Wagasa : Traditional Japanese Umbrellas

umbrella2An umbrella can serve a number of purposes: as a shield from nature’s elements, a cane or walking stick, a weapon, or even a fashion statement. The traditional Japanese umbrella, wagasa (和傘 ), was introduced to Japan from China during the early Heian period (794-1185). The much earlier versions of a wagasa looked more like a straw hat and cape.

Japanese woman with wagasa.

It was initially intended to be used by members of the imperial family and aristocrats to protect them from evil spirits and sunlight rather than rain.  By the 14th century, traditional Japanese umbrellas finally evolved into something like the umbrellas of today.

Early Japanese umbrellas were constructed so that they could not be folded. The folding feature was an innovation that appeared later during the Azuchi Momoyama period (1568-1603). The Edo period saw umbrella production turn into a craft process that helped increase its production as it became popular among common folk as well. By the middle of the Edo period, wagasa were made with such beautiful detail, they quickly became fashion accessories aside from their many other purposes. The umbrella is also an important part of the kabuki, the Japanese tea ceremony, and other cultural aspects of Japanese life.

umbrella3The traditional wagasa is made with renewable materials such as Japanese paper, string, and bamboo. Its solid craftsmanship makes it durable—it can last as long as 20 years with the proper care. A layer of oil coats the umbrella to make it stronger.

 Making umbrellas.

The oil also makes the wagasa water-resistant and provides perfect protection from UV rays. After World War II, there was a rapid decline in the sales of traditional Japanese umbrellas in favor of western-style umbrellas. This caused the dwindling of the number of craftsmen who practice the ancient technique of making wagasa in today’s world.

Wagasa is different from the western umbrella in several aspects.

The wagasa has between 30 and 70 ribs, a lot more than those of the western umbrella (with usually 8 ribs), making it more durable.

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A string or a leather handle attached to the wagasa makes it easier to sling onto your upper body.

The wagasa can be either halfway or fully opened.

When on a stand or against a wall, the western umbrella is placed with its handle up. A wagasa is placed with its handle on the ground.

Underside of the umbrella. | OpenCage Systems

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Folded wagasa. | Sakaori