What exactly is a straw hat? In the context of this article, a straw hat refers to a hand-woven or machine-made fabric hat with a wide brim and an open crown. Straw hats are made from dried stalks of rice, wheat, millet, maize (corn), bamboo grass, and sorghum; however, those made from wheat and rice dominates the market.
The term ‘straw’ in straw hat does not refer to hay as it is commonly known; instead, it means that such hats were initially woven from dry plant stems. They can be used for insulation against heat and cold by having air pockets trapped between the weave of the straws — thus trapping warm or cool air — but more often than not as sun protection as their wide brims shade the face, neck, and shoulders.
Woven straw hat
The woven straw hat is a cultural icon for summertime in Japan, known as ‘tenugui boshi’ (lit. hand towel hat). It used to be a common sight at festivals and on crowded beaches during the summer season; however, fewer people wear them these days because of its perceived lack of fashion ability compared to other hats such as baseball caps or bucket hats.
Historically speaking, peasants used woven straw hats for everyday work, whereas noblemen used more expensive ones made with silk thread. This tradition persists today, albeit no longer holds significant value. Common folk tends to favor cheaper hats made with plastic instead.
Straw hat in China
In China, a similar tradition is upheld, with the pinnacle of straw hats being the bamboo-woven ‘wei guan’ which means ‘bamboo sun hat.’ It has an equally wide brim and open crown like its Japanese counterpart, albeit with finer weaving. The ‘wei guan’ was initially worn by farmers for protection against sunlight when doing agricultural work; however, it has become popular among women as a fashionable accessory in recent times.
Handmade straw hats
It is common knowledge that Japan and China are famous for their hand-made products made from natural resources such as silk, rice paper, lacquerware, and bamboo. These beautifully intricately manufactured items are much admired worldwide for their quality. The astute observer will not fail to notice that they are also not easy to come by in most parts of the world, especially for visiting on holiday. For example, silk scarves made with actual gold thread are impractical purchases given how heavy they would be when wet, and their long-term durability is questionable.
One wonders then why straw hats that require relatively little manufacturing effort compared to hand-made products have proliferated into every household’s summer wardrobe nowadays. The answer goes back to the days when Japan was under Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. At this time in history, Japan was becoming increasingly more isolated from the outside world due to its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) implemented by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Edo Period.
In tandem with this, Western culture was becoming increasingly more popular due to the influx of foreigners visiting Japan at that time. Consequently, a need arose for Japanese artisans to mass-produce products that would resemble those made by their foreign counterparts to be acceptable within Japanese society.
The existence of straw hats can be traced back to Ancient Greece and Rome, where they were used by warriors during battle or worn by laborers in hot weather. Straw hats have also been found in Bronze Age barrows dated 2800 BC; however, they are known more commonly for being associated with Ancient Egyptian culture. Hats woven from long dry plant stems had been mentioned in texts dating back about 4000 years which