Sekitai (Leather Belts) (石帯)

A sekitai (leather belt) is a belt of black leather, used when dressing in sokutai costume.

Its name is derived from the fact that decorative stones and other materials, such as agate and rhinoceros horn, are sewn onto the leather belt.

The sekitai was initially fastened together with a metal buckle like an ordinary belt, but it was tied with strings from the end of the Heian Period, and it was made of only two parts of leather: the back part and an extra part.


It is very long and is of a shape similar to current belts. The main part is made of black leather and called the 'toko', the front is fastened with a kako (buckle) and the dabi (the end of the belt opposite the buckle end) is inserted into the obi at the back.

The remaining part of the belt inserted at the back is called the uwate, and together they compose the two parts: toko and uwate.

In the Nara Period, a piece of thin leather was folded and joined to the center of the back section, and the upper and lower ends that correspond to tops of the folds had a piece of hemp inserted to make a core, before being rounded off. The belt was colored black and a thin coat of lacquer applied for glazing. The existing belts made in the Edo Period had unpolished leather for the core (the condition of the leather when it was new is unknown, but it looks light-green, translucent and hard in many cases), and a piece of thin leather was folded and wrapped so that it was joined at the center of the back. A string made from twisted paper was used as a core for the upper and lower ends that correspond to the tops of the folds. Belts made in the Edo period that exist today are very hard because a thick coat of lacquer was applied to them. It is thought that sekitai were made to be stiff only in modern times because the sekitai that is a secret treasure of Asuka-jinja Shrine is so soft that it can be rolled for storage.

A set of around ten gems called a ka (the radical of the kanji "金" to the left with 夸 to the right) was sewn on the part of the toko on the side and back when it was worn by crossing a thread over each gem.

As the kanji radical 金 at the left indicates, the ka was originally made of gold or silver, and court nobles had ones with metal carvings of lions and flowers in Chinese style called umon, beginning to use white gemstones in the Enryaku era after their use was permitted.

The front part that is hidden by the chest had no stones.

From the end of the Heian Period, the back section of the toko and uwate were made of leather separately and joined with strings, the longer kakeo (hanging cord) of the two strings was passed through the fastener (the ukeo, or catcher cord) on the opposite side and tied with the shorter one (machio cord).

The stones were riveted in the Nara Period and wires and so on were also used in the early Heian Period. The sekitai that was a secret treasure of Asuka-jinja Shrine, an auxiliary shrine of Kumano-hayatama-taisha Shrine in the early Muromachi Period, was tied by passing a thread through three holes made diagonally and inconspicuously from the side to the back of the precious stones, but from the middle of the Muromachi Period there was another method of sewing the stones with threads from the top, and this came to be the sole method in the Edo Period. They were sewn with two threads, right-handed and left-handed, so that a diamond shape was formed at the back in the Yamashina School and a toppled v shape was formed in the Takakura School.

"The Engishiki" (an ancient book for codes and procedures on national rites and prayers), showing the manners and customs of the Bureau of Skilled Artisans, describes in detail the materials and other aspects of the agate belts worn by the Emperor.

Sekitai in ceremony and as a mark of social status

Round stones were called round sashes and used in everyday activities and ceremonies, and square stones were called junpo (square sashes) and used only in ceremonies. Stones with two matching semi-circular pieces, resembling Japanese kamaboko (boiled fish paste), were called setsujo (semicylindrical sashes) according to the "Wamyo-sho", a dictionary compiled in the Heian Period. However, there are almost no surviving perfectly round sashes, which were often affixed to the dabi, from the Nara Period to modern times, and this is true both for art objects which have been loved and handed down and for objects found during archaeological excavations.

The types of stones were determined by social status; gold or silver plating was used for those of goi (Fifth Rank) and higher, a black lacquered sash (black lacquered copper) was used for rokui (Sixth Rank), and officers used a range of materials according to their exposure to Chinese influences. Officials of the rokui (Sixth Rank) or lower began to use a variety of stones instead of black lacquer and their use was officially approved in the Enryaku era. Many sekitai with plainer stones have been excavated in various parts of the country as they were used even by officials of local government agencies in the Nara and Heian periods.
According to 'Engi Danjodai Shiki' (The Rule of the Board of Censors) of the early Heian Period, there were many rules: 'Waistbands with white gems can be worn by those of Third Rank or higher or sangi (councilors) of the Fourth Rank, waistbands with tortoiseshell, agate, rhinoceros horn (said to be rhinoceros horn, but bull's horns were usually used), ivory, sharkskin (said to be sharkskin, but the skin of a ray was often used for costumes) or rosewood can be worn by officials of the Fifth Rank for everyday use, stones of teizuri, which are stones of Kishu (now Wakayama Prefecture) origin on which patterns were engraved, can be worn by sangi (councilors) or higher, and sujibori (carving thin lines with sharp implements) on which gold or sliver is stamped, and Chinese belts can be worn by officials of Fifth Rank or higher.'
Another rule was "White and glossy stones of Kishu origin cannot be used by officials of Sixth Rank or lower, who should use black lacquered rhinoceros horn", (one theory claims they were often lacquered). In addition, it is said that stones with tsutennoaya, a grain pattern which was expensive, were not permitted. Other sekitai include a belt with blue stones (lazurite) which was used daily by the Emperor and which was one of the Shoso-in treasures. Some excellent sekitai, believed to be family treasures, were made in the Heian Period and were mentioned in literature, such as ones of 'kigata' (ogre shape), 'shishigata' (lion shape) and so on. "Utsuho monogatari" (The Tale of the Hollow Tree) contains a story where a noble son is suspected to have sold a belt that was a family treasure and he is expelled from his family. On the other hand, the number of sekitai dating from after the end of the Heian Period excavated in local districts is much lower, which suggests that local officials no longer used sekitai.

In this way we can see that there were initially various kinds of sekitai, but they became gradually restricted. According to custom from the end of the Heian Period to the Meiji Restoration, square unfigured sashes with white gemstones were used only for ceremonies involving the Emperor. Figured square sashes with white gemstones were used on the sokutai (traditional ceremonial court dress) of the Emperor on other occasions. Court nobles used figured square sashes with white gemstones for formal ceremonies and round-shaped unfigured sashes with white gemstones for informal occasions. Historical records suggest that 'ordinary' sokutai were those with round-shaped unfigured sashes. Round-shaped figured sashes with white gemstones were used in a similar way to the figured square sash with white gemstones, but they were considered to be inappropriate for particularly important imperial visits and sechi-e (seasonal court banquets). Since it was difficult to obtain and process tama (gems) in Japan (nephrite is harder than steel and can be processed only using a thread coated with the powder of a harder stone), white stones were mostly used instead of white gemstones in modern times even though they were still referred to as white gemstones. Agate was used by courtiers of the Fourth Rank and rhinoceros horn was used by tenjobito (high-ranking courtiers allowed into the Imperial Palace) of Fourth Rank, Fifth Rank or lower. Agate and rhinoceros horn were unfigured for both square and round-shaped sashes. Regular sashes on which two square stones were sewn on each side and six to eight round stones were sewn on the back came into wide use later. There were often further differences; for example, even daimyo (feudal loads) of Fifth Rank used white stones.

Since the state ceremony of the Taisho Emperor, the emperor and the imperial family have used figured square sashes with translucent agate (white translucent stone), and attendants unfigured square sashes with translucent agate, white stones and so on. They look the same as the unfigured square sashes with white gemstones which were used only in Shinto rituals by the Emperor before the Edo Period. It is believed that pre-modern customs were abandoned at around this time.

Swords used with sokutai (traditional ceremonial court dress) were used for different purposes according to the importance of the ceremony, and they were associated with sekitai from the end of Heian Period to the Meiji Restoration. In other words, formal decorated swords and 'swords inlaid with mother-of-pearl' with a rosewood scabbard inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which were informal decorated swords with narrow blades, were used with figured square sashes with white gemstones, and narrow blades with lacquered scabbards were used with figured square sashes with white gemstones. However, there are cases in which figured sashes were used with lacquered swords for long-distance imperial visits, because lacquerware is stronger than rosewood inlaid mother-of-pearl. Since the state ceremony of the Taisho Emperor, when the customs were simplified as described above, the link between sword and sekitai has been lost.

Gyotai ornaments were used only for formal ceremonies even when sokutai were worn, and when they were used they were usually hung between the first and the second stone on the right of the sekitai. The hanging position was adjusted according to the build of the wearer.

It is customary that dancers selected for the Hono-mai (a Shinto dance for dedication) in the Kamo no rinjisai (Kamo Special Festival) and Iwashimizu-rinji-matsuri (Iwashimizu Special Festival) always use sekitai with agate, and although only shosho usually use an agate sash (an imperial envoy for special festivals was selected from among chujo and shosho), they are permitted to put on a rhinoceros horn sash on this occasion. Since there was an unspoken understanding that there were only eight agate sashes in Japan, dancers borrowed them from others to practice and no other people were permitted to use them during this time.