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Say summer and what comes to mind are hot days at the beach, picnics in the park and, of course, summer fashion.
While shorts and sandals are what most people wear these days when the days are hot and humid, in Japan, there is another option – the jinbei. In the Land of the Rising Sun where traditional wear can still be regularly found on the streets, worn by young and old, it comes as no surprise that summer there brings with it its own traditional Japanese wear or wafuku.
Of the various traditional outfits the Japanese wear, the kimono needs little introduction. The jinbei, however, is less known outside of Japan.
What is a jinbei, how did it come about, what types are there and how can you get hold of one – we bring you the lowdown on one of the traditional outfits of Japan.
The jinbei is an informal Japanese outfit worn by men and children in summer. With changing times, women these days have started to don the jinbei, too. But the jinbei started out as men’s wear.
The summer garment comprises a top with short or three-quarter sleeves that fall to the hip, and matching shorts that can be either long or short. The top is tubular and wide, with similarly wide sleeves, and has slits (umanori) on either sides at the bottom near the hip. The collar of the top is long and flat, without a gusset and is set on a diagonal angle.
Like most traditional Japanese clothing, the top is a robe-like outfit worn with the left side overlapping the right. What holds the flaps closed are ties, one on the inside and the other on the outside of the robe.
The left tie is found under the main panel (migoro) and is secured first. Then the left flap of the short robe is wrapped around the torso and secured in place by tying the right tie that is attached to the collar and main panel on the front of the jinbei.
The matching shorts was optional up until 1965 when the jinbei consisted of just the long jacket (joi) which comes up to the knees.
The cut – wide and straight – as well as the fact that no belt is involved make the jinbei loose-fitting and airy, perfect for those Japanese summers that are known to be very hot and humid with temperatures soaring to highs of 32°C. That is why the jinbei is also unlined and made of cotton or hemp which are lighter, more breathable materials. The seams of the jinbei are loosely sewn, too. The seams under the armpit are also left opened. This allows for more air to circulate, keeping the wearer cool. As a result, from a distance, short gaps between the different portions of the jinbei such as the sleeves can be seen.
Typically, the jinbei comes in solid colours such as indigo, blue or green. If there are patterns on it, they tend to be muted. The modern jinbei is rather more flamboyant, though, featuring prints such as simple textures to more elaborate colourful floral designs. Women’s jinbei tend to come in bright hues with popular cultural characters and motifs.
The jinbei is usually worn at home or even as pajamas, around the garden and for short walks in the neighbourhood. That is why it comes with shorts for greater mobility and for ease of wear compared to its summer counterpart the yukata which is a closer fit wraparound held together by a sash which allows for less ventilation.
Over time, the jinbei ventured beyond the home front. People now wear it to summer must-have activities such as barbecues. The jinbei has also been known to replace other traditional wear such as the yukata – a casual kimono worn in summer for festivals – for viewing fireworks during various festivals – or to visit bath houses.
Cousin to the jinbei is the samue. Like the jinbei, the samue is also worn for relaxing around the house or summer fun. The difference like in the origins. The samue was originally worn by Buddhist monks while they worked. The jinbei was worn by townfolk.
In addition, while the jinbei is worn primarily during summer, the samue is worn all year round. As a result, the samue comes with longer sleeves and longer pants that reach down to the ankles to protect the wearer from cooler temperatures.
The jinbei is also more loosely sewn together with the various parts often knitted together with yarn or laced together sans the knitting.
The kimono is perhaps the most well-known of Japanese traditional wear. Literally translated as “thing to wear”, its name does no justice whatsoever to the fact that the regal attire is the national dress of Japan.
The kimono is vastly different from the jinbei because while the latter is casual wear, the former is reserved largely for formal occasions such as weddings and official events. As such, the kimono has several layers and many parts, making it a somewhat complex piece of garment to put on. The jinbei is a fuss-free pajama-like set that can be put on and cast off easily.
The summer version of the kimono is known was the yukata. So, if the yukata and the jinbei are both part of Japanese summer fashion, are they similar?
Both the jinbei and the yukata are, indeed, lounge wear meant to be worn at home or while involved in casual activities.
But the yukata was meant to be worn by nobles of the Heian period (794 to 1185) for after a bath. It was modified from the kimono which, with its many layers, was hard to put on and not particularly comfortable to wear for everyday life. The jinbei, on the other hand, was designed for the commoner and came much later in the Sengoku period (1467 to 1615).
While the jinbei comprises a top and bottom, the yukata (like its more elaborate counterpart the kimono) consists of a long, well-fitted robe that enhances the silhouette and is knotted at the waist with a light obi (belt) simply knotted.
In terms of the silhouette, the yukata has a Y-shaped silhouette that is wider on top and tapers below. The cut is meant to make the gait of the wearer more graceful and elegant because of the slight restriction. The jinbei, however, has an A-shaped silhouette because of its boxier cut and was designed for comfort.
Because the yukata is a modified kimono, it comes in bright hues and has more elaborate patterns while the jinbei comes in more subdued colours as fitting for the wardrobe of the commoner.
The jinbei traces its construction to the Sengoku period between 1467 and 1615, finding its origins in the outfit originating from a combat dress known as the jinbaori from the days of the samurai. The jinbaori would be worn over the samurai’s armour to protect him from the elements and to showcase his status and family crest.
Because the jinbaori was to be worn during battle, it was made to be easy to put on and take off as well as to move around. There were no fussy details or unnecessary accessories. There were, in fact, no sleeves even.
The popular belief is that at the end of the Edo period, common folk started to wear a sleeveless coat known as the sodenashi-baori which resembled the jinbaori in shape. This jinbaori for the common man, then, was the earliest jinbei. It was believed that the jinbei became popular in the Taisho period, particularly among the people in Osaka.
In ancient times, nobles wore the yukata in summer to relax or for summer festivals while their more humble countrymen wore the jinbei. So, everyone could tell, just by their outfits, the status of the people.
Presumably, common folk were required to be involved in more active labour and vigourous activities, which is why the jinbei has a looser form which allows for easy movement. Because the jinbei is meant to be worn by the hardier portion of the population, there is also no prescribed footwear unlike the yukata which is supposed to be worn with a pair of geta (a pair of wooden flip flops that come with three-prong heels.
The jinbei began life as home wear. They can be worn at home as casual wear, to bed as pajamas or after a bath as a robe.
Even when worn outside the home, it is to places near the home, for example to potter around the garden, for walks around the neighbourhood, or to run an errand such as collecting the mail or shopping in the stores nearby.
That was the traditional jinbei when the garment was worn primarily by men and children.
In time, the jinbei began to travel further afield. They can now be seen at summer festivals alongside the yukata, worn by men, women and children.
Older folk can be seen in jinbei going about their daily tasks. For them, this pajama-like outfit is their everyday clothing.
The jinbei wraps around the body like a bathrobe except that it is secured by ties on the inside and outside of either flaps. The right side of the jinbei is wrapped around the body. That right side is then secured in place by tying the strap at the end of the collar of that side to the strap found at the waist of the left side.
Then, the left side of the jinbei is wrapped around the body, and tied in place by knotting the strap on the right side of the jinbei to the strap found at the end of the collar of the left side of the jinbei.
The pants then come on after.
The material used to make the jinbei is thin and light since it is for the summer months. Cotton and hemp (linen) are the fabric of choice. Sometimes, a mix of both is used. Some high end jinbei mix in washi, traditional Japanese paper, because washi makes an excellent material for clothing.
Washi is 50% more absorbent than cotton and wicks away moisture, meaning that it moves the sweat to the outside of the cloth and rapidly dries it, keeping the wearer cool and dry. It also has strong fibres that are less pervious to liquids and stains. This makes it look new after just one wash.
Cotton is also ideal because it is soft, light and breathable, allowing heat to escape the body so the wearer remains cool while soaking up sweat. The type of cotton used for the jinbei is known as the Awa Shoai Shijira Ori. Produced in Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture, this type of cotton has fine wrinkles on its surface because of the weave. This prevents the cloth from sticking to the skin when the wearer perspires, making it cooler for hot months. It usually comes in indigo or Champaign blue which is the trademark colour of Awa Shoai Shijira Ori.
Hemp is another light and breathable fabric thanks to the fact that it is loosely woven. This lets out the heat from the body. It, too, absorbs moisture easily and dries quickly so that the wearer remains cool and dry. The only problem is that linen creases easily. But some like the look and feel that the wrinkled style adds to the character of the cloth.
Expect to spend over S$100 for your set of jinbei.
Amazon carries a range jinbei from Edoten. Their men’s 100% cotton jinbei come in a range of muted colours – beige, navy, grey and black – and simple prints. The top has two pockets and the pants come with three, combining comfort and convenience.
Taiko Centre’s jinbei comes in solid colours – navy, sand and dark grey. Made from 100% cotton, the elastic waistband of the pants adds to the ease-of-wear of the jinbei.
There are few things you cannot buy from Etsy. So, it should come as no surprise that the online store sells jinbei as well. Theirs come in blue with tastefully placed geometric designs.
The website also features impossibly cute jinbei-inspired baby rompers in salmon pink with cherry blossom flowers. Made with Japanese tenugui fabric that is 100% cotton and traditionally used to make hand towels, the romper jinbei is soft, thin and breathable, promising comfort for the baby.
Like Etsy, Lazada is a one-stop online shop for all things and all needs. So, naturally it would have the jinbei on its list of many items for sale.
If you are looking for jinbei for children, their blue jinbei with floral print is fit for boys or girls.
This site carries by the far the largest selection of jinbei for children – boys and girls. With the range of patterns from flowers and animals to geometric shapes as well as the low prices (some cost only S$7), this is the place for those who want to give the jinbei a go without investing too much in it.
This store which specialises in Japanese fashion and accessories offers a pink Seigaiha ocean wave pattern women’s jinbei. The Seigaiha wave is an ancient Japanese motif which first appeared in the 6th century. It was used to denote the sea and oceans on maps and later came to be recognised as a symbol of power and resistance, key elements in Japanese culture. This pattern is quintessentially Japanese and makes for a fitting print for the jinbei.
Japanese retail chain MUJI with nearly 1,000 stores worldwide also carries a range of jinbei. The traditional Awa Shijira jinbei comes in solid navy. They also have an organic cotton jinbei that promises to keep wearers cool and dry while saving the planet.