In Japan, fukusa, elaborate embroidered textiles that are lined and tasseled, are customarily draped over a gift or list of gifts on a lacquer tray. Most often, the cover and tray are returned with a small gift.
Fukusa are not to be confused with the simpler, more common furoshiki, which are squares of cloth tied like a hobo's bandanna to carry purchases, lunch, gifts, the book you're reading, what have you.
The Textile Museum through March 23 is exhibiting 35 fukusa from the Japanese Edo period (1615-1867). The fukusa come from the Shojiro Nomura collection, the largest in the world, according to Textile Museum Director Patricia Fiske.
On one fukusa, the poet and the plum tree bow in homage to each other. In the exquisitely gold-embroidered textile picture, the tree blooms exuberantly, its blooms sparkling in the sunlight as though they themselves are golden sun rays.
The poet is sad. He has been unjustly exiled from Kyoto to Kyushu. Now he will never see his favorite plum tree again. From his longing come these poignant words of farewell:
When the spring wind blows
Bloom in splendor
Oh fragrant plum blossoms
Even though the master is away.
The tree, overcome with the poem, magically transplants itself to the poet's place of exile.
The poet, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), was deified as Tenjin at his death. The 25th of every month is celebrated in his name, climaxing on Feb. 25 when the Japanese plum (a kind of apricot) trees at Tenjin shrine are in bloom.
To Fiske, who spent several years in Japan, the fukusa are an excellent example of Edo culture, when decorative and fine arts were considered equals. Leading artists of the period were not too proud to design fukusa covers, especially when some splendid family would commission them. The fukusa, then and now, were the work of professionals, not home craftsmen. The earlier works are more subtle, in polite colors and in designs with allusions understood only by the knowledgeable. Later needle pictures often glitter with gold embroidery and are saturated with brilliant colors.
The tradition today is largely observed in the area of Tokyo and Kyoto among wealthy families for wedding gifts, explained Mary Hays of San Francisco, cocurator of the show with her husband Ralph. Recently Japanese women's magazines have extolled the practice and in their bridal salons, large Japanese department stores sell appropriate fukusa.
In the Edo period, fukusa were used for many other presentation occasions, especially New Year's Day. Presents were also traditional for women in the fifth month of pregnancy, for newborn boys, on 13-year-old boys' birthdays and for weddings and retirements. The fukusa often illustrated a well-known fable appropriate to the occasion.
Out of Japan's rich traditions and sometimes gaudy past come other fukusa decorative covers. "The Three Friends of the Cold" fukusa combines plum blossoms, pine and bamboo to wish for long life and happiness. The plum is sweet even in the cold, the bamboo bends without breaking, the pine lives a long, green life.
A Dutch trade ship fukusa, bringing good wishes as New Year's cargo, pokes fun at the wide-brim-hatted Dutch sailors and even shows them as monkeys on the yardarm.
A 77th birthday fukusa shows three scholars of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The picture recalls a joke about a Buddhist. He was tricked into breaking a vow never to leave his monastery by his friends who engaged him in such a fascinating philosophical conversation that he walked out of the grounds without realizing it.
The shell-matching game, in which 360 clam shells are paired, was counted as appropriate for a gift cover for a bridal couple. The great shrine of Sumiyoshi, dedicated to guardians of travelers, was used as a symbol on a fukusa to be given at a wedding, the beginning of a lifelong journey. A Manchurian crane carries a wish for long life, a rice sheaf for wealth and a sake vat for celebration.
Hays says that the collection was actually begun around the turn of the 20th century by Shojiro Nomura's mother. Tei Nomura was the first Japanese woman to set up as a dealer in Japanese antiquities. She specialized in textiles. The story goes that she sold a piece of fabric to a westerner who, misreading the price, paid 10 times what she had asked. She realized the value to foreigners and built an elaborate antique shop in the western section of town, where it became an important business.
Her fifth son, Shojiro, was sent to school in Greenville, Ohio, and then apprenticed to Japanese art experts before going around the world to establish markets. His son-in-law, an American of Japanese ancestry, Morris Nomura (adopted by his wife's family), was trapped in Japan during World War II. Afterward, Morris dispersed the business, lent his family's kimono collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (eventually the Japanese government bought it), but gave the fukusa collection to Mills College in Oakland when his daughter Betty was a student there.
After a storm
On Mount Mimuro
The colored leaves
Floating on Tatsuta River
Are like a many-colored silk. -- A poem by Noin (998-1050) illustrated on a fukusa