Saho Nogi, Editor of Needleprint Nihon, has written the following blog for us:
When I was a child, my mother showed me a Sennin-bari and told me the story of the women who made the knots. I have always remembered it - and what it stands for.
Sennin-bari is needlework which once existed in Japanese war history. Based upon the Shinto beliefs of Imperial Japan, it originates back to the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895); becoming most popular during the Second World War. Sennin-bari is a piece of cloth, commonly measuring about 15.24cm (6 in) wide, and 79-91 cm (31-36 in) long, covered with french knots stitched by a thousand women. They were usually worn as belts or sashes and considered to confer courage, good luck and immunity from injury (bullets).
Only women were allowed to make them, and one woman could sew only one knot, except for women born in the year of the Tiger of the Chinese zodiac, who could sew 12 knots or a number up to her age. Tigers were considered good luck, since there is an ancient saying that tigers can roam away a thousand miles and return safely home. It was common for the mother, sister, female relative or sweethearts of the soldier to stand in the streets or in the markets to ask the passers-by to sew a knot, which they did willingly. Even little girls in elementary school participated. Sometimes it was mass-produced by women's patriotic organizations to send overseas. The Sennin-bari could be of any material, commonly cotton, sometimes silk. The knots were sewn with cotton threads, silk threads or even 'No. 25' embroidery threads. Red knots on white cloth were most popular, since this combination represents 'good luck'. Yellow and blue were the next most popular. The knots could be placed at random, or in rows, or layed out in a pattern of letters or figures. Again, the tiger pattern was the most popular. In addition to the thousand knots, women's hair, or coins were sewn for added protection. Some Sennin-bari were made into vests or caps.
The message of the Sennin-bari, made by the women at home wishing safety for their loved ones, was actually a paradox, It contradicted the common belief imposed by the Imperial Japanese Government, which considered it the utmost honor and duty to 'die for the country' and a shame to come home alive. Since the Sennin-bari which now exist were mostly brought back by the soldiers who survived, the Sennin-bari sometimes hold bitter and tragic memories, both for those who made or wore them.
In writing this article I referred to the book "Sennin-bari" by Ms. Namiko Mori, a woman who has made it her life work to research the Sennin-bari all over the country and overseas (mostly in Southeast Asia). It said that in many cases, people were willing to give her the Sennin-bari but were reluctant to talk to her about it. The accounts which are included in the book are poignant and heart-wrenching, if not tragic. In all cases they cry out the message that such tragedies of war should never be repeated.
The Sennin-bari in the photo above is provided by the courtesy of Kosuzume-san. Please refer to her article. It belonged to her uncle who went to war, and was recently handed down to her along with his 'will' to the family. The knots form the characters for a common slogan, 'bu-un cho-kyu' meaning 'eternal good luck in the war'.
The picture of the leaflet left is of the exhibit in Fukuoka, held last year. The letters on the Sennin-bari also say 'bu-un cho-kyu'.
The English Wikipedia gives a good detailed account of the Sennin-bari.
By Saho Nogi