Left : In the paper section. Inventory of a set of betrothal gifts. Second generation style Kanezawa mizuhiki-ori (folded red and white paper) by Ume Tsuda (1907-2004). Made in 1988. Above right : In the bamboo section. Bamboo utensils, baskets and chimaki wrappings made of bamboo grass, woven baskets and other objects reveal much about bamboo’s versatility as a material. Below right : Sawa no Tsuru sake barrel displayed on the first floor of the museum. The character for rice forms part of the design, and the barrel is packaged decoratively for use as a gift.
Graphic designer Hideyuki Oka (1905-1995) was also a collector of traditional Japanese packaging. Fascinated by the beauty of cake boxes and various other food containers, he spent many years traveling the country to add to his collection. This collection was inherited by the Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo, which put part of it on public display in an exhibition entitled “Tsutsumu—Exhibition of Traditional Japanese Packaging” (closed May 22, 2011). The great many examples of packaging on display there could well be called a testament to Oka’s commitment and tenacity. The exhibition was separated into sections according to material; tree, bamboo, bamboo grass, earth and straw. Every section was full of deeply fascinating designs. Packaging that you can see even today such as chimaki (bamboo wrapped cakes) and monetary gift envelopes, mixed with objects that are probably no longer made such as egg holders. Some were beautiful and some were richly amusing—it was never boring. I just had to admire anew the ingenuity of Japanese in the past. And, without realizing it, I found I had gained an aesthetic Japanese sense of beauty and spirit.

photo : Straw egg holder / Foodstuffs/ Yamagata prefecture. A work of art in itself, this packaging was made by farmers well versed in the properties of straw, and born out of long experience. There were many variations of this packaging method, and eggs were also packed horizontally, depending on the region. Contrived so that even if the topmost egg is taken out, the next one won’t break. Made by Seiji Ishikawa (1921-1997). Photograph by Michikazu Sakai


Practicality and Aesthetics

The materials used for packaging were those found close to hand in nature. Much of the packaging was born out of necessity, practical things that were deeply rooted in daily life and passed on through the generations. Functionally they were also superb, as wrapping made things convenient to carry around, and opening them up was simple. The items on display are a testimony to the highly advanced wrapping skills behind them.
Oka’s perspective has one more aspect to it, which is the aesthetic angle. The packaging did not have to be simply practical, it had to be beautiful as well. He sought out things that became even more beautiful through being wrapped. I felt as if I had seen the roots of the Japanese aesthetic that strives for beautiful wrapping, which has been passed down all the way to the present.

1 : Bamboo whisk-shaped candies/ sweets/ Miyagi prefecture. A simple work made of small sarashiame sweets speared on the tip of thin bamboo strips, and placed in a bamboo pipe. Like a lovely bunch of flowers. Believed to have been based on a tanabata festival motif. Not made anymore. Photograph by Michikazu Sakai.
2 : Kin Senryo/ toothpicks / Saruya, Tokyo. Even more singular than the paulownia wood box which imparts a sense of luxury are the eye-catching bold characters Kin Senryo (meaning “gold senryo” [old Japanese coin]. Photography: Michikazu Sakai.
3 : Ohineri (monetary gift wrapped in paper) /tossed coins. Ohineri has its origins in the custom of throwing monetary gifts to actors on the stage after a play finished. It is an expression of the Japanese belief that gratuities should be wrapped in paper. Money wrapped in paper also has the advantage of being easy to control. Photograph by Michikazu Sakai.
4 : Chimaki (rice ball or cake wrapped in bamboo grass) / foodstuff / Fukushima region. Chimaki are found all over Japan, and are known by various names such as sasamaki or sasadango. Glutinous rice or balls of steamed rice are put in bamboo grass and tied into a bundle with a strong fibrous grass. Mainly used nowadays for wrapping sweets. Photograph by Michikazu Sakai.

“The Japanese people’s attitude toward daily living shows in a mindset that has an accurate grasp of each material’s inherent qualities,
and utilizes them while trying as much as possible not to impair it.”

Hideyuki Oka, Nihon no Dentou Pakke-ji (Traditional Japanese Packaging), Bijutsu Shuppan, 1965

â– Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo

Meguro 2-4-36, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3714-1201


Text / JQR Editorial Staff