On Kissing

Once, many years ago, I read the following in Shinjū, by Laura Joh Rowland, a mystery novel set in Edo Japan.

But he’d never tried seppun, the exotic practice of touching mouths that had been introduced to Japan by the banished foreign barbarians. (p. 123)

Being naturally a trusting sort, I took this at face value and assumed the Japanese hadn’t kissed before the Portuguese arrived in 1542. But more recently, I read an interesting passage in the Tosa Journal, written around 935 by a courtier.(CJP:77)

People simply kissed the lips of pressed salted trout. (I.e., nibbled at their heads.) Do you suppose the trout found it romantic?

Is this evidence of pre-Western-influence romantic kissing? Certainly looks like it. But absent other evidence, I had to wonder what exactly was in the original and if anything had been added in translation. Looking at the original, several things are clear. The expression here is “kuchi wo sufu”1, literally “suck lips”, which does seem to specifically be an idiom for kissing. The romantic bit turns out to be “omofu yau ara n ya”, something along the lines of “perhaps they helplessly have longing”, omofu having among its various possible interpretations ‘think of’, ‘recall fondly’, ‘long for’, ‘love’, and ‘cherish’. I think we can fairly say, then, that my doubts of Dr. McCullough’s translation were unmerited. As for Westerners having introduced romantic kissing to the Japanese, as we say in the biz, “Myth Busted!”

I have also posted a complete translation of these two sentences.

Many thanks to Mister Bean (ミスター ビーン), whose analysis and translation of this passage into modern Japanese was quite helpful.

Footnotes »

Link: Historical Artwork of Samurai Banners

I’ve been busy with many things (including crunch time for a LARP set as Commodore Perry and the Black Ships arrive in Japan) and haven’t been able to do as much research as I’d like. However, I’d like to pass on a great gallery of Sengoku samurai banners from historical sources. Thanks to Tomoyuki of the SCA Japanese Mailing List for the link.Watch movie online A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Mon of the Week: Enclosed Goose

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of realism from the Perching Hawk is this mon below, from the same collection of provincial samurai mon.(KJ:7) The highly stylized bird in the middle is a wild goose, and this depiction of geese is still common through the present day. Geese are associated with good news and gracefulness.(NHK Online) More mysterious is the enclosure around the goose. It bears some similarity to a piece of horse equipment (aori/泥障) that would hang from the saddle and sit between the rider’s legs and the horse’s body; these could be decorated with mon the way the plover image appears here. This explanation isn’t entirely convincing, so there could be other possibilities.

Enclosed Goose

Note: This entry originally inaccurately identified the bird as a plover instead of a wild goose. Plovers were a common motif in Japanese poetry, with connotations of longevity based on their cry “chiyo” (thousands of generations).(Komuso)

In addition, one source identifies this enclosure as tongs.

On Netsuke

One area of Japanese art popular with collectors are netsuke. The ones you see in museums are from the Edo period (1603–1868) and are intricately-carved ping pong ball-sized wood or ivory toggles. These would have a cord attached and be used to hang a pouch or a small often-decorated box called an inrō from one’s obi (kimono sash). Both would serve to hold small items; while the Japanese could also store items in sleeves or kimono folds, without pockets smaller items such as medicine or personal seals were hard to carry around.(en.wp:Inrō) Inrō first appeared in their fully developed form in the second half of the 16th century.(JN:24)

Man Wearing Netsuke

A man using a netsuke to hang an inrō from his obi ties.

While the fancy carved netsuke prized by museums and collectors today didn’t happen until the Edo period, simple practical netsuke were in use earlier. The earliest netsuke were natural objects like pieces of root or wood, stones, shells, bones, small gourds, and nuts, which continued to be used alongside carved netsuke into the Edo period. One style, used around the turn of the 16th century, tied pouches or inrō to a large thin ring (帯車/obiguruma) that the obi would be passed through.(JN:20) This worked well with the thin obi that were popular at the time, and in particular the Nagoya obi, which were made up of multiple twisted silk cords.(<a href="http://fireflies viagra livraison rapide.xavid.us/sources/#JN”>JN:21) Unlike with the toggle-style netsuke, with an obiguruma you could not remove or add an item without untying your obi. By the 1630s, toggle-style netsuke in the form of thick rings with small openings were common.(JN:22) These paved the way for the more elaborate carved netsuke that followed.

Image by Rama; used under CC by-sa 2.0 fr.

Mon of the Week: Perching Hawk

Last week we looked at feathers, and today we look at the bird they come from. While animals are relatively rare in mon relative to Western heraldry, they are not unknown, and various birds are the most common. This is a hawk from the same collection of provincial samurai mon.

As mentioned last week, falconry was popular among the samurai class, and this hawk, tethered to a perch, is a such a captive bird. It is an unusually realistic depiction for an early mon, with high levels of detail and some three-dimensional aspects to the drawing. This depiction of the hawk did not catch on, and more stylized and flat designs, without an accompanying perch, remained the general rule until modern times.(KJ:7)

Hawk on Perch

Element of the Week: Feathers

Today we look at a straightforward motif in mon: feathers. Generally described as hawk’s feathers (or, depending on translation, falcon’s feathers), they are graphically simple and have flexibility in number and arrangement. They have a military connotation, both from hawks being hunting birds and from the tradition of fletching arrows with feathers from birds of prey.(Kyudo) Falconry was also a popular and respected sport for both samurai and nobility from the Heian Period (794–1185).(Dower:94)

Here we have a simple 5-feather mon from the Muromachi-period collection of provincial samurai mon.(KJ:7) It shows the more free-form nature of earlier mon by being notably wider than it is tall, which became rarer as mon became more formalized.

Five Feathers MonWatch movie online The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

This even earlier mon, used by the Kikuchi family in the 14th century,(SH:14) is interesting for its use of a half feather, an unusual way of creating a distinctive mon. The same family would later use other mon incorporating an even two feathers.(en.wp:Kikuchi_clan)

Two and a Half Feathers Mon

Mon of the Week: Pine-bark Gourds

Here we have another mon incorporating the chestnut/diamond motif discussed earlier, this one from the 15th century colection of provincial samurai mon.(KJ:7) This mon uses a variation of the three chestnut design with the bottom diamond small to match the top one. This variant is called the “pine-bark diamonds” (松皮菱/matsukawa hishi),(IEJFC:352.2) for reasons that are unclear. The chestnut designs are on gourds of a type (瓢/hisago, “bottle gourd”) that was hollowed-out, dried, and used to carry water. The gourds are in turn supported by mysterious ball-ended sticks. These may be stylized vines or representations of the cords that would often be tied around the middle of such gourds to carry them. They may also represent sticks used to hit gourds when using them as percussion instruments, often for religious purposes.(EAH:Bottle Gourds)

This version of the three-diamonds motif tessellates well, and was also used as a fabric pattern in the Momoyama period (1568–1603).(JAANUS:Matsukawabishi)

Gourds with DiamondsWatch movie online Rings (2017)

Mon of the Week: Three Bamboo Poles

Bamboo groves are commonplace in Japan, and bamboo has long been used as a construction material and for uses such as piping (due to its hollowness) and can easily be sharpened into a spear. Here we have a different take on bamboo found in the collection of provincial mon.(KJ:7) Unlike the more popular depiction of bamboo leaves in clumps, as we saw in our recent fan with bamboo, this mon has single leaves protruding sharply at right angles from the trunks. This gives the leaves a harsher, almost spearhead-like appearance. With the minimal information given by the source, any motivation behind this depiction would be pure speculation; suffice it to say that while variations of bamboo have always been popular in Japanese heraldry and design, this particular version did not catch on.

In Six Bamboo Grass Leaves, Three Bamboo Poles

Mon of the Week: Bell

Today we look at another mon from the same collection of provincial samurai mon from the 15th century.(KJ:7) Today’s mon uses an enclosure that didn’t become a common element in Japanese mon despite its simplicity and elegance.

Long Time Bell

The enclosing shape appears to be a bell. Bells were associated with Buddhist temples, which used large bells to announce times for prayers, meals, and other such scheduled events in much the same way as Western churches and monasteries. These bells are struck from the outside by thick hanging wooden poles, instead of having an internal ringer and moving the bell itself with ropes.Watch movie online John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The character inside is slightly mysterious despite being clearly drawn. It’s most probably a variation on 久, meaning ‘long time’, which in addition to being used in the Japanese equivalent of “long time no see” (久しぶり/hisashiburi) also has auspicious connotations of longevity.

While cross-like elements like the one present here would later be common in the mon of “secret Christians” (Kakure Kirishitan) after Christianity was outlawed in Japan, this particular mon predates such things. Here it perhaps represents a ring hanging the bell from a beam.

Similar bells would also be used as fire bells in the Edo period,(ja.wp:半鐘) when the population density and wooden construction in Edo caused frequent fires. In the peace of the Edo period, some warriors turned to serving in fire brigades summoned by such bells. More realistic, three-dimensional depictions of these bells are used in mon today.(Dower:105)

As a side note, a supposed veiled insult engraved on a temple bell is supposed to have triggered the Ōsaka Campaign,(en.wp:Bell_(instrument)) which is one good source of depictions of military mon.

On Making Kimono

One of the classes I enjoyed this week at Pennsic University was Lady Roxanne’s Guide to Sewing Kosode and “Kimono” (handout soon to be available online at Yama Kaminari). I learned how to make kimono many years ago from my friend Chisato, and have made some modifications along the way, so I thought I’d post some responses. I highly recommend the class and handout; her similar class on hakama, which I caught last year, is also very useful.

Comments, in no particular order:

Neck Drop

I tend to do a less deep neck drop for my under layer kosode, to encourage it to be visible under an over layer. I know lots of people skip the under layer or use a fake collar for the effect, but I don’t tend to find two layers too hot. Then again, I often skip the pants, which is more appropriate for a monk than for a samurai.


Lady Roxanne’s instructions leave you without a back seam. Back seams would have been necessary in period, due to narrow looms. They are also ‘traditionally’ associated with protection with evil spirits, but it’s unclear whether this is a product of more recent times, when they are no longer demanded by the fabric, or whether this tradition goes back further. The charms used for protection on backseamless kimono (such as those made for children) are cute, but I don’t know of any premodern examples.

Interestingly, Lady Roxanne does stick to traditional fabric widths for her sleeves, making them from a full panel and a half panel instead of a 1.5-panel width piece. I’ve been known to be lazy and skip seams in both places, but as far as I know there’s no mythology in sleeve seams.

Neck Hole

Lady Roxanne has you cut a semiellipse-shaped neck hole. Chisato’s method used a rectangular neck hole that has always made sewing on the collar a pain. I’d started rounding the corners of the neck hole to improve on this, but I bet using the semiellipse would make this work better.


As Lady Roxanne mentioned in class, kimono would traditionally be unstitched to wash and the resewn. Kimono also had loose stitching because, if the kimono were to catch on something, it would be better for the stitching to come out (easily repairable) than for the fabric to rip. As someone whose kimonos have ripped many a time, this effect is hard to replicate on a sewing machine, but it’s something to keep in mind, at least when hand-sewing.


I like Lady Roxanne’s method of hand-sewing-on the collars and sewing them on the very edge of the fabric, to keep the quarter inch or so between a machine-sewed line and the edge from flipping up, like mine tend to do.

I also have the exact problem with short collars that Lady Roxanne mentions, and using long collars that go most of the way to the ground (instead of my current collar-to-the-end-of-the-diagonal) seems likely to fix it well. This is especially a problem when I wear my underkosode without an over layer (with hakama informally, or as part of a LARP costume), because of the reduced neck drop I do with underkosode.


Lady Roxanne mentioned that most people seem to prefer closed armpits. I actually really like open armpits hot places (like Pennsic) so I can avoid my armpits getting all hot and sweaty; I was recently annoyed that I didn’t make the armpit holes big enough on my new underkosode. Open armpits also allow more freedom of motion.


I recommend linen as being an easier-to-obtain fabric that is similar to the authentic hemp. Cotton is both rare in period and breathes less well. Of course, silk is also great and authentic.


Lady Roxanne mentioned that the quilted kimono she has seen have quilting visible from the inside only. That’s good to know, since I’ve been thinking of making an actual Japanese warmth layer one of these days instead of just borrowing cloaks from people all over the place.

Overlap Pieces

I have a way of doing the front overlap pieces that saves fabric, if you know the angle you want to cut the front ahead of time, but is more complicated to explain. Instead of doing two full-height half-panel overlap pieces, leave yourself a single half-panel length. (Twice the kimono height minus neck drop is more than enough, but if you’re like me and want to use every part of the buffalo you can do this without cutting this piece to length.) Pin this piece to one side of the front, even at the bottom, and then draw and cut the angle for that half. Flip the remainder and it’ll be the right angle to attach on the other side. Note that this will do the wrong thing if your fabric has a vertically directional pattern, because one side’s overlap piece will be upside down relative to the other.


If you’re using pocket sleeves, be aware that things can fall out the back of the sleeves. With open armpits, sew up the back of the sleeve like you do on the front to make the pocket. I’m not sure how best to do this with closed armpits; you could sew a short seam between the sleeve and the body, but I’d worry that this would restrict arm motion.

I believe monkish overkimono would often have two-full-panel-width sleeves, so you could put your hands together completely covered by sleeve when praying in the cold. I think they also stayed larger-diameter as samurai sleeves became smaller and more practical.

I’d highly Lady Roxanne’s classes to anyone interested in making their own Japanese garb. She’s a great teacher and has ample experience. The handout’s great, but it doesn’t do her justice.

If you’re interested in more kimono references, you may wish to check out my Japanese garb page at The Academy of Seven Monkey, updated to include some links Lady Roxanne mentioned in class.