The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

Splitting Hairs: History and the Politics of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Suzanne G. O'Brien


This essay examines the changes in hairstyles that have become overdetermined signs of Japan's transition to modernity in histories of the Meiji era (1868–1912). It demonstrates that Japanese men's adoption of short styles, relentlessly cited as a key example of modernization (understood as Westernization), was a much longer and more complex process than most accounts suggest. It explores the politics of pervasive assumptions about how and why men and women cut their hair in the 1870s, and concludes that knowledge about daily life must be understood not simply as concrete facts but also as politically charged representations of social life that have served diverse agendas both during the Meiji era and since.


Suzanne G. O'Brien ( is Assistant Professor of Japanese History in the Department of History at Boston University.