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Flower Symbolism in Japanese Culture

Even those with little knowledge of Japan can’t help but notice the prominence of flower symbolism in Japanese culture. From cherry blossom, found everywhere from haiku verse to manga comics, to chrysanthemum, appearing on everything from crockery to coins, flower symbolism plays a vital role in Japanese art, literature and everyday life.

Being a spiritual, nature-loving nation influenced by Buddhist ideology, it is fitting that flower symbolism should form such a big part of the Japanese way of life. This post examines some of the most important flower symbols in Japan, unpicking their meanings and giving examples of their uses.Flower symbolism in Japanese culture - sakura ukiyo-e

Flower Symbolism in Japan

Hanakotoba is the Japanese ‘language of flowers’. Essentially, each flower has its own meaning, often based on its physical attributes and/or well known appearances in historical art and literature. Each flower symbol can therefore be used to convey a specific emotion or sentiment without the need to use words.

Here are some popular examples of flower symbolism in Japanese culture

  • Red peony Japanese scrollCherry blossom. This is the most popular flower symbol in Japan, so much so that there’s even a festival to celebrate its arrival in the spring (hanami). Cherry blossom is a symbol of wabi-sabi, an important world view in Japan relating to the acceptance of transience and imperfection, as well as gentleness and kindness.
  • Chrysanthemum. The chrysanthemum is the symbol of the Emperor and the Imperial family, and as such appears on the Imperial Seal, Japanese passports and the 50 yen coin. It is also said to represent longevity and rejuvenation.
  • Peony. Also known as the ‘King of Flowers’, the peony is a symbol of good fortune, bravery and honour, and is often used in tattoos to signify a devil-may-care attitude.
  • Lotus. Represents purity of the body, speech, and mind; derived from Buddhist symbolism.
  • Carnation: Symbolises fascination, distinction and love. Carnations are often given on Mother’s Day.

The clearest practical example of the use of flower symbolism in Japanese culture can be seen in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. This involves a minimalist approach, with well defined structures often based around a scalene triangle. Like other arts, ikebana is highly expressive and the finished arrangement should reveal the emotion and/or sentiments that go into its creation – and this is where the symbolism of each flower comes in.

Other than that, flower symbolism features across many different areas of traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, and can be seen in art prints, literature, poetry, films and songs. You can also find it on a vast array of consumer goods, including (amongst many other things): kimono, tableware, kokeshi dolls, stationery, origami paper, parasols, fans and accessories.

Japanese fanIf you would like to see examples, The Japanese Shop has hundreds of authentic Japanese goods, many of which reflect the crucial role of flower symbolism in Japanese culture. Alternatively, you can find out more about hanakotoba and ikebana in Hanakotoba, a Japanese secret language using flowers (The Language Journal), my main source of information for this post.

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