Tsutsumi: the Japanese art of packaging

The Japanese word used to refer to the art of packaging is “tsutsumi”, a term that literally means package, present, object, gift, and derives from verbs whose meaning is to envelop, to cover but also to hide, to keep secret.

Luisa Canovi

Compared to the Western concept of the package, meant as something strongly visible, the tsutsumi represents a different cultural idea: to protect the gift with simple materials, forms and colors in a sober and elegant way. With tsutsumi, there is first of all the aesthetic pleasure of contemplating a package without the hurry of ripping the paper and cutting the ribbons to see what’s inside. In ancient times, some tsutsumi made for special ceremonies were not meant to be opened – it sufficed to know that whatever they contained inside was safely protected.

IN MODERN JAPAN, TSUTSUMI MEANS PRESENTING GIFTS, often without wrapping them and completely hiding them, but offering them highlighted by particular materials and forms.

The tradition of exchanging gifts has a religious origin and finds its roots in Shintoism.

The innumerable gods of the Shintoo (“way of the gods”) received ritual offers such as rice, fruit, seeds, small dried fish, etc. from man in exchange for good luck, health, wellbeing, abundant harvest. These offers were presented enveloped, protected, tied or simply resting on natural materials such as leaves, bark, bamboo, hay, stones, terracotta, paper and the like. The use of paper was often something privileged as it was considered a sacred material, particularly dear to the gods. The pronunciation of the ideograms that mean “God” and “paper” is homophonic, “kami”, in both cases, and for this reason, wrapping in paper corresponded to wrapping in the name of the gods.

FROM SIMPLE SHEETS OF PAPER in which to place food, to elaborated bowls and containers made using the origami technique (folding the paper without cutting or gluing it), the element of paper sacralized every little thing placed on the altars of the Kami, the spirits of the Shintoo present in the elements of nature. Paper made in Japan through traditional methods is called “washi”, meaning both Japanese paper and the paper of peace.

All these etymological, ritual and religious roots, turn any object – no matter how small – wrapped in a sheet of paper, into something having a high symbolic value that often requires careful care and thought in the choice of the present that will be exchanged. The meaning of a tsutsumi is therefore to protect a gift by enveloping it in something sacred and then offering it as a symbol of peace and harmony. To these meanings, we must add the attention and the time that are dedicated to the preparation of the tsutsumi and that denote a more important gift than the one that is wrapped: it is actually a piece of one’s life that is dedicated to this gesture. The more catered to the tsutsumi, the more precious will be its symbolic value.

A TSUTSUMI CONSIDERS THE OBJECT SOMETHING UNIQUE TO BE VALORIZED, sometimes with very simple folds, other times with long and complex folding mechanisms. The most appropriate tsutsumi is studied and researched for a given object. For a box, dried paper will be used and precise folds will be made along the corners, to highlight its geometric form; for a round object, a soft, enveloping paper that adapts to the curves; for a flower, hand-made paper sheets interwoven with plants to harmonize with the living element they are enclosing; for an item of clothing, a light tissue paper that allows to feel the softness of the fabric. And similar criteria are also used in the choice of colors, sometimes coordinated with the object and sometimes very contrasting, to surprise with unexpected matches of color.

Japanese aesthetics prefer packages studied on the diagonal lines of the sheet of paper, differently from the Western system that places the object with its sides parallel to that of the paper. The result is an elegant geometric design of corners and triangles, often highlighted by superimposing different colors. The asymmetrical shape is considered more interesting and stimulating for the eye, and there are examples of asymmetrical tsutsumi studied both for simple objects such as boxes and books, as well as for cylindrical and irregular shapes.

AMONG THE VARIOUS WAYS OF MAKING TSUTSUMI, some deserve particular attention, since they were born for particular objects. The saki containers and bottles, for example, are almost never completely wrapped, but left in full view so that one can appreciate their shape. Only the top portion (the cap) is covered by a square of paper tied around the neck of the bottle with rope or straw so as to form a handle. At the origin of this simple “hat” are the male and female butterfly-origami that are placed on the bowls of saki drunk by the bride and groom on their wedding day.

FLOWERS ARE INSTEAD ENVELOPED IN HANATSUTSUMI (flower wrapping) generally with sheets of paper of different colors, placed one top of the other and folded to form a noshi. A noshi is the shell of a marine animal that represents immortality thanks to its capability of naturally mummifying itself (like the sacred bodies of the ascetics).

Placing a plant, a flower, a branch or a leaf in the paper noshi will help to preserve it in time. The hanatsutsumi always leave the upper portion of the flowers uncovered, sometimes covering only a portion of the stem of the leaves.

FOODSTUFFS SUCH AS EGGS, VEGETABLES, FISH, TOFU AND PASTA MADE FROM RICE often find housing not only in paper but also in other flexible materials, such as leaves, straw, rope, etc. By wrapping, tying and intertwining, small protective architectures are created where to place eggs, for example. Even though they are clearly visible, they are still protected by a veritable anti-shock packaging. Grids of careful knots support fish, crustaceans and vegetables so that they can be hung to favor ventilation.

But this packaging is also safe for transport, for selling and for use. Foodstuffs packaged in this way remain visible and one can appreciate their aesthetics and freshness.

AN ELEMENT THAT IS COMMON TO MANY TSUTSUMI IS TYING, which sometimes assumes the veritably symbolic meaning of “tying” to oneself the person to whom the gift is destined. There are tying procedures and knots for various occasions, from those that take place only once in a person’s lifetime (birth, death) to those that are more simply well-wishing. To valorize the knot, strings of paper called mizuhiki are used (from the word mizu, water, used to wet the twisted paper strings which, once dried, become very resistant). These are collected in groups of 5, 7 and 9, in different colors for the various occasions: white and crimson for formal gifts, white and red for holiday occasions, gold and silver for weddings, multicolor for parties with friends or children’s gifts, white and black for funerals.

But also rice straw, raphia, rope and everything that can be tied and knotted can be used in tsutsumi. Sometimes the role of these elements is exclusively a functional one, but almost always it is one of great aesthetic value both in the combination with other materials and used individually, like in beautiful weavings typically used to pack fish, vegetables, fragile objects, eggs, bowls, etc.

BESIDES NATURAL, TRADITIONAL MATERIALS, ALSO FABRICS CALLED FUROSHIKI ARE USED IN TSUTSUMI. The furoshiki, which literally means “bath mat” was originally a piece of fabric where personal belongings were wrapped when going to the public bath. By lifting the corners of the furoshiki and knotting them together two by two, the parcel could be comfortably transported on one’s shoulders. With respect to other materials, fabric has the unique ability to adapt to the form of the objects to be wrapped; therefore, in the course of time it was used as a packing element – even if to a lesser extent than others, given its cost. Compared to paper, furoshiki is better for wrapping and transporting heavy and fragile objects such as ceramic bowls, saki bottles, wooden boxes containing foods, etc. Sometimes, it is also used as a temporary bag to transport the gift and then, once it has been delivered and opened, the furoshiki is brought home to be used for another occasion.

CONTEMPORARY DESIGN HAS TAKEN IDEAS FROM ALL THESE TSUTSUMI for today’s industrial packaging. Starting with traditional natural materials used to their utmost potential through extremely refined elaborations using paper, wood, rope, etc., to recover – innovating at the same time – antique forms to contain things. •

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