Back of a woman wearing a kimono with the obi tied in the tateya musubi style
Back of a woman wearing a kimono with the obi tied in the tateya musubi style

An obi () is a belt of varying size and shape worn with both traditional Japanese clothing and uniforms for Japanese martial arts styles. Originating as a simple thin belt in Heian period Japan, the obi developed over time into a belt with a number of different varieties, with a number of different sizes and proportions, lengths, and methods of tying. The obi, which once did not differ significantly in appearance between men and women, also developed into a greater variety of styles for women than for men.

Despite the kimono having been at one point and continuing to appear to be held shut by the obi, many modern obi are too wide and stiff to function in this way, with a series of ties known as koshihimo, worn underneath the obi, used to keep the kimono closed instead.

Obi are categorised by their design, formality, material, and use, and can be made of a number of types of fabric, with heavy brocade weaves worn for formal occasions, and some lightweight silk obi worn for informal occasions. Obi are also made from materials other than silk, such as cotton, hemp and polyester, though silk obi are considered a necessity for formal occasions. In the modern day, pre-tied obi, known as tsuke or tsukiri obi, are also worn, and do not appear any different to a regular obi when worn.

Though obi can be inexpensive when bought second-hand, they typically cost more than a kimono, particularly when purchased brand-new. A number of specialist fabrics used particularly to make obi are highly prized for their craftsmanship and reputation of quality, such as nishijin-ori, produced in the Nishijin district of Kyoto, and hakata-ori produced in Fukuoka prefecture.

History

Heian period to Edo period

A Japanese woman tying the obi of a geisha in the 1890s.
A Japanese woman tying the obi of a geisha in the 1890s.

In its early days, the obi was a cord or ribbon-like sash, approximately 8 centimetres (3.1 in) in width. Men's and women's obi were similar. At the beginning of the 17th century, both women and men wore a thin, ribbon-like obi. By the 1680s, the width of women's obi had already doubled from its original size. In the 1730s women's obi were about 25 centimetres (9.8 in) wide, and at the turn of the 19th century were as wide as 30 centimetres (12 in). At that time, separate ties and cords were necessary to hold the obi in place. Men's obi were widest in the 1730s, at about 16 centimetres (6.3 in).[1]

Before the Edo period, which began in the mid-1600s, kosode robes were fastened with a narrow sash at the hips.[2] The mode of attaching the sleeve widely to the torso part of the garment would have prevented the use of wider obi. When the sleeves of the kosode began to grow in both horizontal width and vertical length at the beginning of the Edo period, the obi widened as well. There were two reasons for this: firstly, to maintain the aesthetic balance of the outfit, the longer sleeves needed a wider sash to accompany them; secondly, unlike today (where they are customary only for unmarried women) married women also wore long-sleeved kimono in the 1770s. The use of long sleeves without leaving the underarm open would have hindered movements greatly. These underarm openings in turn made room for even wider obi.[1]

Originally, all obi were tied in the front. Later, fashion began to affect the position of the knot, and obi could be tied to the side or to the back. As obi grew wider the knots grew bigger, and it became cumbersome to tie the obi in the front. By the end of the 17th century obi were mostly tied in the back. However, the custom did not become firmly established before the beginning of the 20th century.[1]

At the end of the 18th century, it was fashionable for a woman's kosode to have overly long hems that were allowed to trail behind when in house. For moving outside, the excess cloth was tied up beneath the obi with a wide cloth ribbon called shigoki obi. Contemporary women's kimono are made similarly over-long, but the hems are not allowed to trail; the excess cloth is tied up to hips, forming a fold called the ohashori. Shigoki obi are still used, but only as a decorative accessory.[1]

Modern day

The most formal women's obi, the maru obi, is technically obsolete, worn only by some brides, with a modified, longer version - the darari obi (lit., "dangling obi") - worn by maiko, in the present day. The lighter fukuro obi has taken the place of maru obi. The originally-everyday nagoya obi is the most common obi used today, and fancy nagoya obi may even be accepted as a part of a semi-ceremonial outfit.

The use of fancy, decorative obi knots has also narrowed, though mainly through the drop in the numbers of women wearing kimono on a regular basis, with most women tying their obi in the taiko musubi (lit., "drum knot") style.[3] Tsuke obi, also known as tsukiri obi, have gained popularity as pre-tied belts accessible to those with mobility issues or a lack of knowledge on how to wear obi.

Tatsumura Textile located in Nishijin in Kyoto is a centre of obi manufacture today. Founded by Heizo Tatsumura I in the 19th century, it is renowned for making some of the most luxurious obi available.[4] Amongst Tatsumura's students studying design was the later-painter Inshō Dōmoto.

The technique nishijin-ori, traditionally produced in the Nishijin area of Kyoto, is intricately woven and can have a three dimensional effect, costing up to 1 million yen.[5][6][7]

The "Kimono Institute" was founded by Kazuko Hattori in the 20th century and teaches how to tie an obi and wear it properly.[8][9][10][11]

Women's obi

Women's obi in scale:1. Tsuke/tsukuri/kantan obi2. Hanhaba obi3. Nagoya obi4. Fukuro obi5. Maru obi
  • Women's obi in scale:
  • 1. Tsuke/tsukuri/kantan obi
  • 2. Hanhaba obi
  • 3. Nagoya obi
  • 4. Fukuro obi
  • 5. Maru obi

There are many types of obi for women, with certain types of obi worn only with certain types of kimono to certain occasions.[12][13] Often, the obi can adjust the formality of the entire kimono outfit, with the same kimono being worn to occasions of differing formality depending on the obi worn with it.[14] Most women's obi no longer keep the kimono closed, owing to their stiffness and width, and a number of ties worn under the obi keep the kimono in place.

A woman's formal obi can be 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and more than 4 metres (13 ft) long, with the longest variety – the darari obi, nearing 6 metres (20 ft) in length – worn only by maiko in some regions of Japan. Some women's obi are folded in two width-wise when worn, to a width of about 15 centimetres (5.9 in) to 20 centimetres (7.9 in); the full width of the obi is present only in the knot at the back of the kimono, with the band around the middle appearing to be half-width when worn.

There are a number of different ways to tie an obi, and different knots are suited to different occasions and different kimono. The obi itself often requires the use of stiffeners and cords for definition of shape and decoration, and some knots, such as the taiko musubi, require additional accessories in order to keep their shape.

Women's obi types

The nagoya obi, the most common variety of women's obi
The nagoya obi, the most common variety of women's obi
Tsuke obi are much shorter than the other types of obi.
Tsuke obi are much shorter than the other types of obi.
The separate bow part of a tsuke obi is attached using a wire hook.
The separate bow part of a tsuke obi is attached using a wire hook.
Girl wearing a yukata. The two-toned effect is obtained by folding the reversible obi to reveal the contrasting underside.
Girl wearing a yukata. The two-toned effect is obtained by folding the reversible obi to reveal the contrasting underside.

Accessories for women's obi

The structure of the common taiko musubi (drum bow). The obijime is shown in mid-shade grey, the obiage in dark grey. The obimakura is hidden by the obiage.
The structure of the common taiko musubi (drum bow). The obijime is shown in mid-shade grey, the obiage in dark grey. The obimakura is hidden by the obiage.

Men's obi

A reversible kaku obi, about 6 centimetres (2.4 in) wide
A reversible kaku obi, about 6 centimetres (2.4 in) wide
Kaku obi
Kaku obi

The obi worn by men are much narrower than those of women, with the width of most men's obi being about 10 centimetres (3.9 in) at the most. Men's obi are worn in a much simpler fashion than women's, worn below the stomach and tied in a number of relatively simple knots at the back - requiring no obijime, obiage, obi-ita or obimakura to achieve.

Men's obi types

Accessories

Inro and netsuke. Edo period, 18th century
Inro and netsuke. Edo period, 18th century

Men's obi are not generally worn with accessories, being for the most part too thin to accommodate any of the accessories worn with women's obi.

However, in the Edo period, practical box-shaped accessories called inro (印籠), which hung from kaku obi with a fastener called netsuke, became popular. Sagemono is a general term for bags and boxes for cigarettes, pipes, ink, brushes, etc. Among them, a small stackable box for seals and medicines is inro. Inro, which originated in the Sengoku period, were first used as practical goods, but after the middle of the Edo period, when inro were gorgeously decorated with various lacquer techniques such as maki-e and raden, samurai and wealthy merchants competed to collect them and wore them as accessories with kimono. And from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, inro became a complete art collection. Nowadays, inro are rarely worn as kimono accessories, but there are collectors all over the world.[28][29]

Children's obi

A little girl wearing kimono. A simple soft obi is tied around the waist.
A little girl wearing kimono. A simple soft obi is tied around the waist.

Children's obi are generally soft, simple sashes, designed to be easy and comfortable to wear, though older children may wear simple, stiffer obi made short, such as hanhaba obi and kaku obi; as they age, children begin to wear kimono outfits that are essentially miniaturised versions of adult kimono and obi.[30] The youngest children wear soft, scarf-like obi.

Children's obi types

In martial arts

Main article: Obi (martial arts)

Obi for budō. The colours shown range from yellow to brown, corresponding to judo kyū (levels) from 9th to 1st.
Obi for budō. The colours shown range from yellow to brown, corresponding to judo kyū (levels) from 9th to 1st.

Many Japanese martial arts feature an obi as part of their uniform. These obi are often made of thick cotton and are about 5 centimetres (2.0 in) wide. The martial arts obi are most often worn in the koma musubi style; in practice where the hakama is worn, the obi is tied in other ways.

In many martial arts the colour of the obi signifies the wearer's skill level. Usually the colours start from the beginner's white and end in the advanced black, or masters' red and white. When the exercise outfit includes a hakama, the colour of the obi has no significance.

Knots (musubi)

The knot tied with the obi is known as the musubi (結び/むすび, "knot"). Though obi functioned to hold the kimono closed for many centuries, beginning in the Edo period, the obi became too wide and/or too stiff to function effectively in this manner. In the modern day, a number of ties and accessories are used to keep the kimono in place, with the obi functioning in a more decorative capacity.

Though most styles of obi musubi can be tied by oneself, some varieties of formal women's obi can be difficult to tie successfully without the assistance of others.

There are hundreds of decorative knots,[13][21] particularly for women, often named for their resemblance to flowers, animals and birds. Obi knots follow the same rough conventions of style and suitability as kimono do, with the more complex and fanciful knots reserved for younger women on festive occasions, and knots with a plainer appearance being mostly worn by older women; however, some knots, such as the taiko musubi, have become the standard knot for women of all ages, excluding young girls.

In earlier days, the knots were believed to banish malicious spirits.[13] Many knots have a name with an auspicious double meaning.[13]

Types of knots

A hanhaba obi tied in the chōchō musubi style, worn with a yukata
A hanhaba obi tied in the chōchō musubi style, worn with a yukata
A fukuro obi tied in the fukura-suzume style, worn with a furisode
A fukuro obi tied in the fukura-suzume style, worn with a furisode

Gallery

See also

References

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  2. ^ Fält et al., p. 450.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Dalby, pp. 208–212
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  6. ^ "JAL Guide to Japan – Nishijin-ori Weaving and Textiles". www.world.jal.com.
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Bibliography