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The Westernization of Meiji Japan: Effects on Men’s Clothing

Japan had existed for centuries, closed from the world, all credited to its military leadership, Tokugawa Shogunate, which had been in charge of the country since the early 1600s. The military leadership left the Japanese Emperor without control over its affairs. Western ships continually interacted with China as the country maintained isolation, frequently asking for supplies through Japanese ports. To maintain Japan’s control, the Shogunate declared death to any person who would aid foreigners. However, due to its decaying democracy, a weakened feudal system and its increasing interaction with Western technology, the Japanese wanted to change, and, in 1867, inspired by a young Japanese communicating its benefits, began the Meiji Restoration. The Emperor’s leadership role was restored, and he was referred to as the Meiji. While the restoration transformed Japan through Western education, communication and mechanization, a significant and swift change was in its clothing culture, primarily among the men, who, from wearing kimonos, embraced trousers, shirts and accessories.

Before the Meiji era was the Edo era between 1603 and 1868, where the Tokugawa Shogunate, due to Japan’s peace and stability, required men to wear presentable clothing. The kimono, the Japanese main attire, was elegant and, with a specific art form, was worn as a show of status and power. As wealth spread throughout Japan, fashion changed, and embroidery incorporated multiple colours and asymmetric designs derived from famous artists and theatre costumes. The kimonos during the Edo era were loosely worn, had soft shoulders and were accessorized with obi belts (Chung 15). Also resembling a jacket type, the kimonos had wide sleeves, and a cord joined their ends. Nonetheless, after the Meiji Restoration, Japan emerged as modern, robust and industrialized, taking influence from the West. With the change, Japan started wearing new clothing because government officials and their wives were expected to wear Western-style dresses at work and on formal occasions. The uptake of Western clothing, also called Yofuku, prompted the Emperor to shorten his hair and eliminate his moustache.

Men’s clothing changed significantly before and after the Meiji restoration due to their increasing desire to fit in with the Western civilization. Since the 1600s, the Japanese were already famous for weaving silk and fabric in different styles and at different societal levels. The male nobility’s clothes were different from the ordinary people, whereby the latter wore loose, oversized shirts and broad trousers. Both were tied with a rope at the waist. Contrastingly, the nobles’ trousers were longer, and the upper part entailed long sleeves that they also tied at the waist and wore over their heads. The nobility’s clothing was also white, representing their divine origin, but their other standard clothing colours were blue, grey and black. More clothing included Hakamas and kimonos, the former being wide trousers resembling skirts, sewn from thick fabrics with slight fold gathers (Pohl 54). To date, the kimonos are still worn on special occasions. Further, the traditional clothing comprised footwear: tabi, geta and zori. Tabi were socks made from leather and dense materials, divided at the toe with a sleeve on the big toe. In contrast, geta were flip flops made of wood, decorated with embroidery and ornaments, while zori was simpler footwear made from rice straw, reeds and bamboo.

After the Meiji era, the Japanese changed their clothing to fit the Western influence. By the 1880s, men had already adopted a new fashion, and while they still wore the kimono, they started wearing new clothes, often in formal events. By 1890, men had started wearing suits but combined kimonos with Western accessories. As an illustration, on occasions, men wore Western-style hats with hakama and walking sticks. Kimonos with bold patterns and flashy colours also emerged, resembling Western styles. The main reason Japan chose to become Western was how they viewed the new clothing as a form of enlightenment and civilization, and the influence was visible in the uniform designs the country adopted for the government agencies (Zhang 5). Due to Japan’s desire to demonstrate modernity to Western nations, its workers deliberately adopted new clothing to symbolize their new civilization.

The Japanese widely accepted clothing inspired by Western nations such that, in 1873, the Emperor and his partner wore a pair of trousers, a military coat and a long Victorian gown and gloves, respectively. The Emperor also had a Western haircut. The police officers also started wearing long coats, belts, shakos and leather, matching the West. Also, the citizens admired people who dressed according to Western culture. They considered a man wearing a chain, a gold watch, carrying an umbrella and with a Western haircut, considered them the picture of enlightenment (Zhang 6). The men were considered more admirable when sitting in the new Western restaurants. Moreover, those still wearing kimonos adopted chemical dyes and Art Noveau, a popular European pictorial style, filling them with vivid colours and beautiful curves.

However, as men adopted Western fashion, a small portion was against it, regarding the changes as Japan became a sell-out. While most Japanese thought it necessary to adopt Western culture to become a part of the modern world, others were concerned that they were losing their traditions. Adopting new ways would make it challenging for Japan to create a sense of national identity, that modernization meant Westernization, and that it could not become industrialized and modern without losing its sense of self. Moreover, it was expensive for Japan to make the changes in clothing, compelling the government to develop new revenue sources. Since a significant part of its economy was agricultural, it raised taxes on a percentage of the produce. The farmers were introduced to new farming methods to boost their yields (Ohno 90). The anti-Western Japanese were adamant and relentless, such that they assassinated their fellow citizens adapting to the changes. As an illustration, a man returning to Japan from an American trip was told to abandon his umbrella to avoid getting into conflict with the anti-westerners.

Overall, the Japanese were keen on adopting Western clothing because they considered it a form of enlightenment and civilization. From their traditional kimonos and Hakamas, the Japanese male clothing changed in a few years, such that the Emperor and empress adopted it in their official portraits. The Japanese were actively interested in Westernization because of the external pressure from countries that were already civilized. For example, having witnessed China facing humiliation from Britain for trying to prevent it from selling opium, Japan did not want to feel helpless. Hence, they had to reach their level to strengthen themselves and stand up to the Western power. Regardless of the backlash from some Japanese who were against Westernization, the Meiji Restoration was a complete transformation, industrializing it and catapulting it into the modern world.

Works Cited

Chung, Sylvia. “Exhibition Catalog on Rediscovering the Fashion of Hanboks and Kimonos: The Tale of Kisaengs and Geishas.” 2019: 1–57.

Ohno, Kenichi. “Meiji Japan: Progressive learning of Western technology.” How nations learn: Technological learning, industrial policy, and catch-up 2019: 85–106.

Pohl, Olga. “Textile industry in Imperial Japan and Western influence on Japanese clothing.” Kultura i Historia. 2019: 50–64.

Zhang, Harry. “Kittenish Appearance:” Western Fashion in Meiji Japan.” Gettysburg College Headquarters 2.1 2023: 1–19.


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