LIFESTYLE/ Wrap up your troubles in your old furoshiki

A Bit of Kansai: Stephanie L. Cook.

 Right up there with tigers on the Brink of Extinction list are Japan's furoshiki. Until recently, Japanese would never leave home without one of the traditionally dyed, oversized cloths. But now, they're so ignored that a worried Kyoto businesswoman has launched a rescue operation - the Furoshiki Study Group - to fan the dying embers of culture.
 In May 1992, Chizuko Morita and some 20 others launched the Furoshiki Kenkyu Kai (FKK). Modest funding was secured from one of the 40-plus surviving furoshiki makers (most are in Kyoto), and the group got to work.
 FKK's quarterly newsletter provides the 300 current members nationwide with article such as an introduction to furoshiki in other cultures. Furoshiki Talks, held four times a year, combine a lecture with a practical demonstration on wrapping objects. (Novices whose expertise is limited to knotting opposing corners will be amazed at the dozens of variations on binding bottles alone.)
 This past February, the Furoshiki Talk featured a fashion show with FKK members as models. The event promoted creative uses of the cloths with (or as) hats, hair accessories, scarves, bags, dresses and slacks.
 The fashion show helped stir media interest in FKK, and now Morita's telephone rings almost every day to herald a prospective new member. While 70 percent of the membership is women, most in their 50s or 60s, younger adults of both genders have broadened the group's reach in recent months. The FKK has even jumped borders, boasting followers in Korea. Morita's dream is to take the Furoshiki Talks overseas as a means of promoting traditional Japanese culture.
 Young Japanese raised on today's hybrid Japanese-American culture may be surprised to learn how deeply rooted furoshiki were in their Parents' or grandparents' daily lives. Although there is evidence that cloths were used for wrapping things as early as the Nara Period, the name (and history) of the cloth dates to the Edo Period public bath. Bathers toted belongings to the bath in a furoshiki-wrapped bundle, and apparently spread the cloth out and sat on it in saunas as well. Hence the furo shiki ("bath spread"). Since OLs and their pricey brand-name leather handbags had not yet arrived on the urban scene, men, women and children carried their possessions around in cotton furoshiki. Kids filled them with school materials and tied them around their backs.
 By the 1950s, Morita says, leather handbags and paper shopping bags were finding their way into the culture. Around the 1970s, the final death blow came: plastic supermarket bags.
 Morita is appalled at how close Japanese have come to losing their heritage, and hates to imagine a future where parents take their offspring to see furoshiki in museums. For if the "bath spreads" die out, so will the traditional patterns and colors used on them. Morita points out that the names of the colors used in the traditional dyeing process have already changed, from momoiro to pink and from ai to blue. Further depressing news is that it's apparently tough to find reference material detailing the history of furoshiki. They were such an integral part of daily life that it never occurred to anyone to write about them, laments Morita.
 Yet the FKK founder is realistic. Leather handbags are here to stay, but furoshiki can happily coexist with them, she insists. Say "no" to throwaway plastic shopping bags, Morita urges. Furoshiki are recyclable. By carrying them to the supermarket or to the dry cleaners, Japanese can do something positive for the environment and for their culture. Morita also points out that furoshiki stretch and give to accommodate far more than shopping bags can. That makes them ideal for sports gear and traveling, she enthuses.
 Morita approaches the furoshiki problem from just about every conceivable angel. Environmental, cultural, pragmatic . . . She even acts as a surrogate manufacturer of sorts. Morita finds it odd that furoshiki producers have such tunnel vision. They only think of production, not of what the consumer is supposed to do with furoshiki, explains Morita in frustration. How can they expect the current generation of Japanese to enjoy furoshiki if they don't offer guidance in how to use them?
 If anyone can spark a furoshiki revival, Chizuko Morita can. Maybe furoshiki won't be consigned to museum display for some time yet after all.

For more information contact Furoshiki Kenkyu Kai, tel (075) 432-2722, fax (075) 432-3832.

Furoshiki Kenkyu Kai:E-Mail CXV00174