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The Enchanting Symbols of Japanese Art

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Here are 10 pivotal symbols in Japanese Art including the sakura, tsuru, koi fish, and Mt Fuji, with their deep cultural significance.
Last updated Mar 28, 2024
by Sal

Introduction

Japanese art is a repository of history, culture, and profound symbolism. Each element, whether drawn from nature, folklore, or religion, carries a rich narrative that has been cherished and preserved through generations. This article unfolds the tapestry of the 10 iconic symbols of Japanese art: sakura, Japanese crane, Mt Fuji, koi, bamboo, peacock, chrysanthemum, pine, kitsune, and neko, exploring their meanings and manifestations in Japanese aesthetics.

Each of the following descriptions of symbols includes examples from the ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock art genre.

Hokusai's Fuji from Goten-yama, at Shinagawa on the Tôkaidô (Tôkaidô Shinagawa Goten-yama no Fuji), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji
Hokusai’s Fuji from Goten-yama, at Shinagawa on the Tôkaidô (Tôkaidô Shinagawa Goten-yama no Fuji), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Sakura: The Cherry Blossom

The sakura, or cherry blossom, is quintessentially Japanese, symbolizing the ephemeral nature of life. Its fleeting beauty, which peaks for only a short period each spring, has inspired countless festivals. Sakura’s significance stretches from ancient times to modern-day art, where it embodies both joy and melancholy.

For an in-depth look read: The Significance of Sakura in Japanese Art.

Tsuru kame to takarabune featuring tresure ship with crane and tortoise by Niwa Tōkei
Tsuru kame to takarabune featuring tresure ship with crane and tortoise by Niwa Tōkei

Japanese Crane: A Symbol of Longevity

Cranes are revered in Japanese culture for their graceful elegance and are believed to live for a thousand years, representing longevity and good fortune. This symbol permeates Japanese art, from intricate origami creations to majestic paintings, echoing a wish for enduring happiness and health.

Kajikazawa in Kai Province - Hokusai
Kajikazawa in Kai Province with Mt Fuji in the Background – Hokusai

Majestic Mt Fuji: Japan’s Sacred Mountain

Mt Fuji is more than Japan’s highest peak; it’s a sacred symbol of aspiration, peace, and endurance. Artists and poets have long been captivated by its symmetry and serenity, making it a recurring motif in ukiyo-e prints and contemporary photography.

Here are 9 Reasons for the Importance of Mount Fuji in Japanese Culture.

Koi fish ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige
Koi fish ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige

Koi Fish: Icons of Love and Persistence

The koi fish, with its vibrant hues and energetic vitality, stands as a symbol of love, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. The legend of the koi ascending the Dragon Gate and transforming into a dragon underscores its symbolism in Japanese art, where it adorns everything from garden ponds to detailed scroll paintings.

Bamboo in Early Summer by Kasamatsu Shiro
Kasamatsu Shiro, 1954 – Bamboo in Early Summer by

Bamboo: Resilience and Flexibility

Bamboo is admired for its strength, flexibility, and rapid growth, reflecting the values of resilience and adaptability. Its presence in Japanese art reminds us of the ability to bend without breaking, a principle deeply embedded in Japanese philosophy and aesthetics.

Yamaguchi Soken - Peacock
Yamaguchi Soken – Peacock

The Peacock: A Symbol of Beauty and Nobility

Though not native to Japan, the peacock has been integrated into Japanese art and symbolism, representing nobility, compassion, and the beauty of nature. Its depiction in tapestries and ceramics showcases the global influences on Japanese artistic expressions.

Koitsu Tsuchiya - Chrysanthemum
Koitsu Tsuchiya – Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum: The Imperial Flower

The chrysanthemum, or kiku (菊), is a symbol of longevity and rejuvenation, associated with the Japanese Imperial family. Its intricate petals are celebrated in festivals and art, representing perfection and the turning of the seasons.

Old Pine Trees at Aoyama - Katsushika Hokusai, 1823
Old Pine Trees at Aoyama by Katsushika Hokusai, 1823; both Pine and Mt Fuji are revered symbols in Japanese art and ukiyo-e

Pine: Emblem of Eternal Life

Pine trees symbolize longevity, eternal youth, and steadfastness, valued for their greenery throughout the year. Artworks featuring pine often accompany new year celebrations, embodying wishes for a long and prosperous life.

Dancing Fox with Lotus Leaf Hat by Ohara Koson
Dancing Fox with Lotus Leaf Hat by Ohara Koson

Kitsune: The Mystical Fox

Another symbol in Japanese art is the Kitsune, the mythical fox. In Japanese folklore, its is capable of trickery and transformation, yet also acting as a messenger of Inari, the deity of rice and prosperity. Its dual nature is explored in various art forms, from ancient pottery to modern manga.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi Famous Products of the Provinces with Women’s Postures- Looking Painful
Utagawa Kuniyoshi Famous Products of the Provinces with Women’s Postures- Looking Painful

Neko: The Beckoning Cat

The Maneki-Neko, or beckoning cat, is a talisman for good luck and prosperity. Originating from the Edo period, this symbol has transcended its cultural roots, finding a place in businesses and homes worldwide, often depicted in statues and paintings.

Other Prominent Symbols in Japanese Art

Beyond these ten symbols, Japanese art is rich with motifs drawn from nature, mythology, and daily life, each carrying deep cultural significance. Ukiyo-e art often featured Geisha (Bijin-ga), Samurai (Musha-e), and Kabuki actors. The integration of these elements into contemporary art highlights the enduring influence of traditional Japanese aesthetics on global culture.

For an in-depth look read: The Symbolism of Wildly Popular Japanese Woodblock Art.

Takashi Murakami Mount Fuji Vogue Japan cover
Takashi Murakami Mount Fuji Vogue Japan cover

The Influence of Japanese Art Symbols on Global Culture

The symbols of Japanese art have transcended their origins, influencing design, fashion, and pop culture around the world. Their universal themes of nature, life, and spirituality resonate globally, demonstrating the timeless appeal of Japanese aesthetics.

Conclusion

Japanese art symbols, from the ephemeral sakura to the majestic Mt Fuji, embody deep cultural and spiritual values. They reflect universal themes like impermanence, resilience, and harmony with nature, transcending time and culture. These symbols connect the past with the present, offering insights into the human experience and the natural world. Their global resonance highlights art’s power to transcend boundaries, speaking to universal human experiences. Through these timeless symbols, we are invited to reflect on our own existence and find beauty and inspiration in the world around us.

Read more:

Japanese Crane Art Print with Pink Background by The Art of Zen
Japanese Crane Art Print with Pink Background by The Art of Zen

At the Art of Zen we have a selection of original Japanese art prints in the ukiyo-e and Japandi style. Some of our best selling work is Mount Fuji wall art and Japandi wall art.

Add some zen to your space with brilliant original art from the Art of Zen shop.

Salman A

Salman A

Based in the vibrant city of Dubai, I thrive as a designer and filmmaker with a passion sparked in childhood by the thrilling adventures of UFO Robot Grendizer and Speed Racer. My journey took a deeper dive into the world of art through a profound fascination with Japanese culture, enriched by memorable times spent in Japan. Creativity pulses at the core of who I am. Connect with me for tailor-made design and film projects that bring your visions to life.

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