HISTORY OF FUROSHIKI
The History of Furoshiki
In Japan, furoshiki have been in use for over a thousand years. For most of their history they were reserved for the nobility.
Furoshiki for the Emperor
In the 8th century, a city located just outside Kyoto, called Nara was the capital of Japan. Furoshiki, originally known as tsutsumi-nuno (wrapping cloths), were used to carefully wrap, protect, conserve, and categorise the treasures of the imperial household. The woven cloths were a precious commodity, and the folding of the cloths held a deeply spiritual meaning.
The treasures of the Shosoin in Nara have been cared for since the 8th century. Here you can see tsutsumi, including this fabric wrapping of a priest's robe.
Furoshiki for the Aristocracy
At the end of the 8th century, the capital city moved to Heian-kyou, ‘the place of peace and prosperity’ (modern-day Kyoto). The Heian era is regarded as Japan’s gilded age; a time of leisure and peace for courtiers and the aristocracy, which allowed a highly refined sensitivity to beauty and nature to develop. Clothing was elaborate, and many-layered. The courtier and author of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, describes the beautiful fabric layering effects of the juunihitoe (twelve-layered robe) in her diary:
The New Year's Day [Year 1008] was inauspicious. The rice-cake [mochi] ceremony was deferred. However, on the third day, the August Crown Prince went up to the King and the rice-cake festival was given for him. His attendant was Lady Dainagon. The dress of the ladies on the first day was karaginu [over garments] of purple and old rose colour, red kimono and shaded train; on the second day, red and purple brocade, deep violet glossy silk, green karaginu, train dyed by rubbing flowers. On the third day we wore white and rose-coloured brocaded garments, trimmed with many folds. The karaginu was of dull red and old rose brocade. When we wear deep violet-coloured shining silk the inner robe is of crimson; when we wear crimson outside the inner dress is usually of deep violet. The pale and deep colour of spring leaf buds, dull red, golden yellow, and light and dark crimsons—dresses of these ordinary colours were worn trimmed with six folds in very beautiful combinations.
The younger ladies wore much-embroidered clothes; even their sleeve openings were embroidered. The pleats of their trains were ornamented with thick silver thread and they put gold foil on the brocaded figures of the silk. Their fans were like a snow-covered mountain in bright moonlight; they sparkled and could not be looked at steadily. They were like hanging mirrors.
Murasaki Shikibu notes that the Emperor's gifts include furoshiki: cloths to wrap the beautiful garments:
His Majesty's gifts were uchigi [a dark green robe], and kimonos, and rolls of silk in the usual court fashion. The gifts to Tachibana-no-Sanmi were a set of women's clothes and rolls of brocade, a silver clothes chest, and wrappings for clothes.
In this era, koromo-tsutsumi (kimono wrapping) became a practice among the women of the imperial court. Clothes belonging to the aristocracy were wrapped in furoshiki for carrying when travelling.
We discover another reference to an antecedent of furoshiki in the opening lines of the autobiographical diary The Confessions of Lady Nijou, written in about 1306:
After the services had ended, I returned to my room and found a letter: "Snowbound yesterday, today spring opens new paths to the future. I shall write you often." With the letter was a cloth-wrapped package containing an eight-layered gown shaded from deep red to white, a deep maroon undergown, a light green outer gown, a formal jacket, pleated trousers, and two small-sleeved gowns of two and three layers.
Furoshiki for the Samurai
The word furoshiki began to be used for wrapping cloths during the 14-16th century. Furo (bath) refers to the steam bath to which the daimyo (feudal lords) were invited by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. (The grounds of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s 14th century retirement villa include Kyoto’s dazzling Golden Pavilion). Each invited lord wrapped his kimono in a cloth that featured his family crest, as a means of identification. After the bath, the lord would relax on the cloth: shiki means ‘spread’, and so furoshiki originally refers to the cloth that was used to wrap kimono and also lay on after the bath.
Furoshiki for Everyone
During the 17-19th century, the practice of using furoshiki to wrap clothes at public bath houses became widespread. Finally, furoshiki were adopted by tradespeople and travellers, to wrap and protect all manner of items. It is fascinating to study 19th and early 20th century woodblock prints, as many depict scenes of furoshiki being used in daily life, or tradesmen and travellers carrying furoshiki bundles.
In a quiet temple in the northern mountains of Kyoto, I observed an elegant lady in kimono wrapping her belongings in furoshiki, before crossing to a small teahouse to observe a ceremony of tea. At another temple, I watched furoshiki being used to wrap and carry costumes for a matsuri.
Today, furoshiki are used as a part of general living, because they wrap items practically; protect the items they are wrapping; because they look beautiful, and they may hold a memory of a special person who gave the furoshiki to them. Furoshiki are part of an on-trend movement towards sustainability and reusability, particularly as an attractive alternative to single use paper and plastic.
Furoshiki have a long history, and continue to be a part of daily life as they are both practical and elegant.
Thank you to Yamada Etsuko, The Furoshiki Handbook, (Seibundo Shinko Sha, 2016), and to Marumasu Nishimuraya for helping me to appreciate the history of furoshiki.
Murasaki Shikibu, trans. Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi,The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/omori/court/murasaki.html
Translated by Karen W. Brazell, 'The Confessions of Lady Nijou' (Towazugatari), Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, edited by Haruo Shirane, (Columbia), p.788.
Christine Guth, Art of Edo Japan, (Yale University Press, 2018).
Murasaki Shikibu, Genji Monogatari, illustrated by Kaihou Yuusetsu (17th century). The Met Museum, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/76463.
Toshikata Mizuno, Jakko-in Temple, Taira no Tokuku, Wikipedia. Image used to illustrate how Lady Nijou may have looked :)
Toshikata Mizuno, Daily Practice of the Tea Ceremony: Guests Leaving (1896), Ukiyo-e Japanese Art Open Database.
Katsushika Hokusai, Picture Book of Kyouka Poems: Mountains Upon Mountains (1804). The Met Museum, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78635
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Daiwa Foundation hosted a wonderful online seminar titled Women in Japanese Literature in March 2020 with Professor Haruo Shirane from Columbia University and Dr. Jennifer Guest from the University of Oxford.