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  • Japanese: 木綿 (momen)

Cotton was first introduced to Japan in the late Nara or early Heian period, but only began to be grown in any significant sense in the late 15th century. By the end of the 17th century, it was the most standard fabric for commoner clothing, replacing ramie.

History & Uses

Originally native to India, where it has been grown since at least 1800 BCE, cotton was also produced in ancient China, emerging originally in Yunnan province but not becoming economically prominent until the Yuan Dynasty;[1] in Korea, cotton was not grown to any significant extent until around 1360. In Japan, there were a number of unsuccessful attempts at introducing cotton, going back as early as the 8th century, but it was not until the late 15th that it took off in any significant way. By the late 16th century, cotton was commonly worn by low-ranking samurai, and in the early 17th century, cotton production had finally expanded to a majority of the areas of Japan, and took up nearly half of the agricultural area immediately around Osaka; over the course of the Tokugawa period, cotton played a central and major role in driving (or constituting) economic growth.

Cotton replaced ramie (asa, hemp) as the most standard fabric in the Edo period, as it was easier to process and to transport. Whereas asa had to be processed within a few days of harvesting the raw materials, and could not be transported well before processing, raw cotton could be transported much more easily, both before processing and at various stages within the process. The development of cottage industries, or the so-called "putting out system," to process cotton in stages represents a core element of the Edo period proto-industrialization process. Cotton passed through many hands in stages of processing the raw materials, weaving it into fabric, dyeing and printing, and finally wholesale and retail, contributing considerably to the commercial, proto-modern growth of the Tokugawa economy; for the first time, a significant portion of the population bought, rather than made, their clothes.

Warmer climates are better for growing cotton, so it first came to be grown in a significant way in Ryûkyû and parts of southern Japan. Since cotton is also warmer to wear than ramie, it was soon in high demand in the north, creating an impetus for trade networks across the length of the archipelago; and, since it travels better, many colder areas that did not initially grow cotton still developed considerable weaving operations.

Cotton is also more receptive to dyes and printing techniques than ramie, and so in the early Tokugawa period, many middle- and lower-status members of society who still could not afford silk, could now for the first time in history, afford more colorful garments with more complex designs.

Cotton was only first introduced to the Ryûkyû Islands in the 17th century, and never became particularly widely cultivated.[2] However, it was commonly worn by members of the royalty, aristocracy, and the wealthier classes of Naha/Shuri urbanites,[2] and it was a prominent enough product on Kumejima that Kumejima cotton was among the products given by the Ryûkyû Kingdom as gifts to the Tokugawa shogunate.[3]


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 252-253.
  1. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 228.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bingata! Only in Okinawa, Okinawa Prefectural Government (2016), 74.
  3. Miyagi Eishô 宮城栄昌, Ryûkyû shisha no Edo nobori 琉球使者の江戸上り, Tokyo: Daiichi Shobô (1982), 108-110.