinen no hi (建国記念の日) — National Foundation Day, on February 11th

Jidai (時代) — era

ginkō (銀行) — bank

Kōkyo (皇居) — the imperial palace in Tokyo

Kekkonshiki (結婚式) — wedding

Kenpō (憲法) — constitution

Four very different emperors/empresses, who reveal four very different facets of Japanese culture and society. I’d say that understanding the lives and times of these four rulers is pretty key to understanding modern Japan and how it came to be.

It’s a place of ancient myths which still affect and enrich daily life; a place where women can often be relegated to the sidelines; a place where national identity has a sometimes ambivalent relationship with the outside world; and where, despite all that, the vast majority of the people continue to update their attitudes to fit with the modern times, while still holding onto their unique traditions and heritage. 

So what are you waiting for? Head over to Apply Podcast or Spotify for the full episode!