Weird Details About Ancient Japan That Definitely Weren’t In The History Books

Weird Details About Ancient Japan That Definitely Weren

There’s a recurring problem with a lot of high school history classes. Teachers give students an overview of major events and eras, but they never go into the gritty details of what life was actually like for the people living through them. Case in point: ancient Japan. Nowadays, when we think of Japan, we picture Zen gardens and kanso-inspired lifestyles. However, if you jump back in time through the centuries, you realize just how brutal and unforgiving much of the day-to-day routines were.

Lead Makeup

Many women caked-on makeup every morning before leaving their home. But, while it may have looked more appealing to the eye for men, tons of them died due to lethal amounts of lead contained in early compositions.

Junko Kimura / Getty Images

Collecting Soil

At one point in time, there was a shortage of livestock, which meant a shortage of manure. So, people started collecting their own soil — which quickly became a valuable commodity — to use instead.

Martin Godwin / Getty Images


Farmers usually lived the poorest lives out of the entirety of the population. Sometimes poverty was so substantial that families engaged in infanticide, meaning they would kill their own children while they were just days old to avoid the burden.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

“Pleasure Quarters”

Today, prostitution is illegal in Japan, but centuries ago it was actually allowed. Clients would visit “pleasure quarters” to meet with women. As you can imagine, sexually transmitted diseases ran rampant through them all.

Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) / Wikimedia Commons

Selling Daughters

It’s sickening to think about, but sometimes poor families were in such extreme debt they actually sold off their daughters to brothels in exchange for a clean slate. They signed strict contracts and never saw their girls again.

Photo by Michael Maslan/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

No Pearly Whites

Everyone wants to flash a smile and show off pristine pearly white teeth, but back then, people were actually turned off by a bright smile. So, women would put black dye on their teeth. Say cheese!

Gharghasht / Twitter

Amputation and Decapitation

Between the years of 1592 and 1598, Japan ruthlessly invaded Korea twice and would keep the decapitated heads of Korean soldiers as trophies. However, when heads proved too difficult to carry, they switched to amputated noses and fingers.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Samurai Swords

For a samurai, it was seen as dishonorable if one swipe with a sword didn’t sever a body in half. So, they would occasionally kill random people at night to ensure their blades were up to code.

Thierry Bernard / Wikimedia Commons


You might think adult magazines were something that came around during the 1900s, but they were actually incredibly prevalent in Japan. Called “shunga,” they were blocks of wood with erotic carvings on them.

Katsushika Hokusai / Wikimedia Commons

Reporting Theft

Laws were incredibly strict — and sometimes outright unfair. For example, someone who didn’t report a theft was punished just as severely as the actual thief. Punishment included mutilation, face tattoos, banishment, and public humiliation.

Kadee Spangler / Instagram


Oftentimes brothel workers would fall in love with their favorite clients. In order to show them how dedicated their love was, they would self-mutilate. This eventually evolved into “shinju,” which meant both partners took their own lives together.

Photo By MICHAEL MACOR/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Monzaemon Chikamatsu

A famous playwright named Monzaemon Chikamatsu exploded in popularity when he began writing about suicide and the act of shinju. People grew so obsessed with his work that rates of suicide actually spiked.

Suguri F / Wikimedia Commons

Divorce Rate

The divorce rate was incredibly enormous, with numbers as high as 40 percent. The lower classes especially contributed to this statistic, and, unfairly, only the man could opt to end a marriage.

Lan Pham / Unsplash

The Arrival of Christian Missionaries

Japan saw Christian missionaries arrive in the mid-16th century, and the clergy was very confident the country would take to the new religion. Instead, Japan’s rulers tortured them and forced them to renounce the faith.

Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty Images


People used to write what’s called “haikai,” a form of basic poetry that eventually morphed into what we know as “haiku.” Back then, lower-class citizens wrote their own haikai and used the literature to gamble with.

Anna Webber / Getty Images

Tateishi Onojiro

New York City welcomed 76 samurai warriors in 1860. The warriors were there as diplomats, and one in particular, Tateishi Onojiro, became a beloved figure to the city. He was even the subject of a polka song called “Tommy Polka.”

Sheridan Libraries / Levy / Gado / Getty Images

Tokugawa Iemitsu

A shogun named Tokugawa Iemitsu enforced a stringent isolationist foreign policy in 1633. For the next 200 years, any resident of Japan could not leave the country — if they did, they faced the death penalty.

東京帝国大学編集 / Wikimedia Commons

The Shimabara Rebellion

Many of the peasants who initially adopted Christianity from traveling missionaries banded together in an uprising known as the Shimabara Rebellion. However, they were far less powerful than the ruling class, and the mutiny was eviscerated with horrific violence.

Frank “Fg2” Gualtieri / Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Noh Theater

The oldest form of theater in the world came from Japan. Known as Japanese Noh theater, actors — who were exclusively male — wore bizarre masks, and the themes frequently involved demons and ghastly entities.

Jim Epler / Flickr

The Samurai

Even though the samurai were feared by most citizens, if someone today ran into one, it wouldn’t be too scary; the average height in ancient Japan centuries ago was only five feet one inch.

Felice Beato – Britannica / Wikimedia Commons

Modern Coke Party

If you’ve ever visited Japan, you’ll know that there are some seriously weird traditions; then, of course, are the even weirder new customs that spring up almost every day. Japan’s coke parties tend to differ from those in other parts of the world. In the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s all about Coke with a capital C, with partygoers obliged to don the official headgear of the Coca-Cola Company before entering. Probably.


Yamanba, which is intended to subvert the traditional Japanese concept of beauty, is one of the country’s more outlandish fashion trends. We don’t think anyone’s going to argue that it’s not achieved its aims, though.

Pillow Party

Woah, check out this strange sleepover, where each guy has his own female pillow to cuddle. You’d think they’d at least keep it to themselves rather than partaking in some kind of freaky, feathery orgy.

This eel just wanted a hug, apparently, though it doesn’t really have much say in the matter either way. Still, it’s better than a pillow with a picture of a woman on it, right?

McDonald’s Cosplay

Okay, we can sort of understand the desire to dress up as your favorite anime or Disney character. Millions of people all over the world do it every year. But Ronald McDonald? Really?

Square Melon

This one actually seems pretty practical, even if it does look weirdly disconcerting. After all, who hasn’t bemoaned their watermelon rolling endlessly around their fridge shelves or kitchen surfaces? Spherical foods are an everyday struggle.

Ultimate Onesie

It seems Japan has moved on from onesies. Now, the method of choice for keeping warm is a full-on sleeping bag, ensnaring all but your face and feet. Our advice? Grab a thick pair of socks.

Diet Water

You’ll never have to feel guilty about drinking water again, what with all its fatty and sugary contents. Hang on, that doesn’t sound right…


This is almost one step too far from the pillow women. The “Hizamakura,” or lap pillow, apparently comes with multiple clothing options, including a super-tight miniskirt. Obviously.

KFC Christmas

One of the strangest recent customs in Japan is Christmas dinner at KFC. In fact, the fried-chicken outlet has become so popular that people will queue overnight to make sure they can get in on Christmas Day.

Robot Restaurant

There are plenty of wacky places to visit in Japan, not least of which is the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Featuring nightly “battles” between bikini-wearing performers in massive robot costumes, it’s definitely not something you’d see outside what must surely be the weirdest country on Earth.,_Shinjuku_Tokyo.jpg

Tumble Dry Pasta

We’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on here. Is this some kind of offbeat Japanese game show? Or is this just how certain citizens of Japan choose to spend their downtime?