Paying homage to the elements of nature has always been an integral part of Japanese culture. Their belief in the literal as well as the figurative power of images as they relate to the seasons, divine protection, virtues or occasions are represented through the use of symbols and decorative motifs that are entwined within their daily lives. For a better understanding and appreciation of the symbolic aspects of Japanese culture, here are a few motifs and their meanings.
Acorn is an emblem of good luck. The proverb “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” reflects on the potential within people. In ancient Japan acorns high in calcium, phosphorus, protein, potassium and niacin were an important food that was harvested, processed and made into acorn cakes.
Sun the iconic Japanese symbol is derived from the mythological goddess of the sun. Amaterasu, according to myth, dropped little islands from the sky into the sea and founded Japan approximately 2,700 years ago. All the emperors of Japan are known as “Sons of the Sun “; essentially direct descendants of the goddess herself. As the sun rises first over Japan before other countries, this reflects its origin of importance in Japanese tradition. The design of the national flag is a red sun set against a white background.
Lotus a symbol of purity, the lotus is revered in Japan for its ability to rise from dirty muddy waters to bloom into a beautiful flower. Associated with Buddhist achievement of enlightenment, the lotus is a symbol of living your life to the fullest.
Fan signifies a high social status. With many of them beautifully hand painted they represent affordable luxury. The blades symbolize the many paths possible in life’s journey.
Chrysanthemum is used as an Imperial emblem for official Japanese seals. It is a symbol of endurance and rejuvenation derived from the plant’s medicinal properties and even today extracts of chrysanthemum are used in Asian herbal medicine. It honors the cover of the Japanese passport.
Crane represents longevity and good fortune. Cranes are produced most often in the art of origami, Japanese paper folding, where to fold one thousand paper cranes makes a special wish come true. Their symbol is associated with good wishes for the Japanese New Year and decorations for wedding ceremonies.
Plum Flower is a symbol of refinement and purity. It is a motif favored on winter kimono. It is the first tree to blossom, emitting its strong sweet fragrance, and suggests that spring cannot be far away.
Koi succeed in swimming up mighty streams and became a symbol of aspiration and perseverance in ancient Japan for the children who survived to five years of age. Today Japan holds celebrations every March 3rd for girls and May 5th for boys. Colorful flying koi kites decorate the festivities. Images of koi are often found on young boys’ kimono, as virtues of a determined warrior.