Fabric of Friendship

Practical and artistic, limited-edition tenugui celebrate bilateral ties

When the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo wanted to create a memento to celebrate trade and cultural connections with Japan, it turned to Todaya Shoten, the oldest traditional wholesale maker of tenugui, the long, rectangular hand towels that have many practical purposes — and can be displayed as artwork as well. 

Founded in 1872, the wholesaler has been crafting its hand-dyed tenugui for nearly 150 years. Usually decorated with traditional designs and kanji writing on a lightweight, breathable cotton fabric, the towels have served a host of functions for generations.

Kabuki actors and rakugo storytellers have used them as calling cards of sorts. Similarly, shops have long had them printed with their names and have given them as New Year’s gifts to long-time clients and business partners, as an expression of thanks, as well as for anniversaries and special occasions.

Kendo athletes wrap them around their heads under their helmets, and hikers often wear them around their necks to absorb sweat. They are taken to hot spring baths to be used as washcloths or for drying off, and can be used to wipe down tables or even floors.

In olden times, tenugui — which literally means “hand-wipe” — found other uses. They could be easily torn into strips for bandages in a pinch, given that they are hemmed length­wise but not along the narrow ends, or braided into thongs for zori sandals.


Takuto Iwaki
Manager of Todaya Shoten

Many are plain, but some are quite beautiful, depicting anything from fireworks on a summer night to fish in a pond, and can be framed and displayed as art.

“They’re useful for travelling, too,” said Takuto Iwaki, a manager at Todaya Shoten who spent time in Canada as a young man. “Tenugui are thin, so they dry faster than regular towels. If you wash it at night in your hotel, it will be dry by morning.” 

Lisa Mallin
First Secretary (Trade Policy – CPTPP) at Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo

Drawn to the traditional, commercial, practical and artistic aspects of the humble tenugui, the emba­ssy saw a perfect item to celebrate trade rela­tion­ships between the two nations, which have remained strong even through the Covid-19 pandemic, said First Secretary Lisa Mallin, who oversaw the project.

“We wanted to honour Japanese traditional artisanship through this collaborative project.” 

Fashion designer Junji Tsuchiya was asked by Todaya Shoten to create a design, with input from the embassy about motifs and other ideas. 


Junji Tsuchiya
Fashion designer

The finished product, measuring 98 by 37 cm, depicts sakura — cherry blossoms — and maple leaves fluttering in the wind, with some super­im­po­sed on the sakura, a design used by the embassy to promote Canada–Japan trade relations. 

The design also incorporates the kanji “kizuna,” which means “bond” or “relationship.”

And with faint letters in blue, representing the Pacific Ocean, the design includes the initials CPTPP, for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and PTPGP, the French acronym for the pact which, at the end of this year, will have been in force for three years.

The trade agreement has eliminated or redu­ced tariffs on a wide range of products and has created new opportunities for both Japanese and Canadian companies, including small and medium-sized businesses, Mallin explained. All told, the pact includes 11 countries across the Pacific: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, and it is built to expand.

And despite the impact of the pandemic on international trade, Canada’s merchandise exports to Japan last year remained largely steady at C$12.4 billion, having dipped only 1.9 per cent from a year earlier, according to Mallin. She noted that thanks to the CPTPP, Japanese consumers can enjoy a wider choice of high-quality Canadian products such as beef, pork, cherries and honey, and Canadians have benefitted from greater access to Japanese goods and services.


Besides celebrating the bilateral trade rela­tion­ship, this particular tenugui has a personal story behind it — and might not have become a reality without the friendships involved. 

In his mid-twenties, Iwaki spent a memorable six-month working holiday in Montréal, emplo­yed at a Japanese restaurant. It was the first time he had lived overseas, and Iwaki fell in love with the ambiance and climate of the city. He has felt a bond with Canada ever since. 

“It was summer when I got there, and it wasn’t too hot. It had a European feel,” Iwaki recalled. “It was very different than Japan. If you went outside the suburbs, you would find yourself surrounded by nature. It really made an impression on me.” 

The design also incorporates the kanji “kizuna,” which means “bond” or “relationship.” 

Upon returning to Japan, Iwaki started work­ing for Todaya Shoten and made friends with Canadians who visited Japan — and who were later posted as diplomats to the embassy in Tokyo. Knowing about his business, they suggested the embassy consider creating a tenugui with a Japan–Canada theme, but it took several years for the idea to bear fruit. 

Last year, amid the coronavirus outbreak, workers at Todaya Shoten saw news reports about a shortage of smaller masks for children, and so made hundreds of them out of tenugui fabric and gave them to elementary schools in Tokyo. The move was covered by national broadcaster NHK, leading to demand for adult-sized masks.  

Mallin took note, and this led to a conversation with Iwaki earlier this year about making a limited-edition set of about 100 tenugui for the embassy. They were produced in the spring. So far, they have been used as gifts to thank Kariya City in Aichi Prefecture for hosting the pre-Olympic training camp for the Canadian women’s basketball team and given to members of the Canada-Japan Diet Friendship League.


Todaya Shoten does not print designs on the tenugui, instead using a traditional hand-dyeing method called chusen, Iwaki said. The process involves placing a stencil on the fabric and applying a paste over it by hand and covering it with dye. The uncoated sections of the fabric absorb the dye. 

To create specific objects of a different colour in the pattern, after the initial pattern is applied, spots of the fabric are sealed off by squeezing paste onto them from a handheld bag, similar to a piping bag used for decorating cakes. A different stencil is then used along with dye that is then dropped onto those spots. 

Further, Iwaki said, the application of dye by hand allows colours to blend, which isn’t possible when using printing methods employed in mass production. The fabric is high-quality, tightly woven cotton, making for crisp lines of colour. 

“I hope that this tenugui can be a catalyst for a closer relationship between the countries.”

The time-consuming process makes it diffi­cult to mass produce the tenugui, so the company requi­res a minimum order of 100, but it can handle orders for 1,000 to 2,000. 

Todaya Shoten also makes yukata, a tra­di­tio­nal lightweight robe that, while similar to a kimono, is worn in the summer. Both the yukata and tenugui are produced under the company’s Rienzome brand name. 

These particular towels have an envi­ron­men­tally friendly appeal. They are made of cotton, not man-made materials, and wrapped in tra­di­tional washi paper, rather than placed in a plastic bag. “Plastic would become trash, but we wanted it to be natural,” Iwaki said. “This tenugui can return to the earth.”

Iwaki believes the towel will appeal to Japanese recipients because it shows an appreciation for their culture and tradition.

“That Canada is aware of this tradition, and that the embassy made a special effort to create this tenugui will make Japanese happy,” he said. “I hope that this tenugui can be a catalyst for a closer relationship between the countries.”  

Related Content