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Cranes

Utagawa Hiroshige

Able to fly between heaven and earth, the crane represents peace and also longevity, and is said to be able to live a thousand years (in reality, the crane lives 60 years - not too shabby!).  According to Japanese belief, if you fold a thousand origami cranes over the course of a year, your dreams will come true.  Making origami cranes is something that most Japanese know how to do, as they learn when they are little.  Today, the country's space program has prospective astronauts fold cranes as part of the application process, in order to gauge their precision.
While the mythical phoenix is an imperial symbol, and is known as the king of Birds, it's not Japan's most iconic feathered friend.  That honor goes to the Japanese red-crowned crane, which is associated with the imperial household and even used in commercial imagery.  Japan Airlines, for example, uses a red crane as it's logo.  Red, of course, is closely associated with the sun and Japan itself,…
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Peonies & Tigers

Peonies were imported from China for their medicinal purposes as well as their aesthetic beauty, and the healing associations only made the royal flower all the more auspicious.  In irezumi, peonies are paired with shishi (guardian lions) not only because both hail from China, but also because there's a story that a shishi was cured of illness by eating a peony.  The flower can be paired with tigers, too.  Like the peony, that animal came to Japan from China, and also has medicinal properties.

Lotus Flower

This flower is a symbol of purity.  Since it sprouts from muddy waters, the lotus shows that beauty can come from unexpected places.  Rich with divine symbolism, it also represents enlightenment.  In irezumi, the lotus flower is typically paired with Buddhist imagery, whether as a floral throne for a Buddha or as a divine trope.  Buddhas and bodhisattvas are usually depicted sitting or standing on the lotus flower as well as holding it.  The lotus also makes a fine stand-alone tattoo.

Peonies & Cherry Blossoms

Each spring, the cherry blossoms return, brilliant and beautiful as ever.  Given their associations with rebirth and life's fragility, it's no accident that Japanese Buddhists embraced cherry blossoms; temples often planted sakura on their grounds.  The religion itself makes much use of flower imagery, including the peony, called obtain in Japanese.  The hosoge, an imaginary Buddhist flower, is even modeled after the peony.  Its imagery is also found in designs at Shinto shrines.


In China, as in Japan, the peony is called the King of Flowers, with connotations of nobility, honor and beauty.  Legend states that more than a thousand years ago, a Chinese empress known by an unfortunate name that translates as "Horse-Faced Lady" prayed to an enormous statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, located in faraway Japan at a Buddhist temple in Nara called Hasedera.  Horse Face's wish was granted, and she became a ravishing beauty.  The now-stunning lady send peony trees to …

Chrysanthemums

The chrysanthemum (kiku in Japanese), which also appears in the hanafuda card deck, begins blooming in September, when much of Japan is still unbearably hot.  Originally imported from China more than a thousand years ago, the chrysanthemum, like the peony, was first used for medicinal purposes.  Later, the yellow flower, with its radiant pedals, was compared to the sun and admired during fall chysantheum-viewing parties where participants drank wine made from the flowers.  For a country whose imperial line is descended from the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, the chrysanthemum was a perfect fit.  In the early 13th century, Emperor Go-Toba became enamored with the flower and had its motifs emblazoned on his kimono as well as his sword.


With its lengthy autumn bloom season, it's perennial flowers, and its medicinal properties, the chrysanthemum symbolized long life, making it a perfect flower for an emperor intending a lengthy reign.  In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Diago used the chr…

The Octopus

In modern times, octopus imagery has strong sexual connotations thanks to the ridiculously suggestive use of tentacles in manga, anime, and video games.  The motif is not new, however; one of Japan's most famous and respected artists, Hokusai, pioneered it back in 1814 with the woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, which featured a woman getting hot and heavy with an enormous cephalopod.


While such erotically charged associations  have become infamous in the West, this underwater invertebrate means more than tentacle porn in Japan.  Often shown as either cute or comical, the octopus was also the personal physician for Ryujin, the underwater sea dragon, which might explain why, in the past, Japanese doctors were fond of carrying octopus amulets.  And in tattoos, the octopus's ink can make for a clever visual pun.


Falcons & Hawks

Note that the Japanese language uses the same word (taka) for both falcons and hawks.  The visual difference is that falcons have a notched beak, while hawks do not.
Taka are strong, with a piercing gaze.  This explains why the bird has long been a symbol of the samurai, and the bird of prey is a common design on men's kimono.  In irezumi, the bird of prey is paired with snakes, with the taka either swooping down to seize the snake in its beak, or with the reptile wrapped around its body.  It's a depiction of killing or being killed.  Thematically, the motifs is much deeper.  The taka represents power, and the snake is longevity.
The bird is also auspicious.  Dreaming of a taka, Mount Fuji, and an eggplant on the first day of a new year is considered lucky.  In the dream, the taka represents strength, power, and the ability to fly high.

Butterflies

Graceful.  Elegant.  Beautiful.  In modern Japan, butterfly tattoos are popular with woman.  They're seen as feminine, and have longstanding associations with happiness.

In the past, however, macho warriors would wear butterfly designs into battle;  they even became a popular samurai-clan crest.  This could be because the insect's grace was a direct contrast to the blood on the battlefield, but also because the butterfly was associated with longevity and the souls of both the living and the dead.
Butterflies make an ideal one-point tattoo, or they can be incorporated into a larger design.


Wind & Water

Tattoo motifs of wind and water; like those of bamboo and pine, are trans-seasonal.  They are often employed as unifying elements across the background of a tattoo.  Connecting different tattoo elements with an overarching design is a defining element of Japanese tattoos; this is an important difference compared to Western tattoos, which traditionally are isolated images on the skin.  Wind and water motifs make that connection.



Cherry Blossoms (Sakura)

 In irezumi, the most popular seasons are spring and autumn.  During these wonderfully bright and colorful in-between times, everything is in flux and either coming to life or beginning to wither.  Capturing these fleeting, ephemeral moments makes them all the more powerful.
In Japan, nothing sums up the country's concept of beauty - or the country itself - better than the cherry blossom, or sakura in Japanese.  Cherry trees bloom for a few days, and then the blossoms fall to the ground or are washed away in a sudden spring rain.  The entire country holds picnics called ohana-mi (literally "flower viewing"), a tradition that stems from an eighth-century aristocratic pastime.  People eat, drink, and make merry with friends while soaking up the pink-and-white landscape.  Other venerable spring rituals include picking and preparing flowers to by eaten so their power is transferred into the body.  In a way, tattoos of spring flowers are an artistic representation of this, inf…

Carp (koi)

The Carp (Koi), the king of the river fish, is much esteemed in Japan for many of its qualities. It is commonly known as an emblem of perseverance, strength, courage and success. These symbolic characteristics are mainly based on the fact that carp are known to be able to swim up a waterfall and up a river over a great distance, even when the flow is very strong. The strength attributed to carp originated in China, where the fish was said to have braved the Wu-Men rapids and to have swum up the Lung-Men falls on the Yellow River. 

On May 5, carp banners are flown in Japan by parents and sons to express the hope that their boys will grow strong and healthy. On the banners, the black carp, called magi, represents the father, the red carp, or chigoe, is the mother, and the blue carp, called kogoe, is the child. These colors can be used in tattooing to identify the koi or show the relationship between them. 
   According to well known legend in japan, carp that swim up Chinas Yellow River a…

Japanese Dragon (Ryu) In progress sleeve on Dave.

         Japanese Dragon, (Ryu) The Japanese dragon is the only mythological creature among the twelve zodiacs. It is a supernatural monstrous animal, composed of parts of animals the really exist, and full of remarkable powers. 
     The dragons body is that of a serpent, but with the scales of a carp, and head like a camel, but with teeth of the tiger, a pug nose, bristles, long whiskers bulging eyes and deer horns. The limbs are like a crocodile, but have the claws of a bird of prey. 
   In Japan the dragon has three toes, In China it has Three, four, or five. The dragon is considered chiefly benevolent and seen as a symbol of wealth and good fortune. The dragon has the power over wind and rain, according to traditional tales, it derives from a pearl-like jewel incorporating the spiritual essence of the universe. In japanese art dragons are often seen carrying this large jewel in one of their claws. 
It is thought dragons can live in water as in the air. It is believed that the drago…