Japan's Secret Language of Flowers

A woman in a red kimono holds a red umbrella in front of cherry blossom flowers

As spring brings warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere, flowers are beginning to bloom again. In Japanese culture, each bloom conveys specific emotions and messages. This symbolism is known as hanakotoba or “the language of flowers” in English and reflects the physical attribute of each plant, as well as its presence in art and literature.

Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangements, is a practical example of hanakotoba. Ikebana translates to giving life to flowers, and these arrangements take into consideration the symbolic meanings of the blooms incorporated in each bouquet.

Cherry blossoms are a popular flower native to Japan. These light pink flowers are a symbol of springtime and embody fleeting beauty--a meaning that makes them a cornerstone of the concept of Wabi Sabi. Cherry blossoms also symbolize being gentle and kind when given as a gift.

Some hanakotoba meanings reflect symbolism from other parts of the world. The lotus represents purity and derives its meaning from Buddhist symbolism. Like in western culture, four-leaf clovers symbolize good luck, and roses are a display of love. However, in hanakotoba, each color of roses has a different meaning. White roses indicate devotion, innocence, and silence. Pink roses mean confidence, trust, and happiness. Yellow roses let a partner know you are feeling jealous.

Camellias have deep historical meaning in Japanese culture. Among the samurai, red camellias represented a noble death. Outside of that, they symbolize true love. Avoid giving red camellias to sick or injured loved ones, as the unique way the flowers lose all petals simultaneously is a sign of bad luck while recovering.

Chrysanthemums are popular in Japan and have close ties to royalty. They are the symbol for the Emperor and his family and are prominent on national, Japanese items like the Imperial seal, passports, and the 50-yen coin.

While certain colors of lilies mean different things in Japanese culture – orange lilies for revenge and hatred and white lilies for purity – red spider lilies have a particularly dark connotation. Sometimes referred to as the death flower, red spider lilies relate to final goodbyes. These flowers commonly grow in burial grounds across Japan and are frequently used at funerals.

Although not native to the land, sunflowers are well-loved in Japan. They symbolize radiance and respect. There is even an annual festival dedicated to Sunflowers called the "Hokuryu Sunflower Festival," which takes place in August and July.

Learn More:
7 Flower Festivals That Are Worth Traveling to Japan For
Flower Symbolism in Japanese Culture 
Hanakotoba: The Secret Meaning Behind 9 Flowers in Japan