The Meaning of Japanese Kimono Embroidery

Painted wood panel showing traditional crafts such as embroidery

Japanese Kimono Embroidery 

When you first meet someone, what’s one of the things that forms your first impression of them? The way they speak? The tone they use? Their facial expressions? Or, do you see them, look at what they are wearing and immediately make a judgement on them based off that? On very first sight, in my opinion, the way that we decode what we think of someone is by checking out their outfit. We all know that fashion is subjective, what I wear and like is guaranteed to be different to what you wear and like but if I turned up to a job interview in a potato sack (i’m talking a literal hessian potato sack) I can be almost certain that I’m not going to get the job (unless I’m a super smooth talker who is trying to make a point but I digress). If you’ve ever worn or seen a kimono you’ll know that they are often quite ornately decorated, whether this is with embroidery, the weaving style or a printed or painted pattern or motif. What you may not have realised is that all of these decorations aren’t just for decoration but are actually ways for people to decode who you are and where you stand at first glance, along with imparting luck or good fortune to the wearer or showing someone that you are married or single. What a way to make a first impression! Here are some of the common ways to decode a kimono at first sight

Japanese kimono embroidery, traditionally called nihon shishu, has been around for a long, long time. I’m talking about 1600 years or more. As Buddhism was introduced to Japan, so was religious imagery and embroidery. Although this was the first main use of embroidery, it slowly became more and more common in items of clothing as well. It was a way of showing wealth and social standing as only the very rich could afford such intricate and labour intensive items. During the Edo period, embroidered kimono were actually banned if you came from the lower classes, how insane is that? If you look at a men's kimono, you’ll see that they often have family crests, called ‘mon’ on them. One way of telling the quality of a kimono is to check to see if it has family crests on the back. The very wealthy would display multiple (sometimes up to 5), hand embroidered crests on their jackets to show everyone what prestigious families they came from and these kimono were of course only made with the highest quality silks and embroideries. The embroideries and subject matter of these embroideries always tell a story and as such are a wonderful snapshot of time in that period.

Picture of embroidered family crest "mon" on a japanese mens kimono

Embroidered 'mon' crest on a mens kimono

Japanese embroideries, just like with any embroideries, come in many different forms and styles. Often ‘floss silk’, which is a very thin thread made by untwisting silk, is used which gives the patterns an amazingly rich sheen. One of the more interesting techniques, kin koma, is created by using a thicker thread, made from a silk core wrapped in paper and then with gold or silver leaf, which is too thick to pass through the delicate silk and has to be stitched on using a thinner thread and tiny stitching. The amount of labour that goes into this is mind-boggling. Some of my favourite embroideries are the extremely subtle ones, where you have a painted scene and a few accents are embroidered. I had a very pretty, very old, long black kimono where cranes were hand-painted onto the hem and each crane had a subtly embroidered beak, the fineness in the embroidery was incredible.

detailed example of kin koma embroidery on japanese kimono silk with god thread

Kin Koma, gold thread embroidery on Japanese kimono silk 

Common Japanese Kimono Motifs 

One of the more common motifs on Kimono are flowers. Although there are many variations and different types of flowers, one of the most widely used is the Chrysanthemum flower. Chrysanthemums are very important in Japan, in fact, the highest award one can be awarded in Japan is called “The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum” and is awarded by the Emperor on behalf of the Japanese Government. It’s interesting to note that the Chrysanthemum isn’t even a native Japanese flower. It was brought over from China in the 5th Century, during the Nara Period (710-793), and has gained significance since then due to the Royal family's fascination with it. It is regarded as a symbol of the sun and is considered to represent perfection in Japan due to the orderliness of it’s unfurling petals while blooming. The chrysanthemum is so important that it is used as the Imperial Family’s personal crest and is even present on the Japanese passport. The chrysanthemum represents longevity and rejuvenation.

chrysanthemum embroidery on a haori jacket and The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum medal

Chrysanthemum embroidery on a haori jacket and "The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum" medal

Another very popular flower is the Cherry Blossom motif, or “Sakura”. Sakura are often called the national flower of Japan and are tied to buddist beliefs of mindfulness and living in the present as they have a very short, yet incredibly beautiful life span, much like a human life in the grand scheme of things. This representation of beauty and mortality can be traced back to the samurai who lived by an extremely strict moral code, “bushido” meaning the warrior way, of discipline and duty where they were taught that as death is inevitable anyway you might as well not fear it. A fallen cherry blossom is said to represent a samurai who had died in battle too soon. Interestingly, Sakura were painted onto the planes of Kamikaze pilots in World War 2 as a symbol of their mission and to honor the sacrifice that those young men were making for their country. While this all seems like a slightly morbid symbol to have on your kimono, the cherry blossom doesn’t always represent dying young. It’s also known as a symbol of rebirth and renewal due to its arrival signalling the start of spring and as a reminder to seize the day, enjoy the beauty of life, remember those that have gone before us and to reflect on the preciousness of the life that you’ve got because it’s fleeting.

Cherry blossom embroidery and painting on japanese kimono

Painted and embroidered cherry blossom motif on Japanese kimono 

Animals are also often used as a motif for Kimono. One of the most common symbols I’ve seen, is a crane. The Crane is a revered animal in Japan, seen as a national treasure, which was once said to have a life span of a thousand years and was thought to live in the land of the gods. It’s a symbol of longevity and good fortune and is often used as an emblem on wedding kimono due to its monogamous nature. A pair of cranes is said to signify a happy marriage. There is a saying in Japan “tsuru no hito koe” which literally means “one word from the crane”, this is a testament to the high regard in which the crane is held as no one would dare to challenge it’s authority. For a time, the crane motif was only allowed to be used on garments worn by the Imperial household.

Hand painted and embroidered crane details on a japanese kimono robe

Hand painted and embroidered crane details on a long kimono 

The Phoenix is another common motif used on kimono. This mythical bird is said to represent peace, good fortune and femininity. It is often found on wedding kimono, entangled with its “male” counterpart, the dragon. The Japanese phoenix is different to the phoenix that we know from the Western world, which rises from the ashes after self immolation in a constant cycle of death and rebirth. The Japanese phoenix is drawn from Chinese origins, where it is said to be a creature of morality. It appears in times of peace and prosperity, shuns those who it believes don’t meet it’s high moral code and doesn’t tolerate abuses of power. The phoenix is meant to symbolise justice and gracefulness and only appears rarely, to mark the start of a new peaceful era. There are many, many more decorations with a vast array of different meanings, but I thought we’d stick to the more common ones first and cover the finer details in another dedicated post.

Embroidered phoenix on a japanese kimono. detailed picture and full length picture

Details on a kimono of an embroidered phoenix

 Colours used in Japanese Kimono 

For me, one of the most wonderful colours in Japan is naturally fermented Indigo. This amazing plant dye has been used for centuries across the world. The first garment dyed with indigo was found in Peru and is 6,000 years old, how incredible is that? In Japan, indigo took on a particular importance in the Edo period (1603-1868) when military leaders started dictating clothing styles. Commoners were banned from wearing silks and elaborate colours and had to stick to hemp and cotton, which was very difficult to dye at the best of times. Indigo was one of the few brighter colours allowed, which was capable of dyeing rough cotton, and as such became a dominant colour among the working class. Indigo also has almost mystical properties. It is said to be anti-bacterial, dirt repelling and fire retardant. Japanese Samurai wore indigo clothing under their armour as a way of warding off infection and to protect their wounds while firefighters had wonderful jackets dyed in indigo to protect them on the job. Traditionally colours were also said to take on the properties of the plants used to produce them. Indigo was used on bites and stings (maybe due to its antibacterial properties) and wearing the colour blue in a kimono was said to ward off snakes and insects. Mosquitoes love me so maybe I should take to wearing a blue kimono!

Samurai wearing indigo clothing next to a kendo jacket dyed with naturally fermented indigo

 A Samurai in indigo clothing and a Japanese kendo jacket dyed with naturally fermented indigo 

Red and white are also prominent colours in Japan, the flag is red and white after all, and are often used in for events that signify happiness and joy. Wedding kimonos, we have one absolute beauty in our studio, are often made in red tones as red implies passion, strength, sacrifice and is intended to “get the blood flowing”. Although white is often used as a mourning colour, it is also seen as denoting purity, truth and cleanliness. White implies starting a blank page and beginning again, something that for me actually has a nice connotation when associated with death as it’s not the end, just the start of something new.

couple in traditional japanese wedding outfits, kimono in red and white

Couple in traditional Japanese wedding outfits


There are a multitude of different weaving techniques used for the fabrics in kimono and this is something we’ll go into in more detail at a later date, it’s a bit much to fit everything in here! Most fabrics are machine woven these days, as hand-weaving is far too work intensive and is considered a dying art. Weaving techniques and knowledge used to be passed from generation to generation, but these days many people are choosing not to follow their parents footsteps and so the art of weaving is dying out. I’m quietly hopeful that the renewed interest in artisans and crafts(wo)men that we’ve been seeing lately will start a resurgence in people wanting to learn traditional techniques so as to save this dying art form.

Traditional weaving scenes. One a print and another a handcoloured photo from 1860 of women at a loom

Traditional weaving techniques, a print and a hand-coloured photo from 1860

Back to our actual blog topic, one particular weaving technique that immediately tells us something about the kimono is meisen weaving. This is a technique that became popular in the 1920’s to 1930’s when kimono were still being worn daily but originated in the mid 1800’s. Meisen is defined as “‘common silk stuff’ because the production method meant it was affordable (due to its relatively efficient production) and the designs drew on western influences which led to them being seen as being adventurous. Meisen silk (or cotton) uses a tie and resist technique. The threads are stretched onto a frame and selected areas are bound tightly, these threads are then immersed into the dye and the portions that are bound aren’t penetrated by the colour. This thread is then woven, and due to the threads not being perfectly aligned when bound, the patterns end up with uneven edges, a little windswept you could say. Whenever you see a meisen kimono, you know it was a much more affordable version of a kimono than it’s heavily ornate and embroidered counterpart. It was sold in department stores and was seen as a major innovation, think of it as Japanese fast fashion!

Kimono from the 1920s woven with meisen technique

Kimono made using meisen weaving technique

Every time I admire a kimono, I think about the thought and care that’s gone into it. I wonder who wore it and why they wanted those embroideries or decorations in particular. Were they trying to entice good luck? Signal the start of Spring? Honor their family? Be fashion forward? While that’s something I probably won’t ever know, I love being able to imagine it, don't you?

Modern Archive xx

Japanese Kimono Jacket

Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss).

Leave A Comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published