Explorations in Japanese Culture

Tenugui (手拭い)

The tenugui (手拭い)is an interesting little item. Its basic form makes it seem like nothing more than a common hand towel, something that simply lays about and it easily dismissed. However, the tenugui is a versatile item that has many different roles in Japanese culture, from simple hand towel to a sign of hard work and determination. The tenugui has historically played a distinctive role in many different aspects of Japanese life and has its roots far back into history as early as the Kofun Era (250 – 538 AD).

What is a Tenugui?

The tenugui is simply put a thin piece of cotton cloth with a variety of uses. The tenugui did not have a standard size for many years, but today it is generally available in the average length of 90 to 92 cm and 34 to 38 cm in width. The tenugui are made of a thin cotton weave with a variety of designs printed on them. The tenugui have been a part of Japanese culture for many years, so to understand them we must examine how they developed and changed through the centuries.


The tenugui have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, a clay figurine was found with a tenugui around his head, dating from the Kofun Era. In the Heian period (794 – 1192 AD) the tenugui were used as accessories for Shinto rituals, but during this time cloth was such a precious item that they did not become widespread until the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333 AD). Their use became more widespread after they became popular among samurai as helmet liners for keeping the sweat out of their faces. Early tenuguis were left plain and unprocessed with only simple colors. While they lacked the more complex patterns that color them today, they still maintained the same function of wiping, covering and wrapping objects/bodies. Cotton became more widely available as it began to be cultivated in Japan during the Edo period (1592 – 1868 AD), and so this made tenugui more available and considered a necessary part of daily life. It was also during this time that the tenugui began to take form as an artistic median. Attempts to improve the artistic design of the tenugui led to innovations in production technique and the development of the “Chusen” dyeing technique during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912).

Chusen Method of Dyeing

This method of dyeing tenugui has been appointed as a Japanese traditional craft and is still widely practiced today. The dyeing process comes with many distinct characteristics as it enables for a reversible pattern, colorful designs through the use of multi-color stencils and also allows a spatial freedom for designs and patterns. There are ten different steps in the Chusen method, beginning with the Katagami (stencil). The design is drawn on the special stencil paper made of smoked handmade paper with persimmon tannin. The stencil is then attached to a silk netting to complete it. After preparing the fabric for dyeing, a paste is made either from powdered sweet rice and rice bran or seaweed. Dye is then applied to the cloth using the stencil and allowed to dry. (NOTE: I just glossed over a LOT of steps, for more detailed explanations check this awesome blog).

Tenugui Usage

Though the usage of the tenugui in everyday life has diminished with modern times, many still find it an indispensable item to have around the house. Tenuguis are used often as part of costumes for matsuri or festivals. Business owners also commonly distribute them at store openings as a sign of gratitude to new customers. The tenugui still has a symbolic and esthetic value for those who wear it. When worn as a headband, the tenugui denotes a sense of hard work and determination for the wearer. It is a way of getting down to business and showing that you are determined. This comes also from a practical standpoint as its used to keep sweat out of the wearers eye during hard work. When worn as a twisted head band, it is called a Nejigi-Hachimaki. (Hachimaki is a whole another blog post…) Depictions of these in popular culture often show the hardworking fish monger wearing a Nejigi-Hachimaki tenugui as he works his fish stand.

When they are not being used for more practical purposes, the tenugui is also commonly used to wrap gifts or bento boxes. When giving someone a tenugui wrapped gift it comes with an extra sense of appreciation. A gift wrapped in a tenugui shows good taste on your part as well as a sense of respect and affection for the recipient as you took extra time to pick out a new tenugui to accompany the gift. Awesome diagrams and examples of this can be found at

Buying a Tenugui

I Heart 日本 (I Heart Japan) Tenugui Project

Tenuguis can either be cheap or expensive like just about everything else in todays modern world of production. If you want a machine manufactured one, expect to pay anywhere from $3-$8 for a simple pattern. However, some companies like Wuhao in NYC still specialize in hand-made, high quality tenuguis imported from their craftsmen in Japan. They also offer a service to design custom designed tenugui. Personally, I am saving my money to buy this beautiful piece. No, Wuhao is not paying me any money (I would not mind a free Tenugui tho ; ) I just think they are a great store and I hope everyone will give them support when you decide to go tenugui shopping!

If you are interested in helping Japan earthquake survivors, then click the image above to see more about Wuhao’s I Heart 日本 campaign. I think it is a great way to show your support to those that have been affected by the earthquake.

6 comments on “Tenugui (手拭い)

  1. Ruri Kippenbrock
    July 30, 2011

    Thank you very much for writing about Tenugui and my company wuhaonyc! I love your article very much 🙂

    • totorosan
      July 30, 2011

      Thank you, I am glad that you liked it! I am looking forward to purchasing some 手ぬぐい from you in the future when I have the money!

  2. Jared Courtney-Colvin
    August 5, 2011

    I had no idea!

  3. Jammy
    September 19, 2011

    Ooh, now I want a Tenugui! The Moon Bunny one on Wuhao looks amazing. The dye work must have been difficult.
    Thanks for this awesome article, I didn’t know much at first but I know a lot now!

    • totorosan
      September 19, 2011

      I am so glad that you like it! I love using my Tenuguis to wrap and carry my bento personally and Wuhao is an amazing company that really gets my full support!

    • totorosan
      September 23, 2011

      Thank you for reading it! I think Tenuguis are awesome! And Wuhao is a wonderful company, they really are an awesome piece of craftsmanship!

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This entry was posted on July 29, 2011 by in Japanese Culture and tagged , .

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