2020 NO.29


The Ties Binding the Heart of Japan


Embracing Style

Obi-musubi (Sash knots)

Hishikawa Moronobu is said to be a forebear of the ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) genre. His depiction of a woman in the Edo period pausing in motion and looking back gives us a glimpse of the fashion trends of the time. The edges of the tied obi droop to the left and right in a way known as kichiya-musubi, which was introduced by Uemura Kichiya, a popular onnagata (male kabuki actor who plays female roles). The young women of Edo were enamored with this obi-musubi style.
Hishikawa Moronobu: “Mikaeri Bijin-zu (Beauty Looking Back)” 17th century
Source:ColBase (

With the arrival of the 18th century, Edo (present-day Tokyo) grew to a population of one million and became one of the top consumer cities in the world. As warfare ceased and society became peaceful, prospering tradesmen and artisans began to foster culture amidst remarkable progress in the economy.
Obi-musubi came into fashion around this time as well. Before then, obi was nothing more than a belt that tied the kimono. It gradually evolved to a broader, longer item—an accessory that people used not just for function, but also to look stylish. Obi became more elaborate with variations in weave, color, and pattern, which triggered trends in new ways to tie them.

There was also a social class system at the time, classified by occupation—samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants—and there was a certain way to knot their obi according to their occupation. Thus, it was possible to discern social position, occupation, marital status, and so forth by how someone tied their obi. Within those rules, people were creative and expressed their own sense of style with a diversity of obi-musubi.
It is said that there are now over a hundred ways to tie obi, but most are variants of knot styles born in the Edo period (1603–1868). This culture has been passed down through the generations.

She swiftly studies the obi material and body figure before quickly tying the single obi into the ideal form.

Sasajima Sumi researches obi culture and studied the art of wearing kimono in the context of classical performing arts. For half a century, she has examined the history and significance of obi-musubi in Japanese culture as she has taught and demonstrated, both in Japan and abroad, how to wear a kimono. To her, tying an obi is “akin to embracing the individual’s spirit and straightening oneself,” she says.


For tateya-no-ji-musubi, it is said that the obi was angled up toward the right shoulder when inside the castle, and toward the left shoulder when walking outside the castle.


Fukura-suzume evolved from tateya-no-ji-musubi. This obi-musubi is still commonly used when young women wear kimono.


The bunko-musubi can be tied tightly and does not unravel easily. The modest yet dignified look was meant to signify the vitality of a samurai family woman.


This femininely-puffy and gentle-looking tsunodashi-musubi is a knot style of the townsfolk.


The tsunodashi-musubi was simplified and transitioned into having a cord used to secure the obi-musubi, thereby transforming it into the otaiko-musubi. This spread widely throughout the population.


Kata-basami is a knot used by samurai that can be tied easily yet is very secure. When a sword is inserted into the obi at the waist, the abdomen is tightened and improves the posture.

Every January, Coming of Age ceremonies are held throughout Japan to celebrate youth who turn 20, the legal age of adulthood. Many women wear furisode kimono (long-sleeved formal kimono) to attend this ceremony. The photo show modern-day arrangements of tateya-no-ji-musubi and bunko-musubi.