What’s in a hairpin?

Various experts repeatedly likened karate to Ryūkyūan dance. For example, Funakoshi Gichin wrote that “As a martial art unique to Okinawa, the Mēkata dances of the rural areas are the same as not yet developed karate.” (1) More than a century later, Okinawan karate champ Kiyuna Ryō trains traditional Ryūkyūan dance to polish his stare for karate performance. (2) The relation between dance and tī has been emphasized by Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundī, such as in this comparison between the Hamachi-dori and its martial analysis. (3)

According to Yamauchi Seihin, hairpins were used, in conjunction with techniques of karate or tī, as defensive weapons, which can be seen in the plot of the Gwīku-bushi (Goeku-bushi) set around the 1890s. (4) Yamauchi also wrote that a Ryūkyūan warrior might have relied on his hairpin, his umbrella, his fan, his pipe, or his thumbs for self-defense. (5)

As regards the expertise of this Yamauchi Seihin: He was a karate member during his time at the Okinawan Normal School. In 1907, he went to Tōkyō on a school excursion, where he visited the Kōdōkan institute and performed karate in front of Kanō Jigorō and his disciples. Yamauchi was also one of the persons who answered Kanō Jigorō’s questions about karate. Yamauchi later compiled a report of the events which was published in the journal of the school’s alumni association. (6)

What is the story of the Ryūkyūan hairpin? I was personally told in Okinawa by an Okinawan woman that a hairpin was used to commit suicide by thrusting it into one’s own heart when sexually attacked by a man. I am not sure how historically accurate this is but there’s plenty of proven history.

Let’s start with the centralization of government under King Shō Shin (rg. 1477–1526) who for the first time determined the distinctions between officials by clothes and ranks (Kyūyō, article 197). Erected in celebration of the expansion and beautification of Shuri Castle’s main palace, the “Momourasoe Rankan no Mei” (1509) reports:

“One-thousand retainers were appointed government officials, one-hundred officials were assigned to duties. All ranks and classes of the people were fixed, by means of their yellow and red turbans, by means of their golden and silver hairpins. This shall serve as the model for posterity for the distinction between aristocrats and plebeians.” (7)

In other words, hairpins were a part of the system of court ranks. (8)

A few years later, in 1534, Chinese investiture envoy Chen Kan reported:

“We were invited to the banquet, and on that occasion a pavilion was erected at the lake shore from where we watched a dragon boat race. […] The persons using the boats without exception were young minor government officials or children of noblemen, each of them wearing a golden hairpin with a flower design […].” (9)

During the period of Shō Shōken to Sai On, i.e., roughly 1666 to the 1730s, the royal government organization was restructured and the organization of court ranks and functions were re-formulated and completed. By 1729 the system was permanently in effect, and in 1732 the particulars of promotions were fixed. Henceforth, each of the nine ranks, further divided in one major and one minor sub-rank, were granted according to social status, age, and meritorious services and indicated by the color of the headgear, clothes, and hairpins. (10)

In the summer of 1783, Furukawa Koshōken toured Satsuma and created the “Miscellaneous Notes on a Journey to the West” (Seiyū Zakki) and described the Ryūkyūan office in Kagoshima as such:

“Taking a glance at the Ryūkyūkan. Entry of unauthorized person to the Ryūkyūkan was prohibited and ensured by gatekeepers (monban). About one hundred persons from Ryūkyū having crossed over to Kagoshima stayed there, trading with Ryūkyūan products, or studying Japanese and learning all kinds of artistic skills in Kagoshima. And their waka poetry and handwriting are splendid. Their hairdo is like that of children and tied up round and kept in place with a hairpin and their clothing is like that of Buddhist laymen or private scholars (koji).” (11)

Looking at another different context, every time Ryūkyūan vessels near the Chinese coast were approached by ships, the Ryūkyūans had to prepare for battle with potential pirates. The Ryūkyūans were equipped with all sorts of weapons including rifles (teppō) and cannons to guard their ships and to protect official and personal silver as well as large and small cargo, clothes, silver hairpins etc. (12) So there were people who would try to steal your precious hairpin.

Hairpins are also found in the “Bubishi” (13) and there is also a theory that they were somehow related to the development of the sai.

There are many different kinds and names for hairpins, such as kanzashi 簪 (ornate hairpin), golden hairpins (for 2nd major court rank or higher), silver hairpins (for 2nd minor court rank and below), and furthermore (14):

  • kamisashi (ornate hairpin used by men) カミサシ|髪挿|髪さし
  • jīfā (ornate hairpin used by women)  ジーファー
  • kugani-jīfā (golden hairpin used by women) クガニジーファー
  • nanja-jīfā (silver hairpin used by women) ナンジャジーファー
  • chijaku-jīfā (brass hairpin used by women) チジャクジーファー
  • ushi-jashi (secondary ornate hairpin used by men) ウシジャシ|押差
  • kāminakū-jīfā (tortoiseshell hairpin used by women) カーミナクージーファー
  • kī-jīfā (wooden hairpin used by women; used in case of mourning regardless of status) キージーファー
  • suba-jashi (secondary ornate hairpin worn by women of samurē class or higher) スバジャシ|側挿|側挿し

Anyway, what is lesser known is that Okinawan hairpins also have had been described as ear cleaners and it might not even be that far-fetched. Similar cosmetics or hygiene instruments are well known around the globe much earlier in time. The photo below shows a small ear spoon or probe (specillum) dated to the 1st-3rd Century, Roman Empire. It is characterized by the round, slightly angled spoon at the end and was used to clean the ears. To make handling easier, the shaft of this cosmetic device is profiled with notches on the lower handle.

In other words, some varieties of the Okinawan hairpins might originally have been cosmetic instruments.

Badisches Landesmuseum
  • (1) Funakoshi Gichin: Okinawa no Bugi. Ryukyu Shinpo, 1914.
  • (2) Kikuchi Hiroki: Kiyuna Ryō: A Champion Born and Raised in Okinawa, the Land of Karate. Nippon.com, Jun 1, 2020.
  • (3) Hamachidori and its bunkai. Motobu-ryu, uploaded Oct 19, 2009.
  • (4) Yamauchi Seihin: Karate Self-Defence & Okinawan Dance, 2019, p. 48.
  • (5) Ibid., p. 148. 
  • (6) Kadekaru Toru 2017, thesis.
  • (7) Takara 1993, I: 18–21.
  • (8) See also Kyūyō, articles 174, 197.
  • (9) Chen Kan (SLQL 1534, Vol. 1), in ORJ. Vol. 8, Nr. 1.
  • (10) Quast: Karate 1.0 (2013).
  • (11) Quast: Karate 1.0 (2013), translated from Kagoshima Prefectural Library as well as the Waseda University Archives.
  • (12) Genealogy of the Son-clan (House Azama) for the year 1853.
  • (13) Mabuni Kenwa: Kōbō Jizai Karate Kenpō Sēpai no Kenkyū. Tōkyō Kōbukan, 1934, p. 120.
  • (14) Shuri Naha Dialect Dictionary

© 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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