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 Traditional Motifs in Japanese Culture      

        There are many resources available to describe the long-standing motifs that have existed in Japanese culture, many for hundreds of years (or longer). The book The Techniques of Japanese Embroidery by Shuji Tamura has some interesting information concerning them. Here, in no particular order, are a few:

Turtle (kame): The turtle shares with the crane the quality of longevity, possibly because its life span is so long; you'll often see green on the shell, symbolizing moss growing on the shell since the turtle lives so long. The shell is often depicted as one or two hexagons, since this is often the shape seen in the center of the real thing in nature.

Crane (tsuru): a very common motif, and it represents longevity since cranes mate for life. They also represent new life, since it carries seeds within its body.

Plum (ume), Pine (matsuba) and bamboo (sasa): these are called the "3 friends of winter", and often are displayed together. They may often be referred to by their Chinese name sho-chiku-bai.  The pine and the bamboo symbolize endurance because they remain green all winter. The unchanging appearance of the pine brings a feeling of good luck and happiness.  It is also a symbol of longevity because of its long life. Bamboo grows quickly to its full height and thus is considered to be full of strength, indicating nobility, purity, honesty, and serious character.  The plum which blooms while there is still snow, symbolizing new hope; an old tree still produces blooms, so it too stands for longevity.

Ferns, because of their many spores, suggest a wish for prosperity. 

Fans (ougi):  because of their broadening size, they carry a meaning to wish for increase. 

Flax-leaf: stands for parental hopes that children will grow straight and tall. 

Overlapping diamonds (mitsubishi): means  pine bark. 

Cross: is a symbol of expansiveness

Overlapping circles: expansiveness

Chrysanthemum (kiku): long life, happiness

Carp:  represents strength and perseverance.

Imperial cart: in ancient days before paved roads, only members of the imperial court could use wheeled conveyances, thus the cart represents a high level of dignity.

Cherry blossom (sakura): fleeting beauty of life

        You will frequently find cranes and turtles on cards, or gifts used for births, marriage, and other annual events.  The bamboo, pine and plum are frequently seen on everything from lacquered dishes to kimono, and yukata.  Sakura - a good reminder to treasure the moment.  The wheeled cart can frequently be found as part of the decoration on a wedding kimono, or in an even more concrete form as a miniature wheeled cart holding a vase of flowers on a table in a home or restaurant. Cranes and turtles are appropriate for a birth, especially worked in red.  Weddings use cranes, pine, and bamboo.  Wedding anniversaries are not as avidly observed in Japan as they are in the West, although any of the above would be most suitable.    

Reference: The Techniques of Japanese Embroidery by Shuji Tamura;
additional thanks to Sue H.
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