Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies

Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies

Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies

Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies


Wrapping Culture examines problems of intercultural communication and the possibilities for misinterpretation of the familiar in an unfamiliar context. Starting with an examination of Japanese gift-wrapping, Joy Hendry demonstrates how our expectations are often influenced by cultural factors which may blind us to an appreciation of underlying intent. She extends this approach to the study of polite language as the wrapping of thoughts and intentions, garments as body wrappings, constructions and gardens as wrapping of space. Hendry shows how this extends even to the ways in which people may be wrapped in seating arrangements, or meetings and drinking customs may be constrained by temporal versions of wrapping. Throughout the book, Hendry considers ways in which groups of people use such symbolic forms to impress and manipulate one another, and points out a Western tendency to underestimate such nonverbal communication, or reject it as mere decoration. She presents ideas that should be valid in any intercultural encounter and demonstrates that Japanese culture, so often thought of as a special case, can supply a model through which we can formulate general theories about human behaviour.


Since gift-wrapping has proved the inspiration for the argument presented here, let us begin by examining some examples of the phenomenon. There are various reasons why a gift should be wrapped, indeed there are various reasons why anything should be wrapped, and it might be instructive first to consider some of these different reasons and how far they apply in the same way in different cultural contexts. We have already mentioned that in Japan gifts may have several layers of wrapping, and we will return to consider why this should be so, but let us first consider the act of wrapping in itself.

Mundane Wrapping

The most obvious and practical reason for wrapping goods is to protect them from outside impurities such as dirt, germs, and the vagaries of the climate. It may also be a precaution necessary to keep the contents together for the purpose of transport. Thus, a farmer or gardener with a few spare vegetables of which to dispose may bundle them into a sheet of newspaper, or an old polythene bag, to present to a visitor as a parting gesture of goodwill. This act may also protect the visitor from the 'dirt' or earth which is clinging to the roots. a supermarket may wrap a similar selection of vegetables, usually deprived of their roots, for the sake of convenience, so that shoppers can choose a pack which fits their purse, rather than waiting to have their chosen objects weighed. Certain shoppers may prefer, however, to avoid vegetables wrapped in wasteful plastic bags and choose instead to make their purchases in a market where the weighed goods are still poured into one's woven cane shopping-basket.

Properly encased chocolate bars and pre-sealed packets of boiled sweets have long been the norm, but there is still a certain appeal in having a quarter-pound weighed out from a jar, and fêtes and tourist resorts make a good deal of money selling fudge and other sticky substances unwrapped until the point of purchase. Ice-creams undoubtedly taste better when scooped into the cone from a giant tub than when plucked already encased in paper from a fridge and pressed into soggy wafers from a cardboard box. There is something unwholesome about vacuum-packed meat and cheese, though it is likely to last better than slices cut from the slab or joint, and is probably also . . .

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