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Why did samurai tie their hair?

Samurai warriors, known as bushi or buke in Japanese, were the military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan. They followed a code of conduct called bushido that emphasized loyalty, honor, martial skills and austerity. An iconic part of the samurai image is the topknot or chonmage hairstyle that many samurai wore.

The History of the Samurai Topknot

The origins of the samurai topknot hairstyle can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185 CE) of ancient Japan. During this time, Chinese culture was heavily influential in Japan. Chinese warriors at the time wore their hair in a topknot style, which was adopted by Japan’s early proto-samurai warriors.

By the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE), the topknot became an established part of samurai warrior culture. Shaving the front part of the head showed one’s willingness to die in battle if needed. The topknot also kept hair out of the eyes during combat. In addition, the shaved pate made it easier to wear helmets and other battle headgear.

During the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a number of reforms, including a decree that required samurai to wear the chonmage topknot hairstyle. This helped identify samurai from the other social classes. The exact specifications of the topknot, such as size and placement, indicated the warrior’s social status and rank.

Religious and Cultural Meaning

In addition to its functional purpose in battle, the samurai topknot held religious, cultural and class meaning:

  • The shaved pate was associated with Buddhist monks, who shaved their heads. This symbolized the samurai’s willingness to renounce materialism and follow a spiritual warrior’s path.
  • Confucian traditions valued presentation of the self. The meticulous topknot style showed respectability, order and discipline.
  • Only samurai were legally permitted to wear the chonmage. It was a visual marker that helped reinforce class roles and social order.
  • The topknot style evolved over time, but retaining some form of topknot was an enduring symbol of samurai identity and status.

Elaborate Topknots

During the later Edo period, samurai topknots became quite elaborate using wax, pins and ornamental hairpieces:

  • The moribana topknot style involved asymmetrically slicking back the hair on one side while letting the hair puff out loosely on the other side.
  • The ichogaeshi involved a large topknot loop with two wings of hair emerging from the knot.
  • Kitsuke topknots used a folded obi cloth to tie back the chonmage.
  • The magewa topknot employed decorative lacing or cords wrapped around the chonmage.

Higher ranking samurai would sometimes wear ornate hairpieces like curved orange gourds or silver ita-mono pieces in their topknots as status symbols.

The End of Traditional Topknots

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the samurai class was abolished. The new Meiji government initially banned chonmage topknots. Some former samurai resisted giving up their hairstyle, which was so central to their identity. However, within a few years most acquiesced for safety reasons.

The samurai topknot remains an iconic symbol of the samurai today. Re-enactors don the chonmage hairstyle to honor and bring alive Japan’s feudal history.


In summary, the samurai topknot or chonmage hairstyle emerged from China’s influence and evolved into an enduring symbol of samurai status and culture. The topknot had functional purposes in battle, but also reflected deeper meanings related to Buddhism, Confucianism and samurai ideals. Strict regulations dictated the topknot styles worn by warriors of different ranks. Although the samurai class was ultimately abolished along with the topknot requirement, the chonmage remains an iconic samurai image even today.