The word obi (帯, sash) refers to sashes worn in traditional Japanese dress, including attire worn for Japanese martial arts, and an important part of kimono outfits. (Note: the word also refers to informational and/or decorative strips of paper folded around or over Japanese books or Japanese and non-Japanese LP records, music CDs, video games, or magazines).
Men's obi are narrow, up to approximately 10cm wide, while women's formal obi can be three times as wide and more than 4 metres long. There are many types of obi. The fanciest and most colourful are for young unmarried women. A fine formal obi might cost more than the rest of the entire outfit. Obi are categorised by their design, formality, material, and use. Informal women's obi are narrower and shorter than formal obi.
Originally, a cord or ribbon-like sash was worn by both men and women. When the sleeves of kosode began to grow in width (i.e. in length), the obi widened as well. By the Edo period the width of women's obi had already doubled. In the 1730s women's obis were about 25cm wide and at the turn of the 19th century as wide as 30cm. At that time separate ribbons and cords were already necessary to hold the obi in place. Men's obi were at their widest in the 1730s, at about 16cm wide wide.
Originally obi were tied in the front. Later fashion began to affect the position of the knot and they could be tied to the side or to the back. By the end of the 17th century obis were mostly tied in the back. However, the custom did not become established before the beginning of the 20th century.
At the end of the 18th century it was fashionable for a woman's kosode to have 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 kimonos 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 ohashori. Shigoki obis are still used, but only in decorative purposes.
The heavy and long maru obi is nowadays used only by maikos and by brides as a part of a traditional wedding outfit. The lighter fukuro obi has taken the place of maru obi. The originally everyday nagoya obi is the most common obi used today. The use of musubi, or decorative knots, has also narrowed so that most women tie their obi solely in the taiko musubi, or "drum knot". Tsuke obi with ready-made knots are also gaining in popularity.
Formal obi worn by men are much narrower than those of women, usually no more than 10cm. Men's obi are worn in much simpler fashion than women's.
Men's obi types
Heko obi (兵児帯, "soft obi") are very wide (70cm or more), soft obi, traditionally silk, and are tied very informally, often in a loose bow. Once worn only by men and children, they are now worn by women as well. They are mainly worn with yukata.
- Kaku obi (角帯, "stiff obi") are the most commonly worn men's obi. About 10cm wide and 400 cm long, depending on the fabric, colours and patterns, kaku obi are suited to all types of kimonos and all levels of formality. Kaku obi are made of silk, cotton, and various other fabrics, and are most commonly tied in the kai-no-kuchi knot.
Mens' obi accessories
- a Netsuke is an ornament suspended from a man's obi used to attach and carry small items like bags, tobacco pouches or medicine or brush cases.
Children's kimono outfits resemble those of adults and their parts are basically miniature versions from adult's pieces. The youngest children, however, wear soft, scarf-like obis tied in loose bows.
Women's obi are folded in two when worn, to a width of about 15-20cm. The full width of the obi is present only in the decorative knot. There are many ways to tie an obi, and different knots are suited to different occasions and different kimonos.
Certain types of obi are used with certain types of kimono; the obi of married and unmarried women are tied in different ways. Often the obi adjusts the formality and fanciness of the whole kimono outfit: the same kimono can be worn to very different situations depending on what kind of obi is worn with it.
Women's obi types
- Darari obi (だらり帯) are very long maru obi worn by maiko. A maiko's darari obi bears the kamon of its wearer's okiya, and can be 6 metres long.
- Fukuro obi (袋帯, "pouch obi") are less formal than maru obi and are the most formal obi used today. They are made by either folding the fabric in two or sewing two pieces of fabric together. If two lengths of fabric are used, the cloth used for the underside of the obi may be cheaper and the front cloth may be for example brocade. A fukuro obi is about 30cm} wide and 360 to 450cm long. Fukuro obis are made in roughly three subtypes. The most formal and expensive of these is patterned brocade on both sides. The second type is two-thirds patterned, the so-called "60 % fukuro obi", and it is somewhat cheaper and lighter than the first type. The third type has patterns only in the parts that will be prominent when the obi is worn in the common taiko musubi.
- a Fukuro Nagoya obi (袋名古屋帯) or hassun Nagoya obi (八寸名古屋帯, "eight inch Nagoya obi") is an obi that has been sewn in two only where the taiko knot would begin. The part wound around the body is folded when put on. The fukuro Nagoya obi is intended for making the more formal, two-layer variation of the taiko musubi, the so-called nijuudaiko musubi. It is about 350cm long.
- a Hakata obi (博多帯, obi of Hakata, Fukuoka) is an unlined woven obi with a thick weft and thin weave.
- Hoso obi (細帯, "thin sash") is a collective name for informal half-width women's obi. Hoso obi are 15cm or 20cm wide and about 330cm long.
- Kobukuro obi (小袋) are unlined hoso obi whose width is 15 or 20cm and length 300cm.
- Hanhaba obi (半幅帯 or 半巾帯, "half width obi") are unlined and informal obi that are worn with yukata or everyday kimono. For use with yukata, reversible hanhaba obi are popular: they can be folded and twisted in various ways to create colour effects. A hanhaba obi is 15cm wide and 300 to 400cm long. Tying it is relatively easy, and it does not require pads or himo. The knots used for hanhaba obi are often simplified versions of bunko-musubi.
- Hara-awase obi (典雅帯) or chūya obi is an informal obi that has sides of different colours. It is fequently seen in pictures from the Edo and Meiji periods, but today it is hardly used. A chūya obi ("day and night") has a dark, sparingly decorated side and another, more colourful and festive side. This way the obi can be worn both in everyday life and for celebration. The obi is about 30cm wide and 350cm long.
- Heko obi (兵児帯, ”soft obi”) are very informal obi made of soft, thin cloth, often dyed with shibori. They are traditionally worn as informal obi for men and for children of both sexes and were once considered inappropriate for women. Nowadays women can wear heko obi with modern, informal kimonos and yukatas.
- Hitoe obi (単帯) means "one-layer obi". They are made from silk cloth so stiff that the obi does not need lining or in-sewn stiffeners. One of these cloth types is called Hakata ori. A hitoe obi can be worn with everyday kimono or yukata. A hitoe obi is 15 to 20cm wide (the so-called hanhaba obi) or 30cm wide and about 400cm long.
- Kyōbukuro obi (京袋帯, "Kyoto fukuro obi") were invented in the 1970s in Nishijin, Kyoto.. Their formality is between nagoya obi and fukuro obi, and they can be used to smarten up an everyday outfit. A kyōbukuro obi is structured like a fukuro obi but is as short as a nagoya obi. It is thus reversible. A kyōbukuro obi is about 30cm wide and 350cm long.
- a Maru obi (丸帯, "round obi") is the most formal obi. It is made from cloth about 68cm wide and is folded around a double lining and sewn together. Maru obi were at their most popular during the Taishō and Meiji periods. Their bulk and weight makes maru obi difficult to handle and nowadays they are worn mostly by geisha, maiko and for performances of traditional theatre, as well as by brides. A maru obi is about 30 to 35cm wide and 360 to 450cm long, fully patterned and often embroidered with metal-coated yarn and foilwork.
- the Nagoya obi (名古屋帯), or when differentiating from the fukuro Nagoya obi also called kyūsun Nagoya obi (九寸名古屋帯|, "nine inch nagoya obi")) is the most used obi type today. A Nagoya obi can be identified by its unique structure: one end is folded and sewn in half, while the other end is full width. This is to make putting on the obi easier. A Nagoya obi can be partly or fully patterned. It is normally worn only in the taiko musubi style, and many Nagoya obi are designed so that they have patterns only on the parts that will be most prominent when worn. A Nagoya obi is shorter than other obi types, about 315 to 345cm long. Since the Nagoya obi was originally used as everyday wear it can never be part of a truly ceremonial outfit, but a Nagoya obi made from exquisite brocade can be accepted as semi-ceremonial wear.
- Odori obi ("dance obi") is a name for obi used in traditional dance. An odori obi is often big and has bold patterns done in metallic colours so that it can be seen easily. An odori obi can be 10 to 30cm wide and 350 to 450cm long.
- a Sakiori obi is a woven obi made by using yarn or narrow strips from old clothes. Sakiori obi are used with kimono worn at home. A sakiori obi is similar to a hanhaba obi in size and extremely informal.
- a Tenga obi (典雅帯, "fancy obi") resembles a hanhaba obi but is more formal. It is usually wider and made from fancier cloth more suitable for celebrations. The patterns usually include auspicious, celebratory motifs. A tenga obi is about 20cm wide and 350cm long.
- a Tsuke obi (付け帯), tsukuri obi (作り帯), or kantan obi is any pre-tied obi. It often has a separate, stiffened knot piece and a second piece that is wrapped around the waist. It is fastened in place with himo. Tsuke obi are normally very informal and they are mostly used with yukatas.
Accessories for women's obi
- an Obiage is a scarf-like piece of fabric that covers the obi makura and keeps the upper part of the obi knot in place. These days it is customary for an unmarried, young woman to let more of her obiage show from underneath the obi in the front. A married woman will tuck it deeper in and only allow a small amount to show.
- an Obidome is a small decorative accessory fastened onto obijime.
- an Obi-ita is a stiffener that keeps the obi from creasing. It is a thin piece of cardboard or other stiff material covered with cloth and placed between the layers of the obi when putting the obi on.
- an Obijime is a woven rope or tube of fabric about 150cm long that is tied around the obi and which doubles as decoration. They often have tassels at both endsand they are made from silk, satin, brocade and other materials.
- an Obimakura is a small pillow that supports and shapes the obi knot.
Obi in martial arts
Many Japanese martial arts feature an obi as part of their uniform (keikogi or gi). These are usually made of thick cotton and are about 5cm wide, the same for men, women and children. Unlike kimono obi, they are most often tied in the front.
In many (but not all) martial arts the colour of the obi signifies the wearer's skill level, most typically ranging from white for beginners to black for highly advanced practitioners.
The knot of the obi is called musubi (結び). There are hundreds of decorative knots for girls and women, and they often represent flowers or birds. As with everything else in a kimono outfit, the knots are regulated by a number of traditional rules. Generally the more complex and showy knots are for young unmarried women in festive situations, the more subdued for married or mature women or for use in ceremonial situations.
Types of knots
- Asagao musubi (朝顔|あさがお, "morning glory") is a knot suitable for women's yukata. As its name suggests, it resembles the Japanese morning glory. The knot requires a great length of obi so it can be usually only be made for little girls.
- Ayame musubi (菖蒲, "Iris") is a very decorative and complex knot that resembles an iris flower. It is suitable for young women in informal situations and parties. Because of the complexity and conspicuousness of the knot it should be worn with more subdued, preferably monochrome kimono and obi.
- Bara musubi (薔薇, "rose") is a contemporary, conspicuous knot. It is suitable for young women and can be worn to informal parties. Because of the complexity of the knot, a multi-coloured or strongly patterned obi should not be used.
- Chōchō musubi (蝶蝶, "butterfly") can refer to either to a women's musubi which is a version of the bunko musubi tied using the hanhaba obi or to a simple bow as would be made in tying shoelaces, which is used to tie men's, women's and children's heko obi.
- Darari musubi is a knot nowadays used only by maiko, dancers and kabuki actors. It is easily distinguishable by the long "tails" hanging in the back. In the past also courtesans and daughters of rich merchants, among others, would have their obi tied in this manner. A specific darari obi, about 600cm long, is needed for making this knot in full length. There also exists a half-length version of the darari musubi, the so-called handara musubi. According to tradition, a minarai (a maiko in training) wears her obi in this style. Maiko wear this knot for specific dances.
- Fukura-suzume musubi (ふくら雀, "puffed sparrow") is a decorative knot that resembles a sparrow with its wings spread and is worn only by unmarried women. It is suitable for formal occasions and is only worn with a furisode. Traditionally, the fukura-suzume musubi worn with a furisode indicated a woman was available for marriage.
- Ichimonji (一文字, "character for #1") is a type of musubi worn by men which resembles a bowtie. It is the recommended musubi to wear under hakama because it helps keep the koshi-ita in place.
- Kai-no-kuchi musubi (貝の口, "clam's mouth" or, in English, square knot) is the most common musubi worn by men, but it can also be worn by women.
- Kata-basami (片ばさみ) is a flat musubi worn by men. The steps for tying it are the same as for the kai-no-kuchi, but instead of making the final bow, the loose ends are tucked between the layers of the obi and allowed to protrude below it.
- Koma musubi (駒結び, "foal knot") is a square knot used in tying martial arts obi as well as haori-himo and obijime.
- Taiko musubi (太鼓, "taiko drum") is the musubi most used by women. The taiko musubi is suited for all ages on almost any occasion and goes with almost any kind of kimono and in some cases even with yukata. Only furisode are considered too formal and youthful to be worn with the taiko musubi. Nowadays the taiko musubi is usually associated with the taiko drum, but the origin of the name does not relate to the instrument. The knot was created at the time of the festive opening ceremony of the Taikobashi bridge in Tokyo in 1823. Some geisha attending to the event tied their obi in a new, conspicuous way that was thought to resemble the shape of a playing card, (ichimai karuta). The knot was a variation of a simple men's knot used at the time. The knot worn by trendsetting geishas was later adopted by other women. With the creation of the taiko musubi, the accessories obiage, obijime and obimakura were also established. These accessories belong to most kimono outfits used today.
- Nijūdaiko musubi (二重太鼓, "two layer drum") is, as its name suggests, a version of the common taiko musubi, worn with the formal fukuro obi. Fukuro obi are longer than the more commonly used Nagoya obi, so the obi must be folded in two during the tying of the knot. The knot has an auspicious double meaning of "double joy".
- Tateya musubi (立て矢, "standing arrow") resembles a large bow and is one of the most simple musubi worn with furisode.
- Fält et. al., p. 452.
- Dalby, pp. 47–55
- Dalby, pp. 208–212
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- Dalby, pp. 337–348
- Yamanaka, pp. 66–70
- Yamanaka, pp. 7-12, 29-30