Here’s What’s Up With the ‘Shogun’ Haircut

Behind their odd choice of hair surface area
Here’s What’s Up With the ‘Shogun’ Haircut

If youve been watching the excellent Hulu show Shogun, its probably raised a lot of questions in your mind. Maybe how little you know about the history of Christianity and the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and how that affected the world at large. Perhaps it inspired some rumination on how skewed the teaching of our history has been, and how Europeans were viewed by other established civilizations in the past. Or compelled you to research the complicated history of Japanese shogunates and the Edo period. 

One question probably came to the forefront of your Westernized mind before any other, though, and that was: What exactly is going on with that hairdo?

The haircut Im talking about is the traditional chonmage, a combination of hair on the sides of the head and a topknot, contrasted by a completely bald pate. Its not like I wasnt aware of the haircut altogether, as anyone with a passing interest in information would have probably seen it depicted. What I seem to have wrongly assumed was that the bald tops I saw in illustrations and pictures was merely an unfortunate turn of follicular fate. I thought they were just forced into a haircut that didnt flatter their male pattern baldness, like an old jazz guitarist with a ponytail. 

In the show, however, its clear that the top was intentionally shaved bald, given that this is far too big of a production to let day-old stubble be constantly poking out if someone was supposed to be bald.

“Absolutely everything off the top, please.”

It turns out that the origin of this hairstyle was simple practicality, which eventually turned into tradition. In the beginning, it was a method of keeping the head cool and the helmet snug while wearing traditional samurai headgear — something that draws a delightful and unexpected link between the samurais chonmage and the modern hockey player's mullet

But this haircut prevails even in times of peace, with minimal helmet-wearing. So why keep the haircut instead of growing some luscious locks, knowing you could always lop them off if shit went south? Well, because it became a badge of honor. The samurai were highly respected both in society and in battle, so the haircut became a signifier of that samurais title, even outside of battle. The same way you wouldnt fuck with somebody with cauliflower ear, it probably was better to avoid pissing off someone with a chonmage.

The chonmage is still around today, most notably on sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors, but its more common to see it with the top of the head left fully furred, maybe contributing to the retroactive weirdness of the original. Sumo wrestlers even have specialized barbers to carefully coif their chonmage known as tokoyama

The demise of the chonmage is interesting in and of itself. It wasnt just due to the fact that it seems like a real bitch to maintain, but because it was made illegal. The Dampatsurei edict was issued in 1871 during the Meiji restoration, one goal of which was to take away the power of the samurai. It required all men to abandon the chonmage and adopt Western hairstyles, with the only exception being sumo wrestlers.


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