In December 2014, I headed over to the Rugby Art Gallery and Museum to see “It’s a wrap: Japanese furoshiki past and present“, a colourful history of Japanese wrapping cloths.
The exhibition covered the traditional furoshiki, through to modern-day versions with popular manga characters. There was even a section that showed how furoshiki are being embraced as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic wrapping and bags today.
There were some nice participatory elements too – samples of fabrics for visitors to feel, an origami activity station, and a small collection of books, filled with colourful photos of furoshiki. Despite their visual appeal, however, furoshiki are no longer as widely used in Japan as they once were. The exhibition explained that they became less popular during the post-war period, as the use of plastic bags increased.
With this in mind, and intrigued by the modern-day furoshiki on display, I later asked a few of my Japanese friends about them. They said that they personally had never used furoshiki to wrap presents, and that it was “a traditional thing to do, like wearing a kimono” and “something [their] grandparents used to do”.
While furoshiki may be less popular now, they do still have their uses in more traditional settings. Wedding guests in Japan are occasionally treated to traditional wrapping to help carry their presents home from the reception. The cloths can be twisted and tied to form shopping bags, book covers, tissue box covers etc. in addition to wrapping gifts.
The exhibition displayed a wide range of furoshiki, but also the smaller fukusa cloths, and wrapped kinpū, or cash gift envelopes, which are still popular in Japan today. There are common features/themes that these wrappings share to symbolise the occasion for the gift. For example, popular motifs for wedding gift wrapping include cranes, turtles and bamboo, to symbolise a long and happy marriage. Likewise, the colours black and white are almost exclusively used for sombre occasions.
As Joy Hendry noted:
A Japanese gift very often transmits more information in the wrapping than in its content.
With environmental issues becoming more of a global focus in recent years, the art of furoshiki has enjoyed a new boost – both at home and abroad. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has produced their own campaigns to promote the eco-friendly benefits of furoshiki cloths over plastic and paper packaging. In the UK too, the designer Vivienne Westwood took inspiration from the Japanese tradition to produce her own version, in association with high street brand Lush.
Time will tell whether the traditional Japanese art of furoshiki will continue to gain followers both at home and abroad. However, the traditional symbols and wrapping presentation associated with furoshiki remain a key feature of Japanese gift-giving and customer service today. “It’s a wrap…” provided a interesting glimpse into furoshiki, its history, and possibilities for use in an eco-friendly future.