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.