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Japan: All Wrapped Up

In Japan, wrapping is not a mere nicety reserved for gift giving. It is a custom steeped in tradition and remains ever present in Japanese culture as they continue to wrap their bodies in kimonos, their rice in seaweed, and their relics in decorative paper.

In Japan, the wrapping of gifts is a heartfelt sign of respect, while wrapping personal items can be seen as a form of spiritual security. Not only does it enclose an item in a decorative exterior, it keeps it separate, safe even, from outside impurities. In this way it preserves an item’s sacredness and keeps it clean.

Wrapping is also used for storage, with clothes and other luggage common items to be encased within wrapping paper.

The act of wrapping is very much an art form, as one might think of origami. When using decorative paper, items are wrapped in multiple, intricate layers. Once you have received an ornately dressed item, the wrapping is not to be ripped off as you might witness in western gift giving. Instead, it is removed carefully, folded and stowed away for later reuse.

While many gift receivers are tactful about disrobing the wrapping from its contents, paper can not withstand time the way that more resourceful materials can and is easily tarnished despite such delicate care. This has stirred the national consciousness as many are concerned about the amount of waste generated from this custom.

But it wasn’t always this way. Tracing back to the origins of wrapping in Japan, you’ll discover a wonderfully versatile material called Furoshiki. Furoshiki is a square, reusable cloth that is said to have began its use during the eight century. It can be folded and manipulated to wrap items of all shapes and knotted to create seamless handles flowed from the wrapping. From the 17th to 19th centuries, Furoshiki became a popular fixture among bath houses, as it was used to harbor clothing and toiletries. While at bath houses, it also doubled as a bath mat.

By the second World War, however, the accessibility of cheaply manufactured materials increased the use of disposable wrapping paper and plastic bags. Meanwhile the use of Furoshiki became obscure and in this new era, cloth wrapping seemingly obsolete.

Luckily, a new century (and many a financial downfall) has brought some enlightenment to the way the world views its consumption.

In 2006, a campaign was launched by Japan’s former Minister of the Environment, Ms. Yuriko Koike, to encourage the use of Furoshiki over paper and plastic. So far it appears to be success, with many books and blogs circulating ideas for reusable wrapping. But what is to become of the wrapping paper and plastic that already exists? For her campaign, Ms. Koike created a Furoshiki called “Mottainai Furoshiki “. Unlike traditional Furoshiki, which uses cotton and other textiles, Koike’s mottainai furoshiki is made from recycled PET plastic bottles. In Japanese, mottainai implies that “It is a shame for something to go to waste without having made use of its potential in full.”, reminding us not only the importance of waste reduction, but of utilization.

Only time will tell whether Furoshiki will make a full comeback or whether it is time to wrap it up and shelve elaborate wrapping altogether. It would a shame to see this artful practice die out, but should it survive, which currently seems the case, inevitably more steps must be taken to ensure resources are preserved with it.

Reference to the History of Furoshiki:
Wrapagami, by Jennifer Playford, Copyright 2009 by Quirk Packaging Inc.

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