A photographic introduction to items from the collection

Furisode and teenage boys
(Kazuto Sawada)

When we think of a furisode (long-sleeved kimono) today, we tend to think of a kimono worn by an unmarried woman. However, in the Early Modern period furisode were worn by both boys and girls. The long swinging sleeves showed that the wearer was a child.

Practical reasons are frequently cited to explain the adoption of long sleeves on children's apparel. It is said that it was an innovation to help dissipate the fever of a child with a high temperature. This kind of explanation has been passed down to the present day. They are seen in writings of the Edo period, such as in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's "Nihon Furisode Hajime" (The Origins of Furisode in Japan) published in 1718, and in journals of Ise Sadatake (1717-1784) called "Teijo Zakki" (Miscellany of Sadatake). However, writings from the Edo period are no more than historical documents. It is quite possible that the authors of such works simply devised plausible and rational reasons for this phenomenon. Indeed, if we take a look at the beginnings of furisode, we find facts that differ from these conventional theories.

Furisode first appeared in the middle of the 15th century. Pictures dating from that time up to the middle of the 16th century inform us that not all children wore furisode. Only a handful of special children wore furisode, such as those from affluent families or those in legends who received divine protection or revelation. When we think about it, attaching long sleeves to a kimono is not economical for it requires a considerable amount of fabric. In general, it makes sense not to attach long sleeves to a child's kimono. These long sleeves were an extravagant embellishment added to show the charms of a child. This had become standard practice at least in urban areas by the early part of the 17th century. We know this from the "Screen Depicting Rakuchu and Rakugai (Kyoto)" and other pictures illustrating daily life at that time.

There were two types of children's furisode: the kodachi and the nakadachi. The kodachi fitted infants and children up to around four or five years of age, while the nakadachi fitted children aged five to around twelve years of age. A furisode with the body made from a single width of fabric was called "hitotsumi". Instead of having a seam down the back, many of these had decorative stitching called "semamori". "Semamori" were usually found on kodachi furisode, but there are a few examples of "semamori" on nakadachi furisode (Fig. 1). Kodachi furisode made from two widths of fabric were called "mitsumi", and in the case of nakadachi furisode they were called "yotsumi".

When children grew taller, they wore furisode that were called odachi, or hondachi, which also fitted adults. Boys who wore furisode wore them until they were around 18, while girls wore furisode until around 20.

Fig. 1: Furisode with fukujuji motif
114.7 cm long and with a sleeve length of 48.7 cm, it is of nakadachi size. The body of the kimono is made from a single width of fabric.
Fig. 2: Noshime furisode ("Mitsumi")
The motif around the middle section is characteristic of a noshime. It was a formal kosode kimono worn by an adult male.
Fig. 3: Furisode with cherry blossom and carp motif ("Yotsumi")
Featuring a kosode design, it is a formal kimono worn by women of the warrior class called "Gosho-doki".

There are some children's furisode that are smaller sizes of adult kosode or katabira (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). These have designs similar to those adopted in formal adult kimono, from which we may infer that they were formal wear for children. Many of the examples that remain today were made from the middle part of the Edo period onward, particularly the latter part of the period. These used material similar to that used in adult kimono, making it easy to distinguish between a boy's and girl's kimono.

Fig. 4-1: Furisode with wave, crane and turtle motif ("Hitotsumi") Fig. 4-2: "Semamori" stitched in the style commonly used for boys

However, in the case of furisode that were not worn on formal occasions it is not so easy to distinguish between a boy's and girl's kimono. If a "hitotsumi" furisode has a "semamori", the stitching will provide a clue. Generally, the stitching used for boys was – – – – – –, and was on an angle on the left side of the center line, while the stitching used for girl's furisode was — · — · —, and came down at an angle on the right side of the center line (Fig. 4). However, we find frequent examples where this practice is not followed, so that in reality there was no set rule for "semamori" stitching (Fig. 5 and Fig. 6). Ultimately, we have to guess from the design itself, though this gets harder the further back in time we go.

One example is a baby's kimono held in the Mohri Museum, Yamaguchi Prefecture, said to have been sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu as a gift to commemorate the birth of Mohri Hidenari (1595-1651). With colors such as red and light green and a motif portraying grasses, cherry blossoms and a circle of cranes, it has a colorful design. Looking at this kimono today, anyone who didn't know its provenance would think that it belonged to a girl. Looking at pictures from that period it becomes clear that this is in no way a unique example.

The "Junikagetsu Fuzoku Zu" (Picture of Customs Covering the Twelve Months) in the Hoshun Yamaguchi Memorial Hall, Kanagawa Prefecture, shows customs of the day in intricate detail with children of the same period as central figures. It is possible to distinguish boy from girl in the majority of cases by looking at their hairstyles and other items of apparel. However, no discernable difference is to be seen between the furisode themselves. We may infer that at that time no distinction existed in the designs for furisode worn by boys and girls.

Fig. 5-1: Furisode with horse, folding fan and bamboo grass motif ("Hitotsumi") Fig. 5-2: Although the stitching of the "semamori" is that used for girls' kimono, the "semamori" follows the left side of the central line.
Fig. 6-1 Furisode with wave and plover motif ("Hitotsumi") Fig. 6-2 The stitching of this "semamori" is that used on girl's furisode, while the direction of the stitching is that found on boys' furisode.

This trend continued throughout the 17th century. Take for example the kodachi said to have belonged to Date Tsunamura (1659-1719) and gifted by the Date family to the Hirano family, who served as onmyoji (professional practitioners of Chinese-influenced esoteric cosmology). A motif containing shells and fishing nets hanging out to dry highlighted by Yuzen dyeing is set against an orange background. There is also a kodachi said to have belonged to Date Yoshimura (1680-1751) which was gifted to the same Hirano family. Here, Yuzen dyeing has been used to highlight a motif depicting a mass of treasures set against a light blue background. If we did not know the provenance of these two kodachi, we would assume that they would have been worn by girls.

This can be verified from pictures as well. The "Jubutsusama Goei" (Portraits of Ten Buddhas) at Soryuji Temple in Saga depicts ten children born to Nabeshima Mitsushige and Furi, one of his wives who died young. The children died between 1669 and 1697. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes the furisode worn by the boys from those worn by the girls.

Fig. 7 Furisode with pine, armor and helmet motif ("Hitotsumi") Fig. 8 Furisode with human figures and castle in the air motif ("Hitotsumi")

It becomes comparatively easy to distinguish furisode worn by boys and girls from the end of the 18th century, and their differences become increasingly evident with the passing of the years. On the one hand, it is most probably that furisode with warrior motifs such as armor and horse armor and those depicting epic tales with male heroes were worn by boys (Fig. 7, Fig. 8, and Fig. 9). These designs are unique to furisode worn by boys for they are not seen on kosode or katabira worn by men. On the other hand, we may conjecture that furisode with flower and bird motifs were worn by girls (Fig. 10). In the case of girls' furisode, there is no major distinction to be found between the material used in women's and girls' kimono.

Fig. 9 Furisode with turtle and castle in the air motif ("Hitotsumi") This is also thought to depict the Sea Dragon's Palace Fig 10 Furisode with crane and bamboo grass motif ("Hitotsumi")

This change in the designs of furisode signaling a distinction between those worn by boys and girls coincides with the circumstances under which children were educated. Temple schools, which provided education to commoners, increased rapidly in number after the Kyoho era (1716-1735). These schools separated boys from girls, prohibiting boys and girls from attending the same classes. Hence, distinctions between boys and girls became commonplace, and there were even some temple schools that taught only boys or only girls. They weren't necessarily taught the same subjects either. There were two textbooks that were widely used called the "Jitsugo-kyo" and the "Doji-kyo". After the Genroku era (1688-1703), copies of these textbooks that had been rewritten for girls became fairly common. In other words, starting in the 18th century, systems came into being that acknowledged tangible distinctions between male and female children, which rapidly spread throughout society in general. The motifs adopted for children's furisode can be said to have been one part of this trend.

This is also linked to the rise and fall of male homosexuality. The practice of male homosexuality in Japan referred to by the words "danshoku" and "shudo" declined considerably after the middle of the 18th century. Until that time, it had not been uncommon for men to have a male lover. Rather, it could be said to have been quite common. Edicts banning this practice were frequently issued, although the reasons were that when lovers got into a fight injuries caused by swords were frequent, and that strong bonds between men created factions outside an organization, which was considered dangerous. "Danshoku" itself was not regarded as abnormal. Even though it declined, "danshoku" remained as a form of sexual love and became popular again in the Meiji period. A major contributing factor toward the emergence of a discriminatory attitude toward homosexuality was an interpretation of sexual desire that distinguished between "seitai" (normal) and "hentai" (abnormal) that arose around 1920 due to a rise in the popularity of "sexology". The result was that "danshoku" was classified as "hentai". While initially in its true meaning "hentai" referred to something that was exquisite and out of the ordinary, it came to take on a pejorative meaning, which over time created the abhorrence of homosexuality present in Japanese society today.

The principal characters in "danshoku" were handsome young men called "wakashu". These slender handsome young men adorned in flamboyant furisode are sometimes viewed as effeminate men or women substitutes. However, this is perhaps due to an overemphasis of an approach that divides humans into male and female. Rather than loving a young man as a substitute for a woman, it would be easier to love a woman in the first place. Based on the fact that prostitutes were known to imitate the appearance of "wakashu", it would seem that "wakashu" had their own unique kind of sexual appeal. One might say that there was a time when "wakashu" were recognized as another form of sexuality in addition to male and female sexuality.

From the above it is possible to arrive at the following conclusion. Dividing children into boys and girls most probably had the effect of eliminating "wakashu" which were neither one nor the other. The designs that were shared by young men, mainly "wakashu", and young women, fell into the possession of young women. They were replaced by distinctive designs that pursued "manliness", which came to be adopted for furisode worn by young men.

Kazuto Sawada (Art History, Research Department)