Dear readers, hope you had a wonderful month. With the Qixi Festival and Tanabata recently behind us, love is undoubtedly in the air. These auspicious events set the stage for a deeper look into China and Japan’s enchanting symbols of affection. Join us as we delve into the layers of meaning behind the Japanese symbol for love and related legends!
Japanese Word "愛"
The Japanese character for love, “愛” (ai), holds profound significance At its heart—literally—is “心,” which means “heart.” This isn’t just by chance; it shows that love starts from the core of our being. In Japan, “愛” covers all the bases when it comes to love:
Familial Love: The term refers to the deep affection and compassion shared among family members, including siblings and parents.
Romantic Love: In the context of a relationship between a man and a woman, “愛” encapsulates the sentiment of love and romantic attraction.
Treasuring: The character also symbolizes the act of valuing something dearly or cherishing it.
Universal Love: In a spiritual sense, “愛” represents the all-encompassing love that a deity has for everyone.
The Sakura, or cherry blossom, stands as one of Japan’s most recognized symbols of love. While the cherry blossom’s ethereal beauty captivates eyes, it also embodies deeper philosophical insights about love and life.
At its core, the Sakura serves as a poignant metaphor for the transience of life. The short-lived bloom of these cherry blossoms reminds us to cherish each fleeting moment. In Japan, the arrival of spring, marked by the blooming Sakura, often inspires couples to visit cherry blossom parks. Just as the cherry blossoms dance in the wind before falling, so too does love possess its own delicate nature. The petals, drifting downward, symbolize both the fleeting aspect of affection and the value of savoring romantic moments.
Mandarin ducks, known as “Oshidori” in Japanese, hold a treasured spot in Japanese symbols for love. You’ll often spot these lovey-dovey ducks chillin’ together. These ducks mate for life and are said to experience profound sorrow if separated from their partners. They’ve been couple goals in Japan for centuries. Their image graces a range of traditional garments, most notably Noh costumes and Kosode sleeves, dating back to the Momoyama and Edo periods.
Often appearing as a couple, Mandarin ducks are usually depicted near the water’s edge in traditional Japanese art. In earlier representations, the male duck is shown with an open beak, while the female’s beak is closed, a pose often interpreted as a symbolic portrayal of marital harmony.
Interestingly, modern portrayals of Mandarin ducks feature both with closed beaks, signaling a shift in societal views on marital roles but retaining their age-old message of unity. These images often adorn formal garments like ceremonial kimonos and obis, making them a common sight at traditional Japanese weddings and significant celebrations.
“Out in a morning wind,
Have seen a pair of mandarin ducks parting.
Even the best loving couple makes a quarrel.”
— Utagawa Hiroshige wrote in the woodcut
One of the most fascinating Japanese symbols for love is the Red Thread, or “赤い糸” (Akai Ito). Rooted in ancient folklore tracing back to 7th-century China, this symbol embodies the belief in fated relationships, destined to endure despite obstacles and challenges.
The original tale revolves around a man named Wei Gu, who encounters a mysterious elder reading a celestial marriage book. This otherworldly book contains the names of men and women bound to be together, and the elder’s role is to tie these destined individuals with an invisible red thread. When Wei Gu learns from the elder that his destined partner is a poor girl, he’s less than thrilled. He even goes to hire someone to kill her.
However, his attempt to break fate backfires dramatically. The hired killer only manages to leave a scar on the young girl’s forehead before fleeing. After 14 years, Wei Gu falls in love with a girl and marries her. He surprisingly finds out his wife conceals a scar on her forehead. The revelation dawns on him: his dear wife was the girl he tried to kill, the one bound to him by the invisible red thread.
The original story depicted the red thread tied around the couples’ feet, symbolizing a stable foundation for love. However, this thread has become tied around the little fingers over time. This evolution reflects Japan’s own traditions, like “pinky promises,” as well as the global adoption of wedding rings.
Altair and Vega Stars
Talking about love legends in Japan, we cannot neglect the tale of Orihime and Hikoboshi. Represented by the Vega and Altair stars, this couple is the focal point of the Tanabata Festival (the one we just celebrated this August~).
The Tanabata Festival has roots in China’s Qixi Festival, and its legends have different versions. In the common version from Japan, Orihime, represented by the Vega star, is the Weaving Princess and the daughter of the king of the universe. She spent her days weaving intricate fabrics beside the heavenly river, known as the Milky Way. Despite her talent, Orihime felt an aching loneliness.
Recognizing her sorrow, Orihime’s father arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (the Altair star), a cowherd who lived across the Milky Way. Orihime and Hikoboshi married promptly, but their marital happiness had repercussions. Enthralled by their newfound love, Orihime ceased her weaving, and Hikoboshi’s cows wandered unsupervised. The universe fell out of balance.
Thus, the angry king of this universe placed Orihime and Hikoboshi on opposite sides of the Milky Way, forbidding their meeting. However, moved by Orihime’s tears, the king still allowed them an annual reunion, which is the Tanabata festival on July 7th of the lunar calendar.
This celestial saga not only captivates the imagination but also imparts lessons on love and responsibility. It serves as an eloquent Japanese symbol of love, speaking about love’s power to uplift and disrupt.
Finally, let’s talk about the White Hare of Inaba. This hare is said to help you marry the one you love! In the rich lexicon of Japanese symbols representing love, the White Hare of Inaba holds a unique place because of its blessing magic.
The legend of the White Hare of Inaba comes from the “Kojiki.” The tale unfolds as Okuninushi, a benevolent deity, and his brothers journey to Inaba, trying to marry the beautiful princess Yakami.
During their travels, the group encounters a hare in distress, its fur cruelly stripped away. Rather than aiding the suffering creature, Okuninushi’s siblings joke and deceive it. They tell the hare to bathe in salt water and expose its wounds to the wind. Doing what they suggest, the hare endures even more pain.
And then, the Okuninushi comes across this hare after his brothers. He advises the hare to rinse its body in fresh water and then lie on a bed of cattail flowers. Following these steps, the hare regains its fur and former glory, symbolizing the transformative power of genuine kindness. In gratitude, the white hare tells Okuninushi, “Yakami will marry you.”
Just like that, the kind deity marries the beautiful princess! This ancient tale of the White Hare illustrates the role of sincerity in nurturing love, a theme that deeply resonates in Japanese culture.
Besides, it’s not only the power of kindness but also the white hare’s blessing that helps Okuninushi to win his true love. Therefore, the white hare gets its shrines in Japan, worshiped as a god with miraculous powers for skin diseases and unrequited love.
Fantastic journey, wasn’t it? Today, we explored diverse and captivating Japanese symbols for love. Each symbol offers a unique perspective on love’s many facets. “愛” unifies the various types of love, from familial to romantic to spiritual. Sakura, the cherry blossom, represents love’s transience; and mandarin ducks symbolize lifelong companionship and mutual respect. The Red Thread talks about fate and destiny. The story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, embodied by the Vega and Altair stars, enlightens us on the balance between love and duty. And finally, the White Hare of Inaba underscores the power of kindness within love.
Each of these symbols offers a unique lens through which to view love. Together, they create a complex, beautiful mosaic that makes up the Japanese understanding of this universal emotion.
Thanks for joining us on this enlightening tour through Japanese symbols for love. If you want to learn more about Japanese traditions, welcome to our “Japanese Fashion” channel. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!