Furoshiki has a very long history. By definition, it can be said that it is more than 10,000 years if it is broadly understood as “cloth of the world”. If it is narrowly defined as “Japanese furoshiki”, it dates back over 1200 years ago.
Cloth is very important to people’s lives and has been used for many years around the world. The history of cloth is said to be over 10,000 years. At the time, the loom didn’t exist and it was hand-woven. Mass production has been organised systematically from approximately 5,000 years ago, and it is said that looms were invented around several thousand years ago. In Japan, hemp was used from the Jomon period (BC 14,000 to 300).
Since cloth was made, it is thought that the act of wrapping things with it was inevitably done. However, it can be said that the case of Japan’s furoshiki that developed this diversity of use with one square cloth is very rare.
By definition, furoshiki can be said to be around the world, and it can also be said that it is an inherent culture which made unique development in Japan.
Origin of Furoshiki:
The oldest existing Japanese furoshiki is located in Shosoin (Nara). It was made around the 8th century and was intended to cover special things such as monk’s kesa (kasaya) and attire of bugaku (dancing and music). Since it wrapped important articles historically, it was remained in good preserved state until today. The furoshiki at that time was distinctive with a string, which the furoshiki of.today don’t have.
There was not yet the designation “furoshiki” yet, and the Shosoin Imperial treasures have the letters “ka (裹)” and “kou (幌)” both meaning “wrap”. After that, Wamyo Ruijusho, the dictionary made in the Johei period (AD 931 to 938), when is mid-Heian period, shows “koromotsutumi (衣包)”, meaning “cloth wrap”.
In Masasukeshouzokushou, the book of traditional criterion knowledge written in Japanese Kana letters about the Heian attires established in the late Heian period, the 12th century, the expression “Hiratsusumi (平裹 or 平包)”, meaning flat wrap, appears.
You can see the use of Hiratsutsumi (Furoshiki) in “the copy of Ban Dainagon Emaki (The Tale of Great Minister Ban)” depicting the commoners of Kyoto in the latter half of the 12th century.
There is a theory that the word “furoshiki” was born because the samurai wrapped their own clothes when bathing in groups, and wore clothes on it after bathing around the Muromachi period (AD 1336 to 1573). “Kokura cotton furoshiki” written in “Sunpuowakemonochou-odouguchou”, which is the relic distribution book of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1616, is the oldest known description.
Popularised among citizens in the early modern period:
It is said that the general name was changed from “hiratsutsumi” to ” furoshiki” around the 1700’s. Upon entering the Edo period, urban culture flourished with the background of a stable social infrastructure. The public bath became popular, and the bath which was expensive entertainment for only a few influential people came to reach the hands of the general public.
As the business developed, the furoshiki was greatly useful during logistics and peddling. Also, in Edo where the population continued increasing, fire broke out often form the dense wood made row houses, and the large-scale city fire occurred. Therefore, furoshiki was useful for quickly wrapping a set of household goods and evacuating.
Rise and fall in the modern times onwards:
As entering the Meiji period (AC 1868 to 1912), the feudal system was over and 4 social classes got equality, everyone could have family names and family crests, and demand for furoshiki with crests increased.
Industrial development became a national policy, and the manufacturing method became machine weaving from hand-weaving with technological innovation due to the industrial revolution. Scale of the production system also expanded from wholesale based domestic manufacturing to factory based handicraft manufacturing, and to factory based machine manufacturing, resulting in a drastic increase in productivity. And until then it was only natural dyes, but synthetic dyes have come to be used as well. During Taisho period (AC 1912 to 1926) and Showa periods (AC 1926 to 1989), rayon, the chemical fibers which is a substitute for silk, became popular.
After the Second World War, the production volume also increased with advancing production technology, but as the lifestyle became westernised, using bags more than furoshiki became common. In supermarkets and department stores, paper bags and plastic bags were offered free of charge to improve shoppers’ service, and the opportunities for furoshiki to be used in everyday life steadily decreased. And demand as gifts such as ceremonial gifts became prominent.
Due to the increasing ecological awareness in recent years, the value of furoshiki has been reconsidered as a substitute for plastic shopping bags, that destroy the natural environment without easily decomposing, and putting the ecosystems and creatures in danger.
Author: Takuya Nagata (Founder of MINIЯISM: minirism.org)
Born in Japan. The creator who is a graduate of the UK’s university. Also worked as a writer, and is passionate on sports.
National Museum of Ethnology (Japan), Special exhibition: The world great furoshiki exhibition. Object and heart to wrap in cloth.
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