While many cultures take sun protection seriously, Japan has surpassed every other in its umbrella and parasol consumption, selling over 100 million annually.

They can be a terror at times — especially when wielded by a shaky elder on a bike — but daily life in Japan has built itself around their use: stands outside every convenience store, plastic umbrella bags at the entryway of department stores on rainy days, and anti-theft umbrella lockers at some establishments. Umbrella theft is even a major plot point in movies such as Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s 2001 film “Hush!”

As summer 2024 heats up with record temperatures, let’s take a look at how umbrellas and parasols came to hold such a special place in Japanese society and how you can optimize your parasol usage to stay (relatively) cool.

A history of shade

Parasols have graced human societies since as early as 2450 B.C., as depicted in ancient Egyptian and Persian artwork, eventually spreading to Europe, China and greater Asia throughout the following millennia. From the start, these rain- and sun-shades were symbols of aristocracy; a fifth century B.C. carving of Persian king Xerxes shows servants holding a parasol over his head from behind.

Parasols gained popularity quickly in China and greater Asia as these areas historically placed great importance on pale skin (a beauty standard now entwined with today’s problematic issues of colorism and racial discrimination). Paleness was a sign of wealth — a pale, plump person did not labor in the sun and had ample food (a contrast with some of today’s beauty standards). So if paleness meant wealth, wealth meant desirability and desirability translated to beauty, then sun-blocking parasols were the perfect means of signifying all three.

However, as the umbrella’s association with the rich increased, so, too, did the fascination of the common people. By Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868), bamboo and waterproofed paper kasa (umbrellas) and higasa (parasols) were everyday tools and props in kabuki plays and other performances.

Around the mid-1800s, Western-style umbrellas made with linen and cotton entered Japan. These costly imports became the new luxury parasol, paralleling the silk umbrellas of eons past. Many photographs and paintings of upper-class Japanese women show them pairing Western parasols with their kimono. The late 1990s saw the rise of new ultraviolet-blocking fabrics, and Japanese umbrellas attained their modern-day importance in everyday life.

The perfect parasol

As Japanese summers tend to be a revolving door of heavy monsoon rains and burning sunshine, the most popular parasols are ones with both water-repellent and UV-blocking features.

For the fashion conscious, a traditional paper 'higasa' (parasol) can be a perfect accent to your outfit — if you can afford the price.
For the fashion conscious, a traditional paper 'higasa' (parasol) can be a perfect accent to your outfit — if you can afford the price. | COURTESY OF ANNA MODUGNO

The ideal two-in-one parasol is sturdy and reinforced (to withstand the strong winds of rainstorms), has thick or multilayered fabric (to offer shade) and advertises UV-repellent coatings that block up to 99% of the sun’s rays. The most serious parasols feature a silver outer shell and a black inner canopy — silver fabric is the most effective at reflecting sunlight, while the black material absorbs the UV rays that remain (the black lining additionally absorbs sunlight that bounces off the ground). For the truly committed, looking into fabrics like TeryLast and Sunbrella come highly recommended within the industry and are often used for premium patio umbrellas.

Of course, many of the parasols you see day-to-day are less hardcore than this and prioritize fashion and design over anti-UV technology — though, even a basic higasa offers better sun protection than nothing.

Fashion, high and low

Due in a large part to its long and complex history with nobility and conspicuous consumption, parasols are popular fashion items, completing many a Victorian Gothic Lolita look or Visual-kei band’s photoshoot.

Kimono stylist Anna Modugno, who runs a blog on traditional Japanese fashion, says her habit of collecting parasols and featuring them in her photoshoots is both practical and pleasurable.

“Since skin cancer runs in my family, I use parasols primarily for my health,” Modugno says. “It (also) creates a personal bubble of space — a luxury in Tokyo.”

While parasols remain a primarily feminine instrument, there has been an uptick of men toting these personal shaders around in recent years. In 2013, the term “higasa danshi” (“parasol man”) began to trend on social media.

“It is truly a shame that the parasol ... has all but disappeared from Western fashion after being gendered as effeminate and frivolous,” Modugno says.

Modugno recommends tourists interested in traditional Japanese parasols visit the studio of the Wagasa Casa in Gifu, where high-end paper umbrellas are handcrafted in startling shapes and patterns. Other stylish but less expensive Western-style options can be found at DiCesare Designs, plus Victorian and Gothic versions at Lumiebre. Of course, local specialty shops such as the Tanakaya Umbrella Store in Koenji’s covered market street often hold hidden gems.

Parasols in Japan today represent a meeting of fashion and of function — as well as our desire to control our comfort in both rain and shine. And given their long history in Japan, when it's time for you to choose a parasol this summer that fits your fashion and health needs, not even the sky is the limit.