Unfolding the Layers
The Art of Japanese Gift Wrapping


The journey of a true gift begins in the heart. A beat, an impulse to fill the space between two people with a physical manifestation of how they feel. A gift is a symbol of this impulse wrapped in layers of tradition and intention.

Words: Michelle Porter

Gift giving is a worldwide practice, but in Japan this is a cultural tradition that is taken very seriously and executed with precision, exquisite taste and elegance. From visiting a friend's home with wrapped sweets or sending 'New Years' Oseibo gifts, objects should always be beautifully wrapped.The results may look simple, but these packages reflect a complex interaction of custom, craftsmanship and design dating back hundreds of years. From the most expensive gift to the smallest grocery item, care is taken to ensure that the object is wrapped with love and attention to detail, presented in a respectful manner and opened accordingly.

Gift wrapping in the UK is a far cry from the artistry practiced in Japan. Hastily packaged with too much sellotape, 5 minutes before the party in the back of the car. Unwrapping is just as unceremonious, with paper ripped apart and disregarded without thought. If only we took joy in wrapping our gifts to be gently unfolded by our loved ones, we may find the giving of gifts becomes less about the money, the object, but more about the impulse that started in the heart. Let us unfold the layers and find out how it's done and discover what is behind the art of Japanese gift wrapping.

1. Take a piece of paper

Paper arrived in Japan with the Buddhist monks from China as far back as 610AD. Within a century they had mastered the art of paper making using the inner bark of native trees and produced washi. (WA) meaning Japanese and (SHI) meaning paper. The fibres are soaked in clear, river water and filtered through bamboo screens. The result is a light, durable, versatile paper and the uses are endless. It is strong enough to be sewn and has been used to line kimonos and to make furniture, including light diffusing shoji screens. The production has become so ingrained in some community identities that UNESCO have included it on the 'List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.' Although the tradition of hand made washi is in decline with only a few families left practicing the art, the Japanese love of paper is still strong with luxury papers still being used to wrap gifts. For the Japanese, paper is not simply a covering but an important element of the gift itself.

For a less formal but more ecologically sound way to wrap a gift, you could always try using a FUROSHIKI. These large Japanese handkerchiefs were once used to carry clothes in the ancient bathhouses. They are often printed with bold and symbolic patterns and are practical and aesthetically pleasing all at once. Not only do they add to the presentation of your gift , they are a gift in themselves that can be used in numerous ways by the recipient. They can be folded to wrap books, blouses and bottles - simple yet ingenious.

Just think how the following technique could elevate the humble bottle of wine when presented to your dinner party host.


2. Fold it - Pleet it - Tie it up

When you run your hand over the warmth of the washi paper and contemplate your first fold, you are following in the fingerprints of centuries of artistry and paper folding traditions. The most well known paper craft is origami, taught in Japanese schools, boxes to hold gifts can be constructed and animals and figures like paper cranes and blossoms can be added once the gift is wrapped. This is a great way to transform unwanted paper into something clever and thoughtful.

Another way to adorn your package is to pleat the paper to create a decorative effect. Custom dictates that an odd number of pleats are used to wrap a gift for an auspicious occasion. Mizuhiki, a decorative cord, is often used to bind a package and to ornament the gift. The colour and type of knot vary and signify the occasion. The Hanamusabi knot for example is easy to undo and represents an event you would like to be repeated. The Musubiki cannot be untied and is often used for funerary gifts.

If you are all fingers and thumbs you may like to investigate Washi Tape. This can be used to seal gifts or create simple patterns to enliven your packages. Reels come in all shapes and sizes and are made from rice paper.

3. Present your gift

The Japanese are masters of aesthetics, of beauty and elegance in almost everything they do. When it comes to presentation they are considered the world leaders and are naturals at branding. From the sacred precision of chefs like Niki Nakayama, to the ritualised make up and attire of the traditional geisha, everything is considered, mindful – attention to detail is everything. Even the humblest grocery item can be packaged with the greatest care. In Japanese gift wrapping, presentation is all. It is not simply the thought that counts but how this thought is executed. If a present is not well wrapped it is not worth giving.

Wrapped in layers of paper and tissue, bound with history and symbolism you offer your gift. They lean forward to accept and you experience the simple yet poignant moment when the gap between you is filled. Complex on many levels but sacred in its human simplicity.

4. Watch them unwrap

When the paper or cloth is gently unfolded, you will notice that great care is taken. Impatient pulling and tearing are considered rude and rough mannered, like pulling a lady from her silk robe, it doesn't show respect. There is something compelling about things that are sealed up with love, something that encourages slow unfolding. Wrapping and unwrapping are processes that should take time. They are expressions of your intent and respect – enjoy them.

Connor McNally

Author: Connor McNally

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