Kimono Patterns and Their Hidden Meanings
The kimono is a traditional Japanese costume. They feature beautiful and often elaborate patterns depicting plants, animals, and more — all of them with special names and meanings.
In Japan, people generally decide which kimono to wear according to the implicit meanings of their patterns, colors, and seasons. You, too, can have the same kimono fashion expertise after reading this article.
Below, we'll introduce some of the most common and popular patterns used in kimonos and explain what they mean.
Plant patterns, which were popular in ancient times, are also used in kimonos to express the beauty of Japan's four distinct seasons. Here are some of the most popular patterns:
Year-Round Plant-Inspired Patterns
Pine trees symbolize longevity because they maintain their resiliently green color all year round while withstanding the wind and snow.
Bamboo has long been used in Shinto rituals. Because it is straight and grows upright, it represents a robust and resolute spirit, making it a popular pattern.
Next, let's take a look at the patterns inspired by each season in Japan.
Plant-Inspired Patterns for Spring
The plum blossom blooms right as the cold winter months melt away into the warm spring. It has long been regarded as a flower of good luck, used throughout the year as a symbol of encouragement.
The three themes above, Pine,Bamboo and Plum, are often called "Sho-chiku-bai" (pine, bamboo, and plum), when seen together, and is considered an auspicious grouping. It’s no wonder they are seen so often in kimono patterns.
Cherry blossoms (sakura) are iconic throughout Japanese art, including kimono patterns. Like spring flowers, they signify the beginning of something promising.
Wisteria is also a popular pattern when it comes to kimonos. Wisteria has been used as a pattern on kimonos to symbolize vitality and long life because of its strong fertility and the spread of its vine tangling with other trees.
Plant-Inspired Patterns for Summer
Yamato Nadeshiko is a Japanese term that expresses the concept of an ideal woman as defined by ancient traditions; poised, proper, kind, gentle, graceful, humble, patient, virtuous, respectful, benevolent, honest, charitable, and faithful.
It is a floral metaphor, combining Yamato, an ancient name for Japan, and Nadeshiko, a delicate frilled pink carnation, blooms from August to September. The flower is often seen in patterns used on yukata (summer kimonos).
Hydrangeas have many different flower charms, but the shrub’s long blooming period means “patient love” because it ensures a long rainy season and produces beautiful flower clusters. Hydrangeas also mean “family reunion” because the small petals huddle together and appear to bloom as a single flower, representing family unity and closeness.
Plant-Inspired Patterns for Autumn
Chrysanthemum designs, seen on Japanese sweets and decorations for Buddhist altars, symbolize longevity and ward off evil spirits. Traditionally, Chrysanthemum Festivals were held on the ninth day of the ninth month to pray for a long and healthy life.
Autumn maple leaves, called Momiji in Japan, have been loved by ancient people admiring their beautiful red and yellow colors. Some believe that they revitalize the body after a long hot summer.
Plant-Inspired Patterns for Winter
The camellia, also called "Tokiwagi" (meaning "evergreen tree") because of its year-round green leaves, has long been part of Japanese lore. Camellia patterns are auspicious and believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the wearer from bad luck. Mentioned in literary classics such as The Tale of Genji, this iconic pattern is used on kimonos and obis.
Nanten is a plant used for New Year’s decorations and herbal medicine. Nanten is associated with the Japanese word for turning a difficult situation around, so its pattern is considered lucky and quite popular for kimonos.
Since ancient times, the moon, stars, and clouds have inspired kimono patterns. Below are some of the most beautiful and representative designs.
A pattern that resembles waves often characterizes the idea of eternity, longevity, and birth. There are many different wave patterns, ranging from small, gentle waves and stormy waves crashing against rocks. While compelling enough to be used alone, it is also combined with other designs such as animals or plants.
The swirling water pattern often symbolizes an endlessly winding stream and expresses congratulations or represents eternity.
Long ago, clouds were believed to have been homes of gods and spirits. It was believed that they could bring rain or snow, and their movement affected the day's weather.
Animal patterns originating from auspicious Chinese designs such as dragons and phoenixes were adopted into Japanese culture during the Asuka and Nara periods. The following are some of the most beloved animal patterns often used on kimonos.
Cranes & Turtles
A Chinese proverb says, "Cranes live for a thousand years, and turtles live for ten thousand years." They are often combined to create Tsurukame (crane and tortoise) motifs that symbolize longevity.
The graceful and elegant appearance of butterflies gives an air of femininity. Butterflies are also symbolic of good luck, as they evolve from a humble chrysalis into an elegant butterfly and flutter their dainty wings.
Dragonflies can only move forward and cannot retreat. The nature of this brave and aggressive bug earned them the name "victory bugs.” They symbolize the God of Grain since they fly in flocks in the sky in the fall. They are considered a good omen, a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.
Object patterns depict various tools, such as fans, musical instruments, and household utensils — each containing its own meaning. You can find these designs used in kimonos everywhere.
The traditional folding fan is one of the most popular patterns for expressing congratulations. Its shape expands or spreads, epitomizing the hope for bright prospects in life.
Goshoguruma were ox carts ridden by noblemen for court ceremonies. They are depicted in elegant patterns used on kimonos for special occasions.
Noshi is a ceremonial origami used with well-wishing gifts for festive occasions such as weddings. The narrow strips of folded white noshi paper symbolize longevity and are a token of good fortune. Noshi is also featured in kimono patterns.
Known in Japanese as waritsuke, these patterns feature elegant yet straightforward designs repeated over the fabric. These beautiful patterns are used for kimonos, obi (sash), and other traditional fabric items. Below are some of the most common designs used for kimonos.
Hemp grows so fast that it can reach a length of 4 meters in 4 months. Patterns inspired by hemp leaves express the wish for the healthy growth of children. They are also used to ward off evil spirits and have been widely used for baby clothes since ancient times.
Consisting of equilateral and isosceles triangles, the Uroko (scales) patterns are said to have been named after the scales of fish and snakes during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). It was used for armor and war garments to ward off curses and evil.
In the example below, the section consisting of triangles uses the Uroko pattern.
With its bubbly chain of interlinked circles, the cloisonne pattern wishes happiness, harmony, good fortune, and a desire for solid relationships.
Shosoin is a historical building that preserves the treasures that Empress Komyo presented to the Todaiji Temple during the Nara period (710–794) as a memorial to Emperor Shomu. The designs used in this period’s crafts and textiles are called Shosoin patterns. They are among the oldest and most prestigious Japanese classical patterns, giving the wearer a royal appearance.
One of the most classic Shosoin patterns, Hosoge (splendid flower pattern), is a fanciful combination of peonies, rhododendrons, and hibiscuses. It is said to have been introduced to Japan from India via China and used in Buddhism for decoration.
Flower-Eating Bird Patterns
Birds are a sign of happiness in Japanese culture. This pattern features birds, like phoenixes and cranes, flying around carefree while nibbling on flowers and branches. Sometimes, this pattern can also include parrots, mandarin ducks, and long-tailed hens.
The geometrical yusoku patterns were used for elaborate clothing and interior decorations. They are characterized by the repetition of elegantly simple fixed designs.
This auspicious and relaxing pattern uses two wavy lines that look like steam rising from a spring, the flickering appearance of a shimmering flame, or clouds rising into the sky.
This pattern is drawn using hexagonal shapes. It signifies good luck and longevity. Different versions include the Bishamon tortoiseshell pattern, where three tortoiseshell shells are combined, and the tortoiseshell floral diamond pattern, containing a single blossom inside.
Meibutsu Gire Patterns
In the world of the tea ceremony, utensils recognized as masterpieces by famous tea masters such as Sen no Rikyu are called "Meibutsu.” The cloth used to cover these tea utensils, such as shifuku and fukusas, is called meibutsu-gire, from which this pattern got its name.
The names of the patterns are unique, such as "gold brocade," "silver orchid," and " donsu," which are derived from the method used to weave the patterns, as well as the names of the tools and the people who owned the saki embroidered on the front.
This pattern has a design of carp dancing among the waves. The carp fish have been considered lucky since ancient times. In mythology, a carp travels up the river to the dragon's gate and is reborn as an enormous dragon. This design is often used in boys' kimonos.
Arisugawa Nishiki (Arisugawa Brocade)
Arisugawa no Miya, a noble family that existed from the early Edo period (1603–1867) to the Taisho period (1912–1926), is the origin of the name Arisugawa Nishiki. The word "Nishiki" (two colors) comes from weaving patterns using two or more different colored threads, with the mark of a deer being particularly famous.
What do you think?
In the age of the samurai, Japanese society imposed restrictions on what people of different backgrounds could wear, including what patterns they could use. Lucky for us in this day and age, we all have the freedom to combine colors and patterns as we like. Knowing each pattern’s meaning adds a new dimension and appreciation to the experience.
Our store showcases a range of modern apparel assembled by artisans using authentic kimono fabric. We hope you will browse the pieces in our store to find a design that matches your personality and feelings.