These tiny Japanese envelopes measuring a mere 3 1/2 x 1 1/2″ are called pochibukuro and were created to conceal money traditionally given as tips for services rendered. In the Kyoto dialect the word pochi means ‘a little bit’ so the sums of money concealed in the envelope were not large; the gesture was a matter of etiquette and selecting just the right pochibukuro became an art form in itself. It was fashionable to carry a selection of these envelopes on your person in order to mark the occasion with the appropriate level of taste, wit or humor.
The tradition stems from the Edo period practice of giving gratuities to kabuki actors, geisha and courtseans, but inn owners or tradesmen who provided services were regularly given these small monetary gifts as well. Decorum dictated that these offerings were to be made discreetly with the sum carefully concealed, so as not to embarrass either party. Some pochibukuro which were intended for use in the pleasure districts bear explicit, erotic motifs. Others with simple graphic designs were intended as all-purpose envelopes. Custom designs could be commissioned relatively inexpensively, perhaps the envelopes bearing a specific person’s likeness were used to communicate to the recipient the source of the gratuity.
Today, this tradition survives on largely in the practice of giving small sums of money at celebratory events and to children at the New Year. The examples seen here probably date to the 1920s and 1930s.