This guide explores the history, origins, and present-day meaning of Hanakotoba. plus, we’ll share 35 of the most popular types of flowers and their symbolism in the Japanese Language of Flowers.
When you select a bouquet of flowers to give as a gift, pick out arrangements to decorate your home or office, or choose flowers to celebrate a wedding, you likely focus on design aspects like the color, size, shape, and appearance of the included flowers. You may have never even considered what meanings the flowers might represent symbolically.
However, different types of flowers are rich with symbolism worldwide, and each has its own meaning that can differ depending on where you are and the cultural context in which the flowers exist. In Japan, for example, flowers take their symbolic meaning from the art of hanakotoba.
What Is Hanakotoba?
Directly translated, hanakotoba means “flower words.” It’s also sometimes referred to as the Japanese language of flowers. Hanakotoba assigns symbolic meanings to different species of Japanese flowers and even different colors of flowers to create a unique language that enables communication through flowers.
Many cultures have similar practices of assigning symbolic meanings to different flowers. For example, the Western equivalent of hanakotoba is the Language of Flowers (floriography) developed during the Victorian era.
The History and Origins of Hanakotoba
Although flowers have had a symbolic place in mythology, religion, and culture for almost as long as humans have had mythologies, religions, and cultures, the tradition of hanakotoba is not even close to ancient.
In fact, it was thought to have started in Japan during the Meiji Period between 1868 and 1912. This was just a few decades after the time when the Language of Flowers really took hold in the Western world during the Victorian era.
The origins of hanakotoba are unclear, but it is thought to have possibly been introduced to Japan from China. However, conveying sentiments through the language of flowers became popular and rapidly adopted to account for Japanese history, religion, and customs.
Hanakotoba and Ikebana
The term Ikebana literally translates to “arranging flowers” or “giving life to flowers.” Ikebana seeks to imitate nature and life while conveying specific emotions through floral design.
The art form uses various natural elements such as flowers, branches, stones, water, and intentionally designed containers to create floral scapes that capture movement and express a wide range of feelings. Ikebana arrangements are used in various settings, including for design and decor, as altar offerings, and during traditional tea ceremonies.
Naturally, ikebana and hanakotoba go hand-in-hand. With the art of ikebana seeking to convey emotion and feeling, practitioners (called kadō) can turn to the symbolic meanings of flowers assigned by hanakotoba to more clearly communicate messages, emotions, and feelings by infusing additional meaning into their highly visual designs by selecting the flowers that represent those emotions in hanakotoba.
Where Can You Find Hanakotoba in Japan?
Since it is, at its heart, a form of communication, the practice of hanakotoba appears in several places within Japanese culture, and the meanings of flowers can actually be interpreted or translated anywhere that flowers are used intentionally, such as finding symbolic meanings of flowers that are included in literature.
As stated above, hanakotoba can most commonly be used in the practice of ikebana. Although ikebana typically celebrates the seasons by using flowers that are currently in season, these flowers are selected with great discernment to pick the ones that convey an appropriate message.
The textile patterns found on kimonos are undeniably beautiful, but the purpose of these designs goes beyond simply looking pretty; the designs actually have significant symbolic meaning. Since kimono designs often feature flowers and other natural elements, hanakotoba permeates the designs.
Kimono designs are selected based on the season, the wearer’s age, and the occasion, so the types of flowers that are featured change depending on the context. Additionally, the flowers chosen represent looking forward to that flower coming into bloom, which means these kimonos should not be worn when the flowers they feature are already blossoming.
In a similar way, that flower choice is symbolically important for kimonos, they are also specifically incorporated and selected for kanzashi (traditional Japanese hair ornaments) based on the season and meaning of the flowers.
Traditional Events and Ceremonies
Regular flower arrangements, bouquets, garlands, wreaths, and ikebana designs are commonly used to decorate and adorn special occasions, celebrations, ceremonies, and traditional events such as weddings, funerals, festivals, births, birthdays, or Seijin no Hi (a coming of age celebration for teenagers who are officially becoming adults).
With the tradition of hanakotoba being fairly well known throughout Japan, people are careful to select the most appropriate flowers to use in designs or to give as gifts for these occasions. This ensures people avoid the faux pas of celebrating a wedding with flowers that represent death or abandonment or expressing sympathy at the loss of a loved one with flowers that represent happiness.
Choosing the wrong type or color of flowers is not just poor taste, but it could also be considered offensive, disrespectful, or thought to be bad luck.
Anime and Other Popular Culture
Hanakotoba also has a significant presence in Japanese music, comics (manga), and animation (anime). The artists that produce these art forms commonly use hanakotoba as a way to mark the passage of time in their stories and lyrics, using seasonal flowers to denote specific times of the year.
Additionally, hanakotoba is commonly used in these forms of popular culture in a similar way to how the Japanese language of flowers is used in flower giving – as a way to convey a certain mood, to set a specific atmosphere in a scene, to depict the feelings of characters, and it’s even used as a tool for foreshadowing upcoming plot twists.
Cherry blossoms are among the most commonly used flowers in Japanese popular culture.
35 Popular Types of Flowers and Their Hanakotoba
1. Amaryllis (Amaririsu)
Amaryllis is a genus of bulbous flowers that blossom in white and red, but they are most noted for their dazzling, cherry-red blossoms. In hanakotoba, amaryllis flowers mean shy. In the zodiac, amaryllis flowers are often associated with Aries (March 20 to April 21). This is thanks to the flower’s fiery-red hue and the god of war’s fiery temperament.
2. Ambrosia (Amuburoshiā)
According to hanakotoba, ambrosia means pious. In Japan, ambrosia is used to brew a special drink that, in mythology, was said to grant immortality, and ambrosia tea is brewed as an offering to the gods. In the west, plants of the Ambrosia genus are commonly called ragweed, and they’re often thought of with a pejorative connotation, as many people suffer from ragweed allergies.
3. Anemone (Anemone)
4. Aster (Shion)
In hanakotoba, aster means rememberance. Specifically, the Aster tataricus (Tatarinow’s aster) has a symbolic meaning that translates to “I will not forget you.” Due to their meaning associated with memory and remembrance, these pretty purple blossoms are often used for memorials and honoring the dead.
5. Azalea (Tsutsuji)
Azaleas mean patient or modest in hanakotoba. They are a common flower found blooming in Japanese gardens. Some of the best examples of azaleas in Japanese gardens can be found at the Nezu Shrine and Shiofune Kannon-ji Temple in Tokyo, and Mount Yamato Katsuragi in Nara.
6. Bluebell (Burūberu)
In hanakotoba, bluebell means grateful. The flower also has the same meaning in western culture, and this commonality is likely due to the “bowing” appearance of the plant’s pendulous bell-shaped blossoms. In Japan, bluebells can be gifted as a “note” of thanks after receiving a gift or favor from someone.
7. Camellia (Tsubaki)
In hanakotoba, camellia flowers have different meanings based on the color of the flower.
- Red – Generally, red camellias mean “in love” or “perishing with grace.” For warriors, however, they symbolize a noble death.
- White – White camellias mean waiting.
- Pink or Yellow – Pink and yellow camellias mean longing for or missing someone.
It’s good to note, however, that camellias are not normally gifted to anyone while they are ill or injured because, as they wilt, the flowers “behead” themselves. For someone who is healing, this does not send a positive message.
A late-winter or early spring flower, the camellia is also considered to be an auspicious symbol during the Lunar New Year and is often incorporated into the festivities.
8. Carnation (Kānēshon)
In hanakotoba, carnation flowers mean love, distinction, and fascination. In Japan, red carnations are primarily associated with familial love, making them a common gift for Mother’s Day. However, carnations are considered to be a traditional gift for both women and men. They are typically given as gifts to spouses and close family members.
9. Cherry Blossom (Sakura)
Cherry blossoms run deep in Japanese culture. In hanakotoba, they have several meanings, including gentle and kind. They also mean “transcience of life” because the annual cycle of budding, blossoming, and winter dormancy are seen as a representation of life, death, and rebirth through the seasons.
In addition, cherry blossoms symbolize beauty and violence in Japan. The lifecycle of the cherry blossom has been compared to the bright yet colorful life of samurai warriors. Cherry blossoms were also used to decorate kamikaze pilots’ planes during the second world war.
10. Chrysanthemum (Kigiku and Shiragiku)
Chrysanthemums are another important flower in Japanese culture. Since nine is thought to be a lucky number, on the ninth day of the ninth month each year (September 9th), Japan celebrates Kiku no Sekku (National Chrysanthemum Day or the Festival of Happiness).
Although there are several different colors of chrysanthemums, in hanakotoba, two colors have officially designated meanings:
- Yellow (Kigiku) – Yellow chrysanthemum means imperial in hanakotoba.
- White (Shiragiku) – White chrysanthemum means truth in hanakotoba.
11. Daffodil (Suisen)
In hanakotoba, the daffodil means respect, making them a good gift for elders, superiors at work, or anyone you wish to whom you wish to convey feelings of respect. The flower’s Japanese name, suisen, literally translates to “hermit by the water.”
12. Dahlia (Tenjikubotan)
In hanakotoba, dahlia flowers mean good taste. They are the perfect gift for anyone whose style you wish to complement. This makes them an excellent gift for a housewarming party or anyone who works in the design, decor, style, or even culinary professions.
13. Edelweiss (Ēderuwaisu)
In hanakotoba, edelweiss flowers mean power or courage. This is likely a reference to the flower’s ability to persist and bloom in its extreme alpine habitat which is located between the snowy altitudes of about 6,000 and almost 10,000 feet up. In Japan, edelweiss flowers grow naturally in the mountainous areas of Hokkaidō.
14. Erica (Erika)
Erica means solitude in hanakotoba. This includes plants from the Erica genus, commonly referred to as heath or heather plants in the western world. They have lovely branches of pink blossoms that are produced in proliferation, giving one a sense of calm and solitude.
15. Freesia (Furījia)
In hanakotoba, freesia flowers mean childish or immature. So, although they have a lovely fragrance that is prized for use in perfumes, soaps, and candles, giving them could be taken as an insult. However, they are also a symbol of the beginning of spring in Japan, and there is an entire festival, the Hachijojima Freesia Festival, which takes place between March 20th and April 5th in their honor.
16. Gardenia (Kuchinashi)
In hanakotoba, gardenia has quite an alluring meaning, secret love. This makes it the perfect gift from a secret admirer or for a partner with whom your relationship is not yet public. Additionally, gardenia is used in Taoist and Buddhist traditions for the calming, peaceful fragrance the white blossoms emit.
17. Hibiscus (Haibīsukasu)
Hibiscus means gentle in hanakotoba. These flowers and plants are also often given as a way to honor visitors in Japan, representing the welcoming and friendly customs of the culture.
18. Hydrangeas (Ajisai)
Hydrangeas mean pride in hanakotoba. Japan is thought to be the origin of hydrangea flowers, and so these lovely clusters of flowers permeate the area and the culture. They typically start blossoming in June and represent the rainy season.
19. Japanese Primrose (Sakurasou)
In hanakotoba, Japanese primrose means first love, chastity, and admiration. In Japanese culture, these flowers are seen as purely positive and are even thought to possibly increase a person’s luckiness in love, so this makes them an appropriate gift for any person on almost any happy occasion.
20. Jasmine (Jasumin)
Jasmine blossoms mean graceful or friendly in hanakotoba. This meaning and their lovely fragrance make the shrubs or flowers nice, complimentary gifts for anyone you find to be graceful or friendly. In the zodiac, Jasmine is associated with Cancer (June 21 to July 22)
21. Lavender (Rabendā)
In hanakotoba, lavender means faithfulness, and they are the perfect flowers to give anyone to whom you wish to convey your faithfulness or to ask for someone’s trust. Lavender is more strongly associated with the Mediterranean, but large fields of lavender can be enjoyed in Japan on the island of Hokkaidō.
22. Lily Flowers (Shirayuri, Sayuri, and Oniyuri)
Like certain other flowers, in hanakotoba, different colors of lilies have different meanings, and these meanings are very different. So, it’s important that you choose the right color of lily if you’re giving them as a gift, to ensure you do not accidentally convey the wrong message to your recipient.
- White (Shirayuri) – In hanakotoba, white lilies mean purity and chastity.
- Orange (Sayuri) – In hanakotoba, orange lilies mean hatred and revenge.
- Tiger Lily (Oniyuri) – In hanakotoba, tiger lilies mean wealth.
In Japan, orange lilies are, perhaps, the perfect gift for a true enemy.
23. Magnolia (Magunoria)
Magnolias mean natural in hanakotoba. Magnolia trees produce large, bowl-shaped, white blossoms with a divine fragrance. In Japanese culture, they are also symbols of a love for nature, perseverance, dignity, and nobility. Magnolias also used to be commonly included in bridal bouquets in Japan, as a symbol of the strength of love.
24. Morning Glory (Asagao)
In hanakotoba, morning glory flowers mean willful promises. In Japanese culture, the deep-blue, trumpet-shaped blossoms and the leafy vines of morning glories are popular design motifs. The earliest representations appear on motifs on scrolls, combs, towels, fans, and kimonos.
25. Peony (Botan)
Peonies mean bravery in hanakotoba, and they are generally associated with honor, bravery, and good fortune. In Japan, the peony is often referred to as the king or queen of flowers which might be a reference to the impressive appearance of large, full-double peony varieties.
26. Plum Blossom (Ume)
In hanakotoba, plum blossoms mean loyalty and elegance. Plum trees (sometimes called Japanese apricots) blossom in the late spring and early winter. Since they sometimes even bloom during harsh, cold weather, they’re seen as a symbol of hope and a sign of winter’s end.
27. Red Spider Lily (Higanbana or Manjushage)
In hanakotoba, the red spider lily has a few meanings, and all of them are pretty sad. They include abandonment, never to meet again, and lost memory. However, the name manjushage translates to “flower from the heavens,” and it is thought to be a sign that a celebratory occasion will occur soon.
28. Roses (Benibara, Bara, Kiiroibara, and Kiiroibara)
All around the world, roses are flowers of symbolic importance. Just as every color of rose has its own unique meaning in the western Language of Flowers, different colors of roses also have different meanings in Japanese hanakotoba. Also in common between these flower languages developed in opposite hemispheres is that roses are associated with different types or elements of love.
- Red (Benibara) – Love or in love
- White (Bara) – Devotion, innocence, or silence
- Yellow (Kiiroibara) – Jealousy
- Pink (Kiiroibara) – Trust, confidence, and happiness
29. Sacred Lotus (Renge)
In hanakotoba, the lotus means chastity, purity, or “far from the one he loves.” In Japanese culture, the lotus’s symbolism permeates far beyond hanakotoba. As it is, perhaps, the most common symbol of purity and also enlightenment in terms of the Buddhist tradition. This symbolic meaning references the fact that the lotus rises up from dirty, muddy water in order to produce a stunningly beautiful, white flower blossom.
30. Sunflower (Himawari)
In hanakotoba, sunflowers mean radiance, respect, and passionate love. In Japan, sunflowers are also a symbol of recovery and hope, and they are celebrated every year during the Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower Festival) in Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa.
31. Sweet Pea (Suītopī)
In hanakotoba, sweet pea flowers mean goodbye. Sweet peas are not native to Japan, and actually weren’t introduced until the early part of the 20th century, so the symbolic meaning doesn’t run too deep. While they do make a thoughtful goodbye or going-away present, they have a lovely scent and are appropriate to include in just about any floral arrangement.
32. Tulip (Chūrippu)
In hanakotoba, red tulips mean trust, charity, and popularity or fame, and yellow tulips mean one-sided love. These meanings differ significantly from the western tulip symbolism of eternal love (red) and cheerfulness (yellow). In Japan, giving red tulips is the same as wishing someone fame and popularity, and a gift of yellow tulips could be used as a gracious way – as long as they are familiar with hanakotoba flower meanings – of letting someone whom you love know that you understand they do not feel the same (or the other way around).
33. Violet (Sumire)
Violets mean honesty in hanakotoba. In Japan, they are grown commonly in gardens and along walls, and violets are often given as a gift of appreciation or love because they convey one’s honest sincerity.
34. Wisteria (Fuji)
In hanakotoba, wisteria means welcome and steadfast. Wisteria vines produce large clusters of purple flowers, and they are a common motif on kimonos and kanzashi. Wisteria flowers were also once strongly associated with nobility in Japan since only the upper class were allowed to (or could afford to wear the color purple).
35. Zinnia (Hyakunichisou)
In hanakotoba zinnia flowers mean loyalty. In western cultures, their symbolic meanings are also associated with loyalty, as they represent friendship, romantic love, and reunions between friends – and you can’t have friendship or love without loyalty.
What does hanakotoba symbolize?
Hanakotoba itself does not symbolize anything. Rather, it is the name of the Japanese language of flowers, a tradition that assigns symbolic meanings to flowers so that they can be used to convey messages and emotions.
What flower represents death in Japan?
The red spider lily (higanbana or manjushage in Japanese) symbolizes death in Japan.
What does a black rose mean in Japan?
In Japan, black roses symbolize death. In fact, black roses are universally associated with death and mourning.
What colors are offensive in Japan?
Black (kuro) is strongly associated with death, mourning, destruction, and evil in Japan. For this reason, the color black can be considered offensive in Japan – especially if it is worn or gifted during joyous and celebratory occasions.
What flower symbolizes love in Japan?
In Japan and hanakotoba, red camellias symbolize romantic love and red carnations symbolize familial love. Red roses are also a symbol of love or being in love.
What do blue roses mean in Japan?
Blue roses have a symbolic meaning that is universal around the world. Since blue roses do not exist in nature and are artificially cultivated, in Japan and elsewhere, blue roses represent achieving the impossible.
What does a yellow rose mean in Japan?
In hanakotoba, yellow roses symbolize jealousy. However, the color yellow is also associated with happiness, nature, and sunshine in Japan. So, flowers of this color can also carry these meanings.
What do yellow tulips mean in Japan?
In Japan and hanakotoba, yellow tulips symbolize unrequited love, hopeless love, or one-sided love.
Hanakotoba – The Final Word
Hanakotoba is a rich and fun tradition to study and practice, and it adds an additional element of enjoyment and meaning to the art of floral design. When selecting flowers to celebrate an important event, to show respect during a somber occasion, or to decorate your home or office, it’s essential to consider the cultural context and to choose flowers that are appropriate for the occasion or that can bring positive symbolic meanings into your life.
In Japan, people are generally most familiar with the symbolic meanings assigned within the traditions of hanakotoba. In the western world, people are typically more familiar with the traditional symbolic meanings assigned by the Victorian language of flowers. Before selecting flowers or a floral design, take the time to look up the symbolic meanings associated with the blossoms that are included to be sure you’re choosing a design that sends the right message to your recipient or conveys an appropriate sentiment for the occasion.