Japan Wrapped

By Ruby on

Roughly a 4 minute read

In his book ‘A beginners guide to Japan’, essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer opens with the line: “I’ve been living in western Japan for more than thirty-two years, and, to my delight, I know far less than when I arrived.” Having spent much time in Japan over the last twenty years or so myself, I know exactly what he means and how he feels...

Forever, Japan has been a culture that never fully discloses itself to ‘outside others’, it is a country wrapped, both figuratively and literally, with myriad meanings we cannot - and perhaps should not - fully understand as foreigners [or 'gaijin', in Japanese]. Yet this is what makes Japan Japan; it is about a constant and daily unlearning of everything you thought you knew and understood. 

And wrapping exists everywhere, from the language you speak, to the money you give, to the time you spend. Keeping Japan covered up - wrapped - is an intrinsic part of its sheer beauty and appeal. 

For instance, the sentence: ‘she eats’ and ‘he eats’ are the same - it is up to you, within the conversation, to unwrap who is actually eating. Similarly, when speaking to someone older than you, the Japanese use the formal language of ‘Keigo’, meaning ‘respect language’ in Kanji [just one of the three alphabets they use and often mix together]. Using Keigo is tied into the culture from kindergarten, a way of wrapping the basic language with a sense of respect that makes the words you use more valuable, respectful and - importantly - more beautiful. Unpackaging this idea in other languages isn’t always easy. 

Conflict and confrontation are also ‘wrapped away’, and - rather like we see in British culture - shied away from or hidden out of sight. Indeed, on a top level the British and the Japanese are somewhat similar; self-effacing, non-confrontational [for the most part] and highly averse to ever being seen as impolite. Stood next to each other, our manners can be seen as similarly complex, over-zealous and confusing. But there is far more of an openness about the British culture - seen across most modern matters - that simply doesn’t always exist in Japan, yet. For a country that closed themselves off from the rest of the world for just over two-hundred years in the Sakoku period of isolation, closed doors still remain. In many ways, Japan is still catching up while it's opening up. 

To understand the underlying idea of ‘wrapping’ in Japan it helps to look at the meaning of the word in Kanji: “Housou”, written as: 包装. The logographic for hou is 包 and is said to have been formed from the shape of a baby inside the mother’s stomach or, sometimes, as arms wrapped around a child; a symbol of protection whichever way you look at it. And wrapping, in its most basic form, is a way to protect, a way to stop breakages, to look after what’s inside. But it's also a way to conceal and reveal; a mystery in its own delivery. If this doesn’t sum up Japan, I don’t know what does… 

As Japanese PSEUDO producer Emi explains [and she consulted throughout this piece too] the art and [we could almost say] performance of gift wrapping in Japanese department stores is so satisfying that it has gone around the Internet countless times. "There is training for employees to be able to wrap without using any tape or strings, with meanings and reasons attached to the way things are folded and wrapped. Upon purchasing a pair of chopsticks as a gift, the compliment to the employee who flawlessly wrapped the already neatly packaged box gave me this beautiful insight into the art of wrapping."

PSEUDO producer Emi, in Yanaka

“The top of where the head of the chopsticks are placed, I wrapped the paper so that there is a small opening and at the other end of the box it is closed which makes a little pocket. The reason for this is to let any good energy or spirits enter the wrapping but not let it pass from the bottom. On the other hand, if you were wrapping anything unfortunate or for a funeral, you’d seal the top but have the bottom open to let any bad energy/spirits exit as much as possible from the wrapping.”

Being ‘unwrapped’ is often an awkwardness for the Japanese outside of the bathhouse, whether it’s hiding one's emotions in everyday life or being seen as ‘too forthright’ in matters of manners. Even giving money without an envelope comes with its own apologetic saying, [裸でごめんなさい], translating as ‘excuse the nudity’. Similarly, giving food without it being wrapped would be seen as ‘kitinai’ or ‘dirty’ [unless at a shrine, where it should be unwrapped for the Gods to allow more sacred contact overall].

This idea of wrapping away any nudity can be seen with the kimono too, a word that originally was used to simply refer to Japanese clothing but is now associated with the signifier of the kimono as we know today. Wrapped around the body, it wears the body, rather than the body wearing it. In the Heian period [794-1185], it involved cutting fabrics in to straight lines and sewing them together with ease. In this way, the kimono makers didn’t have to worry about the shape of the body they were making it for; it fitted anybody because it wrapped any body. It was a mass-market sale.

Essentially, the wrapping principle is associated with an idea of sophistication, a way of behaving and being that the Japanese hold high. Indeed, after the Heian period of kimono re-design, the nobility then began to wear clothes that wrapped their hands and feet even more tightly. In this way, the wrapped body became a social signifier, a form of restricted, conspicuous consumption. While in the West the rich were getting too fat to move the Japanese were getting too wrapped to move. It’s an interesting behaviour towards the body. 

The Japanese wrap time, space, language, customs and even themselves; protecting their culture to the core. Perhaps, if there’s anything we should understand as gaijin when it comes to Japan, it's that we don’t understand much of it all, and that’s the perfect part we play.