Japan’s Wrapping Culture

For our bachelor paper next year, we had to come up with a decent subject and research question this week. In fact, I already had been thinking a while on writing a post about ‘wrapping culture’. The subject proved to be more profound than I thought, so I decided to turn it into my field of research for next year. This post deals with the general content, while the listed items will be elaborated in further posts.


Japanese sweet1My interest in the topic has grown step by step.  My first encounter with wrapped objects happened last year. I had been asked by a Japanese friend to tour around some people in the picturesque city of Ghent (in which I somehow succeeded, mixing up broken Japanese and English) and received a furoshiki 風呂敷 as thanking present. Not only the furoshiki, a beautifully patterned piece of cloth to wrap things up, but the packaging on itself caught my intention. The present was wrapped carefully in nice paper with a ribbon and a sticker on it and put in a plastic bag with the shop logo. In Belgium, you wrap presents too (or ask the shop tenant to do it for you), but you definitely leave the bag at home. Ribbons are optionally, while stickers are hardly used. We also don’t put the object first in boxes, only a wrapping paper will do.

furoshiki-wrappingcultureTake for example Japanese food. We see a Japanese meal, each substance put in a separate bowl. Sushi in his jacket of seaweed. Biscuits double wrapped. Lunch packed in lacquered boxes (bentō 弁当). Japanese sweets, wrapped per each, inside the package another kind of wrapping. How beautifully this is done, shows the importance Japanese attach to presentation.

(…) If the means of presentation is elegant enough, the nature or even value of the medium of exchange may almost pale into insignificance. (Joy Hendry, 1993)

washiThe attention people pay to gift wrapping can be demonstrated by the famous gift-giving giri 義理, a social duty and obligation. The presentation of the present is so far as meaningful that the wrapping should indicate what’s inside. Business presents, for example, are often not even opened. People save it to pass it to the next business partner. There are standard envelopes for money gifts. Just giving a plain envelope would be considered as inappropriate.


picture by kErosEnE

picture by kErosEnE

So, I had the impression that Japanese people like to wrap. Further experiences have only strengthened this impression. Not only presents, people too are wrapped in presentation. Take for example the uniform. Throughout Japanese history, rigid dress code was brought into vogue. The outer appearance of attire displays rather someone’s function than his or her personality. For every job there’s a uniform. The school girl has her sailor uniform, the businessman cannot afford to wear something else than a suit, white shirt and tie. The human wrapping by excellence is the kimono 着物. Torso and legs are tightly surrounded by cloth, with the bow (obi 帯) as a finishing touch.

picture by Pitke

picture by Pitke

But, what is the effect on the environment? How much plastic would be saved if shop keepers didn’t put everything in three bags? How much less  air conditioning would be needed would be if people worked in T-shirt during summer?

wrapped apples


Then, I realised that ‘wrapping’ goes beyond material things. Japanese tend to wrap up their language and behaviour. Not only the perceptible use of honorific and humble speech, where plain words are embellished to express respect or modesty, but also the more hidden indirect form of communication. Japan is known for its “silent culture”, where a smile is used to hide shame or ignorance, “defending the face”. The face functions as the wrapping paper, covering up true intentions and feelings safely inside the Japanese mind.

Misunderstandings about each others culture sometimes bother negotiations between the West and the East. We like to get straight to the point and strictly separate our personal and professional ties, while Easterners prefer to create a favourable and friendly environment in which the negotiations can run smoothly. I visualise this by imagining  a present of which the wrapping layers are carefully ripped off one by one.

The Japanese have a genuine mistrust of verbal skills, thinking that these tend to show superficiality in contrast to inner, less articulate feelings that are communicated by innuendo or by non verbal means. (Reisschauer, 1977)

This indirect style communication is mainly present in cultures most influenced by Confucianism, i.e. China, Korea and Japan. Confucianism put the emphasis on social relationships in contrast with the Western individualism. We like to express ourselves clearly, we unwrap our thoughts in front of the other. Situations in which we use a lot of words, are often replaced by a slight bow and smile in Japan. I often have the impression that, for example in Japanese movies, fewer words are used.

My goal is not to judge about wrapping culture. I only want to research how various cultural differences could be traced back to the concept of wrapping. I hope I have caught your attention with this introduction, so please look forward to my following posts on this topic!


5 thoughts on “Japan’s Wrapping Culture

  1. I am also fascinated by Japanese wrapping and gift culture. The way a present is often wrapped in a single piece of paper, which is artistically folded and held in place with just one piece of tape is amazing! I have the silly habit of saving Japanese wrappings and packaging. Just too beautiful to throw away. And I love furoshiki too! Especially when it is used to wrap a gift ^_^ Good luck with your bachelor paper!

  2. Pingback: 23rd Japanese Speech Contest in Belgium | nippaku

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