Japanese Symbolic Animals and their Meanings
Japanese symbolic animals are a huge and important part of Japanese culture, with inclusion in traditional sculptures, prints, and more. This post uncovers the Japanese spiritual symbols of a range of Japanese animals, including some Japanese folklore animals, that you may or may not be familiar with.
Butterflies – ‘Choho’
Japan perceives the butterfly to be a ‘soul of the living and the dead’, as a result of the popular belief that spirits of the dead take the form of a butterfly when on their journey to the other world and eternal life. The butterfly is also often used as a symbol for young girls as they spread their wings and emerge into womanhood, as well as it being believed to symbolise joy and longevity. Additionally, if a symbol contains two butterflies dancing around each other, it’s a symbol of marital happiness.
‘Koi’ means ‘Carp’ in Japanese, and this fish is a symbol of perseverance due to the fish’s tendency to swim upstream and resist the flow of water. Koi Carp also symbolise faithfulness and marriage in Japan. A design of carp swimming against rapids symbolises the Children’s Day Festival on May 5th. This is to inspire children to work hard in order to succeed.
Cranes – ‘Tsuru’
The crane represents good fortune and longevity. As a one of the Japanese folklore animals, the symbolism behind these animals comes from the folklores themselves, as it was believed that the crane lives for 1,000 years. The crane is also closely associated with Japanese New Year and wedding ceremonies due to cranes being monogamous. Because of this, the image of a crane is sometimes woven into beautiful wedding kimonos!
The crane is often produced in Japanese origami and artwork. Large colourful necklaces of cranes are also commonly seen outside of Japanese temples. If you’re interested in making your own origami cranes, browse our range of origami paper! Want to know more about other Japanese birds and their symbolism? See our previous post for more details.
Frogs – ‘Kaeru’
Among popular Japanese spiritual symbols are frogs. There are many species of frogs in Japan as a result of flooding rice fields in Japanese agriculture. These creatures are often used in poetry and art, and are sometimes carried by travellers to make sure they return home safely from their journeys. The word ‘frog’ in Japanese means ‘return’, which is why the frog is considered a Japanese lucky animal and seen as good fortune in things returning.
Turtles – ‘Kame’
The Japanese word for turtle is kame, and the Japanese believe that the turtle is a symbol for wisdom, luck, protection, and longevity; longevity due to their long lifespan and slow movements. The turtle is magic and unites heaven and earth, with its shell representing heaven and its square underside representing earth.
Dragon – ‘Tatsu’
Although a mythical creature, the dragon is an important part of Japanese culture. It’s a symbol of great power, wisdom, and success, and is said to bring strength, luck, and fortune. The Japanese dragon is similar to the Chinese dragon, but is more serpentine in its shape. The Chinese dragon also differs in that it is largely associated with rain, due to drought disasters that China experiences. However, due to Japan being less susceptible to drought, the Japanese dragon is associated more with the sea.
Raccoon Dog – ‘Tanuki’
A subspecies of the Asian raccoon dog, and as a Japanese folklore animal, this animal has had a significance since ancient times. The raccoon dog is known to be mischievous and jolly, as well as a master of disguise with traits that are thought to bring good fortune. Tanuki is also regarded as a Japanese art animal, appearing in many different forms of modern and traditional art.
Lions – ‘Komainu’
The lion traditional symbolises power, strength, and protection. The Japanese animal symbol of a lion is often associated with places of worship, where you often find a pair of lion statues guarding the entrances to shrines or temples. These are often referred to as ‘lion dogs’, and are believed to ward off evil spirits.
Cats – ‘Maneki Neko’
The lucky cat is regularly represented in talismans, and is thought to bring luck, happiness, wealth, and prosperity. These cats are identified through their raised right paw. They make for a lovely gift and if you want to find out what’s so lucky about lucky cats, our blog post takes a look at their history and what each colour and posture symbolises, so you can ensure that you’re choosing the right gift when you browse our range of lucky cats.
Many from this list of Japanese symbolic animals are replicated in statues, talismans, and mascots, and are often given as gifts based on the meaning that they symbolise. Make sure you check out the rest of our blog for more insights into Japan’s wonderful culture!
To uncover more symbolism within Japanese culture, check out our flower symbolism in Japanese culture post.