Japanese gift wrapping is famous for its beauty, complexity and symbolism. For the Japanese, wrapping a gift is not about obscuring the gift to make it a surprise for the recipient. Instead, Japanese people see it as a means of expressing respect for the person and for the gift itself and sending subtly expressive messages. In many cases, the presentation is just as important as what it contains.
Japanese gift wrapping has been around for hundreds of years. The tradition of wrapping gifts in cloth originated in the Edo period (early 1600s to mid-1800s), when it was common for people to use a simple square cloth to carry and transport items, including clothes and bathing supplies, items to trade or sell at market and wedding gifts. Wrapping items in paper---not necessarily limited to gifts---dates back even earlier to the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), when the practice of using Japanese paper to wrap even the smallest, most fragile objects became prevalent.
Japanese gift wrapping methods reflect a person's respect and thoughtfulness for both the object being wrapped and the recipient of the gift. In a feature in the Washington Post in 2004, Akiko Keene, a Japanese gift wrapper, stated "the Japanese way is to emphasise the present's true shape. If it's a triangle-shaped gift, we don't put it in a box; we keep the triangle." Japanese culture is known for emphasising subtlety, respect and indirectness. Therefore, it is less important for the gift to be completely hidden in its wrapping, and more important for the presentation to have some significance of its own and to have a personal connection with the person receiving it.
The easiest Japanese gift wrapping method is furoshiki, which uses cloth instead of paper. A furoshiki is a decorative square Japanese cloth used traditionally for carrying all sorts of items. They come in many different sizes, materials and designs, which can vary greatly in intricacy and formality. In furoshiki wrapping, the cloth is placed facedown, the gift is centred on it, and one or more knots are used to enclose it. According to Akiko Keene, when tied traditionally, "the cloth ends up tight, like a well-wrapped kimono." There are dozens of techniques for folding and knotting the furoshiki for different uses and gift shapes.
Wrapping gifts with paper is known as tsutsumi or origata. This practice can be highly complex, involving many techniques with diverse and nuanced implications and meanings. Pleats in the paper wrapping called chato are frequently used, and the number of pleats and their direction are highly symbolic. An odd number of pleats symbolises good luck and is often used on gifts for happy occasions, while even numbers are unlucky and are used accordingly for funeral gifts. According to Yuko Nishimura of the Origata Design Institute, left-facing pleats and folds express "a feeling of overflowing with happiness," while right-facing ones express "the giver's sympathy for the receiver." Sometimes, folds or strategic cuts partially expose the package's contents.
Gifts wrapped in either cloth or paper may be tied with a cord or ribbon called a mizuhiki. Like the furoshiki, there are many types of mizuhiki knots, many of which represent different concepts or emotions. The colour can be symbolic as well---for instance, according to Akiko Keene, a red mizuhiki "signals strength and good fortune" and white stands for purity, as it does in Western tradition. Items from nature, such as branches or flowers that are associated with the person receiving a gift or that symbolise the occasion, can also be added to a gift.
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