Traditional Manners for Gifts

In the last article I wrote a bit about the meanings of the stripes, red x white and black x white. Today I would like to share some social customes.

Have you ever seen Japanese traditional ribbons?



These are called Mizuhiki (みずひき/水引).

Normally, I put the link to Wikipedia, but today I would not like to. Let me explain it first and then you can refer to it!


This tradition started with a misunderstanding in Asuka period (592–710), when government officials saw all the imported packages from Sui dynasty were tied up with red and white codes. They jumped to a conclusion without making a double check on the meaning. Maybe there was Mr. Know-it-all and said that they tied all the presents up for important persons with red and white codes which should be showing us their respects with these codes! While, in Sui dynasty, the colours had no meanings at all and they used them just to distinguish goods for export from ones for themselves….

At first, hempen codes dyed red and white were used for gifts addressed to the Court. Coloured hempen codes were also used to bind books of poetries by noble people in Heian period (794–1185). Hempen codes were dyed in many colours and they were so beautiful that they reminded of the petals of flowers flowing in the Kamogawa river. That’s why these coloured codes obtained a beautiful name, Mizuhiki. Mizu (水/みず) means water and Hiki (引き/ひき) means to be pulled.


Kamogawa river in Kyoto

Later in Muromachi period (1336–1573), Mizuhiki became more beautiful. They twisted Washi (paper) into a string and hardened with starch and dyed them. This is the actual Mizuhiki.

In Edo period (1603–1868) the usage of Mizuhiki spread also among normal citizens, when the production of paper became popular.

While looking for information about Mizuhiki, I found something very surprising. The original usage of Mizuhiki (paper one) was for tying up hair! Many of you know what sort of hair style people had before Meiji period. Yes, Chonmage!


Photo from Life in Castle-town Kanazawa
You will find many interesting photos in this site!


When they made this hair style, they oiled the hair and tied the hair bunch using Mizuhiki. Instead of calling these codes Mizuhiki, they were called Motoyui. The production method of these two codes were same. This code was used for tying up the gifts only among the higher ranked and the rich, on the other hand, it was used for their hair widely among who had Chonmage hair style.

However, under Meiji Restoration the government ordered people to change their hair style to “normal” one and Chonmage style was left only among Sumo wrestlers.


How to do sumo wrestlers’ hair
Photo from Ōtake stable’s blog

This change gave a great damage to those who produced the codes but the innovation was made. They improved the quality and they shifted the production into Mizuhiki for gifts. After the innovation, Mizuhiki was not just a code but has become something very artistic!


photo of Mizuhiki art from Iida Mizuhiki Project


Here I put the links for you to look at marvelously beautiful traditional Mizuhiki;


Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture: http://mizuhiki.jp/

Iida, Nagano Prefecture: http://www.mizuhikiyasan.com/


In modern Japan, unfortunately, another innovation was made to Mizuhiki. Only the idea of Mizuhiki remained and the codes were printed on paper to cut the cost…

In the next upcoming innovation also the idea of Mizuhiki can be extinct… So, in order to let it survive, I would like to share some interesting information with my dear readers. The meanings of Mizuhiki change depending on the colours and the knots. There are many kinds of knots but I would like to show the major three for your basic information.


Hana-musubi (Shoelace knot)

As this knot can be easily released, tied, again and again, this is used for celebrations, which would be the occasion that people would welcome repeatedly, such as celebration on advancement or birthdays. So, you CANNOT use this for wedding celebrations!



Kata-musubi (Reef knot)

This knot, on the other hand, is stiffly stabled, hard to be released. So, this is used for something which you would like to avoid happening again and normally it is used a for gift sent to a person who is ill or has had an accident.



Awabi-musubi (Reef knot)

This knot is very complicated and you can release it but not easily. Moreover, the knot looks like awabi (Abalone), which was very precious and it used to have meaning of “long life”. So, this knot expresses your feeling that you want to keep the relationships forever and it can be used for good and bad situations.



There is one important thing! Maybe you like black or silver. For me, for example, black and silver are my favorite colours. But don’t use the not in black x white, black x silver, or silver only for favorable or happy situations. This knot in these colours is ONLY used for funerals.



As time passes, I think we have become too much cost-oriented and everything has become easy, cheap, and convenient. With this process the culture can spread throughout the world and it can be reachable to anyone. However, at the end, the culture will become something that cannot be called culture any more. I saw many artisans of culture were extinct… Through writing this article, I found an ancient company which was established in 771 closed in 2002 unfortunately. It was alive for about 1200 years. I wonder why it could not survive in the world of the new millennium.

Of course, I’m not rich and I do look for something reasonable to buy. However, in order not to lose something valuable any more, I think we have to think some way to preserve them. That is an innovation that we should make for the future, isn’t it?
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ


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  1. Sophie N より:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge of this beautiful tradition and the history and meaning behind it.


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