Meiji sword, hair, and clothing laws

Dress codes in the "four peoples equality" age

By William Wetherall

First posted 10 February 2010
Last updated 25 May 2021


Swords, haircuts, and clothing Regulating dress and comportment in the "four peoples equality" age
Great Council of State proclamations 1870-4 GCS 232 Wearing swords at court restricted 1871-1 GCS 831 Comporting like samurai prohibited
1871-2 GCS 984 Farmers, craftsmen, and merchants are not to wear swords 1871-9 GCS 399 Shizoku allowed to cut hair and dispense with swords
1873-1 GCS 33 Forthcoming 1876-3 GCS 38 Restrictions on wearing swords clarified Sources


Swords, haircuts, and clothing

Regulating dress and comportment in the "four peoples equality" age

Cothing, hair styles, and the wearing of swords, as marks or privileges of caste or class, were regulated during the Tokugawa period to the extent that standards were fairly uniform and stable. Given Japan's geographical size and political and social complexity, styles and practices varied and changed from place to place and time to time.

Mobility between farmers, craftsmen, and merchants was common, and there was also some mobility between these castes and people of lower castes, especially hinin (non-people). Poorer, lower ranking samurai might also shed the emblems of their status for those of another vocation. And it was not impossible for wealthier and influential non-samurai to migrate to the status of a lower ranking samurai and begin to dress and comport themselves accordingly.

During the final years of the Tokugawa period, especially in towns around treaty ports, some people began to emulate the fashions of foreigners. By the beginning of the Meiji era, native and foreign elements of clothing had become conspicuously confused as more people fused the novel and exotic with the old and familiar to create a new "Japanese-western compromise" (wayō setchū ˜a—mÜ’) style.

Hair styles also changed, as did architecture, modes of transportation, food, even manners and speech, attitudes toward the world and life, society and politics, romance, drama, literature, music -- and swords. And since what people wore, how they cut their hair, and whether they carried a sword had been largely a matter of formal status, the ways in which people dressed were naturally affected by the radical changes in formal definitions of status that took place at the start of the Meiji period.

"Four peoples equal"

The conventional class system, which defined half a dozen social statuses that were likely to be inherited, was replaced by one which defined four classes which likewise had caste-like qualities -- imperial family, nobility, shizoku, and heimin. For details, see class, caste, outcaste in the Minorities almanac section of the Glossaries feature, and Social status laws in Japan: Caste, class, and titles of nobility since 1868 under "Law" in the "Anthropology" section of this website.

Conventionally, the mainstream population -- between the super castes (imperial family and closely related aristocratic families) and the sub castes (eta, hinin, and others) -- consisted of 4 classes (castes) called "shi-nō-kō-shō Žm”_H¤) or samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Some social historians have dubbed these the "shimin" (Žl–¯) or "4 peoples" -- the "min" of which usually refers to the common population of a society -- the "people" who belong to a territory or realm as "affiliates" or "subjects". While Nakamura Kichisaburō has characterized "min" as "caste" in his very readable 1959 article (see Sources below), the metaphor is not one of caste but political affiliation.

Occupational statuses were, of course, likely to be inherited, simply because most children grew up learning the skills required to succeed their parents. However, the occupational classes were not biological castes. Blood lines were important but not paramount. There was mobility. Blood mattered in imperial descent -- an emperor or empress had to have been a prince or princess of blood. But this was not true in other classes.

"Min" (–¯) had been used for more than a millennium in Japan to signify someone who belonged to the realm or a domain. The 1871 Family Register Law spoke of "jinmin" (l–¯) and "kokumin" (‘–¯) and "shinmin" (b–¯) -- the people, nationals, subjects. And the general term for such population registers was "minseki" (–¯Ð) or "peoples [commoners] register".

See Belonging in Japan past and present for an overview of the continuity of usage of "min" and related terms.

New dress codes for new statuses

The Meiji government defined itself by the numerous laws it issued to bring about and control political, economic, and social change in the new country. Until a representative parliament began in 1885, laws were made in the form of proclamations and notifications by the Great Council of State and the ministries. proclamations that aaimed to set and clarify new standards of clothing, hair, and swords, to accommodate transitions from the older to the newer social statuses.

Here I will introduce the clothing, hair, and sword proclamations issued between 1870 and 1876.

  1. Appellations like Eta and Hinin are abolished.
  2. The statuses and occupations of eta, hinin and such will now be the same as those of commoners (heimin).
  3. eta, hinin and such will enrolled in general population registers (ippan minseki), and their statuses and occupations will be treated like those of others in such registers.

The following transcriptions and translations are mine.

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Great Council of State proclamations

The following proclamations are a very small sample of many that concerned the dress and comportant of people under the new social order.

The transcriptions are based on versions of the proclamations as printed in the multi-volume "Complete book of laws and ordinances" (Hōrei zensho –@—ß‘S‘) or HRZS. The work divides laws and orders into several volumes by their Keiō or Meiji year, and by month and day of promulgation within each agency, including ministries. See Sources, below, for details.

The translations are my usual structural representations of the Japanese text, in which I attempt to preserve some elements of the wording and phrasing, while glossing metaphors. In the following examples, I have left the construction lines in the structural parsings rather than polish them out, but have also shown polished versions.

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1870-4-24 GCS Proclamation No. 232

Wearing swords at court restricted

In the spring of 1870, the Great Council of State proclaimed that titled members of the nobility were permitted to wear swords when coming to the court, as far as the waiting room, where presumably they would have to leave the sword before being admitted further (HRZS, Volume 5, Meiji 3, page 129). A headnote observes that this order lapsed with the promulgation of GCS 38 of Meiji 9 (1876).

1870-4-24 GCS Proclamation No. 232 (Meiji 3-3-24)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘æ“ñ•SŽO\“ñ†
–¾Ž¡ŽO”NŽOŒŽ“ñ\Žl“ú (•z)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 232
Promulgated Meiji 3-3-24 (24 April 1870)

ˆê—LˆÊ‰Ø‘°ŽQ’©”VßJŠ–˜’ñ“•s‹êŒóŽ–

On occasions of [a member of the] nobility with a rank [title] visiting the court, bearing [bringing] a sword as far as the waiting place [antechamber] shall not be minded.

On occasions of nobility with rank visiting the court, there is no problem wearing a sword as far as the waiting chamber.

Nobility with a rank, when visiting the court, may wear a sword as far as the antechamber.

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1871-1-4 GCS Proclamation No. 831

Comporting like samurai prohibitted

Shortly before the new year of the lunar calendar of Meiji 3 (early in January on the solar calendar of 1871), peasants and merchants and such -- some of whom had taken to dressing like and wearing swords in the manner people of samurai lineage -- were prohibited from doing so (HRZS, Volume 5, Meiji 3, page 512). A headnote observes that this order lapsed with the promulgations of GCS 416 of Meiji 4 (1871) and GCS 38 of Meiji 9 (1876).

1871-1-4 GCS Proclamation No. 831 (Meiji 3-11-14)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘攪•SŽO\ˆê†
–¾Ž¡ŽO”N\ˆêŒŽ\Žl“ú (•z) (‘¾­Š¯)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 831
Promulgated Meiji 3-11-14 (4 January 1871)

•S©’¬l‹¤åû‚ŒÑŠ„‰HDƒ’’…ƒV˜e·ƒ’‘уVŽm—ñƒj•´•~•—铃jƒe’ʍs’vƒVŒó‹V•s‘Š¬ŒóŽ–

A case [matter, affair] of either a hundred-surnamer [farmer, fisherman etc.] or town-person [merchant, craftsman etc.] wearing a high-gusset hakama (machidaka-bakama) and split haori (saki-baori), carrying a long side sword (naga-wakizashi), and plying-and-moving in a manner [of appearance] resembling [mistakable for] [that of someone of] samurai rank, shall not be.

Farmers and townsmen shall not wear a high-gusset hakama (machidaka-bakama) or split haori (saki-baori), carry a long side sword (naga-wakizashi), or move in a manner mistakable for a person of samurai rank.

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1871-2-13 GCS Proclamation No. 984

Farmers, craftsmen, and merchants are not to wear swords

A month after the order prohibiting peasants and townsmen from comporting themselves like a samurai, an order was issued to further crack down on people of farmer, craftsman, and merchant status who wore swords without permission or reason (HRZS, Volume 5, Meiji 3, page 709). A headnote observes that this order lapsed with the promulgation of GCS 38 of Meiji 9 (1876).

1871-2-13 GCS Proclamation No. 984 (Meiji 3-12-24)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘æ‹ã•S”ª\Žl†
–¾Ž¡ŽO”N\“ñŒŽ“ñ\Žl“ú (•z)
(‘¾­Š¯)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 984
Promulgated Meiji 3-12-24 (13 February 1871)

”_H¤”V”y‹–‰Â–³”Và΃j‘Ñ“’vƒVŒóŽÒ—L”VŽïˆÈ”VŠO”VŽ–ƒjŒóžŠ’n•ûŠ¯ƒj‰—ƒe›¦“xŽæ’÷‰Â’vŒóŽ–

That a person of a farmer, craftsman, or merchant lot without permission recklessly carries a sword, is a matter beyond thought. [Such persons] shall be immediately controlled by regional officials.

That the likes of a farmer, craftsman, or merchant would recklessly carry a sword without permission is unconscionable. They are to be immediately controlled by regional officials.

This proclamation was nullified by GCS Proclamation No. 38 of 1876-3-28 (Meiji 9-3-28), for which see below.

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1871-9-23 GCS Proclamation No. 399

Shizoku allowed to cut hair and dispense with swords

This proclamation essentially allowed people -- meaning shizoku, who had worn their hair in a topknot and born swords as emblems of their samurai lineage -- to cut their topknots and dispense with wearing swords (HRZS, Volume 6, Meiji 4, pages 316-317). A headnote observes that this proclamation, other than its provision regarding the cutting of hair, lapsed with the promulgations of GCS 9 and 339 of Meiji 5 (1872) and GCS 38 of Meiji 9 (1876).

1871-9-23 GCS Proclamation No. 399 (Meiji 4-8-9)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘æŽO•S‹ã\‹ã†
–¾Ž¡Žl”N”ªŒŽ‹ã“ú

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 399
Promulgated Meiji 4-8-9 (23 September 1871)

ŽU”¯§•ž—ª•ž’E“‹¤‰ÂਏŸŽèŽ–
’AâX•žƒmßƒn‘Ñ“‰Â’vŽ–

Cutting of hair, regulated [uniform] clothing, abbreviated [informal] clothing, and removal of [dispensing with, not wearing] swords, together [all], shall be as one chooses [at one's convenience].
However [provided], on occasions of ceremonial [formal] clothing, the bearing [wearing] of a sword should be done.

[Shizoku] may cut their hair, wear uniform or casual clothing, or remove their swords, at their discretion.
However [provided], they shall wear swords on occasions of ceremonial clothing.

This proclamation was ammended by GCS Proclamation No. 38 of 1876-3-28 (Meiji 9-3-28), for which see below.

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1873-1-30 GCS Proclamation No. 33

Forthcoming

Forthcoming.

[HRZS Volume 8, Meiji 6, page 34]

1873-1-30 GCS Proclamation No. 33 (Meiji 6-1-30)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘æŽO\ŽO†
(–¾Ž¡˜Z”NˆêŒŽŽO\“ú) (•z)

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 33
Promulgated Meiji 6-1-30 (30 January 1873)

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1876-3-28 GCS Proclamation No. 38

Restrictions on wearing swords clarified

In the spring of 1876, the Great Council of State proclaimed the following general prohibition of the wearing of swords, except in certain court ceremonies, and by some officials at other times (HRZS, Volume 11, Meiji 9, page 36).

GCS Proclamation No. 38 of Meiji 9 was directed mainly at shizoku, who had been exempted from the 1870 and 1871 measures that prohibited ordinary people from wearing swords.

The proclamation triggered strong reactions from some shizoku, particularly in Kyushu but also in Yamaguchi. Reactions to stripping former samurai of their last outward emblem of caste distinction fed the uprisings that led to a number of local uprisings at the end of the year and the Seinan War the following year.

1876-3-28 GCS Proclamation No. 38 (Meiji 9-3-28)

‘¾­Š¯•z‘æŽO\”ª†
(–¾Ž¡‹ã”NŽOŒŽ“ñ\”ª“ú —ÖŠf•

Great Council of State Proclamation No. 38
Promulgated Meiji 9-3-28 (28 March 1876)

Ž©¡‘åâX•ž’…—p•ÀƒjŒRl‹yƒqŒxŽ@Š¯—™“™§‹KƒAƒ‹•ž’…—pƒmßƒ’œƒNƒmŠO‘Ñ“”í‹ÖŒóžŠŸŽ|•zŒóŽ–
’Aˆá”ƃmŽÒƒn‘´“‰ÂŽæãŽ–

From now, other than as excepted on occasions of use when wearing great-ceremonial [formal court] clothing, or of use when wearing clothing by military personal, police officers, and others, for which there are regulations, the bearing [wearing] of swords is prohibited -- the purport of this article is [hereby] proclaimed [nationwide].
However [provided], regarding those in contravention [of this proclamation], their swords shall be taken up [confiscated].

Henceforth, other than when permitted on occasions of use while wearing ceremonial clothing, or of use by military personal, police officers, and others while wearing regulation clothing, the bearing of swords is prohibited -- the purport of which article is hereby proclaimed.
However [provided], the swords of those in violation will be confiscated.

This proclamation nullified GCS Proclamation No. 984 of 1871-2-13 (Meiji 3-12-24), and it ammended GCS Proclamation No. 399 of 1871-9-23 (Meiji 4-8-9), for both of which see above.

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Sources

The following translations are my structural renderings of the cited Japanese texts, which are my transcriptions from the versions of the proclamations printed in the multi-volume "Complete book of laws and ordinances" (Hōrei zensho –@—ß‘S‘) or HRZS. The work is divided into volumes (û) with a Keiō or Meiji year.

Early Meiji proclamations of laws and regulations can be found through the Nihon hōrei sakujin (“ú–{–@—ߍõˆø) or "Japan law index" on the National Diet Library Dajōkan server (dajokan.ndl.go.jp). Returns from searches using keywords or titles of laws show lists of relevant laws with particulars on the laws and links to scans of texts on NDL's "Digital Library" server (dl.ndl.co.jp), which it calls "Digital Collections".

National Diet Library Digital Collection (‘—§‘‰ï}‘ŠÙƒfƒWƒ^ƒ‹ƒRƒŒƒNƒVƒ‡ƒ“)

See Meiji volumes of Hōrei zensho in the "Legal terminology" section of the "Glossaries" feature of this website for more information about HRZS and NDL's digital archives.

In addition to the HRZS texts available through the National Diet Library, I am indebted to the following two very informative papers.

Iwatani 2006 (NDL Dajokan law guide)

The following guide to early Meiji Great Council of State laws can be downloaded from the National Diet Library's Dajokan website (as of 14 February 2010).

Šâ’J\˜Y
–¾Ž¡‘¾­Š¯Šú–@—߂̐¢ŠE
“ú–{–@—ߍõˆøk–¾Ž¡‘OŠú•Òl‰ðà
•½¬19”N1ŒŽ
‘—§‘‰ï}‘ŠÙ

Iwatani Ichirō
Meiji Dajōkan ki hōrei no sekai
[The world of law during the period of the Meiji Great Council of State]
Nihon hōrei sakuin (Meiji zenki hen) kaisetsu
[Japan law index (Early period of Meiji volume) guide]
Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan
[Nationality Diet Library]
1 (cover), 34 (text) pages (35 page PDF file)
35-page PDF document

Nakamura 1959 ("The Equality of the Four Castes")

The following article can be downloaded from the Faculty of Law (–@ŠwŠwp‰@) section of Waseda University Library DSpace website (as of 14 February 2010).

’†‘º‹gŽO˜Y
Žl–¯•½“™‚Æ‚¢‚¤‚±‚Æ
‘ˆî“c–@Šw (‘ˆî“c–@Šw‰ï)
‘æ35ŠªA‘æ3† (1959”N8ŒŽ10“ú)
ƒy[ƒW449-461 (75-87)

Nakamura Kichisaburō
Shimin byōdō to iu koto
[ The matter of four-people equality ]
< The Equality of the Four CastesF A change of Caste after the Meiji Restoration  
Waseda hōgaku < Waseda Law Review >
(Waseda hōgaku kai < Waseda Law Association >)
< Bulletin of [Waseda] Faculty of Law >
Volume 35, Number 3 (10 August 1959)
Pages 449-461 (75-87)
13-page PDF document

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