Obi (帯)

Obi is a kind of belt-like accessory that functions to fix clothes by wrapping around the body. Obi also refers to a material which is silimar to the real obi in shape.

History of an obi

Obi originated probably before clothing itself, and its form at the beginning was a cord bound around a naked body at the waist to insert tools for hunting. This can be seen in what is called primitive societies, which still remains at the present.

Obi is theoretically not necessary for a coat which opens in front, and it is enough to provide a cord on each side to tie so as to hold the clothes secure and prevent them from opening, like in the case of gown. Similarly, as for pants, not a belt but only suspenders are needed.

For wearing tools (especially weapons), for example, a kind of Japanese sword Uchigatana was carried by the sheath inserted under obi at the side of the waist. As it is understood from the Japanese word 'obiru' which means 'wearing', the intention of obi was to place the tool at the most accessible point from the body. It is the same in words of Chinese origin such that the word '携帯する' (carrying) contains the letter 帯 (obi).

In history of clothing, as the 'decorating' function of obi has been developed more than its 'carrying' function and 'fixing' function, wide variety of obi has appeared. As obi appears a line separating the upper part and the lower part of the body, it makes an important accent for total coordinates. Especially, since obi for traditional Japanese clothes are broad enough to include various designs, obi became ornamental apart from its original functions as obi.


Generally, obi is secured by tying a knot, but in Europe, a form with metal fittings called taiko for securing can be seen from around the end of the Neolithic era. This is what is called a belt for clothing. This is not only peculiar to Europe, but for example, as it is known that the soldier figures in the mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor wore different shaped taiko, this existed in Asia, as well. This also can be seen in relics of the period of Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government based on the ritsuryo code) found in Japan.

Obi for kimono

Until the beginning of the Edo period, obi for kimono was narrow in width of about ten centimeters. Sometimes, a string was also used. However, while the peaceful era lasted for a long time, the obi for females became longer and wider as the time went by along with the trend to compete in splendor.

Upon wearing contemporary kimono, the waist part is secured at first with a string or a Korin belt (elastic with plastic clips on both ends) and the obi is bound over that; so the object for wearing obi is mainly decorative.

Magical factors of obi

Obi, which tighten the body, is thought to have magical power that affects the wearer's life, and not only special ones were prepared for pregnant women, but also, according to various folklore, many kinds of accessories such as chikara obi (power obi) can be widely seen. Thor in Norse Mythology can also be counted as examples. Originally, as seen in competitions concerning physical power such as weight lifting, many athletes wear belts with the exclusive use of functions such as to protect the lumbar vertebra; therefore, properly used obi helps to demonstrate physical abilities. As these functions have been empirically recognized from the old days, the most powerful examples have been handed down by oral traditions as mysterious power.

In Japan, there was a rite of passage called Obizome. This is a ceremony in which a child ties an obi for the first time with the strings to secure the kimono removed. It is thought that the ceremony was originated from the nobilities during the Muromachi period. In some regions, the ceremony is conducted by a person called obioya, instead of the child's parents. This is categorized as a kind of proxy parent like a godparent.

Obi for publications

Obi for publication is a strip of paper with catch phrases printed on it. It covers part of a book cover or jacket, usually at the bottom part. It looks like the belt (obi) tied around a book. Sometimes it is also called obigami, hakama, or koshimaki.

Obi appeals the content of the book within a limited small space by so polished or shocking words. There are obi with exquisite colors and shapes to draw attention, and there are obi wide enough to cover more than half of the book from the bottom. In some cases, obi can provide a chance for a designer to show his skills, since the colors that can be used (or the number of plates for printing) is limited by a budget, and balance must be kept with the type of paper used with the cover of the book.

Usually, one kind of obi is used for one book, but when a publisher launches a sales campaign (or sales fair) for a group of books, obi with a unified design are prepared for the group and the replacement of obi is done by the bookstores.

Obi are usually designed to be incorporated in the cover or jacket; as a result, some covers or jackets often seem dull without the obi.

In most cases, obi are removed and thrown away; but obi collectors value obi so high that there are some shoplifters only steel obi in the second-hand bookstores. The first edition of popular books or books which had gained value later with obi tend to be traded at high prices in auctions on the internet, etc. Since popular books are reprinted with obi renewed, the obi of the first edition are especially highly valued. Obi are sometimes put on the market among the second-hand bookstores.

It is commonly accepted in the publishing industry that the forms of obi and phrases printed on the obi are decided by the publishers, not by the author nor the editor of the book.

Obi content sometimes greatly raises sales of the book.

Similar to the case of books, strips of paper called obi are attached to the compact discs which contain music or game software. Obi for CDs are made of little stiff papers with two parallel lines to fit the thickness of the CD cases, covering the back side of the cases, instead of wrapped at the bottom parts; in the English-speaking world, obi for CDs are called 'Spine' which means 'back bone' or 'back part of the cover of a book'. Like obi for books, it is not unusual for them to be lost on the second-hand market.

Obi in the process of bookbinding

In the bookbinding of a deluxe edition, there is a process called 'rounded up' after the trimming process. It is a process for giving gentle curve at the edge of the paper put together in the book of a deluxe edition, but if it is left without further steps after giving the curve, the curve will disappear with the elasticity of the back part of the book cover. Because of this, a cloth used to temporarily keep the curve is also called 'obi'.

Obi as wrapping

A simple wrapping using brown paper or kraft paper to put together the printed materials after printing is called obi or obikake.

Obi for vinyl records and other applications

Flexi discs (flexible vinyl sheets designed to be played on a record player that were sometimes given away with magazines) and the like sold in book stores and vinyl records sold in record shops were wrapped in a strip of paper called an 'obi' or 'tasuki' (sleeve) that had information such as the name of the record, its price, and advertisements printed on it. They usually have the title printed in large letters, and catch phrases, standardizing numbers, and prices printed in smaller letters on the front, and on the backside, discographies of same kinds of music and advertisements of record players are also printed.
The same kind of strips of paper attached to compact discs are a little different in shape, but generally called 'obi' or 'cap.'
If these papers are lost, the official titles, standardizing numbers, and prices may not be identified. Like those of books, collectors are particular about obi. Because of that, most of the time, the price of buying and selling changes according to with or without obi in second-hand stores. However, that is not the case in new second-hand stores, which combine various types of stores.

Other obi

From the physical shape of obi, the word 'obi' is also adopted to things and concepts according to width, such as 'taiiki' (frequency range) and 'obi graph' (band graph) (both have the kanji, or Chinese character 'obi' on them). Obi (term used in broadcasting) is also one of those kinds of example.