Meaning of Traditional Japanese patterns
Japanese fabrics, Japanese Patterns

The Meaning of Traditional Japanese Patterns

In an ideogram, the drawing of a bird or a flower, in a simple geometric pattern …. beyond the sole aesthetic value, there is a symbol, a personality feature, a wish, a story, a custom, … all those patterns have a secular use in Japan, and are traditional on garments, but also ceramics, lacquer, linens, … and even in garden, when drawn in gravels or sand.

The idea there is not to make an educational glossary, but simply to let you know quickly what those patterns mean. This article is followed by 3 others about flowers, animals, objects and natural elements.


Stars / Diamonds: Asanoha

Literally meaning hemp leave. It represents this resistant plant, which grows straight and fast. And thus symbolizes a good and healthy growth, vigor, resistance or resilience, and then, by extension prosperity. It was logically mainly used on garments for babies and toddlers.

Also, it links 6 patterns around a central point, and 6 is a beneficial number.

Waves: Seigaiha

Literally, the sea and blue waves.  Represented by arches with concentric circles.

It evokes the calm, the quietness of the sea. And then peace. More indirectly, wealth or resilience.

Arrow fletchings: Yagasuri / Yabane

Originally linked with the art of archery, and so used on mens garments, it progressively became more feminine. The meanings are numerous, it’s a lucky charm.

It can then evoke the straight and immutable feature of an arrow, once shot. So, a kind of determination …. or a wish of happiness for the bride. In Buddhism, bow and arrow represent the fight against evil. In the Shinto temples, during new year, the “hamaya” (killing devil arrows) are sold in Japan as lucky charms.

Shark Skin Motive: Same Komon

If it is said to evoke the shark skin, this pattern has no specific meaning. Il is often used as a background, on kimonos.

The vertical waves: Tatewaku

These waves evoke mist and steam, going up to sky, namely in spring. And by this way, the capacity to rise above (eg. above the events of life).

This is a very old pattern (middle-age), which was a technical feat at that time.

It is often associated with an other pattern (clouds, chrysanthemums, honeysuckle, …).

The hexagons: Kikko / Kikkou / Kikkoumon

They evoke the motives on the  shells of tortoises, and are then linked with longevity. The armours of samouraïs, for instance, were sometimes made by sewing together small hexagones in think leather or in metal.

It is also a very old pattern (middle-age).

There are different variants. On the left (bishamon kikkou), it represents groups of 3 bound hexagones , forming kind of Y.

It can also be mixed with other shapes like circles, losanges, …

The superposed circles: Shippo / Shippou

Those circles represent the 7 treasures of Buddhism: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate, pearl, coral and cristal. They are very used in many Japanese craftsmanships (namely cloisonné): lacquer, wood, metal, etc.

This pattern has been found on clothes from the 8ith century (Shōsō-in of Tōdai-ji / Nara). Later, on women’s kimonos.

The fawn spots: Kanoko

Japan has huge dyeing tradition, namely with indigo, since the middle-age, and developed or upgraded many techniques.

Among those is tie dye (shibori),  certain parts of the fabric are tied, before being dipped in the dye bath. According to tightening, these parts will be more or less colored, or remain white or so, generating patterns. Namely kanoko, commonly used.

This pattern has no specific meaning.

The arabesques: Karakusa

This pattern evokes leaves and flowers, or grapevine. Together very old and very used, it is often associated with Japanese flora (prunus, lotus, peony, bamboo, etc.).

Historically purely decorative, it progressively meant prosperity, longevity, the continuity of the family (cf. tree of life). Indeed, those arabesques grow in all directions, without end. Somehow like grapevine.

Often used in craftmanship, it is also for fabrics, for clothing and also home textiles.

The continuous  diagonal crosses: Sayagata

The cross 卍 is an old universal pattern (prehistory), which can be found on many continents. In Japan, it is called Manji, and is linked with Buddhism. And it can evoke tje harmony of the contraries, compassion, strenght, intelligence, the whole and infinity.

The word Sayagata was probably used to name fabrics -very light in silk- imported from China with this pattern (at the end of middle-age). Often used on plain colored fabrics.

This pattern is positively auspicious

Les rhombs: Hishi

The translation of this pattern is: water caltrop, an aquatic plant which seeds can be eaten, during prehistory, in Asia but also in Europe. Its leaves have this rhombus shape.

It is very productive, and thus also evokes prosperity.

Hash / Grids: Igeta

This is a simple pattern, even a basic one in weaving.

Igeta can be written with 2 ideograms: the fist one means means water wells, and the second means beam, what designs a wellhead made of 4 crossing beams. Now, this relates to any grid pattern, including hash: #.

The Triangles: Uroko

Indeed, uroko means scale (from snake, fish, …). It can also be represented as triangles.

This is a protective pattern.

The meshes: Kagome

It is a pattern, or rather a way to braid a basket in bamboo (kago = basket, et me = eye, as a reference to holes between meshes)

This a protective pattern, a barrier against demons and misfortune.

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