THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO FUKUSA
BIGGER BUT SMALLER SIBLING OF THE FUROSHIKI
Fukusa (袱紗) are pieces of fabric used either for purifying equipment in Japanese tea ceremonies (帛紗) or for gift wrapping (袱紗). Depending on these two occasions, the word "fukusa" is written differently (帛紗 or 服紗), but still has the same pronunciation. Fukusa is made of the characters "fuku" (袱, cloth wrapper) and "sa" (紗, silk gauze), and derives from the verb "fukusameru," which means to wrap softly and gently.
Fukusa are similar to furoshiki although the latter are typically larger and used in less formal, everyday life situations, while fukusa are used in more formal ceremonies.
HISTORY OF THE FUKUSA
The fukusa started out as a wrapping cloth that was draped over wooden boxes containing valuable items to protect them from dust. Later, the fabric cover began being used when transporting gifts to protect them against stains and sun damage along the way.
During the Edo 江戸時代 period (1603 to 1868), the cloth wrappings were utilized for more formal gifts and were used in conjunction with black lacquered boxes or trays (hirobuta) at ceremonial events, and started being called "fukusa." Gifts or money would be placed upon the tray and then covered with a silk cloth with tassels called "kamebusa" (turtle-shaped knots) that were placed in each corner. This way, the gift cover could be picked up without touching the fabric. After the covers had been admired by the recipient, the fukusa, along with the box or tray, was normally returned to the giver.
By the late Edo 江戸時代 period (1603 to 1867), the practice of gift-giving with fukusa had spread to merchants and wealthy farmers. Although textiles had long been an integral part of Japanese art, the rising wealth of the merchant classes and their disposable income allowed them to imitate the upper classes, and several eminent textile artists were commissioned to design, dye, and embroider textiles, including fukusa. Each work was an original creation, not just because they added family crests to the gift covers.
During the first half of the 18th century, the art of fukusa reflected the aristocratic minority of Japan such as the daimyo and samurai. The designs of the cloth held very subtle cultural references that were recognized only by the educated members of society. These members usually resided within the cities of Edo (renamed Tokyo) and Kyoto, as well as the surrounding areas.
Today, traditional uses of the fukusa include the custom of yuino, a Japanese tradition where the groom’s family gives gifts to the bride’s family to officially confirm their engagement or celebrate the union of the two families through marriage with a ceremonial feast. This tradition is also performed when wrapping imperial rescripts (imperial rescripts of dissolution are signed by the emperor and are wrapped in a purple fukusa) when the Diet (the National Diet is Japan’s parliament) is dissolved. Today, however, fukusa are rarely seen in general use and are mainly utilized to wrap monetary gifts. By doing so, the giver shows courtesy and care for congratulations and condolences.
FABRICS USED FOR FUKUSA
Most fukusa, especially traditional ones, are made of pure silk (fine silk, crepe silk, silk satin) with a single or double layer and are either plain or embroidered with auspicious designs (good omens). Nowadays, there are also rayon and polyester ones, such as kinpū fukusa.
Patterns were embroidered, dyed (with yuzen and other techniques), or created through the nishijin weave with threads of various colors being woven to form a pattern like weft brocade (saga nishiki). Saga nishiki (佐賀錦) is a unique form of brocading that is famous for its colorful threads. It originated in Saga Prefecture in Japan and was created at the end of the Edo period by Kashima Nabeshima, the daimyō (lord) of Saga. Japanese paper (coated in either gold, silver, or lacquer) is used as the warp, while the weft is a dyed silk thread. Only several inches are produced each day, as the technique is very time-consuming. Therefore, fukusa manufactured in this style are very valuable.
TRADITIONAL DESIGNS OF FUKUSA
A fukusa was considered an essential part of the gift itself, signifying its formality. It was of the utmost importance that the design choice be suitable for the occasion of the gift. The richness of the decoration testified to the giver's wealth and aesthetics.
Different themes and motifs were prevalent. Nature motifs, particularly auspicious combinations such as the "Three Friends of Winter"—a combination of pine, plum blossom, and bamboo—symbolized consistency and integrity.
Mandarin cranes (tsuru) and turtles with a trailing tail of algae (minogame) represented longevity and good fortune. Japanese red seabream (tai) was considered to be auspicious because "tai" is part of the word "medetai," which means good luck. Thus, they were also used as a motif on fukusa.
Legends such as The Tale of Genji and Noh plays (aristocratic culture), bamboo curtains, screens, books, imperial carts, fans, and other items reminiscent of the Heian 平安時代 period (794 to 1185) were used as auspicious designs in the Edo 江戸時代 period (1603 to 1867). Games such as shell and card-matching games (kai-awase) were also presented on fukusa.
As a form of cultural reference, folktales and mythology scenes, such as "Urashima Tarō" and "The Tale of Takasago," as well as local deities like the Shichifukujin (an eclectic group of seven deities from Japan, India, and China), were used to decorate fukusa.
Since the introduction of Chinese culture to Japan in the Asuka 飛鳥時代 (538 to 710) and Nara 奈良時代 period (710 to 794), dragon and phoenix motifs, also considered auspicious, were used on fukusa. Additionally, Confucian and Taoist motifs were showcased, such as "The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove," a group of Chinese Taoist philosophers who gathered in a bamboo grove to converse and drink.
TRADITIONAL COLORS OF FUKUSA
Colors for fukusa were selected based on the occasion, gender, or even age. This holds true for all types of fukusa, such as kake fukusa, kinpū fukusa, and fukusa used at a tea ceremony (tsukai fukusa).
Kake fukusa were the most colorful, while the other two were restricted to a couple of colors. When using kinpū fukusa, it was common to use red cloths for congratulations. Different red shades like shu-iro (empire red) or dark red were possible. For somber occasions, it was common to use green, indigo blue, or gray. Normally, a kinpū fukusa is different in color on each side so that it can be used for both congratulations and condolences. The basic colors for tsukai fukusa are purple for men, red and orange for women, and yellow for the elderly.
TRADITIONAL FORMATS AND SIZES OF FUKUSA
In earlier times, there were no regulated sizes for fukusa. Around 1955, an excise tax was imposed on fukusa, which finally regulated the size description. One gou (号) was based on the kujira-shaku scale, a unit of length measurement created in the mid-Edo period (around the 1700s). One shaku is 37.8 cm and is used to measure kimono cloth.
Formats and sizes of fukusa differ depending on the occasion and type of fukusa used. Generally, they can range from about 12 cm (5'') to about 90 cm (35'') along one side.
Kake fukusa are roughly square but not exactly. One side can range between 20 cm (9'') to 90 cm (36''). The two most frequently used sizes are 6 gou (about 21 cm x 23 cm | 8'' x 9'') and 8 gou (about 30 cm x 33 cm | 12'' x 13''). Other common sizes are 9 gou (about 32 cm x 34 cm | 13'' x 14'') and 10 gou (about 38 cm x 42 cm | 15'' x 17'').
Kinpū fukusa in an envelope shape are smaller in size and measure about 13 cm x 21 cm (5'' x 8'').
Fukusa used during the tea ceremony (tsukai fukusa) are also roughly square. The most common size for such a cloth is 27.5 cm x 28.5 cm (10.8'' x 11.2'').
FUKUSA FOR THE TEA CEREMONY
The standard characters for fukusa (袱紗) change to (帛紗) when used for a tea ceremony (chanoyu). During tea ceremony procedures, the host uses different types of fukusa.
A tsukai fukusa (使い帛紗) is used to clean (ritually purify) the tea containers that will hold the tea leaves (natsume, chaire) as well as the teaspoons (chashaku).
There are different categories depending on the thickness and weight of the cloth: Specialty (特優 Tokuyu, 40g | 1.41oz), Finest (極上 Gokujo, 35g | 1.24oz), Pure (真 Shin, 30g | 1.06oz), and Standard (行 Gyo, 20g | 0.71oz).
Dashi fukusa (出し帛紗) are used during the tea ceremony to lay the utensils and teacups on—while you take a couple of moments to enjoy looking at the matcha (dark green tea) to appreciate it—as a substitute for the confectionery tray when carrying the tea toward a guest, or for the guest to place his/her teacup on. A dashi fukusa will be served along with the teacup by the host.
A kobukusa (古帛紗) is used in the same way as a dashi fukusa but is smaller in size.
FUKUSA FOR GIFT-GIVING OCCASIONS
There are basically two types of fukusa for gift-giving occasions: kake fukusa (掛け袱紗) and kinpū fukusa (金風袱紗). Although rarely seen nowadays in general use as coverings for lacquered trays (kake fukusa), these fabric cloths are still used to wrap monetary gifts (kinpū fukusa) to show respect for the receiver's feelings, as well as empathy to share joy and sadness, and to prevent damage to the kinpū (金封, decorative envelope for monetary gifts).
Kake fukusa (掛け袱紗) are draped over a black lacquered tray. Some have turtle-knot tassels in the corners. They are roughly square but not exactly.
Kinpū fukusa (金風袱紗) are predominant in Japanese culture as a form of gift-giving. A kinpū fukusa is fabric used to wrap a kinpū (envelope for monetary gifts), such as at a wedding (congratulatory money) or funeral (condolence money). They come in different shapes and forms.
Fukurojo-no-Fukusa (袋状の袱紗, Bag or Case-style Fukusa)
Most modern fukusa come in the form of a case or bag where three sides are sewn together. This way, it's possible to just slip the kinpū inside to protect it from damage. These fukusa are about 13 cm by 21 cm (5.1'' by 8.3'') in size and can also be used as a pouch to put cards or passbooks inside.
Furoshiki-type Fukusa (風呂敷袱紗, Furoshiki-type, Single-layered Fukusa)
There are also one-piece cloths available that the gift givers will fold themselves. They are called "furoshiki-type fukusa" (風呂敷袱紗) and are considered more formal. There is even a ceremony behind the opening of such a fukusa.
Tsume-tsuki Fukusa (爪付き袱紗, Furoshiki-type Fukusa with a Fastener)
The tsume-tsuki fukusa (爪付き袱紗) is basically the same as described above but has a fastener attached to it. This way, the envelope can't slip out.
Awase Fukusa (袷袱紗, Furoshiki-type, Two-layered Fukusa)
An awase fukusa (袷袱紗) is also called a "furoshiki-type fukusa." The only distinction is that it is made by sewing two pieces of cloth together. Like with kimonos, the inner part is cut and sewn shorter than the outer part so the lining cannot be seen.
Dai-tsuki Fukusa (台付き袱紗, Furoshiki-type, Single-layered Fukusa With a Board)
Some fukusa also come with a board that is used to present the kinpū after unwrapping it during this kind of gift-giving ceremony (which will be explained further down).
GIVING A MONETARY GIFT
When giving a traditional monetary gift at ceremonial occasions (like a wedding), there are two things you will need: a kinpū (envelope for monetary gifts) and a fukusa to wrap the envelope, as it is considered uncouth to present gifts without covering them first. Each type of envelope has a different symbolic characteristic and differs for various occasions, and so, there are (next to all the possibilities for fukusa) different kinds of kinpū to choose from.
A shugi-bukuro (祝儀袋) is a special envelope for monetary gifts that holds another envelope containing the money (nakabukuro). Kinpū and nakabukuro are made of washi (和紙, bleached traditional Japanese paper) to reflect the heart of the giver, representing purity, sanctity, and proper behavior.
The name of the giver and the amount of money given will be written on the nakabukuro. Then, the money will be inserted into the inner envelope, which will then be closed with the shugi-bukuro. Furthermore, shugi-bukuro have a noshi 熨斗 (origami-like decoration) and a mizuhiki 水引 (decorative cord, similar to the Western use of ribbons tied in a bow around a present) attached to them and are used when dedicating money to a shrine or when giving congratulatory money, especially at weddings or other auspicious occasions, such as a birth or the celebration of a new home. For such celebratory events, Japanese use red and white mizuhiki.
Shūgi-bukuro were traditionally handmade by the person giving the money and usually given to Japanese geisha (芸者), also known as "geiko" (芸子) in Kyoto and as "kanazawa" or "geigi" (芸妓) in other regions. They are a class of female performing artists and entertainers, often for a wealthy clientele, at parties known as "ozashiki," as well as on stage and at festivals. They were trained in traditional Japanese performing arts styles, such as dance, music, and singing, and were proficient conversationalists and hosts. These practices have now largely fallen out of fashion, except for the tradition of giving money.
Bushugi-bukuro or Koden-bukuro
Bushūgi (不祝儀) or fushūgi (ぶしゅうぎ, ふしゅうぎ) means unhappiness, sorrow, misfortune, disaster, accident, or death. The characters for bushūgi can be translated as follows: 不 means negative, non-, bad, ugly, and clumsy, while 祝 stands for celebrate and congratulate, and 儀 can be interpreted as ceremony, rule, affair, case, and matter.
Kouden (香典) or okouden (お香典) is condolence money. Hence, an envelope used for condolences, such as at a funeral, is called a "bushugi-bukuro" (also known as "fushugi-bukuro") or "koden-bukuro" (also known as "okoden-bukuro").
Like with shugi-bukuro, the condolence money is placed within a sheer-white piece of washi paper inside the kinpū. The envelope is then fastened mostly with either a faced-up black and white or simply a white mizuhiki ribbon, depending on religious affiliation or denomination. Some religions or denominations even allow the usage of patterns such as lotuses or lilies.
Otoshidama-bukuro or Pochi-bukuro
Otoshidama-bukuro (お年玉袋) are decorative paper envelopes for otoshidama, monetary New Year's gifts. Otoshidama-bukuro are also called "pochi-bukuro" when referring to smaller envelopes. Recently, the range of sizes for these envelopes has diversified, with larger ones developed for bills folded in half (rather than the proper way of folding them into thirds), as well as smaller ones designed to hold coins.
Pochi means "tip" or "gratuity" in the Kansai dialect and originally showed an attitude of humbleness. The two kanji characters for "pochibukuro" (点袋) represent the words "point" (meaning small) and "bag," "pouch," or "sack." Various theories exist about the origin of pochi-bukuro, with some saying that geisha in the Kansai area called tips or gratuities "pochi," so the name "pochi-bukuro" was a humble way to describe an envelope containing a small amount of money.
An infinite number of designs can be drawn on these washi envelopes. The designs can be painted by hand, silkscreen-printed, or printed with woodblocks. The motifs include komongara (repeated patterns of small traditional symbols), kisshomonyo (motifs based on auspicious omens), fubutsushi (scenery typical of a certain season), and the seasons in general. They can also be quite witty and humorous.
The envelopes don't have to be used just for money. In fact, they can be used in various other ways, such as for conveniently organizing loose items in bags and pouches.
Noshi (熨斗) are a kind of ceremonial origami that are attached to a gift as a decoration, serving to express good wishes from the gift-giver to the gift-receiver. They signal longevity due to the homophone of the word "noshi" (伸し), which means "flattening" and "expanding."
Noshi are folded from pieces of white washi paper (entirely distinct from origami-tsuki) and are then wrapped in a sheet of colored paper to form a long hexagonal shape.
Noshi will include mizuhiki and a strip of flattened abalone or meat, since they are believed to be an auspicious food prolonging life and considered a token of good fortune. Abalone have been used as sacred food offered to Shinto gods since ancient times in Japan.
Mizuhiki (水引) is an ancient Japanese art form that uses twines of washi rice paper tied in knots (musubi 結) to decorate gifts and small envelopes.
To tie is something special in Japan since the knots reflect the relationships that are tied together. The word "marriage" (kekko 結婚) is composed of the kanji "musubi" on the left and the kanji "relationship" on the right, meaning that two souls are tied together. There are many ways of tying a mizuhiki, and all these knot variations have different purposes and deeper cultural meaning. Each knot fits the needs of the respective social contexts in which they are used, such as weddings, births, funeral services, and hospital visits.
The core meaning of each mizuhiki knot, though, is derived from how easily the knot can be undone. There are two main categories of mizuhiki knots.
Musubi-kiri or Awabi Musubi
The first category includes knots called "musubi-kiri" (結び切り) or "awabi musubi" (鮑結び). They are difficult to unravel once fully tied. Their form symbolizes stable relationships and deep feelings of condolence, as well as the giver's wish for an event to occur once and only once. Thus, they are commonly used for weddings, funerals, and get-well wishes—occasions that should not happen again.
The second category includes knots called "cho-musubi" (蝶結び, bowknot style). These knots can be tied and retied many times over and are therefore used mostly for celebratory and joyful events (excluding weddings), such as the birth of a child, entrance or graduation ceremonies, and promotions, since these occasions should repeat many times over. A great example of a knot belonging to this category is the hana-musubi (flower knot).
By placing beauty and meaning in small details (different knots and colors), mizuhiki has provided a way for the gift-giver to express what’s often hard to put into words. The receiver's appreciation of the gift itself, and the delicate thought that went into the tying of it, forms a unique mode of communication.
HOW TO WRAP A FUKUSA
Although the money is essentially already wrapped twice, it’s good manners to cover the envelope with a fukusa. If you're not using a bag-style fukusa but a furoshiki-style fukusa, it must be wrapped around the kinpū as follows:
If the fukusa includes a board, the board will be placed underneath the envelope when wrapping.
HOW TO GIVE A FUKUSA – THE GIFT-GIVING CEREMONY
Depending on the type of fukusa used, the gift-giving process may differ slightly.
Gifts or money will be placed upon a lacquered tray and covered with a fukusa. After the gift wrapping has been admired by the recipient, it will be removed from the tray to uncover the present. If tassels are placed in the corners of the fukusa, the gift cover can be picked up by holding one of the tassels.
When gifting a loved one with a monetary gift, the first step is to exhibit the fukusa. Afterwards, the kinpū will be removed from the fukusa, and the envelope will be shown to the receiver. This process varies depending on the type of fukusa used to wrap the envelope.
For the insertion types (bag or case-style kinpū fukusa), hold the fukusa so that it opens to your right. If it has a fastener, open it first. Remove the kinpū and place it on top of the fukusa. Turn the whole thing clockwise so the recipient can read it as you hand it to them. Don't forget to say words of congratulations as you give it to them.
In the case of condolences, hold the fukusa so that it opens to the left and rotate it counterclockwise. Place the kinpū on top of the fukusa and hand it to the recipient with the text facing them. Say words of condolence as you hand it to them.
For a furoshiki-style fukusa, hold it so that it opens to your right. Keep it closed with your left hand and hold the corner with your right hand. Then, open it towards your right. After opening it, remove the kinpū with your right hand and place it on the fukusa. If the fukusa comes with a board, place the envelope on top of it. Fold the fukusa back underneath the envelope and rotate it 180 degrees clockwise so that the characters are readable by the other party. Offer words of congratulations as you hand it to them.
In the case of condolences, open it toward your left, rotate it counterclockwise, and offer words of condolence. Fold the cloth underneath, holding it with your left hand, and place the envelope on top. Present it with the text facing the recipient.
We love this Japanese tradition. But since we aim to save paper whenever possible, we think wrapping the money directly into a fukusa or even furoshiki would be an even more eco-friendly way of gifting monetary presents. If you want to adhere to the tradition entirely, we recommend reusing the kinpū and nakabukuro as well. Just avoid writing anything on them, so they are ready for another use. Since they will be protected by the fukusa, they should remain in good condition.