During their 700 year dominance of Japan, the Samurai were expected to maintain their physical appearance according to strict protocols. These protocols regulated their dress, wearing ceremonial swords and daggers, but what about their hair? Did the Samurai have long hair?
Samurai had long hair. The traditional samurai hairstyle, the “Chonmage,” featured the top and front of the head shaved with the sides and back grown out. The long hair from the sides and back of the head was tied in a ceremonial topknot.
This article will explore the traditional samurai hairstyle.
Also see Did Samurai Wear Masks? to learn more.
When Did Samurai Wear a Top Knot?
The Chonmage or “samurai topknot” hairstyle was developed during the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.). It gradually grew in popularity and was made mandatory for Samurai during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
The Heian Period is considered the last part of classical Japanese history, similar to Alexander the Great’s life in classical Greek history, and lasted from 794 to 1185 A.D. It began when Emperor Kanmu moved the national capital from Heian-kyo, modern Kyoto. This era saw the maturation of Japanese culture, the decline of Chinese influence, and the emergence of a full-time military class.
The Chonmage gradually grew in prominence as the power of the samurai class grew. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the capital was moved to Edo (modern Tokyo), it was made mandatory.
Also see Did Samurai Have Tattoos? to learn more.
What Is the “Chonmage” Hairstyle?
The Chonmage was the traditional Samurai hairstyle during the late classical, feudal, and early-modern eras of Japanese history. It featured the top and front of the head shaved, with the sides and back of the head grown out. The long hair was bound into a tail and then tied in a top knot.
The word “Chonmage” is a combination of the characters Chon and Mage. It means a bun-type hairstyle.
The Chonmage hairstyle developed as a matter of military practicality rather than style choices. It was intended to securely hold the traditional samurai helmet, the kabuto, in place on the warrior’s head.
The Chonmage also prevented sweating during the subtropical summers in the southern part of the country. The shaved top and front of the head allowed the helmet to fit snuggly, eliminating insulating airspace.
Also see Did Samurai Have Facial Hair? to learn more.
What Was Samurai Armor Like?
Standard samurai battle armor consisted of black-lacquered iron or leather plates sewn together with leather thongs. It consisted of flexible armored shirts, skirts, and other protective elements. A full set of samurai armor weighed over 70 lbs (31.75 kg).
|Cuirass, core body armor
|Shoulder armor, pauldrons
|Shin and calf guards
|Visor, forehead guard
|War hat, armored coolie hat issued to civilian militia and retainers
|Sabuton, armored shoe
|Manju no wa
|Upper body padding
|Throat guard, different from guruwa
|Padded neck guard
|Upper body armor
|Padded cloth hood
Samurai would also wear several layers of cloth under and over their armor.
Did Samurai Wear Ponytails and Other Hairstyles?
Even before the Chonmage was made mandatory, Samurai were expected to wear their hair tied back.
Samurai and their retainers usually wore their hair in some form of topknot, and tail hairstyles weren’t unheard of early in the existence of the Samurai. During the Edo Period, the Chonmage was mandatory for all Samurai.
Topknot and tail hairstyles were likely introduced to Japan by Korean Buddhists around the 6th century A.D.
When the samurai class controlled Japan rather than the imperial family during the Edo Period, it was considered dishonorable for Samurai to wear any other hairstyle. During this period, power was centralized under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the country was peaceful. The Samurai took part in no major military engagements between 1603 and 1867.
The Tokugawa Shogunate formalized Japan’s class system and standardized samurai dress.  The Chonmage was made mandatory, and wearing other hairstyles was considered dishonorable.
The Tokugawa Shogunate converted the samurai clans into local governing officials without any wars to fight. The warrior class was made into bureaucrats. They were still expected to wear the Chonmage, swords, and daggers.
Also see Did Samurai Fight Ninjas? to learn more.
Did Samurai Cut Their Hair?
Samurai cut or shaved their hair, carefully groomed their facial hair, and were expected to dress according to their class status. Doing otherwise was seen as dishonorable. They were very fastidious about their appearance.
Samurai traditionally shaved the top and front of their heads. The Chonmage hairstyle requires around one foot (0.30 m) of hair to form properly. Samurai were expected to cut excess hair off.
During the Meiji Restoration (1868), when the Imperial family reasserted control over Japan, some samurai saw the direction history was moving and ceremonially cut their topknots off. Many were appointed as high-ranking officers in the new western-style national army and navy. Others moved into business, eventually becoming obscenely wealthy magnates.
Samurai who refused to abandon their traditional customs, including the Chonmage, staged a brief civil war against the imperial government. Called the Boshin War by historians, it ended in a crushing and humiliating defeat for the rebel samurai. After the war, the samurai class was abolished.
Does Anyone Still Wear the Chonmage?
Variations on the Chonmage hairstyle are still worn by two groups in modern Japan, sumo wrestlers and kabuki theater performers. It also loosely inspired several “samurai” hairstyles worn by some western men with long hair.
In the modern era, the only people who still wear the Chonmage are professional sumo wrestlers and kabuki theater actors. Both wear it to link to the past customs and traditions their professions celebrate.
The sumo wrestler variation of the chonmage no longer features a shaved pate (top and front of the head). All professional sumo wrestlers are expected to wear it, and higher-ranked wrestlers often wear more elaborate topknots. The Japan Sumo Association employs specialist hairdressers to prepare wrestlers’ hair before matches. 
The centerpiece of a sumo wrestler’s retirement is the ceremonial cutting off of their chonmage. Other wrestlers, local dignitaries, friends and family members of the retiring wrestler are invited to help snip off the topknot.
For 700 years, the Samurai sported the Chonmage hairstyle to symbolize their willingness to fight at a moment’s notice.