Visitors who spend any amount of time in Japan quickly become aware of the importance, even the primacy, of presentation. A nice meal, or a gift, or even an everyday object, is always appreciated for itself – but just as important is how it is wrapped or otherwise packaged.
Go to a shop, even to buy a t-shirt or a package of breath mints, and then watch as the clerk carefully wraps the item in paper, affixes a printed sticker to hold it, then puts it into a bag, then folds over the top of the bag and affixes another sticker to close the bag. This focus on presentation comes right down to the receipt, which isn’t just “handed” over; it is presented, with both hands, the eyes of the clerk fixed on the customer – with a smile.
Once one notices this – and it is difficult not to – one sees it everywhere, from hotels with their beautifully laid-out personal items and perhaps individually-wrapped biscuits or chocolates, to grocery stores with their individually wrapped fruit, to the way a shirt comes back from the dry cleaner wrapped in plastic, with a tiny paper bowtie affixed to the collar.
Wrapping (tsutsumu) and tying or binding (musubu) are ways of saying that something is important or precious, ways of separating mundane things from the mundane world, and thus, are signs of respect. Properly wrapped, properly presented, anything can be made special.
Westerners, particularly in the hyper-efficient, modern world, with its added layer of casual indifference to appearances, may find this pretentious or even false. But to the Japanese, who rigorously observe the division between tatemae (the public face or “official position”) and honne (the “true voice”), presentation isn’t pretense – it is everything.
Wrapping is most obvious where it is obvious in all cultures, in the presentation of gifts. But Japanese gift-giving, while often “from the heart,” is just as often a proscribed action that represents a complex social code with multiple hierarchies and responsibilities. Gift-giving is just one of many forms of giri (obligation, or duty) in Japanese culture: a gift is an obligation, and it is often one that comes with an obligation to reciprocate. Gifts may be given freely, with sincerity, but giri may not be far behind.
Gifts carry a lot of weight, and that puts even more pressure on the wrapping. Because of this, Japanese wrapping is often as important as what’s inside, and when one is given a gift by a Japanese, it is important to give as much attention to praising the wrapping as to the gift itself.
Given the Japanese skill in wrapping and packaging, this isn’t hard to do.
Elegant presentation goes far beyond mere gift-giving in Japan. Take lunch: Even the cheapest bento boxes display their modest lunch items with great care, and the boxes are often quite beautiful themselves. If they are not lacquerware, they are plastic painted to look like it. A recent trend among Japanese mothers was a competitive approach to kyara-ben, or the bento boxes “with character” – in which case the humble rice ball may be decorated to look like an adorable panda bear. Even the mundane school lunch was an area to demonstrate mastery of presentation.
Sake bottles come wrapped in beautiful paper and the simplest cookies and biscuits are sometimes hidden behind two or three layers of beautiful packaging. If you think this may have a larger cultural meaning – well, what doesn’t? The word for wrapped (tsutsumu) has a analogue in tsutsushimu, which means to be chaste or discreet, or to be careful. It has also been used to express the need to suppress one’s feelings – to keep one’s feelings wrapped.
Even the Japanese themselves can be wrapped, as any geisha can tell you. Traditional kimono and yukata are, compared to Western clothes, beautiful wrapping, with a carefully-tied obi being the bow.
Japan, as a high-context society, is on some fundamental levels distrustful of speech – the English phrase “talk is cheap” may well express a core belief of the Japanese. Another is “actions speak louder than words,” and in this respect, the wrapping culture may well be an expression of that wariness of mere verbiage. In that way, the presentation of a gift, or even the wrapping of a recent purchase, may say something more profound than the most effusive thank you.
For as with much Japanese culture, what is external is not just about hiding something, though it may do that as well. Instead, fine presentation is about is about honoring it. The Japanese believe that it matters whether something is done beautifully. Wrapping isn’t just about making something prettier; it is about honoring other people, even the world, by presenting one’s best as beautifully as possible.
Read more at Japanology.org.