Every element of a Japanese design has meaning, with the vast majority taken from plants.  Many of the motifs have traveled to Japan from as far away as India, by way of China and Korea along the Silk Road:  yet when they appear on Japanese ceramics, textiles, furniture, or other application, they have assumed a very Japanese character.  Here are some of the motifs most frequently seen, and what they meant to the person who made the object and to the one who used it.  As the subject is very large, the page will grow and grow.  If you see motifs on our site and don't find them here yet, please inquire about them.

bamboo - take, chiku
please see pine, bamboo, plum
dogs & puppies - inu
The dog is one of the twelve animals of the Asian zodiac, which are often put on clothing or accessories for children according to the year in which they were born.  The dog symbolizes a deep sense of duty and honesty, but also to indicate a somewhat self-centered, stubborn disposition of a person who says little but is a leader, especially in business.  As a motif this is a bit unusual; an example is the child's kimono in our Tsutsugaki section.
ho-o - phoenix
-- please see phoenix & paulownia
karakusa - scrolling vine
please see scrolling vine
kiri - paulownia
please see phoenix and paulownia
phoenix & paulownia - ho-o kiri
The phoenix, ho-o, is the bird of immortality in the east as in the west, but in Asia its immortality is gained from sipping dew from the flowers of the paulownia, kiri, tree.  Thus this bird, which is represented as having attributes of a peacock, a quail, or even sometimes an owl, is usually seen with paulownia leaves and flowers, the latter being held upright as on the tsutsugaki futon covers, appearing when there are leaves on the tree.  The phoenix and paulownia were probably most often used for marriage quilts, though there is a question of whether or not the peacock-tailed bird on the child's futon cover in our Tsutsugaki section isn't in fact a young phoenix.  Some good examples are in our Textile section under Tsutsugaki.
pine, bamboo, and plum, the Three Friends - sho-chiku-bai
These three plants are often grouped because their symbolism reduplicates the ideas of eternal youth and resilience.  The pine, sho, is of course green year round; the bamboo, chiku, is also evergreen, and bends in strong winds without breaking; the plum, bai, blooms in winter when snow is on the ground and streams are frozen, sending forth its pale pink flowers from old and gnarled trunks.  They are found on Chinese ceramics and textiles as well as in Japan.  Good examples are in our Katazome section, and a futon cover in our Tsutsugaki section.
scrolling vine - karakusa
This is a much-transformed verson of honeysuckle vine, a motif which originated in India and made its way along the Silk Road to China and to Japan, where it is called "chinese grass," or karakusa.  It takes many forms and many levels of complications, and functions to unite design elements.  It is perhaps most frequently seen with chrysanthemums in the designs known as kiku-karakusa, of which there are many examples in our Katazome section.
tortoise, sea tortoise -- kame
The tortoise is said to live 10,000 years, a handy symbol or amulet for longevity, especially when paired with the crane, tsuru, which is said to live 1,000 years.  During the sea-tortoise's long life a great deal of sea-weed grows on his shell, which streams out as he swims and is usually seen in tortoise motifs.  The seaweed is reminiscent of the straw raincoats used in the ancient province of Mino, and this form of toroise is thus often called minogame.  Good examples can be seen in our Textile section under Katazome.

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