Nambu World: Senninbari (Thousand Stitch Belts)
(scene from "Letters from Iwo Jima")
When a Japanese soldier was called to active duty, the women in his family or community usually made two things for him to take along as good luck mementoes. One was an autographed flag (see section on flags). The other was a senninbari. This term literally means “thousand-person-stitches”, but is usually translated into English as “thousand stitch belt”. They were usually cloth strips of a size to be worn around the waist, or sometimes around the head as a headband (hachimaki). More rarely, they were not belts at all, but vests or caps. Those worn around the waist sometimes had straps for fastening them attached directly to the part with the stitches, while in other cases the strip with the stitches was enclosed in a cloth cover with straps on the ends sort of like a money belt. The ones shown in the movie Letters from Iwo Jima (see image above) were in the form of waistbands. Whatever form was chosen, a woman from the family or a community group like the Women's Patriotic Association (Aikoku Fujinkai) or the National Defense Women's Association (Kokubo Fujinkai) would stand in a busy location like the entrance to a train station and entreat passersby to add one stitch each. When one thousand stitches had been collected, the belt was believed by some to have special power to protect the bearer from the hazards of battle. Some Japanese veterans have reported they didn’t actually believe these belts had such power, but they wore or carried them to respect the devotion showed by their womenfolk who did the work of preparing them. The stitches are usually just arranged in multiple rows, but some were also done in patterns like the flag, a patriotic slogan or a tiger. Tigers were a popular motif because they were believed to have the power to roam far from home and return safely, which of course is what people were hoping for on behalf of the soldiers. As a result of this belief, women born in the Year of the Tiger (one of the twelve years in the Chinese zodiac cycle) were allowed to add either twelve stitches or one stitch for each year of their age (accounts differ), rather than just one. Judging from the belts I have seen personally, the stitches did not always number exactly 1,000. Also, to add to their efficacy in bringing good luck they often had coins attached or small pockets into which good luck charms purchased at shrines and temples could be inserted (more on these below).
I have three senninbari as of February, 2008, and each will be shown in detail below.
First, though, here are some images of the making of senninbari. All of these are images from period postcards in my personal collection.
This first image shows women in front of a busy train station gathering stitches. The back indicates it was issued in connection with the Navy Ministry's Sailor's Relief Fund. The title of the image is simply "senninbari". I am not sure whether it is based on a photograph, but it certainly has an ultra-realistic style if it is not. The original image is 86mm X 136mm plus a white border.
This next image is a similar scene, but done in a more artistic fashion. The caption in the upper border of this one is also "senninbari". At the bottom is the name of the artist, Naoshi Kushida. On the back it indicates it was printed by Toppan Printing (a large company that still exists today) and was issued by the Osaka Branch of the Soldier's Relief League (Gunjin engokai). The original image is 82mm X 130mm plus the border.
This postcard shows a close-up of a woman wearing a sash of the Dai-nippon kokubo fujinkai, the Greater Japan National Defense Women's Association. It was established in 1932 and quickly grew to 8 million members, before being merged with the Aikoku fujinkai (Women's Patriotic Association) in January-February 1942 (the resulting organization was called simply the Greater Japan Women's Association, Dai-nippon fujinkai). The writing gives the lyrics to the third verse of the Association's song, which sings of the members being the flowers of the home front, young and old with their needles. Note that the cloth she is holding in her left hand has pre-printed circles on it. It was common for senninbari to be based on cloth with pre-printed designs with circles indicating the necessary places for the stitches, sort of like paint-by-numbers kits. This one is 89mm X 139mm with no border. The back just indicates "military mail" (gunji yubin) and "postcard" (yubin hagaki).
Now let's look at my thousand stitch belts. Here is the first one I got. I bought it on eBay in March, 2004. It was much bigger than I had expected. I had thought it would be headband (hachimaki) size, but actually it is about 140cm by 33cm (55" long by 13" wide).
The name on it (right column of black characters, read top to bottom) says Kuwa-hara Takashi-kun, i.e Mr. Takashi Kuwahara. The slogan written next to the name (left column, read top to bottom) is the most common one: bu-un cho-kyu, or "eternal good luck in war". In the upper right is a stamp (see next photo).
The stamp indicates it was inspected in the field by (
In the middle of the stitches is a five sen coin firmly sewn on. The date would be on the other side, and can’t be seen, but it looks like the series of coins that was issued from 1938 to 1940. A sen is one one-hundredth of a yen. They no longer make coins in this denomination. I am no expert in needlework, but I believe this kind of stitch is called a “French stitch” in English.
A common question is the significance of the practice of attaching coins. The idea is based on a play on words. Shisen is one way of pronouncing "four sen"; it could also mean "deadly battle/war" if written with different kanji characters. Five sen is beyond shisen (four sen), so it signifies "beyond [i.e. surviving] deadly war". I have also seen ten sen coins attached (usually with a five sen coin as well). Kusen is one way of pronouncing "nine sen"; it could also mean "hardships of war" if written with different kanji characters. Ten sen is beyond kusen (nine sen), so it signifies "beyond [i.e. surviving] the hardships of war".
Something that surprised me is that this belt does not have 1,000 stitches, but 1,100. This cannot have been an accident, as there are 1,100 circles pre-marked on the cloth with one stitch in each. Well, actually I just counted the rows and multiplied by the number of columns, since it is very regular (55X20=1,100). As noted below, none of my three belts has exactly 1,000 stitches, so I think it is just sort of a figurative usage meaning "lots".
Here is the back of the belt. The stitches are not one uninterrupted thread, but many several very long threads appear to have been used, each accounting for many stitches.
Here is a close-up of the middle of the back. The star-shaped group of stitches in the middle are the ones holding the coin on.
The stains, which I am pretty sure are blood, give a clue to how the belt was folded. The stains are clearly all images of the main stain. Ordering them from darkest to lightest shows which parts would have been in closest contact with one another.
This is a much smaller belt that I got in 2007. It measures 12.5 cm by 59 cm (5" by 23-1/4"). The left photo shows the front and the right, the back. The characters form the slogan mamore gunkoku, "protect our country at war". Note that this one also has a coin attached to the front (middle of left photo). I counted the stitches and they appear to number 965. The deviation from 1,000 appears to have a couple of causes. In a few places it looks like a stitch came out. In others, someone placed a stitch between two circles, so there is only one stitch where there should have been two. The belt is made of two layers of cloth that have been folded over (the fold is on the left). Neither the belt nor the wallet it came in bears a name, but I suspect this may have belonged to a soldier named Mr. Takeichi Matsuura, because I got them with a number of other effects belonging to him, including his service record book (guntai techo). He was born in Taisho 3 (1914) and lived in Okayama Prefecture.
Here is a close-up of the coin. It is also a five-sen coin, but of slightly earlier issue, dating from 1933 to 1937. It is about 20mm (3/4") in diameter. In this photo you can also faintly see the circles that were the guidelines for the design.
This belt was so small it appears not to have been worn around the waist, but rather was probably carried in this small, field-made wallet that could easily fit into a pocket. The characters on the wallet it came in indicate the wallet was made from an imonbukuro (comfort bag), a sort of care package sent to the troops by women's groups, schools, etc. back home. These bags were often the only source of cloth for soldiers in the field, and they turned them into everything from underwear to yukata (sort of like a bathrobe). The wallet is 9cm by14.5cm (3.5" by 5").
The markings in green in the lower left indicate the wallet belonged to someone in the "Sakai unit, 1-3". Sakai is a family name; Japanese military units often bore their commander's name rather than a numerical designation. The 1-3 would be an indicator of the specific sub-unit, perhaps third squad of the first platoon.
The inside of the wallet was stiffened with pieces of cardboard still bearing colourful designs.
Late in 2007 I got my third belt. This one is rather large, 32 cm X 130 cm (12.5" by 51"). The left photo shows the front and the right one, the back. It has 1,095 stitches. Below the crossed flags are three columns of characters. The middle one has the main slogan: Dai-nippon teikoku bu-un cho-kyu o inoru, "we pray that the Empire of Greater Japan will always be lucky in war" (actually it is a little vague which part is the subject of the sentence, so it could also be "The Empire of Greater Japan prays that you will always be lucky in war"). The left column gives the name of the recipient, "Gun-i tai-i Hara Yasuo", "Military Doctor Captain Yasuo Hara". The right column is the date, Showa ju-ni nen, hachi-gatsu kichi-nichi, "an auspicious day in August, 1937". This one is much cleaner than my other two. Perhaps Captain Hara got posted to a military hospital and so wasn't dragging his belt around in the mud like the average infantryman.
Closely related to the senninbari is the senninriki. This is a cloth artifact similar to the thousand stitch belt, but with 1,000 written copies of the character "chikara" (power") instead of stitches. The "riki" in "senninriki" is another pronunciation of the character chikara. I have one, partially completed senninriki. It is 32 cm by 65 cm (12-3/4" by 25-1/2"). About 3cm (a little over an inch) has been folded over and sewn like a hem on each end. This must have been done after work on it ended as a couple of rows of characters got lost in the fold. The four characters on the left are that ubiquitous wartime slogan bu-un-cho-kyu (eternal good luck in war). The columns of characters on the right are chikara (riki).
Here is a close-up of the upper right corner. You can see the pre-printed circles, the character chikara repeated numerous times, and the stitches from that 3cm "hem" I mentioned above.
As I write this, there is very little detailed, published information about thousand stitch belts to guide collectors, just fragmentary references to the practice and a few pictures in books on the Japanese military. For example, there are a couple of pictures on pages 218-219 of the Nakata book Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Uniforms and Equipment (in Japanese, but with a brief English insert) and on pages 273 and 275 of the Mike Hewitt book Uniforms and Equipment of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. Fortunately that should change soon. In May, 2008 Schiffer Publishing is scheduled to release Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and Thousand Stitch Belts by Dr. Mike Bortner, ISBN 978-0-7643-2927-2. The projected cost is US$79.95. Schiffer has done a lot of great books for collectors. I have corresponded with Dr. Bortner, a US dentist, and he is a very knowledgeable collector with hundreds of these artifacts, so the book should represent a quantum leap in our knowledge of the field. You can find Schiffer’s list of What’s New at: Schiffer Military: What'sNew. If you click at the top to get their full list and scroll down about three quarters of the way, you can see what the book will look like and what they have to say about it. Eventually they will certainly have a proper listing, and I will add a link to it as soon as I hear of it. Dr. Bortner will also have his own site at http://www.gethistorytoday.com. As I write this February 4, 2008 there is nothing there yet, but there should be soon.
There are also a couple of books in Japanese by Ms. Namiko Mori, Senninbari, and a couple of variations on that title, but they are not really directed at collectors and have only a few, small, black-and-white photos. The one I have is more stories based on family reminiscences.
As noted above, senninbari often had pockets for good luck charms. I have a number of these charms. Though the ones I have did not come from senninbari, you may find the page I have created on them interesting if you want to understand the significance of these items. Nambu World: O-mamori (Good Luck Charms)
Here is an interesting senninbari-related item. It is an imonbukuro, or “comfort bag”, used to send small gifts to the troops. Hewitt (p. 261) indicates such items included “tins of crabmeat, razors, blank postcards, sake and cigarettes”, etc. The three characters across the top read from right to left and say i-mon-bukuro, or “comfort bag”. The scene on the bag shows a small boy adding a stitch to a senninbari. The two-column caption to the right of the tree says Mon-chan no sen-nin-bari, or “Little Mon’s thousand stitch belt”. The woman is wearing a traditional Japanese coverall/apron for housework or cooking called a kappogi. The character in the small circle in the lower left is toku (special), and the column of two characters to the lower right of the tree says Ryu-hei, a name (probably that of the artist). The bag is made out of a fairly stiff, shiny material, and measures about 22cm X 33cm (8.75” X 12.75”). I think this bag is a reproduction. Although it was sold to me as an original in my early days of collecting, I have since seen many bags of this design for sale on-line in Japan as props for school teachers doing history classes on the war.
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Last updated: February 4, 2008. All contents are copyright Teri unless otherwise specified and may not be used elsewhere in any form without prior permission.