In Japan, gift wrapping is an art form and the wrapping a gift comes in is sometimes more important than the gift itself. Wrapping paper designs are intricate and there is a wide range of wrapping styles.
Wrapping by Origata Design Institute
The word for gift wrapping in Japanese is tsutsumi (包み). An old expression in Japanese calls a sheet of paper ‘the mirror of the soul,’ and the paper in which a gift comes is particularly important. Presents have been wrapped in thick, hand-crafted paper since at least the Muromachi period (1336-1537). It’s an old tradition that persists today.
Another style of gift wrapping is furoshiki (風呂敷), which is also sometimes called furoshiki-tsutsumi (風呂敷包み). This refers to wrapping gifts in a large piece of cloth. This practice dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and was used because it made transporting things easier. Today, one huge advantage of furoshiki is that it’s ecological. Wrapping gifts in cloth doesn’t waste paper.
Wrapping and respect
In Western cultures, gift wrapping is all about hiding the present and deceiving the receiver. You’re not supposed to be able to guess what the present inside is. In Japan, the style of wrapping is chosen to harmonize with the present. It may even hint at the present’s contents. For example, a box of kocha (紅茶, red tea) may have a red slip of paper tucked into the wrapping to indicate what it contains.
Gift giving is considered a form of communication between giver and receiver. The way you wrap and the care you put into it expresses how you feel about the person. This doesn’t bode well for people like the author of this article, who is hopeless with detail and manages to mangle every present he wraps (no disrespect meant).
The choice of wrapping material and colour are symbolic. Red means vitality, white is purity, green can symbolize fertility. Combinations of colours have their own meanings as well. The way a present is wrapped may also reflect the contrasts of yin and yang or include asymmetric elements (asymmetry is considered beautiful in Japanese art).
Wrapping by Asagami
The root word of tsutsumi means ‘to refrain.’ Gift wrapping should be simple and modest. There shouldn’t be bright colors, gaudy designs or images of Santa Claus.
The giving, not the gift
As many parts of Japanese culture, gift giving is a sort of a ceremony, following a preset pattern. In fact, it is the process, not the gift itself, that is most important.
When someone hands over a present in Japan, they may say tsumaranai mono desu ga (つまらない物ですが, lit. ‘it’s not much, but…’). This doesn’t mean the present’s actually boring; even if it’s something wonderful and/or expensive, the giver might say this. Rather, it expresses the idea that it’s the giving that’s important, not the gift. An appropriate response would then be, for example, sumimasen (すみません, thank you).