Fashion: clothing and jewellery of Jomon times

Clothing made of fibres or animal skins are organic and perishable, and so they are not commonly preserved in Jomon sites. Nevertheless, over the years, various fibres have been excavated from a number of sites.

Archaeologists do know that the Jomon people wore clothes made from long narrow strips of mulberry bark. Supple strips of the bark were removed from young mulberry trees, pounded with a stone and woven into long sack-like vests.

For a long time, people thought of the Jomon people as primitive stone age people who were mostly naked or who wore only animal skins and fur and clothes made out of smashed tree bark fibres.

After the 1960s however, more and more fragments of textiles as well as Jomon potsherds pressed with textile patterns turned up. These finds made scientists realize the Jomon people were producing textiles from plant fibres. Archaeologists now know that the oldest fabric product found in Japan is a rope made of hemp, dating back 21,000 years to the beginning of the Jomon Period, excavated from the Torihama Shell Mound in Mikata-cho, Fukui prefecture. From the same site, a woven artefact made of ramie (Boehmeria tricuspis), a vegetable fibre, was also discovered. 

From examining fibre remains found in Jomon sites (Early Jomon Torihama and Sannai Maruyama; Late Jomon Heijo site in Ehime prefecture; and Final Jomon Sanno-gakoi site in Miyagi prefecture)  archaeologists know the Jomon people made clothes out of fibres from two species of false nettles (Boehmeria nivea and Boehmeria tricuspis) as well as cut-leaved elm (Ulmus laciniata). Bone needles have also been found.

The Jomon people wove fabrics made of plain warp, twisted warp and other variations probably using warp-weighted looms. This prehistoric technique of making fabric has survived till today in a technique used to produce angin fabric that also traditionally uses fibres from false nettles in Niigata prefecture. 

Clothing was also made from the fibres of the hemp plant, from around 7,000 years ago. Remains of hemp fibres have been found in sites in Kyushu island. Click here to see what Jomon clothing made out of hemp may have looked like.

The hemp plant produces the strongest natural fibre known. Hemp fabric is three times stronger than cotton fabric of equal weight, and is warmer and more absorbent. The fibres are obtained after the plants are torn out of the ground, then boiled, after which a process called retting in the field, in which the pectin that glues the fibre to the woody core of the hemp stem together rots away. The process takes 12 to 18 days. The stems need to be turned over one or two times so that the rotting takes place evenly on all sides. The fibres then separate easily from the mass stems into finer fibres that can be used for weaving into fabric or baskets. Ropes, nets, and shoes are also made from hemp.

Read about traditional hemp farming and the process in detail here. To see what hemp looms, fibres and clothes look like, visit the Miasa Mura Hemp Museum online

The Jomon people also wore deer skin jackets or tunics and waistcloths with thread-twisted braid trimmings. The line-carved female figurine from Iwakage site appears to be wearing waistbraids and waistcloth. 

Jomon clay figurines often give us good clues as to the fashions of the time. Many Jomon clay figurines appear to be wearing waistclothes, jackets and elaborate masks. The figurines also sport a lot of curvilinear designs on the clothing that look kind of similar to the kind of clothing designs that Ainu people wear today despite the difference in time of several thousand of years. 

Remains from burial pits at the Kakinoshima B site in Hokkaido and elsewhere, show that the Jomon people sometimes clothed their dead with fabric made from twisted warp that was lacquered over in red, their magical colour.

What about jewellery?

Bracelets A very rare bracelet made of clay earth from the Late Jomon period was discovered from the Masukata site, Shounan-town. About 9.2cm in diameter, the bracelet was lacquered over by vermilion paint and made in imitation of the more commonly found shellfish bracelets. Many types of shells were fashioned into shell bracelets. At the Kamitakatsu shell-midden site in Tsuchirua city, Ibaragi Prefecture, 22 species of shells were purposefully gathered to be made into bracelets, among these were the Anadara satowi nipponensis(marusarubo), Glycymeris albolineata(benkeigai) and Meretrix lamarckii shells(chosenhamaguri) (all gathered by diving from out in the open sea).


Bracelet (Tokyo Maibun Center)

Bracelet (Tokyo Maibun Center)

Earrings In the Early Jomon period, a kind of earring that did not require earlobes to be pierced was worn. This type of earring found only on the Kanto plain, consisted of a flat, circular stone with a slit to insert the lobe in. Most popular in the Final Jomon period were spool- or pulley-shaped earrings that had to be inserted in the lobe were the most popular variety. These earrings were commonly be found in the Chubu, Kanto and northern Tohoku regions. Archaeologists have to figure out which ornaments are earrings, for example, they can guess the earrings were meant to be worn as such when the artefacts are recovered from either side of a skull. Clay figurines wearing similar jewellery also provide clues.

Jomon earrings (Sagamihara City Museum)

Jomon earrings (Sagamihara City Museum)

By examining cases where earrings were found together with adequately preserved skeletal remains, scientists have been able to tell that earrings were mainly worn by females, while other ornaments being more frequently associated to males. Most of the earrings were made of pottery earthenware, but other materials like stone were sometimes used. Many were lacquered or painted with red being the preferred colour. Red was usually the colour used for ritual practices so it is likely that women wore earrings not just to look pretty but during ceremonies and special occasions. The earrings were usually decorated ornately and frequently carved with intricate elaborate patterns.

Earthenware was probably the preferred material because it is lighter than stone so that in the case of the larger earrings (diameter up to 10-12 cm) it would have been much easier to stretch the pierced lobe to the desired width as the size of the jewellery gradually increased over the years.  It seems that earlobes were first pierced at around age ten, then the gradual process of stretching would begin.

 Other kinds of ornaments Beads and pendants, hair pins, combs, etc., were also produced using many kinds of materials such as stone, clay earthenware, shell, antler, horn, animal teeth, etc.

Jade magatama (comma-shaped) pendantvfts0068rev1

Jade magatama (comma-shaped) pendant

The earliest item known which was made of jade dates back to the Early Jomon. Jade beads were prestige goods mainly produced in special production centres within  a 40 kilometre radius of jade sources in Itoigawa, Niigata prefecture along Kotaki river.   Jade sources in Japan include Itoigawa, Niigata prefecture, Mt Osa in Okayama prefecture and the Sibukawa district in Central Japan, with most of the jade items coming from Itoigawa. The raw material was processed at various production sites located in Itoigawa’s vicinity.  Jade is mostly associated with larger settlements during the Middle Jomon, when they were most common; Jade pendants in the shape of a comma were particularly prized possessions.

Jomon pendants of various stone (Sagamihara City Museum)

Jomon pendants of various stone (Sagamihara City Museum)

Archaeologists have found jade magatama pendants, marutama  (spherical ones) and kodama (small beads) in burial sites between 4,000 B.C. to 1,600 B.C. The amount of jade found diminishes in the Late Jomon before rising again during the Final Jomon, with production centers located this time throughout Eastern Japan. What was traded during the Middle Jomon were finished beads and various other items, while what was traded during the Final Jomon was mostly raw material.

Jade necklace (Tokyo Maibun Jomon-mura Center)

Jade necklace (Tokyo Maibun Jomon-mura Center)

Other ornaments include deer antler pendants worn at the waist, boar ivory pendants, and amber ornaments.

Ornaments worn at the waist (Tokyo National Museum)

Ornaments worn at the waist (Tokyo National Museum)

Tattoos and Body Painting Many of the Jomon people are thought to have sported tattoos or painted their bodies. Since many of the clay figurines of humans made by the Jomon people have pattern markings all over, it is likely they either tattooed themselves. Around the end of the Jomon period, there was evidence from Chinese record “Gishiwajinden” of a people in the land of Wa (as they called Japan) during the 3rd century B.C. who tattooed their faces and painted their bodies, with pink or scarlet paint. The reason given for the tattoos was that the Jomon people dived often for fish and the markings were thought to protect them from large fish. The text reads as follows:

The men of Wa tattoo their faces and paint their bodies with designs. They are fond of diving for fish and shells. Long ago they decorated their bodies in order to protect themselves from large fish. Later these designs became ornamental. Body painting differs among the various tribes. The position and size of the designs vary according to the rank of individuals…. They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet just as we Chinese use powder (Tsunoda and Goodrich, cited by Dalby, 1993: 22).


Figurine with tattooed torso Tattooed torso of a figurine

9 responses to “Fashion: clothing and jewellery of Jomon times

  1. Jackie Saunders

    What is your reference for twisted warp weaving? I’m researching the use of this technique across cultures, and would really like to know your source and if there are any extant textiles made with twisted warp that I can get photos of.


  2. Three fragments of twisted warp woven fabric were found at the Sannogakoi site in Miyagi prefecture. There is a photo from the Board of Education of Ichihasama Town (Ichihasama-machi Kyoiku Inkai) published in “Ancient Jomon of Japan” by Junko Habu at p. 217

  3. Jackie in Dallas

    Thank you for the reference. I’ve put the book on my wish list!

  4. A question about the link ( that shows what Jomon clothing might have looked like.

    Is this still considered the common scientific consensus on how Jomon clothing might have looked like, or had there been more recent reconstructions of how Jomon clothing might have looked like that’s supported by some evidence?

    • No, I don’t think the link represents the consensus at all. The photo looks more like late-Jomon to Yayoi period clothing. My photos above (I have to reload them) are from the Jomon Village attached archaeological center, from which many fibres were excavated. There are many many Jomon sites around the nation, the simple loom weave method is thought to have been widely used, and while fibers used would depend on exploitation of local fibres, hemp was widely grown

  5. Then what photo represents the common scientific consensus on what Jomon era clothing was supposed to have looked like? Also, you’re saying this photo ( came from the Sannai Maruyama museum?

    And finally…does this paragraph, in this story I’m writing, sound anything like how Jomon clothes would have looked like?

    She wore a knee length, loose fitting tunic, dyed red and decorated with black curvilinear lines. The belt was a simple red colored rope. Her footwear only animal skin with padding inside it. And her jewelry was composed of a crudely shaped jade pendant and two red colored earrings that were simply big rings that you squeeze your earlobe through.

  6. Let’s put it this way, when remnant fibres are found in archaeological sites, they are but very deteriorated traces of fibres, sometimes burials have traces of red cinnabar. Thus reconstructions by scientists are at best educated guesses of what the clothing would have looked like. But we know from the looms similar to those found across Eurasia and awl tools found, they had needles, and they could weave. Therefore the pictures you see of curvilinear lines are only based on the recurring patterns found on pottery, and then they are local to specific regions. Pottery in other regions have sometimes more geometric snd blocky shapes. The patterns and forms of relics from Jomon sites across the very sprawling Japanese archipelago are highly diverse and varied, and broadly divided in a few regional zones until they influenced and overlapped and developed shared forms over time, thus we should expect that clothing forms would have had a variety of forms as well. However, the crude tunic form (as well as animal and fish skins based on anthropological knowledge of related cultures) is thought to have been likely given the early prehistoric phase of East Asia. However, there are those Japanese scholars who believe in the continuity of Jomon through Yayoi to Kofun phase (as DNA evidence supports Y-DNA Hg D remains substantially in varying degrees throughout populations in Japan, hence the representation of Jomon in the Yayoi-Kofun garb that you saw in the link above. The Chinese writings described Himiko’s society as dressed in simple tunics, which has reinforced the general consensus that Jomon society that came before, must have been of a simple form as well. Does this make sense?

  7. I forgot to say that some of the reconstructions of more elaborate clothing are based on the clay figurines which show elaborat designs of clothings with patterned vests, what look like shoulder pads, knee pads, buttons and large round ornaments that adorned the breastplates, etc, etc.

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