The Japanese gift package according to Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes, Dessin, 14 août 1975 (Département des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Roland Barthes, Dessin, 14 août 1975 (Département des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

The Japanese package according to Roland Barthes, by Eric Marty

In the sumptuous evocation of Japan in The Empire of Signs, the package occupies a special place. It makes the transition from the world of the everyday (chopsticks, food, pachinko…) and the world of art (Bunraku, haïku, calligraphy…). It is true that in a world where signs are omnipresent, these two worlds are not totally unconnected. But it is probably not a coincidence if there are some series and if so, there are places in these series, and no doubt some kind of order involved. The Japanese package belongs both to the everyday (via its content) and to the aesthetic world though this unique art that so fascinated Barthes: the art of creation, of designing sophisticated packaging that most of the time eclipsed the contents within.

As in some art forms – for example dance – it’s all about the way it is performed and there is no, or very little, message: « […] this envelope, often repeated (you can be unwrapping a package forever) postpones the discovery of the object it contains – one which is often insignificant, for it is precisely a speciality of the Japanese package that the triviality of the thing be disproportionate to the luxury of the envelope. »

The Japanese package fascinates Barthes because it is perfect.  But what is perfection in the world of Barthes? Firstly, it’s a way of being there, that’s to say being present. The Japanese package affirms its presence via the precision, neatness and lack of shine of its form. In a way the envelope pierces the space in which it has been placed, as does the Japanese bouquet that Barthes admires, and beyond the coded symbolism that so many scholarly textbooks attribute to flowers, lies the meaning of interstices, the narrational combinatoire, the circulation of the air. Therefore perfection is secondary to autonomy: « the envelope, in itself, is consecrated as a precious, though gratuitous, thing. »

This perfection doesn’t just stem from the organisation involved in the wrapping technique (tying, sticking, folding, wrapping), it embodies a precious metaphysical aspect. If the package is lush, then its message could well be « Don’t open me! », so the gift can take the recipient to another time frame as its opening is put off as long as possible: « as if the package’s function were not to protect in space but to postpone in time. »

An august time, that time of waiting, moments of delicacy and secrecy, during which the curiosity of knowledge is suspended for the benefit of a different pleasure neglected in the West – contemplation. And the latter is more intense than actual possession.


 Éric Marty is a writer and professor of contemporary French literature at Paris VII – Diderot university ; he also is the editor/publisher of the complete works of Roland Barthes.