A Senninbari (千人針 thousand-person-stitches?) or Thousand stitch belt is a strip of cloth, approximately one metre in length, decorated with 1000 stitches each made by a different woman, given as an amulet by women to soldiers on their way to war as a part of the Shinto culture of Imperial Japan.
Construction, and types
Senninbari were most commonly made from white cloth, but yellow, red, green, and blue were also used. Stitches were usually red, but again a range of other colours were sometimes used. The stitches were usually arranged in multiple rows but might also be placed in patterns creating images of flags, patriotic slogans and tigers. The most common slogan was bu-un cho-kyu for "eternal good luck in war". Tigers were popular as they were known to be able to roam far away from home and then return safely.
Senninbari took various forms including hachimaki (headbands), belts, vests, and caps. Rare forms of senninbari take the form of good luck flags. Senninbari made to be worn around the waist, as the majority were, were called senninbari-haramaki (a haramaki or abdomen belt is traditionally worn in Japan to help maintain good health). These belts generally measure about 6 inches high by 31-36 inches long+/-. Some of these belts were called "tiger belts", if embroidered in the image of a tiger.
The custom of producing senninbari originated during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. As stated earlier, the red colour of the stitches was considered a “lucky” colour, and the belts were believed to confer courage, good luck and immunity from injury (especially bullets) upon their wearers. Some Japanese soldiers rejected the belief that the senninbari could protect them from harm. Instead, they felt that this good luck item would simply allow them to be in the position to inflict the greatest damage upon the enemy before offering their life up in battle. Others in the military wore the senninbari as a devotional to the women back home.
A senninbari could be made by a man's mother, sister, or wife if married, who would stand near their local temple, train station, or department store and ask any female passerby to sew in a French knot stitch. During the most hectic days of the War in order to meet demand, women's patriotic organizations would gather to make senninbari en masse. These were then placed in imonbukuro or comfort bags and sent overseas to the soldiers. According to the custom, any woman born in the "year of the Tiger" could sew either 12 stitches or a number of stitches that added up to her age. Some belts were lined with the woman/women's hair as an added form of protection. The custom of placing hair in bags or pouches as a good luck charm, dates to early folk belief found on the island of Okinawa. Additionally, coins could be sewn into the belt as an amulet as well.
In popular culture
- Senninbari were featured in the 2006 movie Letters from Iwo Jima.
- Nowadays, Senninbari can be a nationalist symbol.
- "Senninbari (Thousand Stitch Belts)", "Nambu World"
- Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and One-Thousand Stitch Belts by Dr Michael A. Bortner, 2008, Schiffer Military Books, ISBN 978-0-7643-2927-2 
- Daugherty, Leo (1997). War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. Pantheon. ISBN 0-394-75172-8.
- Dower, John W (2002). Fighting Techniques of a Japanese Infantryman in World War II. Zenith Press. ISBN 0-7603-1145-5.