Sumptuary regulations

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Sumptuary regulations are laws or policies which restrict the clothing members of a given status category can wear, among other behavioral restrictions. While there were few if any extensive sumptuary regulations in Japan prior to the Edo period,[1] the Tokugawa shogunate imposed a series of such policies over the course of its rule. Though enforced and effective to a certain extent, these regulations were also extensively skirted or even flaunted entirely. They did still have a significant impact, however, in shaping Edo period fashion - when the shogunate cracked down on extravagant displays in the 1680s, producers and consumers of fashion simply shifted towards a stronger appreciation for subtler designs and techniques, and towards further refinement and sophistication of particular techniques; yûzen dyeing was among the techniques which benefited greatly from this, as people forbidden from using more precious materials (gold thread, coral accents) turned to dyeing to produce beautiful effects.[2]

Tokugawa sumptuary regulations were chiefly aimed at restricting luxury and encouraging frugality, and at ensuring that people behaved (and dressed) according to their station. There was an economic dimension to this, as shogunate officials wanted to ensure that farmers and fishermen, in particular, lived frugal lifestyles, leaving as much agricultural and other food product for others' consumption as possible. However, the discursive aspect - enforcing appearances - was likely the more important one in the eyes of the lawmakers. Particularly in the mid-to-later Edo period, as some members of the merchant class grew wealthier and wealthier, the shogunate sought to ensure that they would continue to wear relatively plain clothing, and would not compete with the samurai for impressive appearance. The rationales for these policies, as well quite often the policies themselves, were typically phrased within Neo-Confucian frameworks, in accordance with the belief that everyone performing their proper social role according to their station is essential to a prosperous society. However, many scholars today discuss these policies as forming a part of the frameworks or structures of Tokugawa power and control, and as aimed at ensuring the maintenance of samurai legitimacy and authority.

One of the chief elements of Tokugawa sumptuary regulations was a ban on commoners wearing silk garments, with the exception of tsumugi, a lower-quality silk pongee cloth. Townspeople generally skirted these regulations, however, covering up their silks under rougher garments in public, and/or wearing more lavish garments only in private. Many garments were also made of lesser materials, but with lavish inner linings. The Keian Proclamation of 1649, a major sumptuary edict, enjoined commoners to practice frugality and avoid a "commercial mind," and banned, or at least strongly suggested against, peasants drinking tea or saké, or wearing anything but cotton. Peasants were to make their own household tools, and were to eat barley or other grains, and not rice.

Sumptuary regulations were tightened, or their enforcement strengthened, periodically, as certain administrations came into power. Some of the strictest periods of issuance and enforcement of such policies were under Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (r. 1716-1744), during the Kansei Reforms of Tairô Matsudaira Sadanobu (1787-1793), and during the Tenpô Reforms of rôjû Mizuno Tadakuni (1841-1843).


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 255-260.
  1. Ikegami, 255.
  2. Ikegami, 275.