Font size
  • S
  • M
  • L

Tenugui - Japan’s Fashionable and Convenient Traditional Washcloths

Cheryl has come to a theater in Tokyo’s Asakusa along with Tatsuo, her host father. In joining with him as he pursues his love of rakugo storytelling, she has just enjoyed witnessing her first live performance.

Tenugui - Japan’s Fashionable and Convenient Traditional Washcloths

Cheryl

I thought that listening to rakugo was amusing, but seeing a live performance is also very entertaining! The lively expressions and gestures were great, as was the way in which the props were used.

Tatsuo

Yes, wasn’t it entertaining that a single fan was quickly transformed to play the role of so many different things? It was used to represent the chopsticks with which noodles were eaten, it was then transformed to become a brush to write letters.

Cheryl

And what about the piece of cloth that looked like a large handkerchief, it was first used to depict a wallet, it was then transformed to become a letter.

Tatsuo

Yes, that was a tenugui, a traditional Japanese washcloth. Tenugui are not just associated with rakugo, they are also a very important prop in kabuki and for performances of classical Japanese dance.

Cheryl

Are tenugui only a stage prop used in the performing arts?

Tatsuo

No, that is not the case. Traditionally, they have been used for wiping the hands or removing sweat from the brow. People also use them as washcloths when bathing. In days gone by, tenugui were very much an everyday item for Japanese people. Even today, despite handkerchiefs and modern towels dominating, there are still people who prefer to use tenugui due to their light weight and the ease with which they can be dried. In fact, I always carry one with me. Here it is.

Cheryl

You really have one with you!

Tatsuo

The good thing about tenugui is that they are not just useful for wiping away moisture. You can also use them to cover up your face to protect it from sunburn and from flying dust. They can be twisted and wrapped around as a headband. They can also be employed as a simple scarf, or used as something to wrap things in.

Cheryl

Yes, I have seen them being used at festivals as headbands.

Tatsuo

Yes, wiping, covering, adorning and wrapping, tenugui are a very practical item in that they can be used in any number of ways. What is more, in that they also come in a huge variety of colors and designs, recently more and more people have been mounting them in frames and enjoying them as interior furnishings. There is a store nearby here that specializes in tenugui. Why don’t we pop in for a look?

The two of them then go to the store that specializes in the sale of tenugui.

Cheryl

This is amazing! There are just so many on display, there is everything from traditional Japanese patterns to modern popular motifs.

Tatsuo

The ones over here seem to feature classical patterns. Collectively, they are known as monyo. Among them, are there any that you have seen before?

Cheryl

I think I have seen that one, the one that looks like fish scales, the one with the wavy design.

Tatsuo

Yes, that one is called seigaiha (literally “blue waves on the sea”). It is supposed to represent the calm rolling waves of the ocean. Within the design there is also incorporated the sentiment that, like the calm rolling waves, a peaceful world shall continue uninterrupted.

Cheryl

And what about this one? What can you tell me about it? I seem to remember that there are some cushions in your home that have a similar design.

Tatsuo

That one is known as asanoha (literally “hemp leaves”). Much in the same way as young hemp trees grow to be big and strong, this pattern is associated with the desire that babies may grow up to be healthy.

Cheryl

It seems that these patterns have many hidden meanings. The combination of the picture and the writing on the one over there is also wonderful!

Tatsuo

Yes, the writing on it reads as kamawanu. At the top you have a sickle (or kama in Japanese), next there is the circle (or wa in Japanese). At the bottom you have nu written in hiragana. That is why it reads as kamawanu. The design was much loved by the 7th Ichikawa Danjuro, a famous kabuki actor of the late Edo Period. It was through him that the design became widely known.

Cheryl

I think it looks very tasteful.

Tatsuo

Another thing I should tell you is that tenugui are sometimes used in place of business cards. For example, in the case of rakugo performers, they might create their own original tenugui that features perhaps their name and their crest. They then hand the tenugui out to both those people who have supported their performances in the past, and those who might assist them in the future.

Cheryl

That sounds like a great idea. I think I would also like to make my own original tenugui.

Tatsuo

Let’s do it, let’s find a design that each of us like and have the store put our names on it.