Fukusa textiles and gifts exchange in Japan

Wednesday 10 April 2019: Fukusa textiles and gifts exchange in Japan by Manuela Moscatiello, head of Japanese collections at the Cernuschi Museum.

Manuela Moscatiello recalls that this subject has been studied very little, whereas these textiles are very important in Japanese social life. Word fukusa is a general term that suggests a light and flexible silk fabric, often doubled, usually square in shape, the size of which can vary.
The Japanese custom of packing objects into a textile to transport them is old and the furoshiki are still very much used. Generally in cotton they are also used as bags. The kakebukusa are they employed to accompany a gift. There are also textiles intended to be placed under objects to prevent them from slipping off a table or an altar, dashifukusa ou uchishiki. Finally, chabukusa are used during the tea ceremony to rid objects of dust or moisture.

The art of wrapping a gift in a silk crepe furoshiki.

Kakebukusa appearing three cranes in flight over the waves. Embroidered silk satin.

Kakebukusa depicting a shishi lion framed by peonies. Katsushika Hokusai painting on a silk crepe. © MFA.

The conference will focus on kakebukusa, related to a very common practice in Japan that is the basis of Japanese society and is part of the label: the exchange of gifts. The gift must be related to a certain time, be it seasonal festivals, an event of life (birth, birthday, graduation, marriage, retirement, death), etc. The decor of kakebukusa plays an important role, because this textile is a kind of ticket accompanying the gift and carries a message transmitted by the image. When presenting a gift, it is placed on a tray or on a small table and covered with a kakebukusa. The gift can be an object or money and it is offered in privacy; moreover, we must not show a reaction when we receive it. Gifts are important in Japanese social life because they strengthen the bonds of society. The kakebukusa must therefore express a message and the recipient must admire the textile but return it to the sender. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a remarkable collection of kakebukusa which comes from a Japanese tea merchant whose wife has kept all the textiles coming from the yard, pretending not to know the label.
In Japan, the use of an object is very much related to its aesthetic appearance and it is normal to use an old bowl whose beauty can be appreciated every day; the kakebukusa are often part of the family patrimony and can be transmitted over several generations, hence their value. The big families had the lining decorated with the coat of arms of the clan.
The kakebukusa can be decorated in different ways: with embroidery (shishū), dyes (yūzen which consists of using a rice paste to create reserves) or painted by hand (gaku-e). Similarly, they can be made of various textiles: satin damask (rinzu), precious satin (shusu), thick damask satin (Donsu), silk crepe (chirimen), silk brocade imitating the tapestry (tsuzure ori). Several types of points are used: past-flat (hira-nui), long point and short point for a realistic effect (sashi-nui). To give even more wealth to the textile we can use gold or silver paper (koma-nui), technique of Chinese origin. For the tsuzure ori, the craftsman works above the model painted upside down on a paper and some lime their nails in rake to have a greater precision. This process is so complicated that only a few square centimeters are woven daily. Often these textiles tsuzure ori use Chinese-inspired motifs.

Kakebukusa depicting a phoenix. Brocade of silk tsuzure ori.

Craftsman working on a brocade type tsuzure ori. © M.Moscatiello.

Nail filed in rake of the craftsman working on a tsuzure ori. © M.Moscatiello

Golden paper to make the gold paper thread.

The reasons used are related to the auspicious wish message that we wish to transmit:

  • Nature with the three friends of winter - pine, bamboo, and prunus in bloom - (perseverance, longevity), chrysanthemums yellow (immortality), white or colored (festival of the month of September), mandarins (health and longevity, New Year's greetings), etc.
  • Auspicious animals such as the crane (longevity or wedding vows), the turtle with a train of algae minogame (longevity), lobster (longevity), carp (longevity and virility), dragon (prosperity), phoenix (longevity, immortality), etc.
  • Auspicious objects referring to seasonal festivals, classical literature (Genji monogatari), at the theatre nō, games (playing cards hanafuda), or the events of life (box shaped like a little dog (inu hariko) offered for a birth, game of shells kai-awase for wedding vows), etc.
  • Deities or characters (the seven divinities of good fortune, the seven sages in the bamboo forest, the two characters of the legend of Takasago for a wish of long life for a couple), etc.

Kakebukusa depicting two minigame turtles. Embroidered silk satin and golden paper threads.

Kakebukusa depicting a carp springing from the waves. Embroidered silk satin and golden paper threads. © Museum of Decorative Arts.

Kakebukusa listed lacquer boxes containing the shell set. Embroidered silk satin and golden paper threads. © MFA.

During her stay in Kyoto, Manuela Moscatiello was fortunate to be able to contemplate kakebukusa commissioned by the fifth TokugawaTsunayoshi shogun (1646-1709), which are masterpieces of embroidery and incredible richness.

In 19st s., kakebukusa that are imported in the West are used in a totally different way: as placemats, to cover cushions but also to decorate firewalls, framed and hung on the walls, this explains why one finds as much in the collections of Western museums (the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris has a remarkable collection).

Kakebukusa contained a lotus. Silk crepe dyed by the yuzen process and enhanced with silver paper threads.

Kakebukusa appearing Jō and Uba under a pine tree (characters of the Takasago nō piece). Embroidered silk satin and golden paper threads.

Kakebukusa listed the seven sages in the bamboo forest. Embroidered silk satin and golden paper threads. © Victoria & Albert.

To summarize, fukusa and more particularly the kakebukusa bring together all the skills of Japanese textile art.

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