Japanese patterns come in many forms and all have a hidden meaning. Very much found on the kimono and other Japanese clothing, they are called wagara. Most of the traditional Japanese patterns dates back to the 8th century and are inspired by nature, of which the symbolism is very strong in Japanese culture.
Would you like to know more about the meaning Japanese patterns? 🧐
In Japanese culture, there is a real language of patterns, each representing one or more Japanese symbols - the kimono wouldn't be so fascinating without these magnificent historical Japanese designs that constitute the richness of Japanese art. 🎨
Looking for the meaning of a specific pattern? Here is an overview of our article to help you out:
- Japanese geometric patterns
- Japanese floral patterns
- Japanese animal patterns
- Japanese patterns inspired by nature
- Japanese patterns inspired by objects
Let's find out more about traditional Japanese patterns and their meanings now. 👇
Japanese geometric patterns
|Geometric Japanese patterns are great classics found on many Japanese fabrics. They can be self-sufficient or serve as a background for a more elaborate pattern. Timeless, some geometric patterns are extremely ancient and yet still used today to adorn modern Japanese kimonos.|
This ancestral pattern is very common on Japanese fabrics and is composed of overlapping concentric circles. Its name signifies "waves of the blue sea". Formerly, this Japanese pattern was used to represent oceans and seas on vintage maps. The seigaiha pattern symbolizes a peaceful sea, quiet strength and good fortune. This pattern is usually blue in color, but nowadays you can find it in any color you like.
This repetitive geometric pattern shaped like a six-pointed star, represents hemp leaves. Before cotton was imported to Japan, most textiles were made from hemp. Hemp is a hardy plant, able to grow fast and straight without requiring much attention. As a result, this plant has become a symbol of vigor, resistance and healthy growth. The asanoha pattern was frequently used for baby and children's fabrics, hoping that they would develop the same qualities as hemp.
Yagasuri (or Yabane)
This Japanese pattern represents the bird feathers attached to the tips of arrows used for archery. During New Year's Day, decorative arrows are sold as lucky charms to fight the evil and protect home. On fabrics, the yagasuri pattern is considered a symbol of protection and good luck. Back in the days, brides were given a kimono with this pattern in order to bring them good luck. As the arrow shot never returns, the young bride is not supposed to return to her parents once she is married.
This dotted pattern reminds us of a shark's skin. It was initially used on fabrics of a shogun family before gradually becoming popular. The Same Komon pattern has no particular meaning. It is often found on the background of a more elaborate pattern.
Tatewaku (or Tachiwaki)
This pattern is made up of vertical wavy lines representing steam that slowly rises up to the sky. Back in the days, the realization of this Japanese pattern was not an easy task, which made it a rare thing and thus reserved for people of high status. The Tatewaku pattern could symbolize the elevation of the spirit and the ability to overcome situations. This pattern is often found associated with another pattern. In this example, it is combined with the seigaiha pattern.
Kikkô (or Kikkoumon)
The Kikko pattern is inspired by the hexagonal shape of tortoise shells, an auspicious animal, symbolizing longevity. In the past, the samurai's armor could be composed of many hexagonal facets sewn together, similar to this geometric pattern. It often has another pattern represented in the center of the hexagon. In this example, it is called kikkô hanabishi as a chestnut flower (hanabishi in Japanese) is represented in the middle of the hexagonal shape.
This japanese pattern consists of superimposed circles forming petals or stars, depending the way you look at it. For Japanese, the Shippo pattern represents the seven treasures of Buddhism (gold, silver, pearl, coral, crystal, agate and lapis lazuli), although no repetition of seven patterns is found on this ornament. The Shippo pattern used to be highly popular in the Edo period, especially on women's kimonos. It is said to be a symbol of harmony and good relationships.
This repetitive pattern has the Japanese name Kanoko because it resembles the spots found on the back of a fawn. It is the result of a particular dyeing technique which consists in knotting the fabric in a specific way before soaking it. This pattern has no particular meaning. Such technique required a lot of work and only rich people could afford a kimono entirely covered with the Kanoko pattern.
The Sayagata pattern is derived from the swastika symbol 卍 which is named after manji in Japan. This symbol is closely related to Buddhism and represents the qualities of intelligence, strength and peace. It is a sign of good omen. Sayagata is derived from the word "saaya" which was used to designate a Chinese textile that already contained this geometric pattern.
This Japanese geometric pattern consists of rhombs formed by several parallel intersecting lines. It has many variations, including the Hanabishi pattern which represents stylized chestnut flowers with petals forming a rhombus.
This simple pattern represents small grids or sharps (or hashtags for the youth). It has no particular meaning, except that its name is formed from two Japanese words, well and beam. We can imagine seeing a well in the center of the four beams forming a cross.
The Uroko pattern is composed of either a succession of triangles of different colors or lozenges divided into two colors, depending on the way you look at it. The word Uroko means scale in Japanese. It may represent scales of dragons, snakes or even fish. A very old Japanese pattern that protects and brings good luck.
The Kagome pattern is based on the particular shape of stitches obtained by weaving a bamboo basket. This pattern will protect from demons and bad luck.
The Japanese word ichimatsu simply means "checkered pattern" and represents an alternation of small squares of different colors. Originally, the word ichimatsu came from the name of a Japanese kabuki theater actor, Sanogawa Ichimatsu, who liked to wear costumes adorned with this simple pattern.
The Mame Shibori pattern is a polka dot pattern. In Japanese, the word Mame means both polka dots and beans as well as robust. Thus, simply by representing dots, the fabric also becomes a symbol of good health and long life.
Japanese flower patterns
|In Japan, each flower has its own meaning according to its appearance and characteristics. Thus, each flower is associated to a specific Japanese symbol, a virtue, an emotion... Japanese also have a word to name this: Hanakotoba which means "language of flowers". Let's have a closer look at the most popular Japanese flower patterns.|
The arabesques of this Japanese pattern represents a plant endlessly growing and spreading in many different directions. This pattern was introduced to Japan by China during the Nara period (710-794). Although it originally was just decorative, the Japanese made it the symbol of prosperity and longevity, and considered it as a lucky charm. It can also be associated with other plants or decorated with different flowers. The Karakusa pattern can be found on clothing but also on Japanese furoshiki; cloth squares used to wrap and carry objects.
The cherry blossom, also known as sakura in Japanese, is THE emblematic flower of Japan. The cherry blossom marks the beginning of spring and occupies an important place in Japanese culture, to such an extent that there is even a tradition, called hanami, consisting in watching and appreciating the beauty of the cherry blossoms at the time of flowering. Represented on many fabrics, the sakura flower symbolizes softness, kindness and acceptance of the transience of beauty.
In Japan, the chrysanthemum, also known as kiku in Japanese, has become the emblem of the imperial family. This flower is found on the imperial seal, passports and 50 yen coins. The chrysanthemum is a symbol of longevity and rejuvenation. Although this flower is associated with fall, it is possible to wear a kimono with this pattern in all seasons.
The peony flower is considered as the queen of flowers in Japan. The peony symbolizes the feminine ideal and represents prosperity, good luck, love and honour. It is also said that the peony is a protective force. In the past, lions populated Asia and did not know any predators. However, they had a deadly enemy against whom they were completely helpless: parasites. Peonies release a delicate scent that drives away the parasites. Thus, this seemingly fragile flower could save the life of a lion.
The plum tree is the first tree to bloom at the beginning of the year, announcing spring. The plum blossom has five rounded petals of pink or white color. Also known as the "flower of peace", it has a protective charm against demons. This very feminine flower symbolizes vigor, health, renewal and beauty, grace and elegance.
The camellia flower is very common in Japan and is easily recognizable thanks to its yellow stamens (center of the flower). There are many varieties and its meaning depends on its color. The red camellia symbolizes love (or bad luck for samurai), the white camellia symbolizes desire while the yellow camellia symbolizes expectation.
Nadeshiko (or Kaneshon)
The carnation symbolizes maternal love, distinction and fascination. The Japanese term "yamato nadeshiko" is used to praise the beauty, simple and pure, of a Japanese woman.
Shoubu (or Hanashoubu)
The Japanese iris is recognizable by its long and elongated leaves with three drooping petals. As a pattern on a kimono this flower looks very elegant, but it has no particular significance.
In Japanese, Kiri stands for paulownia, a tree native to China. In Japan, it is tradition that a paulownia tree is planted at the birth of a girl and when she is at the age of marriage, the wood from this tree is used to produce the objects that will make up her dowry. The paulownia flower is, after the chrysanthemum, the second most important flower in Japan. The most common representation is constituted of three leaves surmounted by small clusters of flowers.
The campanula bell flower has five petals with a pointed tip. This decorative flower is the symbol of honesty, obedience and unchangeable love.
The Hanabishi pattern is frequently depicted on samurai crests and represents flowers of the water chestnut, an aquatic plant of the Japanese swamps. This flower is composed of four diamond-shaped petals arranged around a circular center.
The Asagao is the Japanese name for the ipomea, also known as morning glory as this flower opens in the morning and closes in the evening. The flower is somewhat trumpet-shaped and can be represented in a stylized way with round spots with a white dot in its center.
In Japan, the pine tree occupies an important place. This tree remains green all year round, it symbolizes longevity, constancy and wisdom. At New Year's Day, entrance doors are adorned with pine trees to attract prosperity. Pine is also used to demarcate temples and to ward off evil spirits.
These are just simple pine needles. They also symbolize longevity and resistance. This pattern can be found alone or combined with other plants, flowers and trees.
Bamboo is a strong, flexible and fast-growing plant that symbolizes strength, flexibility and prosperity. When only its leaves are depicted on the fabric, then it is associated with calm and tranquility.
Although this plant is nicknamed "the sacred bamboo", the nandina has nothing to do with bamboo. It' s a small shrub with elongated green leaves, recognizable by its red berries. Japanese people plant a nandina next to the entrance of the house in order to protect the fireplace.
When a pattern is composed of small leaves that resemble coffee beans, then it surely is the Hagi pattern that represents lespedeza, a legume very present in Japanese culture, especially in poetry. This plant is associated with the autumn season.
Susuki (or Obana)
This pattern features a grass design, the eulalie. Simple yet elegant, this plant appears to undulate with the wind. The eulalie pattern is found on fabrics, notably in fall landscapes.
With its leaves that stay green all year round, this Japanese citrus fruit forms a very pretty pattern that also symbolizes longevity.
The gingko is a very old tree and particularly appreciated in Japan, especially in fall when their leaves take on a beautiful golden color. This tree symbolizes robustness, growth and longevity. With its particularly shaped leaves, the gingko also is the emblem of the Japanese capital.
In May, Japanese Wisteria blooms into magnificent clusters of purple flowers. This pattern is absolutely wonderful on a kimono.
Maru signifies circle or round in the Japanese language, a never-ending figure without end nor beginning, symbolizing eternity. This is not a plant itself but this pattern often depicts a plant with a rounded shape or a flower in a circle.
The Shôchikubai pattern is the result of an association of three plants: pine, bamboo and plum blossom. These three plants bring together the qualities needed to survive the winter, symbolizing perseverance and renewal. Pine represents tenacity and longevity, bamboo symbolizes strength and flexibility, and plum blossom evokes hope, joy and beauty.
This floral composition includes seven fall plants including lespedeza, eulalie, carnation, morning glory and bellflower. These plants have already been mentioned in the previous patterns. The autumn season symbolizes beauty and nostalgia, it evokes a feeling of sensitivity for the ephemeral. This spiritual Japanese concept is known as "mono no aware".
This pattern, related to fall, represents dead leaves blown away by the wind. This design is frequently associated with gingko leaves. The term Fukiyose is made up of two words: "fuki" which expresses dying and "yose" which means final movement. In fall, leaves die in a final movement by detaching themselves from the tree.
Japanese patterns that feature animals
|In Japan there are many fascinating animals that occupy an important place in myths and legends. Some animals have a sacred and symbolic character which explains their presence on traditional Japanese patterns. In the following section of this article, let's take a closer look at the most common Japanese animal patterns.|
The Japanese crane is frequently depicted on Japanese fabrics and papers, either realistically or as origami. This large bird has a long neck and long legs. Its feathers are mainly white and the top of its head has a red color. This graceful bird symbolizes longevity and good fortune. If the pattern features a crane couple, then it symbolizes a strong and happy marriage. Cranes are very much appreciated in Japan. A legend says that if you build a thousand cranes in origami, then all your wishes may come true.
The Koi carp is a fish that migrates up streams and rivers in order to reach its goal, symbolizing courage, perseverance, virility and triumph. This decorative fish has beautifully colored scales and forms a very nice pattern on Japanese fabrics. The word koi in Japanese means "carp" but also "love" or "falling in love".
Formerly, Japan was known as Akitsushima, which literally means "the island of the dragonfly" (akitsu is an ancient Japanese word for dragonflies). At that time, Emperor Jimmu would have noticed that the main island of the archipelago resembled a couple of dragonflies. As a symbol of summer, the dragonfly is particularly appreciated by the samurai that uses it as a symbol of strength, courage and victory. Dragonflies have the peculiarity of only flying forward, as if they would never retreat in front of the enemy.
The Chidori is a small wader also known as a plover. In Japanese, Chidori means "a thousand birds" as this small bird of good omen only moves in groups. The Chidori pattern is often associated with waves because this migratory bird is known to face the natural elements with courage and determination. It symbolizes the ability to overcome life's difficulties.
The peacock is associated to love, education, good will and attention. With its long feathers and majestic appearance, the peacock pattern looks really pretty on kimonos.
This legendary bird, the phoenix, arrived in Japan from China. It is a bird of good omen that appears when everyone is happy and peaceful. The splendor of its plumage has made the phoenix pattern a very popular one on Japanese kimonos.
The Usagi pattern represents small white rabbits. The rabbit is an animal also very present in Japanese folklore, either in legends or in manga. Moreover, there are various sanctuaries that are dedicated to the rabbit. This animal is associated with devotion and intelligence.
Kame stands for turtle in Japanese language and obviously symbolizes longevity due to its long life span. This slow-paced animal is also associated with wisdom, luck and protection.
The butterfly looks wonderfully pretty on fabrics. Due to its transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, this insect symbolizes evolution. A traditional belief is that the spirits of those who have passed away begin their journey to the next world in the form of a butterfly. A butterfly couple represents happiness within marriage.
Tatsu (or Ryu)
In Japan, the dragon is a benevolent creature associated with water, sky and clouds. They are often considered to be deities. Dragons are a symbol of strength and power, luck and good fortune. In Japan, the Asian dragon is represented with three claws.
The owl initially was a symbol of luck and protection and then, under Western influence, also became a symbol of knowledge and wisdom.
The Tanuki, or raccoon dog, is an animal resembling a cross between a badger and a raccoon. In Japanese folklore, the tanuki also is a yokai, a spirit with the ability to change its appearance. This yokai is very much appreciated by the Japanese because of its benevolence and its contribution to prosperity and success.
The mandarin duck has a very attractive plumage and is often depicted in pairs, like lovebirds. This auspicious pattern symbolizes the continuous evolution of love between a couple.
Japanese patterns inspired by nature
|Just like plants and animals, the elements of nature also have an important place in Japanese folklore. Either with special significance or simply because they are appreciated for their beauty.|
Mountains, called Yama in Japanese, are sacred places in Japan. Located between heaven and earth, they are said to be the home of kami, deities or spirits venerated in Shinto religion. If the pattern represents birds flying over mountains, then it symbolizes the ability to overcome life's challenges.
The word Kawa stands for river and symbolizes continuity and future. Rivers and streams can be more or less stylized. If the pattern consists of wavy lines, they are probably rivers.
Clouds, kumo in Japanese, can take many forms, from figurative to stylized. The meanings of the clouds are related to hope, change or the proximity of Gods.
The snowflake is a positive design because it represents snow falling on earth, allowing to feed it with water to ensure good harvests. This pattern is often associated with other patterns, such as flowers or geometric shapes.
Sea and waves, Nami in Japanese, are patterns very much represented in Japanese art. It should also be said that in Japan, the sea is never that far away. No matter where you are located in the archipelago the sea will never be more than 200 km distant. People both fear and revere the sea. It symbolizes the forces of nature.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
This famous Japanese print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa is the first depiction of the "36 Views of Mount Fuji" series created by the painter Hokusai. This painting represents a huge wave threatening three boats on the stormy sea. Mount Fuji rises in the background, calm and impassive, assisting the scene. This painting has become so famous that it can often be found on Japanese fabrics.
Kyoto's most famous Buddhist temple, the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji, is a magnificent building covered with golden leaf. This temple can be found on Japanese fabric patterns.
Unlike what people might think, the skull and skeleton patterns on Japanese fabrics do not have negative connotations but rather are reputed to ward off evil and may be a representation of regeneration.
Japanese patterns inspired by objects
|Last but not least, in this section of our article about traditional Japanese patterns, you will find a final list of patterns and ornaments inspired by everyday objects.|
The Japanese fan is a symbol of prosperity, which is reinforced by its particular movement when opening it, reminiscent of a blooming flower.
This Japanese pattern represents colored ribbons tied together. Traditionally, these ribbons are hung on gifts as best wishes. The Noshi pattern is considered a lucky charm because it symbolizes longevity.
Temari are decorative balls that create beautiful patterns on Japanese fabrics. Originally, temari balls are children's toys made of fabric scraps. Offered at New Year's Day, these toys have become lucky charms.
Tsuzumi (or Taiko)
The drum pattern stands for joy, celebration and festivities. The Tsuzumi is a particular Japanese drum with an hourglass shape. This instrument is used to musically accompany actors of the Noh and Kabuki theater.
Umbrellas are both traditional and indispensable objects in the everyday life of Japanese people, and they still are today.
The Hanaguruma pattern represents small carts filled with flowers. Formerly this was a carriage used by aristocrats living around the imperial palace in Kyoto.
As a symbol of change, the Genji wheel evokes the imperial car. This wheel is often adorned with flowers. Its name originates from an important work in Japanese literature, The Saying of Genji. This work tells the story of a Genji, a son of an emperor that cannot claim the throne.
That's it! You now know everything you need about Japanese patterns
This detailed article offers a nice overview of the most popular Japanese patterns found in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Next time you meet up with friends or travel to Japan, you will be able to impress the people around you with your in-depth knowledge of Japanese patterns and their symbolism.
From now on, you will be able to select your kimono, yukata or other Japanese fashion accessories, not only based on the aesthetic criteria, but also with the underlying meaning of the patterns in mind. A whole new look at the Japanese world opens up to you!
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