In a logogram, 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:
THE JAPANESE GEOMETRIC PATTERNS
Stars / Diamonds ✶: Asanoha
Literally, Asanoha (麻の葉) meas hemp leaf. It evokes 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
This pattern represents stylized waves, with concentric arches.
In Japanese, Seigaiha is written with 3 logograms: 青海波, respectively blue, ocean and waves.
This pattern evokes the calm, the quietness of the sea. And then peace. More indirectly, wealth or resilience.
Arrow fletchings: Yagasuri / Yabane
Linked with the art of archery, and so used on mens garments, it progressively became more feminine. The meanings are numerous, and it’s a lucky charm.
This pattern evokes 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.
This pattern is written 矢絣. Literally, arrow and “splashed pattern”. So, here as well, it comes from the dye craft.
This pattern is made of concentric dotted circles, and is associated with the shark skin. It has no specific meaning.
At the begining, it was mainly used by Samurais, and then became more popular during Edo period (between the 17th and 19th century). It is often used as a background, on kimonos.
The vertical waves: Tatewaku
These vertical 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.
This pattern is written with 2 logograms: 立涌, which mean arise and boil up.
It is often associated with an other pattern (clouds, chrysanthemums, honeysuckle, …).
The hexagons: Kikko / Kikku
In Japan, the pattern made of hexagons evoke the shells of tortoises, and is then associated with longevity. The armours of samouraïs, for instance, were sometimes made by sewing together small hexagones in think leather or in metal.
It is written: 亀甲, which literally means tortoise scale.
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
Those superposed 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.
Shippo (七宝) has 2 meanings: lit. 7 treasures, but also “cloisonné”, a technique to make jewels in metal decorated with gemstones.
The Fawn spots: Kanoko
The kanoko pattern looks a bit like losanges with a central hole. They come from the dye craft.
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. Though, its name (鹿の子) literally means deer child, ie the fawn
The Arabesques: Karakusa
Literally, arabesques (karakusa / 唐草) mean “chinese plants”. It’s a very old pattern of stylized plants, believed to come from Egypt,
It is very used in Japan, for a very long time, in association with the Japanese flora (prunus, lotus, peony, bamboo, etc.), and grapevine.
Historically purely decorative, it progressively meant prosperity, longevity, the continuity of the family (re. tree of life). Indeed, those arabesques grow in all directions, without end. Somehow like grapevine.
It is very used in Japanese crafts.
Often used in craftmanship, it is also for fabrics, for clothing and also home textiles.
The Diagonal crosses 卍: Sayagata
This 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 (紗綾形) names silk gauzes with a diagonally weaved pattern, which were imported from China (at the end of middle-age). Often used on plain colored fabrics. Progressively, it became more popular, and can also be found on home textile, associated with flowers or plants.
This pattern is positively auspicious
Hishi (菱) means 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
The hash pattern is simple, even basic in weaving.
Igeta is written with 2 ideograms: the fist one means water well, and the second means beam, what designs a wellhead made of 4 crossing beams. Now, this relates to any grid pattern, including hash: #.
Triangles △ : Uroko
Indeed, uroko (鱗) means scale (from snake, fish, …). It can also be represented as triangles.
This is a protective pattern.
In Japan, this lattice-like pattern is a protective pattern, like a fence against devils and misfortune.
It comes from basketery, since it’s a technique to weave baskets.
It is written: 籠目. The first one, Kago, means basket, and the second: me, means eye, evoking the spaces between the meshes.
Swirling Waters: Kanzemizu
Lit. the water from Kanze, the greatest Nô theater school.Man says that the Kanze family was having wells with swirling water. What inspired this pattern to evoke running water. Its caracteristics are curves and spirals.
The 3 bays : Suhama
Lit. meaning the provincial sea shore, this pattern: Suhama-gata, can evoke a bay, sandbank, seashore, or an island, from the sky. Originally used in gardens, and then in pottery, namely for the tea (chawan). It’s also a pastry. On fabrics, it is mainly used to create zones.
Logically, the mesh of the net represents a lucky charm for a fruitful fishing. Beyond, thanks to the shape and rythm of the mesh brought by the artisan, this pattern may have an incredible esthetic value.
Its origin is Chinese, where fish and fortune are namesakes. And a fish spawns many eggs.
It is mainly used in ceramics, for table linen, and kimonos.
For the anecdote, the zigzag pattern is traditionally called Yamaji, which literally means “mountains road”. And like for us, you will mainly see it onon seams, to delimit given areas. If it is visible, the purpose is often to add rythm, or to improve the coherence of the whole with the other patterns.
Chains of Losanges: Kuginuki Tsunagi
This pattern is now rarely used, but culturally interesting. Those losanges evoke the holes lefts by que laissaient les lod nails, when withdrawn. And this “chain” of holes is like the track that were leaving those who had to climb on a building, in order to do there something … chimney sweeps, carpenters, thatchers, etc.
Litt., la signification est quelque chose comme “les clous enlevés reliés”
Diagonal Fence: Higaki or Ajiro
A very classic pattern, namely used for basket weaving, marquetry, … For clothes, it is mainly for obis, or to add rythm of relief to white fabrics.
It has 2 names in Japan: Hinoki and Ajiro. The first one literally means “cypres fence”, which were made by intertwining thin laths of this wood. Ajiro means “instead of net”; it comes from a fishing technique, where a kind of fence is made accross the river, with the shape of letter “V” or a funnel, which forces the fishes to go at the bottom of the “V”, where they are captured … or driven in a kind of wood cage / pool, roped to the bank. This technique is still used, even if the pool are nomore in wood.
Meandering Bolt: Raïmon
A pattern which is often seen of the borders of ramen bowls (ramen is a soup with noodles in Japan). This way to feature a lightning bolt is very old, and has a Chinese origin where it symbolizes the wonders / marvels of the natural world, and is thus a lucky charm.
Beyond Nô theater -and bowls-, it is mainly used as a background on fabrics.
The Dots: Mameshibori
Mame-Shibori is a dot pattern, but its name is interesting since it literally means “compressed bean”. By the way, for French, dots are peas. Further, shibori is a tie-dye technique, when man compress certain parts of the fabric … more or less …. before diving them in the dying bath. According to compression level, these parts will stay white, or will be more or less colored.
Pine Bark: Matsukawabishi
Matsukawabishi (松皮菱) literally means something like “losange from pine bark”, the latter being effectively made of a kid of scales, which have this shape.
This pattern is very old (Heian period), and rathr often used, namely on fabrics, and in many different ways (from tiny to hyuge, woven / embroided / sewn / dyed, …). It can be a unique shape, or a grid made with this specific pattern. Used as is, or to contain other patterns.
The meaning of this pattern is the one of pine, i.e. longevity.
This geometric pattern is based on the shape of the weights which were used in the past in Japan, to weight something on a scale.
This curvy shape, like hourglass somehow, is highly value in Japan, and can be often met (roof, word, plate, …).
Since precious metals were also cast in strands with this shape, this pattern is considered as auspicious for finance.
GRAPHIC & COMBINED
Chinese Flower: Karahana-mon
As its name says, Karahana is a pattern from Chinese inspiration, composed of intertwined flowers and plants, real or fantasy / ficticious. Generally with a circular or losange shape.
More than a patter, it’s a style, with different variants: tsuruhana (vine + flower), tsurukusa (vine + herbs), …
It is still used, in fabrics for kimono and obi, and mainly in craft, generally speaking.
Petit Indigo: Ko-Aoi
An old symbol, intended for nobility, and inspired by the flower of indigo plant.
To finish, here are a few examples of what I do with Japanese geometric patterns and propose here for sale