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.

Cherry Blossoms

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

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.


Swallows are yearly migrants arriving in Japan in early spring. As a symbol of that season they can be easily identified in textile representations by their v-shaped tail. The swallow is also a symbol of good luck, fidelity in marriage, and fertility.


Meanings derived from a turtle/tortoise motif are complex in Japanese culture. Hinduism, Taoism, Confucism, and Buddhism all contribute understanding. These traditions claim that the tortoise helps prop up the world, guards the northern quadrant of the universe with the snake, and carries on its carapace sacred inscriptions. The animal is believed to live to an exceptional age. According to Japanese folklore the tortoise then develops a flowing white tail and exhales special vapours that conjure up sacred jewels.

Primarily the tortoise is a symbol of longevity.


Flowering in early summer, purple wisteria flowers have been depicted in Japanese kimono for many hundreds of years. For example, they were often celebrated at parties sponsored by Japanese aristocrats in the late Heian period (794 – 1185). Later on Fuji-musume, the Wisteria Maiden, became the subject of art and doll-making. Wisteria is also used in many Japanese family crests (kamon).

Symbolic Meanings of Motifs

For many centuries, the ascription of symbolic meanings to various motifs has 

been an integral part of Japanese society and culture. Many Japanese motifs and their 

symbolic meanings were borrowed from Chinese culture; this, coupled with the invention 

of symbolic motifs unique to Japan, allowed Japan’s design repertoire to proliferate. In 

this research, a sample of sixty-five itajime-dyed garments and garment fragments was 

examined, the motifs identified, and the symbolic meanings of the motifs ascertained. 24

This section will explore the symbolic meanings of the most prevalent motifs 

within the categories of botanical motifs, animal/Insect/Bird motifs, water-related motifs, 

everyday object motifs, and abstract shapes and geometric designs. Additionally, the 

symbolic meanings of the grouped motifs Myriad Treasures and Four Friends in Winter 

will be discussed. Please see Appendix C for a brief overview of the symbolic meanings 

of other motifs present on itajime-dyed pieces in the sample used in this research. 

Information regarding symbolic meanings of motifs was gained from Baird, 2001.

Symbolic meanings of prevalent botanical motifs.

The botanical motifs category contained the most frequently seen motifs in the 

sample of sixty-five itajime-dyed pieces used in this research. The three motifs that 

appeared the most often were cherry blossoms (see Figure 1), chrysanthemums (see 

Figure 2), and hemp leaves (see Figure 3). 

The flowering cherry has been admired in Japan since the Heian period, when it 

was especially noted for its fragility and beauty, as well as for being native to Japan. 

Because of the flowering cherry tree’s brief blooming time, the flowers were likened to 

the Buddhist sentiments regarding the fragility and transience of life. Additionally, a 

metaphor was established comparing falling cherry blossoms to Japanese warriors slain 

early in life. In a purely artistic sense, cherry blossoms are thought to resemble both 

clouds and snow. Cherry blossoms have appeared frequently in textile designs and are 

often shown with running water, such as streams or waterfalls. This particular motif 

combination was especially popular during the Edo period. The cherry blossom also 

symbolizes ephemerality and thus has not been a popular motif for use on articles (such 

as family crests) where a symbol for endurance would be appropriate.25

Figure 1. Silk itajime-dyed naga-juban employing cherry blossoms of two sizes and an 

unidentified flower with jagged edges and tendrils as decorative motifs.

The chrysanthemum was revered not only for its beauty and elegance, but also for 

its medicinal properties. The flower was thought to remedy nervousness and 

drunkenness and in Taoist thought was equated with everlasting youth. Because the 

chrysanthemum symbolized reclusion and was associated with endurance and integrity, 

the flower was associated with Taoists, poets, and scholars who found solace in the 

mountainous regions of Japan. The chrysanthemum was often associated with drinking 

wine and writing poetry in isolated mountain areas. During the Heian period, the 

chrysanthemum became one of the most important symbols of autumn, the season in 

which it blooms. Along with the bamboo, orchid, and plum, the chrysanthemum was 

included in the grouped motif of the Four Gentlemen because of its beauty and elegance. 

The hemp leaf motif is frequently used in Japanese design to create a stylized 

pattern often seen on textiles and other applied arts. Hemp has long been used in Japan 

for religious offerings as well as the source of strong fiber.

Symbolic meanings of prevalent bird, insect, and animal motifs.

Bird, insect, and animal motifs occurred thirteen times in the sample of sixty-five 

itajime-dyed pieces used in this research. The three motifs in the bird, insect, and animal 

motifs category that appeared the most often were the butterfly, the chidori, and the 


Butterflies, introduced as a symbol from China to Japan, have been a popular 

motif since the Nara period. They are symbolic to the Japanese as signs of joy and 

longevity. The permanence ascribed to the butterfly is also evident in the belief that they 

represent the “souls of the living and the dead” (Baird, 2001, p.101). Butterflies are often 

employed as a design motif on marriage ceremony sake (a Japanese alcoholic beverage) 

servers where they symbolize the married couple’s concurrent rebirth after death. 

The chidori, or plover, is a shorebird that migrates during the spring and autumn 

seasons in Japan. Chidori, especially in flight, have been a popular motif in Japan for 

many centuries and are often shown with depictions of shores, waves, or rivers (see 

Figure 4). The warrior class in Japan was symbolized by this auspicious bird in several 

ways. First, by conquering strong winds and high waves during migration, the chidori

showed perseverance and an ability to overcome obstacles, much like a Japanese warrior. 

Second, when writing the word “chidori” using two ideographs, one translates to “one 

thousand” while the second is a homophone for “seize” and “capture.” The chidori is 

also associated with Yamato Takeru, a celebrated fighter who supposedly took flight as a 

giant white chidori upon his death.

Cranes are one of the most popular symbols of good fortune and longevity, not 

only in Japan, but also in all of East Asia. The Chinese have held that cranes are able to 

pass between heaven and earth for more than two thousand years. Taoist thought 

includes cranes as companions of the Taoist Immortals (sennin) and often pictures the 

birds with two other symbols of longevity, the tortoise and the pine. The Japanese

The Japanese 

associate the crane with marriage ceremonies and with the New Year, events that 

symbolically begin a new life. Additionally, cranes are associated with Fukurokuju and 

Jurojin, two of the Seven Gods of Good Luck.

The Japanese 

associate the crane with marriage ceremonies and with the New Year, events that 

symbolically begin a new life. Additionally, cranes are associated with Fukurokuju and 

Jurojin, two of the Seven Gods of Good Luck.

have thus been portrayed in Japanese textile design. The folding fan was often used as a 

symbol in a family crest, an emblem denoting a particular family. A design showing 

multiple folding fans is known as the scattered fan motif. The folding fan motif was first 

used during the Heian period but became most popular in the Edo period. During the 

Edo period, folding fans were symbols of the New Year, a time when gifts of boxed 

folding fans were exchanged. The flat fan is rigid and symmetrical and may take 

different shapes such as circular or trapezoidal. The flat fan is often associated with 32

religious or Chinese figures. It should be noted that the three instances of fan motifs used 

in this sample of itajime-dyed garments were all folding fans.

Symbolic meanings of prevalent geometric designs and abstract shapes.

Despite the frequent occurrence of geometric designs and abstract shapes in the 

The most frequently pictured of the motifs in this category was the cloud motif. 

Clouds may be used as a symbol of Buddhist or Taoist religious meaning, utilized as a 

background in order to put another motif into context, or shown as a sign of divine 

authority. However, clouds may simply act as background decoration or pictorial 

dividers. Upon inspection of companion motifs in the garments decorated with the cloud 

motif, no known symbolic link between motifs was established. Thus, the six 

occurrences of cloud motifs in this sample of sixty-five itajime-dyed pieces were for 

decorative, non-symbolic use. 

Symbolic meanings of grouped motifs.

In Japanese art and design, a number of motifs placed together in established 

groupings exist that have a particular meaning beyond that of the individual motifs. In the 

sample of sixty-five itajime-dyed juban and garment fragments used in this research, two

sets of grouped motifs having their own specific symbolic meanings appeared: the 

Myriad Treasures motif and the Three Friends in Winter motif.

The Myriad Treasure motif (see Figures 5 and 6) is associated with the Seven 

Gods of Good Luck, a grouping of gods that has been popular in Japan since the Edo 

period but whose foundations include beliefs and characters associated with Chinese 

Buddhism, Indian religion, and Japanese animism. The Myriad Treasures are usually 

carried by the Seven Gods of Good Luck and may include a number of different items 

such as coral branches, mandarin oranges, the purse of inexhaustible riches, the Key to 

the Storehouse of the Gods, the raincoat of invisibility, brocades, coins, fans, an anchor, 

and scrolls. All of these articles are thought to guarantee good fortune, long life, and 

prosperity. The Myriad Treasures motif present on a naga-juban in this sample of 

itajime-dyed pieces contained the hat of invisibility, scrolls, drums, the purse of 

inexhaustible riches, ropes and ribbons, coins, and the raincoat of invisibility. Both the 

hat of invisibility and the raincoat of invisibility are associated with Taoists, who 

believed that being invisible would aid them in navigating between heaven and earth. 

Fans represent a life of culture and scrolls are associated with one of the Seven Gods of 

Good Luck, as well as with Taoist philosophy. Drums are a common motif in Japanese 

art and may represent the cultured life or peace. Ropes and ribbons were assigned 

magical properties, such as the ability to create areas into which evil spirits and negativity 

could not enter. Ropes and ribbons also symbolized purification or general good fortune 

and were commonly associated with Taoist and Buddhist thought. In Buddhist thought, 

coins placed near the mouth of the deceased were thought to guide the individual into the 


The Three Friends in Winter motif, which groups together the pine, bamboo, and 

plum, originated as a grouped motif in China. The pine, bamboo, and plum all represent 

longevity, the cultured gentleman, and the winter season. The Three Friends in Winter 36

motif has long been a popular aspect of Japanese design and is even used today as an 

elegant title for such things as menu options or banquet rooms.