Japan House & Home: Haramaki

Japanese Culture: Haramaki 腹巻

Mark Brazil

The traditional Japanese approach to keeping warm offers interesting insights into different cultural solutions to the same practical problems encountered in other parts of the world.

Much of Japan, though almost tropical in its heat and humidity in summer, is cold and frosty, or snow-covered in winter. Some areas experience snow lying on the ground for months on end throughout the winter and 'enjoy' temperatures that drop to as low as -30. So how does one keep warm?

Today, it's a matter of rush indoors, and turn on the heating, but it is not so long ago that many homes in the cold regions of Japan lacked any kind of central heating, yet nevertheless warmth was on offer. The approach then was to bundle up in quilted cotton jackets (hanten), to sit around a kotatsu warming one's legs and hands beneath its heating element and insulating quilt, to take a deep hot bath early in the evening to provide internal heating, and to retire early to thick futon for warmth overnight; sleeping with the whole family in one room helped too.

A later addition was the movable oil-burning stove that sat on the floor of each room and belted out additional heat, though it also increased the fire risk. There are still many inns (ryokan) and minshuku that rely on these forms of heating to this day, and quickly offer a hot bath soon after arrival or before dinner as a way of helping guests remain warm for the evening.

The warmth from the oil-stove seems to dissipate immediately on turning it off, in which case check the windows; as likely as not these will be in ill-fitting frames, or only a paper screen may separate you from the frost and snow outside! Traditional Japanese homes are reasonably described as being at the ambient temperature: uncomfortably cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer!

Haramaki are now cool.
No longer in boring, drab colours, Haramaki now come in a wide range of colours and designs.
Not a typical garment for Westerners, but considered indispensable in winter in Japan - a tube of cloth around the waist - otherwise known as Haramaki.

In these days of excessive energy use, driving concerns related to the impacts of global climate change, simpler approaches to warming and cooling are ever more appropriate. "Cool-Biz" in summer - cooler, more comfortable clothing allowing less use of air-conditioning - has already made its mark and entered the daily lexicon in Japan.

Surely, "Warm-Biz" for winter must follow. A stronger emphasis on wearing warmer clothing layers in winter provides opportunities to snap-up traditional clothing in great colours and patterns. Visit any historical town and somewhere there will be a local store selling traditional padded hanten.

Look out for those made locally, and you will not only have an attractive, warm garment, but you will also be contributing to the local economy rather than to a larger neighboring country's.

Haramaki, Japanese belly warmer.
Noughts and crosses anyone? The astonishing range of patterns suggest modern Haramaki are as much about being seen as keeping warm.
Haramaki - Japanese stomach warmer.
No exposed buttocks when bending over if you are clad in Haramaki.

Attractive outer garments are easy to find, but traditional Japanese undergarments have never been very attractive or flattering, and frankly the warmest of these, the haramaki, has always been boring.

A tubular piece of cloth, like the lower body of a t-shirt, or the lower part of a sweater (minus neck, shoulders and sleeves), the haramaki was long enough so that it could be doubled over and worn around the stomach comfortably preventing drafts around the waistline, and helping keep the body core warm.

Unfortunately, haramaki tended to come in plain white or boring browns or greys, they were made of cotton, wool or polyester and were perhaps most renowned in films about Japan showing rural farm workers, factory workers, truck drivers or gangsters clad in singlets, haramaki and some form of loose trousers. It was into the haramaki that the said hero or villain could thrust his wallet, his ill-gotten gains, or, in the case of the gangster, his illegal handgun.

The image of the haramaki was linked to the middle-aged and elderly, but that image is under attack and changing rapidly; the haramaki is making a comeback and a fashion statement.

Now, with the flexibility of modern production methods and the demands of a sated market place requiring novelty, the haramaki is appearing in clothing stores, and department stores as the winter warming apparel. Thin enough to be worn beneath normal daily clothes, but warm enough to provide additional insulation, the haramaki now comes in a wide range of colours and designs.

Quintessentially Japanese, simple in form, practical in use, designers are now broadening the haramaki's appeal to a whole new generation of users.

Buy modern design haramaki from Japan. GoodsFromJapan.com offers a wide range of Japanese garments including happi coats from Kyoto.

The penguins say it all, this Haramaki is definitely designed for the winter's cold weather.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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