Etegami: The Japanese Art of Picture Letters

Etegami is a traditional Japanese folk art that beautifully blends calligraphy, painting, and personal communication. It’s a uniquely expressive form of communication that encapsulates the essence of the moment, the sender’s feelings, and their personal aesthetic.

Etymology and Philosophy

The term “etegami” is derived from two Japanese words: “e” which translates to picture and “tegami,” which means letter. Literally translated as “picture letter,” etegami is a heartfelt, hand-drawn and hand-painted postcard that is meant to be mailed to someone. It’s an art form that beautifully captures the essence of a moment and delivers it with a personal touch.

Etegami is based on the philosophical concept of wabi-sabi, the Japanese worldview that finds beauty in imperfection and the natural cycle of growth and decay. This philosophy is apparent in etegami through its simplicity, asymmetry, and the acceptance of the imperfect. There’s no need for an etegami to be a ‘perfect’ piece of art; it’s about communicating feelings and sharing moments of life.

The Art of Etegami

At first glance, etegami may seem like simple watercolor paintings accompanied by words, but the process of creating one requires mindfulness and focus. The traditional materials for etegami include absorbent washi paper, ink for the outline (sumi), and watercolor paints or gansai (a type of Japanese mineral pigment).

The most common subjects of etegami are everyday objects or scenes from nature, such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, or landscapes. These are generally painted in a simple, unrefined, and honest way. After painting, the artist adds a few words or a phrase, often a heartfelt message, a poem, or a saying related to the depicted object. The inscription is done in a calligraphic style, which adds to the artwork’s beauty.

Creating Etegami

The process of creating etegami is as important as the final product. It is meant to be a meditative act that allows the artist to connect with the moment and subject. Perfection is not the goal; instead, the focus is on capturing the essence of the object, scene, or emotion. Brush strokes are not corrected or painted over, but rather they are left as they are, embracing the idea of beauty in imperfection.

Each etegami is unique, meant to be given away, and not replicated. This embodies the Buddhist concept of ichi-go ichi-e, “one time, one meeting,” highlighting the importance of cherishing every encounter because it cannot be reproduced.

Etegami in the Modern World

While the art form has its roots in the Japanese tradition, etegami has grown beyond its cultural confines and is now practiced worldwide. It has gained global attention for its therapeutic benefits as a mindful activity that reduces stress and cultivates patience. It’s also appreciated for its potential to strengthen relationships through heartfelt communication.

The digital era hasn’t made etegami obsolete. Instead, it has provided a new platform for this traditional art. Etegami artists share their work on social media, and virtual etegami workshops are becoming popular.


Etegami is a humble yet profound art form that transcends the boundary of language and culture. In its simplicity and authenticity, it carries a powerful message about the appreciation of life’s fleeting moments and the beauty of communication. It serves as a reminder that sometimes the most straightforward expressions can create the deepest connections. As we continue to navigate our increasingly digital world, the personal touch and mindfulness of etegami offer a comforting counterbalance. The practice of etegami teaches us that beauty lies in imperfection, and there’s immense value in taking the time to share our world with others.

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