text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Paraphrasing the American idiom, how old is a piece of plain weave cotton fabric –sized 3 by 1 feet? Some say it was already around in the era of the Kofun tombs, sometime between the 3rd and the 7th century while others suggest that any mentions to it become clear after the 8th century and the Nara period. But almost everyone agrees that until cotton cultivation became widespread, that is after the big wars of the 15th-17th centuries, it was a privilege reserved for priests and aristocrats: the former would use it to clean the statues in their temples and the latter as an accessory to their sophisticated attire and as proof that they could appreciate something so scarce and different from silk, a fabric quite common in the outskirts of Asia.
When Edo grew and the townspeople took the baton from the aristocrats, the tenugui (手ぬぐい/手拭) i.e. “the thing you wipe your hands with” found one name and countless purposes. It became a headband, a tapestry, an apron, a bath towel, a dusting cloth, a curtain, a dishcloth but also a trendy neckerchief for dandies and courtesans, an advertisement for stores and a prop for Kabuki and classical Japanese dancing, one of the two stage accessories for the kneeling comedic storytellers of Rakugo (the other is a fan), an essential addition to the uniform of firefighters –and from there to the crews’ clothing in the big and small Matsuri and a protective padding inside the kendo fencers’ mask. And also a few dozens more things that I have yet to discover.
It’s rare to find someone –or some home- having just one –even today when the interaction with the West should have made it disappear substituting it with the fluffy, absorbing towel. Apparently, its connection to Edo, its simplicity (and the accompanying low price) and the myriads of more or less imaginative designs stamped on it (often manually) by its creators, helped keeping it alive as a household functional (and occasionally decorative) item for the Japanese and as a souvenir for foreigners. And I don’t blame them: among the hundreds (thousands?) of different characteristically “Japanese” objects, personally I’d be hard pressed to find something combining so many aspects of Japan as this pedestrianly named, edge frayed piece of cotton cloth.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.