Big in Japan: The Pocket Square in the Land of the Rising Sun

What springs to your mind when you think of Japan, and Japanese culture? Technological superiority, brightly lit streets, a vibrant visual identity bursting with color, cartoons and computer animation, perhaps. Certainly nowadays, we readily associate Japan with its modern incarnation, so effective has this country been at bringing themselves hurtling into the 21st century in spectacular, pulse-racing style. Despite this, like all the best countries, Japan is one of startling contrast. Alongside the twinkling neon, and tucked behind the roaring streets, is a society which is deeply traditional, and proudly rooted in a past which is as splendid as the present is impressive.  

One of the most fascinating visual aspects of Japan is their use of fabrics. We are all familiar with the iconic silk kimonos and geisha costumes which come from the older, imperial glories of the country, as well as the western trope of the Japanese businessman in his sharply cut, slim-fitting suit. However, few people are aware of just how prevalent the pocket handkerchief is all across the country. Indeed, high quality pochettes, pocket squares and hankies are so common in Japan, it would be very rare to find anybody - from prince to pauper - who does not carry at least one with them at all times.  

History of Handkerchiefs in Japan 

The use of hand towels and handkerchiefs in Japan is something which has been going on for a very long time indeed. Actually, there is some dispute over when it all began, due to a lack of existing records. However, we do know that fine cotton cloths called ‘tenugui’ were certainly in use by the 8th century, and their size, use and design has not changed very much at all since then. Tenugui are typically around 90cm x 35cm in size, printed in traditional patterns, and made from high quality cotton. They are used for many different purposes; drying the hands, as tea-towels, and even as a more elegant substitute for gift wrapping paper. While tenugui are not technically pocket squares, they do show a cultural acceptance and liking for such items, which stretches back far longer than in most other parts of the world. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, western-style cotton and silk pocket handkerchiefs began appearing in Japan, and like in the west, the very finest were quickly snapped up by the Japanese nobility to be worn as a sign of wealth and luxury. Before long, to carry a pocket handkerchief in your bag, and wear a pocket square about your person became a fashion statement adopted by all who could afford it. Today, they are a key part of everyday life in a way not found anywhere else on earth; no lady or gentleman - from Kyoto to Tokyo - would feel complete without at least one hankie in their bag or pocket

Why are Pocket Handkerchiefs So Popular in Japan?

Quite how modern pocket handkerchiefs took off in such a big way in Japan is not exactly clear. However, there are several things to be said on this subject which may reveal the answer.  

Firstly, let us take a look at how handkerchiefs are used. Unlike in Europe and America, handkerchiefs in Japan are not purely for decorative purposes. It would be very odd indeed for a gentleman in London, for example, to use his silk pocket square which he has neatly folded in his suit pocket to wipe his hands and face with, but in Japan, it would be unusual to use anything but a handkerchief to do just this. This is, in part, why it is common to have more than one ‘hankachi’ on your person at any given time - one can be used decoratively, the other is used for practical purposes and then is washed at the end of the day.

The other main use of the hankie in Japan is to wipe one’s brow and remove moisture and sweat from the skin. Sweating is seen as healthy in Japanese culture, and parts of the country have an extremely humid, tropical climate, so there is little anybody can do about perspiration. Cotton handkerchiefs come in useful in situations where one gets a little sweaty, and this could also explain their prevalence. There is also a common opinion that paper towels and Kleenex-style disposable hankies are wasteful and environmentally harmful - which they most certainly are. Interestingly, it is considered very bad form to blow your nose into a handkerchief - keep this in mind if you are ever over there visiting. 

The final (common) use of the pocket handkerchief is one which makes a pleasing connection to the history of the pocket square in the western world: they make very charming gifts. Pocket squares in Japan come in every color imaginable, and decorated with patterns which stretch from the classical and traditional (floral patterns such as cherry blossom are popular) to the wild and unexpected. This being Japan, you can get your pocket handkerchief designed with pretty much anything you want, from the latest anime cartoon craze to a motif of a Da Vinci print - the only limit is your imagination. As such, it is common to give pocket squares to friends of both sexes, or to present one when visiting relatives or when invited to somebody’s house for dinner.