A gift from our dear friend Mai was wrapped carefully in layers of wrapping!
Here at Zusetsu we’ve been looking into the wonderful Japanese culture of wrapping. Furoshiki gift-wrapping has direct associations with the wrapping of kimono, but also with the wrapping of language, too. All is about the careful consideration of presentation, so here, with the aid of Joy Hendry’s interesting book Wrapping Culture, let’s explore this a bit further!
The Wrapping of Gifts
First, let’s think about the purpose of gift-wrapping in the West. The gift inside the wrapping is the main focus, and the gift-wrapping is there simply to hide it, and create a nice element of surprise.
But in Japan, the concept of wrapping, tsutsumi, isn’t limited to obscuring the gift. There is a purposeful effort to improve the beauty of the gift through its wrapping, and to envelop it with thought and care. Kunio Ekiguchi (Gift-Wrapping: Creative ideas from Japan) says that ‘giving a gift is like wrapping one’s heart’.
‘Even though the object to be wrapped may be no more than a small confection, someone who
truly wants to please, who wants it to taste even more delicious, will go to great trouble to wrap it carefully by hand…This is something the human hand must do, and only loving care enables us
to perform such troublesome manual tasks to the very end.’
Try wrapping a gift with care using the simple gift wrap method!
There is a significant element of ritual involved when wrapping with furoshiki, and indeed, this is how furoshiki originated in the Imperial Court in Nara, Japan. The concept of wrapping personal treasures and kimono became widespread once cloth became affordable.
In parts of Japan, the furoshiki was an important part of a woman’s bridal trousseau. Printed with her birth-family crest, it would be used for important ceremonial occasions throughout her life: it was used to carry her belongings to her new marital residence, and to take presents back to her family home.
Furoshiki are folded in a similar way to origami, and the patterns of these items often derive from the patterns of kimono.
The Wrapping of the Body
A Japanese kimono is wrapped around the body, and secured with an elegant obi sash, which is carefully tied in an intricate form according to the occasion.
The most elaborate kimono date back to the Heian era of over a thousand years ago. These many-layered formal outfits were known as nyoubo shouzoku or karaginumo, and are collectively known as juunihitoe, which literally means ‘twelve layers’, although the number of robes that were worn could be as many as twenty!
Dress was extremely important to the nobles of the Heian court, and ladies were assessed on their ability to create tasteful colour combinations from the many layers of robes (known as kasane). A single colour representing the specific season could be achieved through the layering of robes of differing colours.
From Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book:
'For example, fuji (wisteria) expresses the effect by layering a pale violet-grey over a green
reminiscent of the vivid green of spring leaves, known as moegi (spring-shoot green).'
'Cherry Colours: By dyeing cloth deep red with safflower, then placing a white, almost translucent woven layer on top, the colour of the cherry blossom faintly emerges.' (Living Colours exhibition, Japan House, London, 2019)
The wearer of the juunihitoe was restricted in her movement by the many layers, but the amount of costly cloth involved demonstrated her wealth and status. These days, a similar garment is worn by Japan’s Empress on special formal state occasions, such as the Imperial Wedding of Emperor Naruhito to Empress Masako.
Many brides in Japan wear beautiful kimono. The age of 20 marks a special time of adulthood in Japan. Daughters are dressed in beautiful kimono for celebratory photos. Beautiful garments are purchased for these same daughters when they marry, and part of the betrothal gifts may be an expensive Japanese kimono and obi sash.
Yukki's special Coming of Age photo! Doesn't she look beautiful! :)
Yukki and her friends wearing kimono for her university graduation! Skip to 3:48 to get a glimpse of the kimono preparation :)
The Wrapping of Language
Being dressed in an elegant kimono may well affect the way that the wearer wraps their language. A person speaking in Japanese can choose between levels of appropriate polite speech with which to honour the person they are addressing. Status and respect are reasons for adjusting to a more polite way of speaking.
Just as furoshiki wrapping is a way of expressing care for the gift inside, and thoughtfulness for the receiver of the gift, Japan has a polite manner of speaking known as keigo, which also expresses care for the person one addresses. Respectful language includes the honorific prefixes o and go, as well as subtly different verb endings which express respect or humility to the addressee.
Keigo is a means by which a person can wrap their language according to the image that they would like to present. This beautiful way of speaking is the very essence of refinement which is also characterised in the care taken over the furoshiki wrapping of gifts, and the elegant dressing in kimono.
Wrapping with Paper
Paper is commonly used for wrapping in modern Japan, and the most esteemed is the beautiful textured washi, which is made through a process of steaming the bark of mulberry plants.
The Japanese word for paper (kami) sounds the same as the Japanese word for god (kami), even though the kanji characters are different, and so pure white washi is associated with religious rites in Japan, particularly Shinto, where sacred spaces are marked off with ropes hung with paper streamers.
In Shinto, a piece of white paper signifies the purity of the gods and it is used for the purpose of purification. Anything that white paper wraps separates impurities and cleanses.
And so people would rub themselves with white paper to transfer bad spirits which might cause trouble or illness. Small paper dolls called katashiro were created as a representation of the self and the individual’s spirit. It was believed that malignant spirits could be transferred to these paper creations, and that the bad spirits would float away downstream of a river, leaving the individual purified.
In Ghibli’s animation, Spirited Away, we see Chihiro defending herself from katashiro.
Paper in Japan is used in may aesthetic ways of wrapping too, none more beautiful than the enveloping soft light of shouji sliding windows and fusuma sliding doors.
And lastly, perhaps the most well-known Japanese use of paper is the entertaining and intriguing art of origami, which literally means ‘paper-folding’.
Some of our beautiful origami papers
We embrace the Japanese arts of wrapping and folding here at Zusetsu. It is for this reason that Zusetsu is devoted to supplying beautiful furoshiki wrapping and origami folding papers, which you can see instore here.
We hope you have enjoyed this article! If you have, why not take a look at our other articles, such as this one about our discovery of the world of Kyoto fragrance here!
Thank you for reading,
Cathy and Yukki
Joy Hendry, Wrapping Culture, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985).
Keio University FutureLearn Online Course Japanese Culture Through Rare Books for illustration of juunihitoe from One Hundred Poets (17th century)
Living Colours Exhibition, Japan House, London, 2019.
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book, (Penguin Books, London, 2006).