Nihon Shishu (日本刺繍)

"Nihon shishu" is Japanese handmade embroidery made using silk thread.

Nihon shishu is seen mainly in Japanese traditional clothes and sashes, kesho-mawashi (the ornamental apron) seen in sumo (Japanese-style wrestling), and Japanese dolls. In ancient times, it was used on armor, helmets and the like.

The name of nihon shishu varies from place to place, so the embroidery produced in Kyoto is called Kyoshu (Kyoto Embroidery), in Edo (the present Tokyo) it is called Edo shishu (Edo Embroidery), and in Kaga (the present Kanazawa City) it is called Kaga shishu (Kaga Embroidery). The 'Law for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries' states that the traditional crafts designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are granted governmental protection and aid, however, of all nihon shishu, only Kyoshu is designated as such.

At present, Japanese traditional clothes and sashes sold on the market are mostly embroidered mechanically, so nihon shishu, being embroidered by hand, is quite precious and rare.

Nihon shishu originated from 'shubutsu' (embroidered Buddha), which came from India via the Silk Road in China around A.D. 500. Shubutsu is the technique of portraying the image of Buddha with embroidery.

The production of shubutsu spread in Japan under the reign of Empress Suiko, in which temples and statues of Buddha were actively constructed. The oldest shubutsu still in existence today is 'Tenjukoku Mandara Shucho' (the embroidery made in prayer for Prince Shotoku to go to Heaven after his death), which is kept in Chugu-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture.

The first appearance of shubutsu in historical documents is in the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan), where it's recorded that in A.D. 605 'a bronze Buddha statue and an embroidered image of Buddha - both about 4.8 meters in size, due to be placed in Asuka-dera Temple - were made.'

In the Heian period, nihon shishu was treasured by court nobles and millionaires as a luxury item or as a costume for gagaku (ancient Japanese court dance and music), in the Azuchi-Momoyama period, it was used as costumes for Noh performers, and in the Edo period, it gained popularity among the merchant class.


The silk threads used in nihon shishu are called kamaito (filoselle). This kamaito is a bundle of silk threads (from four to twelve), that are not twisted yet. Generally, several kamaito are put together and twisted for embroidery, but occasionally, kamaito is used as it is. The twist can affect the natural luster of the silk thread, so an embroiderer adjusts the light reflection by varying the strength of the twist, thereby creating the delicate designs. Also, a combination of several colored threads can create subtle shades within the embroidery.

Characteristically the needle used in nihon shishu has a flat eye and a sharp point. Since modern times, needles for both machine and hand have existed. The names of the needles are, from thickest to thinnest, obuto (ultra thick), chubuto (thick), aichu (middle), aiboso (thin), tenboso (very thin), and kiritsuke (ultra thin).

Embroidery stand
A special wooden stand is used for stretching the cloth. The cloth is stretched out evenly on its left and right sides, and then threads are attached to its top and bottom to fix it in place. Recently, a wooden square frame fixed to a table (for French embroidery and others), has sometimes been used for small motifs.

Embroidery techniques
Koma-dori (Couching stitch)
Sagara-nui (French knot stitch)
Nuikiri (Outline satin stitch)
Wari-nui (A letter-V-shaped stitch)

Representatives of Japanese embroidery
Yasutsugu MORI
Shizuka KUSANO

[Original Japanese]