Symbols are a large part of Japanese culture. Designs on kimono, including family crests, are often crucial to understanding the occasion where the garment would have been worn, by whom and at what time of the year.
Please note: the following information has been gathered from the book: Symbols of Japan by Merrily Baird.
The Japanese view butterflies as souls of the living and the dead. They are considered symbols of joy and longevity.
Primarily a symbol of perseverance, the carp (koi) is also evocative of faithfulness in marriage and general good fortune.
In Japan the carp is most commonly found in placid waters, however it is often depicted in motion, arched upward with sprays of water. This motif suggests the virtues of a determined warrior and is often associated with qualities desirable in young males. A design of carp ascending rapids symbolises the Children’s Day Festival on 5 May, which evolved from the Boy’s Day Festival.
Images of carp are often found on young boys’ kimono.
From the Heian Period (794 - 1185) on, the cherry blossom has been revered by Japanese. The flower’s brief blooming time and the fragility of its blossoms, has led to an association with the transience of life.
On mass, the blossoms resemble clouds and the fallen blossoms can be likened to snow – images that have captivated Japanese artistic sensibilities.
As with many symbols in Japanese culture, the chrysanthemum motif began with the Chinese. The flower was believed to have healing properties for drunkenness, nervous disability and general debilitating illnesses. The Chinese also associated the chrysanthemum with endurance and integrity.
Introduced to Japan in the pre-Nara period (before 710), focus remained on the plant’s medicinal properties. Even today extracts of chrysanthemum are used in Asian herbal medicine.
Japanese interest in the chrysanthemum as a subject for poetry and design occurred in the Heian period (794 – 1185), and the flower became a primary symbol of autumn.
Cranes in Japanese textiles generally represent longevity and good fortune. They are most closely associated with Japanese New Year and wedding ceremonies – for example the crane is often woven into a wedding kimono or obi.
Out of the many shapes, animals and works of art created by origami (Japanese paper folding), the crane is produced most often. It is customary within Japanese culture to fold one thousand paper cranes when making a special wish. Giant colourful necklaces of cranes are a common sight outside Japanese shrines and temples.
For those in the Western world, one thousand origami paper cranes have become closely associated with the bombing of Hiroshima by the Allies in 1945 and the wider issue of world peace.
In Japan the dragonfly is emblematic of martial success, as various names for the insect are homophones for words meaning ‘victory’. It is also a symbol of late summer and early autumn.
Twenty-seven species of frog are found in Japan. Due to an agricultural economy based on the flooded rice paddy, the presence of frogs is considered to bring good fortune. Additionally, the frog has become a creature much beloved in poetry and art. Ceramic frogs are often sold at shrines as the Japanese word for ‘frog’ is the same as ‘to return’.
The nandina bush reaches heights of two to three metres and bears clusters of berries which the Japanese associate with winter. Its leaves are popularly thought to have medicinal qualities. Because its name is homonymic for the words ‘difficulties’ and ‘changing’, the nandina is believed to have the power to make bad fortune disappear. The plant appears as a motif in family crests, art and textile design, but is best known for its use in New Year’s arrangements where it symbolises longevity.
The Chinese introduced Japan to the tree peony in the Nara period (710 – 794). To the Chinese, the flower represented good fortune, high honour, and the season of spring.
The flower gained prominence in Japanese scrolling patterns, especially those used in brocades. Like the Chinese, the Japanese considered the peony to be ‘king of the flowers’ and therefore use it as a popular motif in textile design – often regardless of season.
The bush peony – the type most often found in Western gardens – rarely features in Japanese art or textile design.
Pine trees occur naturally in Japan and are prized for their practical uses and attractive appearance. Influenced by Chinese symbology, the evergreen pine has come to represent longevity, good fortune and steadfastness. Both Japanese and Chinese art associate the pine with virtue, a motif of winter and New Year, and as a premier symbol of long life and even immortality.
Once again influenced by the Chinese, the spider came to be seen in Japan as a symbol of industry. Japanese folk stories say the appearance of a spider foretells the visit of a good friend. As in Western culture the spider is also perceived to have more sinister attributes. However, it continues to feature in Japanese design, usually with other plants, insects or flowers.