Japan Data

Traditional Japanese Patterns


A rundown of some of the best-known traditional patterns used for kimonos, hand towels, and other Japanese items.

Japanese traditional patterns can be found on kimonos, tenugui hand towels and all manner of other small Japanese items. Learning their names and origins reveals their auspicious meanings and the wishes for happiness that they embody. Here are some of the best-known traditional Japanese patterns.

Kuginuki (Nail Puller)

This pattern was favored by samurai for use in auspicious crests because it was a play on words. Kuginuki (a tool known as a nail puller) or 釘を抜く kugi o nuku (pull a nail) sounds like 苦を抜く ku o nuku (remove suffering) and also 九城を抜く kuki o nuku (to capture nine castles). It holds the meaning of having success in life and was widely used in kamon or family crests. But why is a pattern showing small squares within larger squares called kuginuki (nail puller)? In the past, metal washers were inserted when driving in nails. This made it easy to remove them when necessary using a type of bar known as a teko, placed under the washers to pry the nails up. This kuginuki pattern is actually a repeat design depicting those washers.

Asanoha (Hemp Leaves)

Asanoha is a pattern representing hemp leaves. Hemp has strong vitality and grows vigorously without the need for a lot of care, so this pattern was often used on babies’ and children’s kimonos with the hope that they would grow up big and strong.

Kōjitsunagi (Interlaced Kō Characters)

This pattern is named for the repeated use of the 工 () character. The way the interlocking characters seem to stretch into infinity is associated with good fortune, and the design is often used in kimono material.

Uroko (Scales)

The combination of triangles resembles the scales of a snake or fish. Samurai would wear clothing with the pattern as a talisman to protect themselves from harm.

Yabane / Yagasuri (Arrow Feathers)

This design is based on hawk, eagle, and other bird feathers used in arrows. With their symbolism of aiming for a target, arrows have long been used as an auspicious pattern. And because, once shot, arrows do not return, in the Edo period (1603–1868) brides were given kimonos featuring this yabane pattern for good luck to ensure they would not need to return to their original family home.

In the late 1970s, Benio, the main character of Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern, a manga for teenage girls, wore this type of kimono while at school, and this led to its pairing with maroon hakama, a type of divided skirt, becoming a popular combination at graduation ceremonies.

Same Komon (Shark Skin)

This pattern is so named because its overlapping arcs of small dots resemble shark skin. It was used by the Kishū Tokugawa family, to which Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751) belonged.

Seigaiha (Blue Ocean Waves)

This pattern represents fan-shaped waves of the open sea. The name originates from the gagaku ancient court dance called seigaiha, in which the dancers wear costumes with this pattern. There is a scene in The Tale of Genji where Genji dances the seigaiha.

Shippō (Seven Treasures)

Circles overlapping in quarters resemble petals and each center forms a shining star. This pattern is regarded as auspicious for the prosperity of descendants, good relationships, and for bringing harmony.

Kikkō (Tortoiseshell)

This is an auspicious pattern derived from the shape of the tortoiseshell (hexagon), which represents longevity. Simple tessellation of hexagons leads to a wide number of variations, including komochi kikkō, in which hexagons have smaller hexagons inside them, and kikkō hanabishi, where the center of the hexagons form flowers.

Bishamon kikkō (Bishamon Tortoiseshell) / Mitsumori kikkō (Triple Combination Tortoiseshell)

This pattern, depicting sets of three hexagons, is so-named because it appears on the armor of Bishamonten, one of Japan’s seven gods of fortune. It is also known as mitsumori kikkō as there are triple combinations of hexagons. The added shading and patterns create a three-dimensional effect.

Ichimatsu (Checkered)

This pattern has different colored squares arranged alternately and is similar to a gingham pattern. While it has been a common woven pattern since ancient times, it became known as Ichimatsu in the eighteenth century as the kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu liked to use it on his costume hakama. It is now also very popular with children as the haori worn by Kamado Tanjirō, the main character in the manga Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, features this pattern in green and black. It was also used in the logos for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Tachiwaki / Tatewaki (Rising Steam)

Two curving lines represent steam gently rising. This was often used as a pattern on kimonos for people of high status in the Heian period (794–1185). Changes to the way the lines curve create variations such as Kumo tatewaku (cloud) and Sasa tatewaku (bamboo).

Karakusa (Winding Plant)

This pattern was introduced into Japan via the Silk Road; the vines stretching in all directions symbolize longevity and prosperity. For some reason, however, it has become well known as the pattern of the furoshiki cloth that robbers used to carry off stolen goods. It suggests that whichever house they broke into, the pattern was so popular that there was always a furoshiki with the pattern there.

Kanoko (Fawn)

This pattern gets its name because it looks like the spotted back of a fawn. It is created by hand using a tie-dyeing technique and is very labour-intensive, so a kimono with an all-over kanoko pattern is considered a luxury item.

Hishi (Diamond)

This is a pattern where geometrical shapes are created when two parallel lines intersect and can be found even on pottery from the ancient Jōmon period. Some of the many variations include waribishi featuring four diamonds combined to form one and hanabishi where flower petals have been shaped into diamonds.

Mameshibori (Pea Tie-dye)

This was the most popular pattern on hand towels in the Edo period. Mame is a play on words, meaning both peas or beans, as well as sturdy and healthy, so represents the hope of staying in sound health. Most mameshibori patterns these days are created using stencil dyeing or printing techniques, so the dots are regular. However, as the name shibori indicates, this pattern was originally handmade using a tie-dyeing technique, meaning the dots were once a more irregular shape.

(Translated from Japanese.)

tradition design