Hanakotoba: The Secret Japanese Language of Flowers
Hanakotoba is the Japanese term for the “language of flowers,” and although not widely practiced worldwide, it plays an important role in traditional Japanese culture. So, in this article, let us introduce you to the history of hanakotoba, where you’ll find hanakotoba in Japan, and hanakotoba for some of Japan’s most popular flowers. By the end, you’ll be a hanakotoba master!
May 14 2021 (May 31 2021)
What Is Hanakotoba?
“Hanakotoba” literally means “flower words” or, to put it into more legible English, the Japanese form of the language of flowers. As for how to pronounce the word “hanakotoba,” de-emphasize the last syllable, and pronounce the a’s like you would in “fava” or “llama.”
Contrary to popular belief, it does not have a deep history in Japan. Many say that it was actually introduced to Japan somewhere in the late 19th century, at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Despite its relatively recent beginnings, hanakotoba has flourished in Japan, though the meanings behind various flowers have significantly changed to adapt to Japanese history, customs, and even religion.
Where Can You Find Hanakotoba in Japan?
Also known as “kado” in Japanese, ikebana refers to the art of Japanese flower arrangements. Every arrangement has its own meaning and story, and to get that across, intimate knowledge on hanakotoba is needed.
While you might think that the patterns on kimono are just pretty or beautiful, they can actually hold a lot of meaning. Traditionally, women are supposed to wear different kimono depending on the season, occasion, and even their age, and therefore the flowers that appear on the pattern can change according to the specific context, as every flower carries a different meaning. You are also not allowed to wear kimono displaying a specific flower during its blooming period, as it is meant to show that you are looking forward to that flower's blooming period.
Traditional Japanese Events and Ceremonies
It’s common to have flowers set up on special occasions and ceremonies, whether it’s a wedding, funeral, or Seijin no Hi—a day where teenagers celebrate officially becoming an adult in Japan. Since the culture of hanakotoba is still somewhat strong in Japan, the Japanese take extra care not to accidentally set up or gift the wrong type of flower at such events in order to avoid offending anyone.
Anime (and Other Japanese Pop Culture)
If you’re into Japanese cartoons (anime), comics (manga), or even music, you’ll likely notice all kinds of flowers—especially the ever-popular sakura (cherry blossom)—appearing in them. Many artisans use hanakotoba as a way to showcase the passing of time, introduce a certain kind of atmosphere, describe feelings, or even foreshadow important future plot points. After going through this article, hopefully you’ll find even more enjoyment in them!
13 Popular Japanese Flowers and Their Hanakotoba
Camellia (椿 / Tsubaki)
Best viewed in: December to April
The camellia, known as “tsubaki” in Japanese, is a flower that the Japanese have loved since ancient times. It appeared multiple times in the Manyoshu—the oldest existing waka (Japanese poem) compilation, dating back to AD 759—and today is a popular ingredient in all kinds of Japanese beauty products.
The tsubaki carries multiple meanings depending on its color:
Red tsubaki = Modest, humble.
White tsubaki = Gorgeous, charming, lovely.
Pink tsubaki = Subtle beauty, gentle love, discretion.
While it does make for a great gift, do not give it to anyone who is sick or bring it to a competition! When tsubaki flowers die, instead of the petals gently fluttering off the head, the entire flower head snaps off, signifying loss or even death.
Plum (梅 / Ume)
Best viewed in: January to March
The plum (“ume” in Japanese) flower is probably the second most well-known Japanese flower next to sakura. Though originally from China, the ume flower has long been loved in Japan. In fact, before sakura became associated with hanami (flower-viewing parties), the ume was actually the star of such shows! You’ll find ume trees all throughout Japan (see here for a list of top Tokyo ume spots), but they are particularly concentrated around Tenjin shrines, as they venerate the god of learning, Sugawara no Michizane, who was said to love ume.
In general, ume flowers mean noble, patient, and loyal; all positive traits. However, the hanakotoba changes slightly depending on its color:
Red ume = Elegant.
White ume = Refined.
There is no situation where ume flowers do not fit in. In Japanese, there is a phrase called 松竹梅 (sho-chiku-bai), most often seen when referring to the “tiers” of a dish. The more high-quality (and typically more expensive) it is, the higher “tier” it is. “Sho” (pine) is the lowest tier, while “bai” (another pronunciation for “plum”) is the highest. So, the ume flower is thought to be auspicious and is warmly welcomed to any event or occasion.
Sunflower (向日葵 / Himawari)
Best viewed in: July to September
The sunflower (“himawari” in Japanese) is native to the Americas, but trade brought it to Japan sometime around 1661-1672, during the Edo Period. Since then, it has slowly gained popularity among the Japanese, and today is a somewhat common summer sight that you can find at places like Soleil Hill in Kanagawa Prefecture. If you watch anime, you might also notice sunflowers appear in summer scenes, which is proof of their popularity.
The general hanakotoba meaning behind sunflowers is “I’m only looking at you” as well as “admiration.” However, just like many of the other flowers in this hanakotoba article, the hanakotoba changes depending on the color as well as the size of the sunflower:
White sunflower = Gentle love.
Purple sunflower = Grief, sorrow.
Giant sunflower = False love, fake riches.
Dwarf sunflower = Nobility, love.
What sets sunflowers apart from some of the other flowers, however, is that if you plan on gifting it to someone in Japan, you also need to be mindful of the number of flowers you give! That’s because the meaning changes depending on how many sunflowers you give.
1 sunflower = Fell for you at first sight.
3 sunflowers = Confession of love.
7 sunflowers = Secret love.
11 sunflowers = True love.
108 sunflowers = Marry me.
Cherry Blossom (桜 / Sakura)
Best viewed in: March to April
This iconic springtime flower of Japan is so popular that it almost needs no introduction. The cherry blossom (“sakura” in Japanese) is commonly seen near schools, and it is often thought to signify new beginnings as the Japanese academic school year starts anew in April. It is also frequently referred to as Japan’s national flower, not because of any official recognition but out of pure cultural prominence. In short, it is beloved, and has been ever since the Edo Period. Japan even gives sakura trees to other countries such as Australia as diplomatic gifts!
As expected of such a beautiful flower, the sakura carries two lovely meanings: beautiful soul and beautiful woman. However, there are many varieties of the sakura flower out there, and each one has a different meaning. Here are some common varieties and their hanakotoba:
Someiyoshino sakura = Chaste, exceptionally beautiful.
Shidarezakura = Elegant, but also deceptive.
Yaezakura = Educated, refined.
Some Japanese think that sakura means “don’t forget me” because that’s what they used to mean in France and, when they fall, they do so somewhat sentimentally, as if they loathe to part with the branch. That said, they are still wildly popular gifts and would be greatly appreciated at any occasion, as most Japanese associate the flower with happy memories.
Wisteria (藤 / Fuji)
Best viewed in: April to May
Like several of the other aforementioned flowers, the wisteria (“fuji” in Japanese) is a much loved flower in Japan, even having appeared in the Manyoshu and the classic Tale of Genji.
Many will recognize the purple version of the flower, which is commonly seen wrapped around trellises. These purple fuji mean “drunk on your love,” a suitable description of how mesmerizing they are. However, they also have a couple of general hanakotoba, including “kind” and “we welcome you.”
However, did you know that fuji also carry around some less cheery meanings? One of them is “won’t let you go,” stemming from how fuji are often found near pine trees and grow to wrap around the trees like they refuse to let go. Another meaning is “incurable,” so don’t bring any fuji to anyone who’s ill in Japan!
Red Spider Lily (彼岸花 / Higanbana)
Best viewed in: September to October
Native to Japan and China, the red spider lily (“higanbana” in Japanese) is a captivating flower that not too many know of, but that’s surprisingly common to find in Japan. Though this article focuses on the red version of the flower, the spider lily actually comes in several different colors, including pink, orange, and white, and each one has its own unique meaning.
Red spider lilies have a couple of interesting hanakotoba: “passion” because of its fiery red color, and then “resignation” as well as “independence” because of how the flower blooms. When spider lilies bloom, the leaves fall off and they don’t grow back in again until the flower petals come off. Nature sure can be interesting!
Despite how beautiful red spider lilies may seem and their not-so-negative meanings, they don’t make good gifts in Japan for two reasons. First, they’re poisonous when eaten, which doesn’t bode well for any present. Second, they are thought of negatively because they were once commonly found in graveyards, even though the reason for this was to ward off small creatures from disturbing the burial site.
Sacred Lotus (蓮 / Hasu)
Best viewed in: July to August
The sacred lotus, simply known as “hasu” in Japanese, is another flower with an extremely long history in Japan. Though it is native to India, the hasu is thought of very highly in Japan, as many parts of Japan’s traditional culture stem from Buddhism and the hasu is deeply associated with the religion. According to certain Buddhist teachings, the hasu is thought to be a sacred flower seen in the Pure Land—the place where those who have achieved enlightenment ascend to—that showcases Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. It gives off a serene atmosphere, which is perhaps why you’ll often find this flower at the ponds of traditional Japanese gardens.
As expected of such a flower, it carries the hanakotoba of “pure-hearted” and “sacred.” However, it can also mean “estranged love.” While this might seem like a strange association, it stems from the fact that the hasu blooms only in the morning and for a very short period of time.
Since hasu need water to survive, you won’t normally find this flower being given as a gift or gracing the interior of a room. However, the stem of hasu raised for food purposes, called “renkon” in Japanese, is a nutritious treat that’s often used in various Japanese dishes. One famous treat that uses this ingredient is the ”karashi renkon” from Kumamoto Prefecture.
Japanese Primrose (サクラソウ / Sakurasou)
Best viewed in: April to May
The Japanese primrose (“sakurasou” in Japanese) is a dainty spring flower that got its name due to its resemblance to sakura, mentioned earlier in this article. It is found along the river banks and highlands of Japan, with some fields so gorgeous that they have been designated as national natural monuments, such as the one in Saitama’s Sakurasou Park. If you’re looking for a new spring flower to appreciate and you’ve gone through all the classics, the sakurasou could be your next top choice.
The hanakotoba behind sakurasou match the flower’s lovely appearance: “first love,” “admiration,” and “chastity.” There are no bad connotations for the sakurasou, so feel free to use the flower in any kind of situation. In fact, some say that they even boost one’s luck in love!
Rose (薔薇 / Bara)
Best viewed in: May to November
The rose (“bara” in Japanese) might not be a native Japanese flower, but it is beloved in Japan. You’ll find roses of all colors and sizes scattered throughout the country, especially in European-style gardens.
The rose is universally known to mean “love” or “beauty,” but what few people know is that the meaning changes depending on the color. Here are some of the most common colors and their meanings:
Red = I love you, passion.
White = Chaste.
Pink = Cute.
Yellow = Peace, friendship.
Black = Eternal love.
And like several of the other flowers listed in this article, the hanakotoba can further change based on how many roses you give to someone else:
1 = Fell for you at first sight.
3 = I confess my love to you.
7 = Hidden love.
13 = Eternal friendship.
108 = Marry me.
Roses are popular as gifts and decorations in Japan, so they’re suitable for any occasion. Just make sure you don’t give black or yellow roses, as they can mean “grudge” or “jealousy,” respectively.
Chrysanthemum (菊 / Kiku)
Best viewed in: September to November
Japan has two unofficial national flowers: the sakura and the chrysanthemum, commonly referred to as “kiku.” The sakura is more popular, but the kiku is the one that appears on the Imperial seal. Interestingly, the kiku was once used for medicinal purposes, as people back then believed that it could help extend your life.
The general meanings of the kiku are “noble” and “refined,” but like many of the other flowers in this article, the hanakotoba change based on the color of the kiku.
Red = Love.
Yellow = Heartbroken.
White = Truth.
Purple = Wishes will come true.
Pink = Sweet dreams.
It goes without saying that you should avoid giving kiku with colors that carry negative meanings, but some argue that you shouldn’t give kiku as a gift at all due to its surprisingly common appearance at funerals and other somber occasions. That said, you often do see kiku at celebrations, so there’s no common consensus to this belief. However, it’s best not to give it to anyone who’s sick in order to avoid a possible faux pas.
Hydrangea (紫陽花 / Ajisai)
Best viewed in: May to July
Hydrangea, called “ajisai” in Japanese, are gorgeous flowers that brighten up the gloom that the rainy season brings every year. Despite the rain, flocks of locals and tourists visit gardens throughout Japan, hoping to snap a picture of their lovely visages.
One common meaning for ajisai is “family” because they tend to grow close together, so nowadays they are popular as Mother’s Day presents. However, another general meaning is surprisingly negative—“fickle,” because the color of ajisai can change incredibly quickly depending on the soil and other factors. For this reason, ajisai were historically not used for weddings.
Depending on the color, the hanakotoba given to ajisai can change, but this is one flower that’s actually tricky to give, as not all of the colors have positive connotations.
Pink = Bright lady.
Blue = Indifferent and cold.
White = Open-minded.
Lily (ユリ / Yuri)
Best viewed in: May to August
The lily, or “yuri” in Japanese, is a common flower that can be found in many regions throughout the world, including most of Asia and Europe. Around 15 types of lilies are native to Japan, including the goldband lily or “yamayuri” that many spectacular modern lilies are said to be derived from. While the lily might not be as popular as some of the aforementioned flowers, with so many native species and one that has literally helped shape the species as we know it, they’re worth viewing when in Japan.
The lily has several positive hanakotoba: pure, innocent, and dignified. However, this mostly extends to the white lily, and other colors aren’t as fortunate:
Red/pink = Vain.
Yellow = Deceptive.
Peony (牡丹 / Botan)
Best viewed in: April to May
The peony (“botan” in Japanese) is native to China, but you can find it all over other parts of Asia, including Japan. It is considered the king of flowers due to its delicate yet majestic appearance.
In Japan, you’ll find a lot of botan growing around temples and shrines, perhaps partly due to the fact that, unlike many of the other flowers mentioned in this article, this flower has no negative connotations. It carries the meanings of “wealthy” and “reputable,” and so it is a safe bet for absolutely any place or occasion.
Another significant difference between the botan and other flowers is that it has the same hanakotoba regardless of color.
Learn More About Japanese Culture Through Hanakotoba!
Although hanakotoba isn’t known or practiced much outside of Japan, it is still deeply entrenched in Japanese history and culture. By learning about hanakotoba, not only can you avoid offending anyone when actually in Japan, but you’ll also start to better understand the local culture and traditions. We hope this article has provided you with a good overview of the most popular Japanese flowers and their hanakotoba and sparked an interest within you to learn more!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.