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Kimono Motifs

October 2, 2009

There are as many kimono motifs as there are things in the world. I have seen everything on kimono from Godzilla to chili peppers, from tanks and bomber planes to ancient Greek gods. While there are many, many fascinating and fun kimono motifs, there are also some which are very traditional and steeped in Japanese culture; and can be just as fun as the more modern motifs. This article will discuss several of my favorite traditional motifs, what they mean, and some of the history behind them.

This is an example of one traditional motif, the bobbin motif.

bobbin motif

As always, let’s start with the basics.   What is a motif?  Well, a motif is a recurring theme, element or pattern, or an overall theme.  Basically, in the case of kimono, a motif is what is on the kimono.

There are several very famous Japanese motifs which, throughout the world, have become synonymous with kimono.  Some of these include sakura*, dragons, goldfish and cranes.  While these motifs are lovely, many motifs lesser known in the western world  can be found on exquisitely beautiful kimono and other wafuku (Japanese clothing).

One of my favorite motifs is the takara motif.  Takara are treasures, usually traditional Japanese treasures from folklore.  Takara are very popular on kimono, especially in collections of seven (called shichihou).  The treasures include fabulous items such as hagoromo, magatama, gin, kin, sango, and tsuchi.  Some of the treasures are natural ones: gin is Japanese for  “silver”, and kin is “gold.”  Some of the treasures, such as the magatama, hold religious or historical importance. The magatama is a bead which was popular in with the noble class in ancient Japan and was often found interred with the dead in tombs and burial mounds.

Here’s a few takara.  Among the flowers we see kasa and hagoromo.

motif takara

The stories behind other takara are old tales which have been told for centuries.  For example, the hagoromo is the feathered cloak of a tennin (similar to an angel).  The hagoromo is stolen by a fisherman while the tennin bathes in the water.  Because the tennin cannot go back to heaven without her cloak, the fisherman agrees to return the hagoromo to the tennin if she dances for him.  What is most interesting about this tale is the parallels it holds with the western “Swan Maiden” archetype tales.  The history behind the takara is fascinating, and well worth researching for anyone who likes a good story.

Items bearing a takara motif often have intricate, detailed imagery on them.  One of the fun things about takara motifs is finding and identifying which items are depicted on the piece.

Another great motif is the tabane noshi motif.  I usually like motifs with a lot of detail, and this motif almost always indicates highly detailed work.  Back in the day in Japan, gifts were sometimes presented with tabane noshi attached to them.  Tabane noshi literally means bound noshi, noshi referring to dried strips of abalone, although now strips of paper are also used.  Dried abalone is full of nutrients, and it was an important food, often used as a ritual offering to the gods.  Therefore, tabane noshi has become an auspicious motif and is often found on formal items.

Here’s an example of tabane noshi.

motif tabane noshi

The chayatsuji motif (country house with flowers and streams) is a great, often overlooked theme.  I love this theme for its tranquility.  The motif has a very nostalgic feel to it as well, depicting traditional Japanese architecture which is dying in these modern times.  Because this is the case, items with a chayatsuji motif often have a magical, almost fairytale-like quality to them, giving the viewer a feeling that they are observing a scene frozen in time.  Anyone else suddenly feel like watching Brigadoon?

Doesn’t the chayatsuji motif convey a sense of peace and harmony?

motif chayatsuji

*A brief digression concerning sakura, or Japanese cherry blossoms.  Sakura are quite famous worldwide, and, along with the chrysanthemum are considered by many to be the unofficial national flower of Japan.  The beauty of the sakura cannot be denied, and it is not unheard of, or even uncommon, to see kimono with sakura motifs.  That being said, there are a great many kimono enthusiasts who prefer not to own kimono or obi with sakura motifs.  The main reason behind this is the brevity of the cherry blossom’s blooming season, which provides only a short window of time in which an item bearing sakura can be worn.  Some people see this as a waste of the resources it takes to make and wear a kimono.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. ohiokimono permalink
    October 3, 2009 2:30 pm

    Again, another great post – thank you for sharing.

    • kawaiiiclare permalink*
      October 6, 2009 11:14 pm

      You’re very welcome. Thank you for reading!

  2. Aimon permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:33 am

    i really like it.its sooo beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. May 28, 2011 12:32 pm

    Nice kimono

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