What does this girl hold in her hand? The white paper, carefully folded, draws our attention. What is inside? Does her glance backward express concern about keeping the object a secret?
Looking closer, we see the print’s title, Girl with Love Letter. That identifies the object. It’s a koibumi (love letter). But what about its shape and folds?
A Conversation with Dr. Aki Hirota, Scholar of Japanese Arts and Culture
To learn more about koibumi, I asked Dr. Aki Hirota. An expert in classical Japanese literature and practitioner of several Japanese arts, Aki gave me wonderful insights.
Tied Letters: An Ancient Custom
“Before envelopes, everyone tied letters, including business letters. But people today looking back to these traditions most often think of love letters,” explained Aki.
“We know that noble men and women tied their letters in this fashion. We know much about their love letters. They often tied the letter onto a flowering branch of a tree and handed it to a messenger who delivered it to the intended person.”
Ah, yes! That Heian classic, The Pillow Book has beautiful examples of this.
Sei Shōnagon describes a love letter “attached to a spray of bush-clover, still damp with dew, and the paper gives off a delicious aroma of incense” (62). She also observes, “Very elegant men enclose long iris roots in their letters, and it is a pleasure to watch the women who have received the contents discussing them with their companions and showing each other their replies” (65).
“This custom is still practiced in Japan by shrine worshippers,” Aki continued. “Shrine visitors tie their o-mikuji onto a tree branch.”
That made me curious about o-mikuji. In English, you might call them, “sacred lots.” They are narrow, white strips of papers, each bearing a fortune.
O-mikuji: Good Fortune and Bad Omens
Visiting Shinto Shrines, you often see trees filled with knotted fortunes. What’s the story here?
“When the o-mikuji is a 凶 (bad omen),” said Aki, “lots of people leave it behind–along with the bad luck– by tying the o-mikuji to a living tree. Doing this is supposed to bestow you with life force.”
Pointing to photos of overloaded trees, Aki explains, “But in reality, the tips of tree branches themselves could wilt from the lack of sun that too many tied o-mikuji cause. That’s why shrines ask you not to use their ancient divine trees. They build racks and the like to serve as a tying space. There are even some racks fashioned in a heart shape.”
Europeans Tied Letters Too
Aki observes that not only Japanese folded messages in the past.
“In Europe, from the Middle Ages down to fairly recent times, letters were folded and sealed with red wax. The writer then stamped the letter with a seal instead of using an envelope.”
Koibumi Style: Obi Fashioned with Love 恋文結び
Returning to love letters bring us to fashion. How does the folded koibumi inspire romantics still? Aki explained how the legacy of the tied love note shapes obi fashion today.
“Among the zillion ways of tying an obi on kimono, the koibumi musubi is especially popular now for yukata.”
“People say it’s great for a date! Of course, today your date may not know anything about the message that it’s supposed to deliver. You’d need to explain what this way of tying is meant to signify.”
Age-old Custom of Japanese Love Letters
Even this brief foray into koibumi takes us to ancient Japanese customs, art and literature, and obi fashion. It recalls European folded letters, too. And we know the Girl with Love Letter points to an age-old custom in Japan. Still, the print piques our curiosity about this particular letter.
For more on koibumi, you can visit the National Diet Library, Japan site, Book Kaleidoscope: The World of Love Letters. Access this site in English through Google Translate. This site takes you from ancient to modern koibumi in Japanese arts and literature:
Many thanks to Dr. Aki Hirota for sharing her insights into the koibumi, unfolding some of its history.
Sei Shōnagon, and Ivan Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Jan Bardsley, “The Magic of Koibumi: The Japanese Love Letter,” janbardsley.web.unc.edu, August 12, 2021.