Our third instalment in our jewellery around the world series, we thought we would feature the intriguing and alluring world of authentic Japanese jewellery, tracing from its ancient roots to kawaii cuteness.
Japanese culture and motifs majorly influenced Victorian aesthetic jewellery and design. The presence of serene nature, untouched by human hand and machinery captivated artists' attention.
Jewellery designers created these bucolic scenes of herons, bamboo reeds and still lakes in their pieces as a reaction to the fast-pace of industrialisation that ravaged the English landscape. Not to mention, this artistic choice grew from the Victorian curiosity. The Victorians were a society that were fascinated with worlds that were unlike their own, majorly impacting the myriad of artistic movements that overlapped one another.
Victorian Aesthetic Silver Locket, Source - Lillicoco
Today, our image of Japan is one of technological progression, one that is shrouded in saccharine pink fluffy cuteness, and one that still has a distinct traditional presence. Authentic Japanese rituals are still part of most people's everyday lives, from tea ceremonies to shintoism.
But, it wasn’t always this way. Below is a brief history of Japan. Then, we will take a closer look at traditional Japanese jewellery and accessories.
A Brief History of Japan
Generally, Japanese history can be split into the following:
- Paleolithic Japan, 30,000 to 10,000 BCE
- Ancient Japan, 14,000 BC to 535 AD with the Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun periods.
- Classical Japan, 538 AD to 1185 AD with the Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods.
- Medieval Japan, 1185 to 1573 with the Kamakura, Kenmu Restoration, Muromachi, Azuchi-Momoyama.
- Early Modern Japan 1603 to 1868, also known as the Edo period.
- Modern Japan 1868 to 1945 with the Meiji, Taisho and Showa (pre war) periods.
- Contemporary Japan 1945 to present day with the Showa (occupied post war and post-occupation) to Heisei and Reiwa periods.
As evident above, Japan has a vibrant history, from the hunter gatherer cultures of ancient Japan to the vivacious and technologically advanced city it is known as today.
Yet, the customs and traditions of traditional Japanese culture still remain integral to society, which is why Japan remains to be one of the most fascinating countries in the world, boasting 21 heritage sites and 31.19 million tourists a year.
Source - Yu Kato
In Ancient Japan, Japanese culture evolved from hunter gatherer culture to a sophisticated and more refined society. This mainly occurred during the Yayoi period. Mass immigration from the Korean peninsula and the introduction of silk production, glassmaking and woodworking boosted both the economy and population exponentially. What’s more, as there was a huge increase in population, multiple separate kingdoms were created. The most significant of these is allegedly the Yamatai kingdom which was ruled by the female monarch Himiko.
Statue of Queen Himiko at Kanzaki Station, Source - Wikimedia Commons
During classical Japan, the Japanese culture that we are familiar with began to take shape. At this time, Japanese religion was largely Shinto, a polytheistic religion which revolved around the inherent spirits of the natural world. However, Buddhism started to also take root within the country, which meant that Japanese art and jewellery became largely Buddhist in creation. Japan also became a major influencer in the Silk Road, with many Persians moving to Japan further impacting its arts.
Ancient Japanese Silk, Source - Metropolitan Museum of Art
It was also during classical Japan that the name “land of the rising sun” originated. It was actually at first a subtle insult to China as it insinuated that the sun sets in China and rises in Japan, meaning that Japan was a stronger country. In Japanese culture, the expression is known as Nihon and is proudly displayed on the Japanese flag.
Classical Japan also saw the rise of the Imperial court as a centre for thriving arts and culture, creating vast highly-commendable literature, drawings and paintings.
It is generally believed that in Medieval Japan, prosperity and population growth largely increased after 1250 and was when Buddhism, a religion of the aristocracy, started to spread to the masses by Buddhist monks. It was also during this period that Japanese agriculture boomed due to greater use of sophisticated tools and irrigation systems.
Medieval Japan was also incredibly well-known for its significant literary progress especially Waka poetry. And, it was during this time that some of Japan’s most recognisable art forms flourished including ink wash painting, ikebana flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, Japanese gardening and Noh theatre.
Inkwash Shukei-sansui (Autumn Landscape), by Sesshu Toyo, c.1420-1506, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Despite the literary and artistic peace, there was also plenty of war. During the final century of Medieval Japan, Japan was embroiled in a bitter civil war which led to Kyoto the capital being burnt to the ground. What’s more, during the 16th century, many Europeans visited Japan, including Christian missionaries. Not only did this firmly established the religion amongst the general populace, but it also fostered greater discontent. However after the war, Japan gradually reunified. This led to the persecution of Christians and the firm establishment of social classes to prevent further revolutions.
One of Japan’s most famous periods in history is the Edo period, which was characterised by peace and stability, prolific cultural output and hedonism. Significantly, this was due to the growth of merchant classes. This meant that an increasingly large proportion of the Japanese population started having disposable income. Not only was this spent on both cultural and social pursuits, but this led to the establishment of the Kabuki theatre and Geishas, which were deemed too expensive for commoners and too unruly for the aristocracy. Both the Kabuki theatre and Geisha’s have hugely shaped Japanese culture and since become emblematic of the country.
Two Geisha, Chobunsai Eishi, (1759- 1829), Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
However, by the early 19th century there was widespread famine which resulted in significant peasant unrest. The government tried to save the depleting finances by cutting revenue from the Samurai, Japanese sophisticated military and nobility, yet this inevitably led to the government being overthrown.
Also, it is believed that the downfall of Edo period could be characterised by the increasing interest in and dominance of the West in the world. The arrival of Western medicine challenged traditional Japanese thoughts on anatomy, and the arrival of a fleet of American ships in 1853 angered the Japanese immensely.
Modern Japan saw the rise of both Imperialism and Westernisation which socially and politically changed Japan dramatically. It was also a time where the Japanese military considerably strengthened, and Japan started to try to acquire its own colonies to rival Western colonial powers. Japan especially clashed with China, Korea and Russia, but it did form a monumental and important alliance with the British in 1905.
Like most countries around the world, Japan’s modern landscape that we recognise today started to bear fruit, especially within manufactured goods and technology. The establishment of huge family-owned enterprises like Mitsubishi created rapid urbanisation. So much so that Japan’s agricultural industry shrank.
In World War I, Japan participation on the side of the Allies sparked unprecedented economic growth and after the war, Japan had cordial relations with many countries in the league of nations.
However, there was a rise of fascism and nationalism in Japan, which in the 1930s eventually led to the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai by right wing extremists and eventually led to a war with China. This dominating rhetoric was opposed by the United States, causing Japan to forge an alliance with Germany and Italy in retaliation. Of course, this meant that during World War II, Japan had swapped sides, and with its advanced military, it was believed that these right wing countries could win the war. However, life for the Japanese civilians soon became increasingly difficult with stringent rationing and electrical outages.
One of the most catastrophic events in history, the US bomb on Hiroshima led to Japanese surrender. And, according to many historians, marked the end of World War II.
The war had a terrible impact on Japan’s economy. Yet, the establishment of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) saw Japanese workforce and economy grow exponentially. Plus, Japan joined the United Nations in 1956, which further established its dominance as an international power and in 1964 it hosted the prestigious Olympic games. Culturally, Japanese cinema also flourished.
The Japan that we recognise today boomed in the 30 years between 1989 to 2019. The instrumental Japanese popular culture of manga, kawaii, anime, and video games captivated young audiences around the world. This cultural identity was deliberately shaped by Japanese government that wanted to show their prestige and power after the war. They wanted to show Japan as a ‘soft power’, one that dominated commerce and pop culture diplomacy rather than being a military focused country.
Traditional Japanese Jewellery and Accessories
Similarly to other cultures, the history of Japanese jewellery is closely tied to the history of their dress. However, Japanese jewellery history isn’t as bejewelled, glitzy or ostentatious. In fact, it is believed that it was only until the Edo period where ornamentation in the form of jewellery started to gain traction. What’s more, many authentic Japanese jewellery pieces were also accessories, performing a utilitarian as well as aesthetic function.
A garment that is inherently Japanese is the kimono. The national dress of Japan, the kimono is a T-shaped, wrap front garment that is worn left over right. Unlike other countries, in Japan your status was not judged by the jewellery that you wore, but rather how your kimono looked. Expensive pigmented dyes, beautiful patterns and high quality fabric was a clear indication of your wealth. What’s more, unlike typical Victorian and Georgian dress, kimono’s didn’t need to be secured by brooches, stick pins, buttons, or cufflinks. So, there simply wasn't as much of a need for jewellery as both a status symbol and practically.
In addition, in the Edo period there were strict sumptuary legislation laws which prevented over-ornamentation.
Despite this, there were some traditional Japanese jewellery styles and techniques. Many of these were elevated through Kabuki theatre actors and Geishas as they would ornament themselves for a performance.
Kanzashi are traditional Japanese floral headpieces. Originating in the Jomun period, early iterations of Kanzashi were singular rod or stick that were believed to possess mystical powers that could ward off spirits.
Kanzashi developed during the Edo period, where Japanese hairstyles became more complex and detailed. Kanzashi artisans began to create more finely crafted and detailed pieces, and some could even be used as weapons of defense!
There are several basic types of Kanzashi - these include:
- Bira Bira - Also known as fluttering Kanzashi, bira bira consist of metal strips that are attached to the body of the ornament so they can move independently. These sometimes have bells attached to add a musical element.
- Kogai - A two piece Kanzashi made of Bekko (tortoiseshell), ceramics or metals. Kogai translates to “sword”, so its seen as a sword and its sheath.
- Tama - This is a prong style Kanzashi which is simply decorated with a coloured bead on the end. Typically, a red tama is worn between October-May and a green tama is worn June-September.
- Kushi - This is a comb Kanzashi which is often made from tortoishelle or lacquered wood with inlaid mother of pearl or gilded elements.
- Kanoko Dome - These are heavily bejewelled Kanzashi which often has gold, silver, tortoiseshell, jade, coral, pearls and other semi-precious gemstones. These are rounded and clip onto the bottom of the hair with two prongs that hold it secure in place.
- Ogi - Also called “princess style” ogi are metal, fan shaped and kammon-printed Kanzashi with aluminium streamers.
What’s more, as Kanzashi also consist of silk flowers, you would wear different flowers in accordance with the month. For example, in April, the Kanzashi would consist of cherry blossom with butterflies and lanterns, and in May, Kanzashis would be bedecked with trailing purple wisteria and flag irises.
Today, Kanzashi are not worn everyday and are reserved for special occasions like weddings, tea ceremonies and for Geishas. Yet, there is a revival amongst young Japanese women who are wearing this pieces alongside their business attire!
Two apprentice Geisha conversing near the Golden Temple in Kyoto, c.2004 Source - Wikimedia Commons.
Also known as Kagkimi, Tekagami are essentially Japanese hand mirrors. These were often incredibly ornate pieces lacquered with gorgeous cherry blossom designs and inlaid with semi precious stones. Hand mirrors were incredibly important for aristocratic upper class women and Geishas.
Antique Japanese Bronze Makkyo Magic Hand Mirror, Source - Ruby Lane
An instantly recognisable symbol of Japanese culture, Japanese fans are an exemplary combination of ancient craftsmanship with language. An important artistic medium as well as fashion accessory in Japan, Japanese fans were used to help communicate messages, and at one point they were at the helm of sumptuary legislation laws, which meant that only certain classes could own them. In fact, Japanese fans were so popular that demand increased for them outside of the country. Soon becoming a cult fashion item for European women in the 18th and 19th centuries, fans became modes for courtship and flirtatious advances.
Folding Fan by Katsushkai Isai, c.19th Century, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Known as “hanging things” sagemeno is a collective term used to describe all types of containers and pouches that could be suspended from one’s belt. A distant cousin of the Georgian chatelaine, Sagemeno provided the Japanese with the opportune chance to have ornate lacquered pieces. Below are a few of the typical Sagemeno you would expect to find:
- Inro - These were small containers which in western terms could be described as handbags or pouches. These were designed for being worn with a Kimono as Kimono’s didn’t have pockets. Usually square, round or polygonal in shape, many Inro found amongst the upper classes today are luxurious and extravagantly decorated objects. Inro’s were mainly made from a combination of wood and leather, and were known for their good insulative properties that provided some items like medecine protection against Japan’s arid climate.
- Netsuke - A netsuke is essentially a counterweight for any type of Sagemeno, preventing any item from falling out or slipping. Although a small and utilitarian item in origin, many Netsuke might be decorated and carved - these are called Okimono Netsuke.
- Tabakoire - typically a leather tobacco wallet with decorative metal clasp.
- Kiseruzutsu - these were pipe containers that were often made from lacquer, bone, bamboo and leather.
One of the oldest forms of Japanese jewellery, Magatama are curved comma shaped beads that first appeared in prehistoric Japan. In this early period, these beads were often made from primitive stone and earthen materials, yet as times progressed they started to be carved from semi precious gemstones.
It is believed that Magatama’s origins were created for just decorative purposes, however they soon accrued both ceremonial and religious weight. Despite its distinctive unchanged shape, archaeologists haven’t been able to discern what the actual origin of the shape is meant to be. A number of explanations have been put forward including:
- Animal teeth and fangs
- Shape of fetuses
- Symbolic of the soul
- Modelled after the shape of the moon
Despite these differing opinions, Magatama jewellery is still widely sold in Japan today, a patriotic symbol of the countries culture.
Shakudo and Shibuichi
Shakudo and Shibuichi are both distinctive metal alloys that are widely used in Japanese jewellery craftsmanship.
With similar presence to Victorian Niello, Shakudo is made from 4-10% Gold and 96-90% copper. This can then be treated to develop a black or indigo patina which resembles lacquer. Shakudo was originally used from the 12th century onwards to decorate Japanese sword fittings and small ornaments.
Shibuichi is another historic Japanese copper alloy which is patinated into a variety of colours including understated greys, and muted shades of blues, browns and greens. The name Shibuichi itself actually translates to “one-fourth” in Japanese which is the standard formula to one part Silver to three parts Copper. Like Shakudo, Shibuichi was used as an ornament for various fittings of Japanese swords.
Mokume-gane is a Japanese metalworking procedure which creates a mixed metal laminate that has distinctive layered patterns. Mokume-gane has a distinctive wood grain appearance and has been used to create a myriad of artistic objects. Today, the craft is mainly applied to jewellery creations and holloware.
Originated in 17th century Japan, Mokume-gane was part of customary Japanese sword making, yet soon it became a status symbol. Yet the craft faded out in the 19th century, especially when the public display of swords became outlawed in the Meji restoriation. This meant that the few artists who knew how to create this technique focused their attention upon decorative objects.
As mentioned previously, the Europeans and the West were fascinated by the Japanese, and in 1877 Tiffany and Co’s silver division started to experiment with the Mokume-gane techniques. Tiffany and Co exhibited a magnificent vase at the Paris exposition in 1878 with the Mokume-gane technique, and this particular vase has since been widely acclaimed as as one of the most important works of 19th century American Silver. This technique was dubbed by Tiffany as “Japanesque”.
We hope you have enjoyed learning about this fascinating history of Japanese jewellery, we certainly loved researching and writing about it!
Here are our other instalments in our Jewellery Around the World Series:
Where shall we research next? If you have a request, please comment below!
Love, Lillicoco xo