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From Traditional Textiles to Modern Graphic Design — Hidden Meanings Behind Japanese Patterns

October 4th, 2019 Culture & History

Japanese traditional patterns are derived from nature, plants and animals

Nature is chaotic and orderly. It generates unique patterns that have mesmerized people around the world. Japan is no exception. 

Japanese saw beauty in nature and simplified their observation into geometric patterns. These so-called “和柄 – wagara” are omnipresent in modern Japanese ceramics, clothing and designs.


Japanese Traditional Patterns


Japan’s traditional patterns first appeared in the middle of Heian period (around 9th ~ 10th century) when Japan initiated trade with China. Overtime, people integrated unique motifs derived from Japan’s seasonal variation and traditional colours to produce Japan’s traditional patterns. 

There are several categories to Japanese traditional patterns including abstract, nature, animal and plants.


Nature-based Patterns


青海波 – Seigaiha


Seigahara pattern symbolizes peace, good luck and long-lasting happiness


Literally, “Seigahara” means “blue ocean waves.” With its origin in Persian culture, this pattern was brought to Japan via Silk Road in the Heian era. The pattern also makes its appearance in The Tale of Genji, when the main character, Hikaru Genji, dances to a piece of Gagaku called “Seigahara.”

Seigahara reminds you of waves rippling through an ocean. Symbolically, it represents peace, good luck and long-lasting happiness. 


麻の葉 — Asanoha


Asanoha pattern symbolizes healthy growth


Since the Heian era, this hexagonal geometric pattern has been used as decoration for statues of Buddha. Later, this pattern was named “Asanoha”, a Japanese word for hemp leaves, for its resemblance to hemp leaves.

Hemp leaves grow so quickly that it reaches a height of 4m in a mere 4 months. This is why Asanoha pattern is frequently used for child clothing to pray for healthy growth.


Artifact-based Patterns


七宝 — Shippo



Shippo pattern symbolizes harmony, peace and a lasting relationship


Shippo indicates the seven treasures in the scriptures of Buddhism. The seven treasures are gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate, crystal, and tridacna. It is an auspicious pattern with an endless chain of circles that represents harmony, peace and a lasting relationship. 


Animal-based Patterns


亀甲 — Kikko


The hexagonal Kikko pattern symbolizes longevity


Kikko means tortoiseshell in Japanese. This hexagonal pattern was brought to Japan from China, with its origin in Black Tortoise, one of the Four Symbols in the Chinese constellations. It was widely used in clothing and weapons during the Heian and Kamakura era, as people saw it as a lucky charm that wards off evil and brings longevity. 


Abstract-based Patterns


市松 — Ichimatsu


Ichimatsu pattern symbolizes prosperity


This checkered pattern became popular among Japanese women during Edo period. It is named after a Kabuki actor Ichimatsu Sadogawa, who wore a Hakama with this pattern. Ichimatsu represents prosperity derived from its endless pattern. It is widely used in modern Japan in hope for prosperity of descendants or expansion of business.  



Ichimatsu pattern was incorporated in the emblems of Tokyo 2020 Olympics


For the same reason, Ichimatsu pattern was used in the emblems of Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The two logos use a modified version of Ichimatsu pattern, using three types of rectangular shapes. It incorporates the message of “harmony and diversity” brought by the collaboration between different countries and cultures.


Finding the Patterns in Modern Japan


The above examples are only a few of many patterns that are still widely used in Japan. Not only are they printed in traditional textiles and ceramics, but they are also integrated into modern designs, as seen in the Olympic emblems. After seeing these patterns in action during your stay, perhaps you could apply them in your own culture.


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