We touched briefly on some common motifs that appear frequently on kimono here, but thought we should delve deeper into this super interesting topic! Because the kimono is steeped in so much history (see here) it makes sense that the use of decorations would have deeper meaning too. Here are 18 common motifs and an overview of their meanings
Japanese Kimono Motif #1 Flower Cart
Kimono are often made specifically for a certain season, the flower cart is an extremely versatile motif as it depicts flowers from every season meaning that it can be worn year round. The cart is often an ox drawn cart which was used by nobles in the Heian period and on the cart are vessels full of extravagant blooms. Oh the joys of being an aristocrat, who wouldn’t want to be driven around in a cart overflowing with extravagant floral arrangements.
Example of the flower cart motif on 2 different Japanese kimonos
Japanese Kimono Motif #2 Paulownia
Known as Kiri in Japan and the Princess Tree worldwide, is a symbol often seen on kimono. It is closely associated with female identity. An old Japanese custom dictated that when a baby girl was born, the family would plant a Paulownia tree. When this girl grew up and eventually got married, the tree would be cut down and a wedding chest would be made from the wood. As Paulownia is a very high quality, yet fast growing wood it was perfect for storing delicate silks. Although this custom has mostly disappeared (who has a marriage chest these days?) the Paulownia tree still holds a place in Japanese culture. It is the emblem of the Japanese government and also the seal of the office of the Prime Minister. The fact that when the Phoenix came down from the realm of the gods to roost, it would do so in the Kiri trees branches has given this tree and symbol almost mythical status.
Paulownia tree blooming and Paulownia tree motif on a Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #3 Peony
Brought from China (as many things in Japan seem to be) the Peony, or ‘Botan’ in Japanese, symbolises wealth, fortune and honor. It’s known as the ‘King of Flowers’ due to its extreme beauty, wonderful scent and resilience. If planted in the right area it can thrive for an extremely long time, 50-100 years, with very little care. I’m guessing that this is what gives it its reputation for good fortune. If you’re fortunate enough to have it in the right spot in your garden you can enjoy its beauty although fleetingly, it only blooms for 1-2 weeks a year, without having to do anything at all!
Peony motif on Japanese Kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #4 Maple Tree
Known in Japanese as both ‘Keade’, meaning ‘frog’s hands’ and ‘momiji’ meaning ‘baby’s hands’ or ‘become crimson leaves’, the maple has been celebrated in Japanese culture for many, many years. It is seen as the epitome of elegance, grace and beauty and is often the subject of classic Japanese art and poetry. Maple leaves or trees on a kimono are used to signal the start of Autumn and as such would be worn at the end of Summer. Funnily enough, according to a traditional reading of this symbol, when sent by a woman to a man, it poetically signifies the end of the relationship. She is telling him that, like maple leaves in autumn, her love for him is changing and falling away. So, if you ever need to let an intellectual know you’re not into him anymore, send him some maple leaf emojis and see if he can figure it out!
Maple leaf motif on Japanese Kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #5 Bamboo
Bamboo, or ‘Take’, is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. It is said to symbolise purity and innocence due to it’s unadorned and simple structure. This is exemplified by one of the most well known and beloved tales in Japan is called "Taketori Monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter)" It tells the story of a bamboo cutter who finds a young girl in a piece of bamboo. Him and his wife raise the child and she grows to be extremely beautiful. Many men ask to marry her but she refuses all of them. One evening, when the moon is at its fullest, she disappears back to her birthplace, the moon. This story is one of the oldest pieces of narrative literature in the kana script. Bamboo is also said to symbolise prosperity, strength and longevity. These ideas come from the fact that bamboo is an extremely strong plant. It’s root structure is said to be so stable that Japanese people are told, even today, that in the case of an earthquake they should run to a bamboo grove as the roots will hold the earth together. It’s strong enough to withstand extremely hot summers and very cold winters. It’s said that bamboo also wards off evil. Shrines often use bamboo groves as sacred walls or barriers to prevent evil spirits from entering. All this makes me really want a bamboo covered kimono!
Japanese kimono with examples of the bamboo motif
Japanese Kimono Motif #6 Plum Blossom
These beautiful flowers, called ‘Ume’ in Japan are the first blossoms to arrive after winter. They are the harbingers of Spring and as such are revered and loved in Japan. We have a tree here in Berlin that sprouts the most incredible dark pink flowers before anything else is showing signs of life. It seems near miraculous to see these flowers peeping out of a frosted branch while everything else is still cold and miserable so I can see why they are so beloved in Japan! Originally, Ume was brought to Japan from China in the Asuka Period (600AD) for its decorative and medicinal purposes. It was believed to detoxify and bring longevity. Japanese aristocrats loved the fragrant flowers and planted them everywhere they went as a symbol of their sophistication. Plum trees were, at the same time, said to ward of danger. Because of this they were planted on many old plots of land in the “demon’s gate” which was the northeast corner where danger and evil was said to enter in an attempt to stave off any bad luck. As Ume are resistant to the snow and cold, they are said to bring good health and to help with overcoming adversity. Farmers see them as a good luck charm and bringers of good fortune as they are the first sign of the abundance of spring, the warmer weather and good harvests to come.
Plum blossom motif on a Japanese kimono and plum blossoms
Japanese Kimono Motif #7 Wisteria
This common flower motif symbolises longevity, peace and harmony. Wisteria plants are known to have very long lifespans, one of the oldest wisteria trees in Japan is 144 years old! Because of its long lifespan it is also considered to symbolise wisdom. As it’s fast growing and constantly reaching further outwards, it’s thought that the vines are knowledge hungry and craving of new experiences. Due to its softly draping, poetic appearance it’s said to inspire peace and harmony in people viewing it. Wisteria is also thought to symbolise love, and also specifically love lost. The weeping blooms are symbolic of sorrow but it’s ability to endure, and even thrive in harsh conditions means that it symbolises hope. It is often used as a symbol in family crests.
Example of wisteria family crest, wisteria plant and wisteria motif on a Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #8 Pine tree
The pine tree, or ‘matsu’ is a symbol often used on quite formal kimonos. The pine tree is an evergreen, and is capable of withstanding incredibly harsh environments. Due to this it’s thought to symbolise virtue, youth, strength and longevity. It’s an iconic Japanese New Year symbol, meaning rebirth, renewal and a hopefully bright future. Often the pine tree is thought of as a male pattern, and is worn mostly in Winter but not exclusively so. ‘Matsu” means “waiting for the soul of a god to descend from Heaven”, I know, short word to convey such a long meaning. In ancient Shinto beliefs it was thought that the gods left the earth and ascended to Heaven on a pine tree. They are now thought to live on a volcanic mountain in giant old pine trees (presumably they very same ones that they ascended on). Due to the association of masculinity and strength, the pine motif was often used as a decoration on Samurai armour and clothing in the Edo period (1600-1867). The diamond pattern is a form of the pine tree motif, the pattern is meant to represent the bark of the pine tree.
Pine tree motif on a black Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #9 Dragon
Beloved by people seeking Japanese style tattoos, the dragon symbol is also often used on kimono as a decorative symbol. Unlike western culture, where dragons are seen as fire breathing monstrosities that are usually out to hurt mankind and sit on gold and jewels (Smaug from the Hobbit comes to mind), eastern dragons are much more gentle. They are water creatures who are wise and powerful protectors of people, willing to impart great wisdom on the people who please them. Because they are said to control rainfall and water they are believed to have control over the harvests making them a symbol of wealth. Japanese dragons are said to be able to shapeshift into any size or shape, meaning they are associated with transformation and adaptability. The dragon is usually seen as having male energy, and as such is the counterpart to the phoenix, the symbol of femininity. These two are strong rivals, but when they unite, it symbolizes the perfect balance required to attain marital bliss.These two magical creatures are often seen entwined on wedding kimono as a sign of an eternal bond and strong marriage.
Two examples of the dragon motif on a Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #10 Turtle/Tortoise
The turtle or tortoise, ‘Kame’ in Japanese, is said to bring longevity, luck and wisdom. Japanese myth says the it can live to be over 10,000 years which obviously isn’t true but it is one of the longest living animals on earth. The oldest recorded tortoise was 188 years old when she died. The turtle is said to be magical, bridging the gap between heaven and earth as it can exist in both water and on land. It is the symbol of Kumpira, the god of seafaring people. People believe that it brings wisdom because of it’s slow and deliberate movements.
"Kame" or turtle motif on two Japanese Kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #11 Koi
These extremely long living carp (the oldest koi was named Hanako and had a 226-year lifespan) are said to embody success and perseverance. Koi have a tendency to swim upstream and resist the flow of the water, which is why a design of koi swimming against rapids is meant to encourage people to work harder to succeed. Legend has it that if any koi manages to swim upriver until he reaches the dragon's lair he will turn into a dragon himself, the ultimate success in many people's eyes because who doesn’t want to be a magical water creature with shapeshifting powers. Koi are also said to symbolise bravery and are likened to Samurai warriors. Some people believe that if a koi is caught it will lie still and accept it’s death like a samurai warrior who knows he’s lost the fight.
Examples of the Koi motif on Japanese Kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #12 Peacock
The peacock is associated with the Buddhist goddess Kannon. Kannon is the goddess of mercy, compassion and kind heartedness and is a Bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone who has delayed their own enlightenment in order to stay and help the people suffering on earth, so it makes sense that she would be the goddess of compassion having made the ultimate sacrifice. The peacock is a symbol of good health and is said to be able to counteract poison. Peacocks also symbolise the beauty and integrity we can achieve when we show our true colours. In my opinion a very nice symbol to have embroidered or printed on silk and wrapped around you.
Peacock motif on two different Japanese Kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #13 Butterfly
It is commonly believed that the butterfly represents eternity as the Japanese say that the souls of the dead take the form of a butterfly to make their journey to the next (eternal) life. They are often seen as bringing good luck in love and as such are a decorative element used wedding kimonos to signify a happy marriage. Because of the metamorphosis a butterfly makes when it transforms itself from a caterpillar to its new form, it’s also used as a symbol for girls entering womanhood. Who doesn’t like to think of themselves as an ungainly, very hungry caterpillar who slept a lot in the middle of puberty then emerged a graceful, gravity defying wondrous creature made of light and colour?
Japanese kimono silk and kimono with the butterfly motif
Japanese Kimono Motif #14 Bobbin
The silk bobbin, Itomaki, is associated with the Tanabata festival. This festival is a celebration of Orihime (the weaving princess) and Hikoboshi (the cowherd). Orihime, the daughter of Tentei (literally the universe itself), spent her days weaving wonderous cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa (the heavenly river aka the milky way). She became sad that through her hard work she would never meet a lover so her father arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi who lived on the other side of the river. They fell in love and married. In their blissfully wedded state, Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi let his cows wander all over the heavens. Angered, Tentei forbid the couple to meet and banished Hikoboshi to the other side of the river. Distraught, Orihime pled with her father to let them meet again and he agreed that on the 7th day of the 7th month they could meet for one night if she had completed her weaving. During the festival, girls generally wish for better sewing skills and craftsmanship. A bobbin with a long tail is meant to symbolise a hope for longevity and weaving implements are also seen as a way of appeasing vengeful spirits. I’d be pretty vengeful too if I was separated from my lover for all but one day a year and forced to produce fabric the rest of the time. Seems like a bit of a harsh punishment to me! If you find the bobbin symbol on your kimono it was probably made to be worn at this festival, or for something associated with the festival.
The bobbin motif, a long tailed bobbin motif on a Japanese kimono and the Tanabata Festival in Japan
Japanese Kimono Motif #15 Hemp Leaf Pattern
This graphic pattern, called ‘Asahona’ is often found woven or printed onto kimono silk. This pattern is considered to have protective properties and has often been used on baby clothes. Hemp has been an important plant in Japanese history and was the primary clothing fiber alongside silk. It represents growth and good health as the plant itself is very hardy and fast growing and is believed to have the power to dispel negativity.
Three examples of the hemp leaf motif on Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #16 Wave Crests
Known as Seigaiha, meaning ‘blue ocean waves’ this fan pattern is meant to show calm waves in the sea, representing the desire for continued peaceful living. It is a symbol for peace and good fortune and is meant to evoke the flow of life and fortune across time. It’s a common motif for kimono and is meant to be worn by young women.
Wave crest motif on a hand-tied, shibori Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #17 Hexagons
This fun pattern, Kiko, is meant to show interlocking turtle shells (see above for turtle explanation) and bring longevity and good fortune This was the traditional inspiration for Samurai armour.
Samurai armour and two examples of the hexagon motif in hand-tied shibori on Japanese kimono
Japanese Kimono Motif #18 Fletching
Know as Yagasuri, is a pattern that we often see on kimono. It’s thought to bring luck, based on a Japanese saying that once an arrow is fired it never returns. This design used to be a popular pattern for men, as it’s association with archery and warriors was thought to impart strength to the wearer. It became a common symbol on womens clothing as it implied steadfastness and determination due to the imagery invoked of an arrow being shot straight and true. In Buddhism, arrows (and bows) are meant to represent protection against evil forces. This pattern is very common for wedding outfits, I guess that the analogy could be made that firing an arrow is like deciding to marry someone, once you’ve made the decision to shoot (or commit), the arrow isn’t coming back again any time soon...
Old postcard showing a woman wearing a kimono with the fletching motif and a detailed example of the motif used on Japanese kimono
While there are many, many more motifs that we see commonly on kimono, we think we've covered the basics! Do you have any questions? Have we missed something you're curious to know about? Check out our Instagram and DM us if you have any questions!
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