Give Me History
Ancient History > Ancient Symbols > Top 18 Japanese Symbols with Meanings

Top 18 Japanese Symbols with Meanings

Statue of BuddhaPin

An abundance of Japanese symbols have been used throughout history, especially in the tattoo community and culture.

These symbols hold an important place in Japanese mythology and iconography and include some beautiful and frightful mysterious creatures as well. 

Even though there are hundreds of Japanese symbols, below is our list of the top 18 symbols, along with their origins, characteristics, and meanings.

All of these symbols have been included in Japanese tattoo art in some form or the other. 

1. Ryu – Japanese Dragon

Japanese Ryu Dragon.Pin

Japanese Ryu Dragon painting from 1844
Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dragon is a huge part of Japanese iconography and is an easily recognized creature in Japanese iconography.

Seen as symbols of wisdom, strength, and blessing, Ryu are known for their power of manipulating different components for the wellbeing of people.

A part of Buddhism, these mythological creatures have been included in the country’s folklore for a multitude of years and have become a part of hundreds of myths, adopting meanings of wisdom, royalty, and success.

These dragons have also become a part of the Asian culture. 

No two Dragons are the same- they are said to be different than each other depending on the characteristics of the animal they run into on their journey.

The head of Ryu is that of a camel, while the neck and belly is of a snake. It has scales of a koi fish on its body with the talons of a hawk, chicken, or eagle, and is adorned with the horns of a stag.

The number of toes that the Dragon has depends on its place of origin. While most of the Japanese dragons have only three toes, when they travel far away from their homeland, they grow new ones.

In China, these Dragons are said to have four toes, while in Korea, they are said to have five. 

2. Tengu

Tengu / A Japanese deity standing at a cosplay event.Pin

Tengu / A Japanese deity standing at a cosplay event.
Image courtesy: pxhere.com

Belonging to the group of yokai– supernatural ghosts or creatures- Tengu are usually associated with ideas of war and demolition.

Today, they are said to have taken the appearance of humans; long ago, they resembled birds of prey with long, demonic noses.

You will often find illustrations of the Tengu looking enraged and angry. They are usually colored red as a symbolism of their militancy. 

Tengu are famous for vandalizing humans and their circumstances. In fact, it is believed that Tengu are on a secret mission to deter Buddhists from the path of enlightenment.

Considered to be deities as well as demons, mostly these creatures are thought to be mischievous and devious.

They are never attributed to something good, which is why if anything unfortunate or catastrophic happens, the Tengu is blamed.

3. Kappa – Japanese Turtle

A mischievous Japanese Kappa.Pin

A mischievous Japanese Kappa
Illustration 92702879 © Patrimonio Designs Limited | Dreamstime.com

The myth of this grotesque turtle that walks on two legs comes from tails of enormous salamanders who would sneak up on unsuspecting creatures from their hidden spots in shallow river beds and grab them with their mighty jaws.

Kappa are famous mischief-makers who are feared due to their sneaky ability to kidnap little children and harass females when no one is looking. 

To identify the Kappa, look for a small plate of water that is usually found in its skull. Legend has it that when this part of the Kappa is dry, he is helpless and defenseless.

To defeat a Kappa and rid it of its powers, one must bow to him. The Kappa cannot resist politeness and kindness, which is why he is bound to bow back.

When he bows, the water plate in his skull will spill, leaving him weak and vulnerable.

4. Fujin and Raijin

Fujin and Raijin.Pin

Fujin and Raijin / Artwork on two-fold screens from the 18th century
Molnarjr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Commonly known as the Japanese deity of the wind, Fujin is famously portrayed as a devil-like creature who has sparkling blue or green skin.

Fujin, god of wind.Pin

Fujin, god of wind
Image courtesy: Raj Arumugam / (CC BY 2.0)

Legend has it that Fujin has the powers and capabilities of a wizard. He is always seen to be holding a divine object that he uses to commands air currents.

Fujin’s rival brother is Raijin, who is known to be the Shinto god of lightning and thunder. His name comes from the words rai (thunder) and shin (god).

Raijin, god of lightning and thunder.Pin

Raijin, god of lightning and thunder
Ogata Kōrin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Most legends and folktales portray Raijin to be monstrously banging on drums that echo through the sky and produce frightening thunderbolts.

A common folk belief is that Raijin is an evil deity who feeds on the navels and abdomens of children, which is why parents commonly tell their children to cover their stomachs when the sky is raging.

Legend has it that the two brothers have a quarrelsome nature, and their never-ending fighting results in dark, stormy skies.  

5. Kirin 

Porcelain Kirin.Pin

Porcelain Kirin
Hallwyl Museum / Jens Mohr / CC BY-SA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another creature of Japanese folklore, the Kirin rarely appears to mark the death of a wise king or ruler.

Even though the idea of death is seen to be depressing and sorrowful, the Kirin is associated with goodness, showing that mourning is a reflective process that opens doors to a better tomorrow. In fact, it is seen as a good sign for the future.

Kirin are usually shown to have the body of a deer, head of a dragon, scales of a fish, and hooves of a horse.

They also have the mane of a lion, tail of an ox, and are portrayed with double or single horns on their heads.

Many Japanese renditions of the Kirin portray it as a unicorn. However, unlike the sparkly mythological creatures, Kirin are said to be able to breathe fire, and their horns usually face backward.

Legend has it that Kirin do not eat the flesh of other animals and are scared of walking on grass in fear of hurting it. Instead, they walk on clouds and skip on water. 

6. Baku

Baku sculpture.Pin

Baku sculpture at the Konnoh Hachimangu Shrine, ShibuyaTokyoJapan
Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that Baku are mythical creatures who eat bad dreams and nightmares. That is why people in Japan have called upon the Baku for centuries to help them sleep peacefully through the night.

In the 17th century, illustrations of Baku were commonly placed under pillows, just as children place their teeth for the Tooth Fairy in modern times.

Stories claim that if a person wakes up and finds the Baku next to it, it is usually called upon to take away the evil nightmare.

If the creature feels bad for the individual, it will devour the dream and convert it into omens of good health and fortune.

Even though the Baku is seen as an angelic creature who takes away the worries of humans, it must be remembered that its job is not easy.

Since Baku takes bad-tasting dreams out of people, it is created from the leftovers of a variety of animals.

It has a patchy appearance with the tusked head of an elephant, eyes like a rhinoceros, tail of an ox, belly of a reptile, and claws of a tiger. 

7. Karajishi – Foo Dog

A foo dog statue made of porcelain, placed outside a building to deter evil.Pin

A foo dog statue made of porcelain, placed outside a Shrine to deter evil / Tozan Shrine in Arita, Saga Prefecture, Japan
STA3816, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to their name, Karajishi are not dogs. Descendants of Chinese lions, the foo dog, is said to be the “King of all Beasts” or “guardian lion.”

During the Han Dynasty (221 BCE- 206 CE), foo dogs were introduced to China in the form of pets or live creatures to walk the Silk Road, especially when it was common for the royalty to present exotic animals and furs as presents.

Since lions possess a natural instinct to protect their young, the foo dog was regarded as talismans of protection who would get rid of all evil close by.

Hence, rich families started to put statues of foo dogs at the entrances of temples and palaces. 

Today, it is common to find foo dogs on woodblock prints in the form of warriors with back-pieces. Traditionally, foo dogs have been shown in pairs, almost like the concept of Yin Yang.

You will find a female foo dog holding her cub under a paw while it struggles to break free or a male foo dog resting his cub on a globe.

Legend has it that male foo dogs protect a structure before which it stands, while a female foo dogs protects the people inside the structure.

8. Koi – Japanese Fish

Japanese Koi fish in pond.Pin

Japanese Koi
Image courtesy: Pixabay

Native to Japan, these fish have been around for centuries. They are said to have the ability to climb waterfalls, but if caught, they do not shiver in fear when lying on a chopping board, waiting for a knife to go through them.

This is why the Koi have been compared to brave warriors when faced with a sword. Stories of the Koi go all the way back to ancient China, stating that if a Koi managed to climb the falls of the Dragon Gate situated on the Yellow River, it would turn into a dragon. 

The Koi receives utmost praise and respect because it is thought to possess manly qualities.

Japanese people believe that the Koi is a symbol of good luck, fortune, friendship, and love, while the Buddhists associate it with strength, courage, and persistence. 

9. Hou-Ou – Japanese Phoenix

A statue of a Phoenix from Japan.Pin

A statue of a Phoenix from Japan, Nara period (646-794), made from wood
Hiart, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A symbol of the imperial household, the Hou-Ou is a mystical bird that is associated with fidelity, fire, justice, obedience, and the sun.

This fiery bird is a symbol of harmony, as well as disharmony. It is believed that when it descends to Earth from the heavens, it brings with it times of peace. However, when it flies back to its celestial home, conflict erupts on the land.

The Hou-Ou has also been associated with the physical embodiment of male and female energy. 

In Irezumi (the Japanese word for tattoo), phoenixes are completely different creatures from the ones that we are familiar with. They do not rise from their ashes and are not created out of the fire.

In fact, they have been confused with the traditional phoenix because of their resemblance to the Western bird. The truth is that the Hou-Ou has been around for centuries. 

10.Kitsune – Japanese Fox

A nine-tailed fox spirit (kitsune) scaring Prince Hanzoku.Pin

A nine-tailed fox spirit (kitsune) scaring Prince Hanzoku; print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Edo period, 19th century.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stories written by Chinese writers, such as Guo Pu, and legends following Japan’s history has it that Kitsune are intelligent magical beings who are immortal.

According to ancient accounts, as soon as a Kitsune grows nine tails, it rises to the heavens in the form of a celestial fox. However, on Earth these creatures are considered to be mischievous rascals who gain delight from misguiding human beings.

It is no wonder that these creatures can commonly be found on woodblock prints and tattoos. 

Kitsune are known to sprout lightning and fire from their mouths. They can fly and attach themselves to the minds of others almost psychically.

In other stories, Kitsune are believed to be shapeshifters who transform themselves into human beings in search of love or to empty life from innocent beings.

11. Heikegani – Japanese Crab

Taira Tomomori and heikegani with faces of fallen soldiers.Pin

Taira Tomomori and heikegani with faces of fallen soldiers
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Heikegani or “samurai crab” really exists in the real world. However, in Japanese legends, these crustaceans are ugly-looking critters commonly found on Japanese beaches with backs that look like maps of annoyed faces.

The exoskeletal topsides of the Japanese crab are said to look like human faces. 

Legends surrounding Heikegani come from a military conflict that broke out between two feuding Japanese clans in the 12th century.

The Genpei War was a five-year-long power struggle in which the Taira and Minamoto were face-to-face in the last battle at Dan-no-Ura. Unfortunately, the Taira were largely outnumbered, and during the war, they lost their child emperor- Antoku.

As soon as this happened, the Taira, instead of losing their honor to their samurai enemies, chose to jump into the stubborn sea and take their own lives. Hence, the Heikegani represent fallen warriors. 

12. Nue – Japanese phantom

Japanese Nue.Pin

Japanese Nue
wikimedia.org Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nue is a fantastic feature from the millennium-old Japanese poem, The Tale of the Heike. It is shown to possess the face of an ape, the body of a tiger, and a snake on its tail.

Stories describe the Nue to be surrounded by a cloud of mysterious black smoke and a loud, frightful voice.

When it arrived in the city, the emperor, Nijo, fell dreadfully sick. However, no medicine or spiritual remedies seemed to heal Nijo, which is why Nijo’s advisers believed that he had been hit with a curse brought by the supernatural creature, Nue. 

The emperor takes the advice of the people around him and hires his best archer, Minamoto no Yorimasa, to kill the beast.

Ino Haya, an apprentice of the archer, grabs hold of his master’s arrows and goes after Nue. After a long, difficult journey, he finally finds Nue and kills it. In Japanese history, Ino Haya is known to have saved the emperor from the curse of the strange creature. 

13. Namakubi – Tattoo

A brutal Japanese image, Namakubi is symbolized with blood-red spots and intricate swords, daggers, ropes, and arrows that mercilessly go through eyes and noses.

Namakubi represents severed heads that are thrown around everywhere. These heads could be of criminals that had been beheaded by warriors.

Namakubi has roots in Japan’s feudal history when different wars were fought, and rituals would take place. 

The Namakubi displays the ritual of Seppuku, which was used in suicidal deaths as well as capital punishments. It would include the act of self-disembowelment, along with a beheading.

The Namakubi shows the last part of the sacred ritual of Seppuku. Here, samurai would either opt to die in honor without falling prey to their enemies, or another samurai would kill them.

One samurai would insert a knife into another’s abdomen, and then another would decapitate him using his sword. Hence, the Namakubi shows the motion of the head slicing through the air. 

14. Sakura – Cherry Blossom

Japanese Cherry blossom flowers.Pin

Japanese Cherry blossom flowers
Norbert Weber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese adore the natural world and respect it for all that it provides. For them, cherry blossoms are the perfect symbolism of this magical nature.

As followers of Buddhism, the Japanese would practice the religion and embrace the idea of impermanence. Cherry blossom flowers are beautiful flowers that bloom and wither, all within the lifespan of 14 days.

The best time to look at these flowers is when they are four to seven days old. They are also symbolic of the little time we spend on Earth, which is why we should make the most of it and live life to its fullest.

Buddhists believe that it is important to live in the moment. 

The cherry blossom flower is said to be the national flower of Japan. It can be found in many different countries, including in New York’s Central Park.

People in Japan also follow a tradition known as Hanami, where they enjoy and celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossom tree and take some time to thank their blessings.

15. Fudo Myoo

Statue of Fudo Myoo from early 13th century Japan.Pin

Statue of Fudo Myoo from early 13th century Japan
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Japanese, Fudo Myoo stands for “Wise King Acala.” King Acala is a Buddhist god who was made a part of Irezumi’s canon as Buddhism spread in different areas of the country.

Many interpretations exist of Fudo Myoo, but it is most commonly a symbol of an enraged protector who banishes spiritual hindrance so that the good can reach enlightenment without any additional burdens. 

Fudo Myoo is represented to have a frustrated face with a wrinkled brow, pointy teeth, and slanted-squinted eyes.

Fudo Myoo also holds a number of symbolic things in legends and folktales, including three-pronged vajra swords and nooses.

16. Enso

The Ensō.Pin

The Ensō
Ensō by Nick Raleigh from the Noun Project

The Enso circle is a spiritual symbol that holds a deep meaning in Japan. It represents emptiness and the universe.

Zen Buddhists believe that the circle represents us as we are stuck in the true nature of existence.

Even though, at first glance, it may seem like the circle is closed, it is actually open to infinity. 

The idea of the Enso circle is that to understand the universe and the surroundings that we live in; it is important to free our minds of all concepts and ideas that we have grown up with.

We have to shed the truth that we have been taught all through our childhood so that we can learn the truth of our existence and the universe we live in. 

17. Statues with Red Bibs

Japanese statues with red bibs.Pin

Japanese statues with red bibs
Image courtesy: pxhere.com

In Japanese culture, it was common for parents to put red bibs on Buddhist statues. This was a symbol of children who had passed away before their parents.

Buddhists believed that “Jizo” was an entity that was responsible for protecting children and travelers passing by the town.

The color red in Japan is symbolic of purification. Moreover, it is believed that red keeps the devils far away and allows good spirits to enter the surroundings. 

18. Torii

Torii / Orange Japanese gate.Pin

Torii / Orange Japanese gate
Image courtesy: pxhere.com

A traditional Japanese gate that is usually found inside a Shinto shrine, the Torii is a symbol of transition from the ordinary to the sacred.

It represents the difference between real life and spiritual life. No one can walk in the middle of the gate as this space is reserved for the mighty Japanese deities. 

A torii can commonly be found deeper in the shrine as it is a representation of the rising levels of holiness.

Moreover, a torii is always found to be standing in front of the tomb of an Emperor. In the past, the torii would be placed at the entrance of Buddhist temples. 

Conclusion

All the above Japanese symbols are part of Japanese mythology. Many people use these Japanese symbols as tattoos and artworks due to the rich folk tales associated with them.

References

  1. https://mai-ko.com/travel/culture-in-japan/japanese-symbols-and-meanings-in-japan/
  2. https://www.tattoodo.com/a/a-guide-to-the-mythological-creatures-of-japanese-irezumi-10835

Header image courtesy: Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The Editors of Give Me History

The editors of Give Me History work with specific content that they’ve had considerable expertise within academic projects or study. The contents of this article have additionally been reviewed by external experts before publishing.

Cite this article

The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 18 Japanese Symbols with Meanings," Give Me History, May 28, 2021, https://givemehistory.com/symbols-of-japan.

Add comment