Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hanakotoba, a Japanese secret language using flowers


It is universally known that different flowers have different meanings in different cultures, that is why care should be taken when sending flowers or presenting someone with a bouquet. Still, there is the common expression, “say it with flowers” that has been used by a floral company that delivers worldwide as their slogan for a number of years.

Sakura (cherry blossom) – Kind/gentle
Indeed, for people who know the meaning behind each flower, it is an apt slogan. But not all people know the language of flowers. For the Japanese, who have been exposed to Buddhism and are naturally lovers of nature, flowers and their meanings are interwoven in the Japanese way of life. Flowers figure prominently in their costumes, in their daily lives, in art, including tattoo or irezumi, even in their legal documents such as passports and government seals. The Japanese have always been spiritual, and they carefully interconnect and associate the intricacies of living things and nature. The flower arrangement Japan is famous for is called Ikebana, which translates to “living flowers.” Others refer to it as kadō or “the way of flowers.” Ikebana is a beautiful art form that combines the beauty of nature, its natural elements as well as the beauty of the mind and the disposition of the one doing the flower arranging. It requires great discipline, a wonderful sense of creativity, combining line, form and shape to bring about the intended meaning behind a particular flower arrangement. Japanese kimonos usually have flowers on them, to complement the occasion or as a symbol of the wearer’s status in society.


Peony (bravery)
Japanese tattoos using flowers have been part of their culture for more than 5,000 years. This art form is used to express different emotions. The peony or botan is not a native Japanese flower. It was introduced to the country from China. However, it became revered as the King of Flowers in Japan, connoting wealth, good fortune, bravery, daring and honor. The delicate cherry blossom is deeply related to the Samurai warriors of old. Today, the cherry blossom (sakura) is a symbol of nationalism in Japan. In the days of the Samurais, it is a depiction of their life, a cue to how fleeting their life could be, therefore, a Samurai did not make plans for the future. For them it had always been guided by their knowledge and understanding that they should live their life brilliantly however brief it may be and go down dramatically, just like how the cherry blossoms look gloriously magnificent when in full bloom, only to fall to the ground after a short while. Cherry blossoms are associated with the concept of mono no aware, a Japanese phrase that could be translated to “feelings for the passing of things” in English.  Inasmuch as Samurais liken their life to the cherry blossoms, they are very averse to seeing camellias, called tsubaki in Japanese, as they considered the flowers as bad luck, due to the flowers’ characteristic. Instead of the petals falling one by one, the entire head of the flower falls off the stem.


 Lotus (Far from the one he loves/Purity/Chastity)

Divine birth and purity are some of the meanings given to the lotus flower. Closely associated with Buddhism. There are lotuses in different colors and each one has its own special meaning. White symbolizes spiritual perfection and mental purity. Passion, compassion and love is represented by a red lotus.  If the lotus is blue, it means knowledge, intelligence and wisdom. Deities of the highest order are the only ones represented by pink lotuses. Purple lotuses on the other hand means the Noble Eightfold Path and mysticism have been reached.

Ikebana arrangement
In Ikebana, even if the approach is minimal, its structure is well defined, usually anchored on a scalene triangle, defined by its three points. Normally represented by twigs, the points could be ascribed as earth, moon and sun or man, earth and heaven. There is a specific order in their height and position, with the container also a part of the total composition.

Ikebana comes from the word ikeru, a Japanese term that translates to “living,” “arrange flowers” or “keep alive.” Flower in Japanese is hana.  With the combination of these two terms, the translation could be “arranging flowers” or “giving life to flowers.”

Flower selection

This is where hanakotoba comes in. The selection of flowers to be used in ikebana is very essential in the arrangement, so much so that each ikebana practitioner spend years learning the art as well as learning the meaning behind each flower and their possible combinations.  Although no longer that popular, the concept is still very much in use, as hanakotoba provides the impetus to silently and colorfully convey whatever emotions someone is feeling and immediately and directly communicate with the recipient the words that cannot be verbalized. Somehow, the specific flowers chosen become passwords as well as codes.

Flowers and their meaning

Even if you are not interested in horticulture and just enjoy the flowers for their colors and their scents, it is still a good idea to learn a bit about what they generally mean, so whoever receives flowers from you, be it a single bud or a large bouquet, they would be able to appreciate the thought you’ve put into their selection, the hanakotoba way.
amaryllis or amaririsu (shy)
The amaryllis or amaririsu indicates that you are shy while the white anemone means that you are being sincere. Ambrosia or Amuburoshiā in Japanese should be selected by the pious to bring to church, temple or during religious ceremonies. Shion or aster tartaricus are used for remembrance. Showing that you are being modest or patient could be conveyed when you send azaleas or tsutsuji. Sending bluebells (burūberu) means that you are being grateful.

Cactus (kakutasu) flower (Lust/sex)
Do be careful when you send a cactus (kakutasu) flower to a Japanese since this is a symbol for sex or lust. When in love, people could send red camellias, while those who are longing for some should choose yellow camellias. If you are waiting for someone, send white camellias instead. Love and fascination could be conveyed by sending carnations or kānēshon whereas true love could be shown by sending wasurenagusa or forget-me-not. If you secretly love someone, tell the person by sending gardenias or kuchinashi but if you are single and looking, the holly or mistletoe, called yadorigi or hōrii is your best choice.

Chrysanthemum (white for truth and yellow for imperial)

The sakura or the cherry blossom indicates being gentle or kind, while the yellow chrysanthemum or kigiku is an imperial symbol. The white chrysanthemum, called shiragiku on the other hand means truth.
Four-leaf clovers (good luck)
It is not only the Irish who believe that four-leaf clovers symbolize good luck. The Japanese do so, too and they call these verdant leaf yotsuba no kurōbā.

Red poppy (fun-loving)
The different colors of the poppy flower also hold different meanings.  A red poppy or hinageshi means fun-loving, a white keshi (shiro) one is a symbol of rejoicing and a yellow one or keshi (ki) means success.
White lily (chastity and purity)
There are many kinds of lilies and they symbolize different things. A white lily (shirayuri) is for chastity and purity. On the other hand, an orange lily (sayuri) means revenge or hatred. When you send someone a lily of the valley or even a spider lily (suzuran or yuri), you are telling that someone that she is sweet. Wealth is indicated by the tiger lily or oniyuri. It is a different thing when someone receives a red spider lily or higanbana or manjushage, as this means lost memory, abandonment or a sign never to meet again.

Red rose (love)
Roses have always been the flower of love, but it actually depends of the color once again. A red rose or benibara means love or in love while a white rose or bara is a symbol of devotion, innocence and silence. Confidence, trust and happiness are the meanings associated with a pink rose, called momoirobara in Japanese. If you want to tell your partner that you are feeling pangs of jealousy, send yellow roses or kiiroibara. A one-sided love though is indicated by a yellow tulip while trust, fame or charity is symbolized by a red tulip. Tulips are called chūrippu in Japanese.

If someone is bound to receive some good news, send ayame or iris. If you want someone to know that you are caring or thinking of him or her, the pansy or panjī is a good flower to send. Sending a person some freesias or furījia is to remind the recipient that she or he is being childish.

Show respect with daffodils or suisen; good taste with dahlias or tenjikubotan; courage and power with edelweiss or ēderuwaisu and faith with daisies or hinagiku. Some personal traits are also shown through flowers, such as being gentle, generous, friendly and graceful, faithful, natural, honest and loyal by choosing hibiscus (haibīsukasu), honeysuckle (suikazura), jasmine (jasumin), lavender (rabendā), magnolia (magunoria), violet (sumire) and zinnia (Hyakunichisou), respectively.

Uplift someone’s pride with hydrangea or ajisai and boost a person’s self-esteem with suisen or narcissus.
Sweet peas (goodbye)
Hanakotoba could give you a wonderful insight into the language of flowers, so it is one thing that is good to know. Just remember that these meanings are what the Japanese give to these flowers, as other meanings may be given to the flowers in another region or country. The life of flowers is indeed very exciting if you just care a little to know what they mean. Hopefully there are no sweet peas (suītopī) being delivered as this means goodbye.




Photo Credits:
-       Sakura (cherry blossom)
-       Peony
-       Lotus
-       Ikebana arrangement
-       amaryllis or amaririsu
-       Cactus flower
-       Chrysanthemums
-       Four-leaf clover
-       Poppy
-       White lily
-       Red rose
-       Sweet pea

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