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Fukusa: The Gift (Cover) That Keeps On Giving

Without putting too much of a damper on the holiday spirit, I am reminded of a childhood ritual in my home of canopying the living room floor with mounds of shredded wrapping paper. It would normally take several garbage bags to contain the waste and restore order to the household once again. In sober contrast to these halcyon days of environmental ambivalence, Japan’s rich cultural history offers us a more sustainable alternative, and four hundred years before going green was fashionable.

Covering a gift with a fukusa became a formal aspect of the gift-giving ritual among Japan’s aristocracy during the Edo period (1615–1867). Originally confined to urban centers like Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo), a fukusa was a square piece of fine cloth, usually satin silk, embroidered or yûzen-dyed with colorful forms that reflected the occasion for which the gift was given. For example, a fukusa might bear the “three friends of winter”—the pine, plum tree, and bamboo—which symbolized perseverance in the New Year. Fukusa were designed and crafted by the finest artists of the day, and indicated the giver’s wealth and social status. Traditionally received on a lacquer tray, the recipient removed the fukusa by the tassel so as to not smudge the finely crafted cloth. After properly admiring the fukusa’s beauty, the recipient graciously returned the tray and fukusa to the donor. Keeping the fukusa was the prerogative of only the most privileged in society, and would be considered to be extremely rude under normal circumstances.

As the merchant class grew more prominent in the 19th century, so did aristocratic practices like giving gifts covered with fukusa. As the practice moved beyond the urban centers from which it sprang, the mon, or family crest, was added to the lining side to indicate familial derivation. Of course, in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1871, practicing Christianity was illegal, as were Christmas holidays in general.  Fukusa were most often given at weddings, New Year’s, and other annual festivals. However, in later years, Christmas Eve became a popular secular holiday for young couples, similar to Valentine’s Day, and we might assume at least a few fukusa were used on such occasions. The manufacture of fukusa gained a late resurgence in the 19th century, as Westerners first discovered their exquisite craftsmanship.  European and American art dealers ordered hundreds of them for display as works of art. In Japan, however, the practice of giving a gift with a fukusa has fallen out of use. You can find a considerable number of these rare artifacts in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.

Fukusa (Gift Cover), mid-Meiji period 1868–1912, c. 1895. Gift of Mary V. and Ralph E. Hays.

Fukusa (Gift Cover), Taishô period (1912–1926), 1912/26. Gift of Mary V. and Ralph E. Hays.