If we go deep into history and scratch the surface of linguistic evolution, all we find are symbols. Symbols were used to calculate, communicate, and even converse. These symbols included animate and inanimate objects. The practice evolved so much that they become part of the culture of people inhabiting a certain region. Several civilizations like Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus valley civilizations prominently used symbolism to perform daily activities. Symbolism was further used in astrology and folklore to predict and weave stories. They became part of spirituality and devotion as civilization evolved.
Animals have been part of symbolism ever since humans came into existence. Every civilization imbibed animals in their stories, activities, and culture. Some cultures even worshiped symbols of animals and attached huge respect to them. Some times these animals carried the souls of the dead ones to heaven and other times they brought a lot of luck. No civilization or culture is untouched by animal symbolism. And you won’t get a better country than Japan where animal symbolism popular.
The animal symbolism in Japan is prevalent for five hundred years now. If you visit Japan, you would see symbolic animals adorning shops, homes, and even business establishments. Some symbolic animals appear so enchanting and artistic that you may forget the meaning behind their use and keep them at home as prized collections. Knowing the meaning of these symbolic animals would help you in understanding the purpose behind their use. You may also connect spiritually with any one of the animals and try to establish a connection between the spiritual and real worlds through the animal.
Japanese Symbolic Animals and their Meanings
Symbolic animals are part of Japanese culture from time immemorial. These symbolic animals find a place in modern arts like sculptures, prints, paintings, anime, and even movies. Let’s see some symbolic animals and their meanings.
Frogs are called Kaeru in the Japanese language. They symbolize the return of things like good fortune, wisdom, and knowledge. They have been part of Japanese stories and folklore since the era of kings and empires. The people of Japan weaved folk stories around frogs mainly due to the presence of many species of frogs in Japan. These frogs lived in paddy fields always flooded by water. Since they used to eat insects harming the rice crop, Japanese people found them as animals of good fortune. In the olden days, frequent travelers carried frogs with them in their journeys. They thought frogs never forget their native place and return at any cost. This notion helped them in believing that they would also return to their places safely. Due to this reason, the farmers of Japan associated frogs with the return of good things.
Turtles are called Kame in the Japanese language. They represent longevity, protection, patience, luck, and wisdom. In Japanese culture, a turtle symbolizes both heaven and earth. The hard shell protecting the turtle is considered as heaven and the flat and soft part beneath the shell is earth. It shows that heaven is protecting the earth and one needs to conduct himself well on the surface of the earth to reap the benefits in heaven. The characteristics of a turtle are slowness, strength, and firmness. These characteristics are believed to have formed the notion that it represents patience, knowledge, and wisdom.
It is not going to be an exaggeration if we say Japanese people are obsessed with cats. They not only pet cats in their homes, they even have dedicated cat cafes in Tokyo and other cities. They even have dedicated cat islands like Tashirojima and Enoshima. This shows how cats have become part of Japanese culture. Cats are considered to bring prosperity, wealth, happiness, energy, and luck. You can find the figurine of the cat with raised hands all over Japan. Shops, schools, brands, business establishments, and homes keep these figurines to attract wealth and luck. Maneki Neko is the Japanese name for cat and cat figurine.
Cranes are called Tsuru in the Japanese language. They represent fortune and longevity. The symbolism mainly comes from Japanese folklore, where it was believed that cranes live for a thousand years. Since cranes are monogamous, they also represent a long-lasting relationship between couples. Due to this reason, Japanese people incorporate symbolic cranes during wedding ceremonies. They even weave these birds in wedding Kimonos to bless the couple. Another feature of symbolic cranes in Japanese culture is that you often find them in artworks, mainly origami. You can also find large sculptures of cranes outside Japanese temples.
Butterflies represent the souls of living and dead according to Japanese culture. Japanese people believe that the souls are carried to heaven in the form of butterflies once our journey on earth ends. They are considered a symbol of joy, happiness, enthusiasm, and longevity. The metamorphosis of a butterfly from a larva to a fully-grown butterfly is often compared with a girl changing into a grown woman. They are a symbol of womanhood and the freedom that comes with it. They are believed to be a symbol of marital happiness since male and female butterflies dance around during the mating season. Choho is the Japanese name of butterflies.
Koi fishes of Koi Carps are symbols of the orient. The distinctive features of these fishes are red and golden spots on their bodies. They were only available in Japan until the early 18th century. They were then bred and spread around the world. Today, you can see them everywhere in Japan and they have become national fish. Japanese people keep them in their homes since they believe Koi fishes bring good luck. They also represent perseverance and fighting spirit since they resist the flow of water by swimming against the tide. In some parts of Japan, they are also considered as a symbol of faithfulness. The symbol of the children’s day festival celebrated on the 5th of May is Koi Carp swimming against the rapids. The design is incorporated into the logo to inspire children to be confident and work hard.
Dragon is a mythical creature borrowed from Chinese culture. Most of the South Asian countries have a dragon in their folklore and culture. Japan too has imbibed dragon in its culture and it represents wisdom, power, and success. Keeping a symbol of a dragon is believed to bring luck, fortune, and strength. In China, the dragon is largely associated with rain and it is believed to remove drought. Since Japan is not that prone to droughts, the dragon is considered to symbolize the sea. You can find dragon artworks in numerous ancient palaces and paintings in Japan. They still adorn kimonos, gardens, and homes of Japanese people. Dragons are called Tatsu in Japnese language.
Lions have significance in all the cultures around the world in one or the other form. Though lions are not native to Japan, we can find its symbolism in several places. They represent power, strength, confidence, and protection. In Japanese culture, they were usually built at the entrance of places of worship, believing that they would protect the deity inside the temple. These lions are also called Lion Dogs and Japanese people believe that they ward off harmful and evil spirits. The Japanese term for a lion is Komainu.
Raccoon Dog or Tanuki as known in the Japanese language is an ancient animal. It has been mentioned in several folklores and myths of Japanese culture. It represents joy, mischievousness, and exuberance. This animal is also considered a master of disguise and has been found in place in both traditional and modern arts, including animated movies and comics. It is believed to bring good fortune and luck if people keep its figurine in their homes.
The red Fox is part of Japanese myth and folklore for a long time now. They are known as Kitsune in the Japanese language. Red foxes are considered master tricksters taking human form and devouring souls and spirits in Japanese folklore. They have also been shown as symbols of protection, friendship, and love in some paintings and stories. The Japanese culture also considers the red fox as the spirit of the Shinto god Inari – the god of crops. Sculptures and statues of mystical red foxes have been placed across the length and breadth of the famous Fushimi-Inari shrine. You will find them in the entrance every Inari temple present in Japan. If you are frightened or feeling superstitious, fold your fingers tightly to form fists and pray to the red fox. It said that the red fox enters your body through fingernails to ward off evil spirits causing fear.
Deer hold a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people. They are considered messengers of gods, according to the Shinto belief system. They represent innocence, love, energy, and purity. Japanese folklore tells a story that one of the Kasuga Shrine gods visited deer from the Nara area. His name was Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, and he blessed the deer and appeared riding them on Mount Mikasa. Due to this reason, deer are allowed to roam freely in Nara. Travelers and people visiting the city can touch and feed deer crackers.