The most important Japanese traditional patterns and meanings. What do bird kimono patterns symbolize?

Written by: Zuzanna Sato



Time to read 14 min

The most important Japanese traditional patterns and meanings. What do bird kimono patterns symbolize?

As a fashion designer who's all about giving new life to vintage Japanese kimonos I just love talking about their  meaning and symbolism. 

And let me tell you, being surrounded by their beauty every day is one of the best parts of my job.

Those colors and designs? They never get old. I'm just as hooked on them now as I was the first time I saw a Japanese kimono in person.

And whenever someone asks me, "What do kimono patterns mean?"

I'm like, "Oh, grab a chair 'cause the answer will take some time!"

I seriously geek out over kimonos – I mean, they're not just clothes – it's like wearing a whole story, right there on your sleeves.

But the meanings behind kimono patterns can be confusing and contradictory.

They've been shaped by centuries of history, mixing in bits from different cultures, art scenes, and other influences.

Each kimono pattern? It's like a mirror for Japan's imagination and creativity from old times till now.

To make it easier for you to connect to the spirit of Japanese symbolism, I've sprinkled in some beautiful examples of Japanese poetry and haiku that match each pattern.

So, what is the meaning behind traditional kimono patterns?

Well, it's such a massive topic that I'm planning to break it down into a bunch of articles, each one diving into a different type of kimono patterns.

Here is a post about the meaning of flower patterns.

Also, be sure to read until the end!

You might find something special waiting for you in the final part!😉

Today, let's explore bird patterns starting with the bird that probably comes to mind first when you think about Japanese kimono: the crane.


Kimono Design: An Introduction to Textiles and Patterns Paperback – Illustrated, March 30, 2017English Edition by Keiko Nitanai


“History and Characteristics of Japanese Patterns" | December 2022 | Highlighting Japan.

The most important Japanese traditional patterns and meanings. What do bird kimono patterns symbolize?

Meaning of Birds in Kimono Patterns

When it comes to animals, the most common motif you'll find on kimono patterns is birds and bird patterns.

Stunning Japanese crane or hawk designs have been admired and sought after around the world as beautiful artistic pieces.

But did you know that each bird-patterned kimono has its own meaning and tale to tell?

Here is a guide to the meanings of each kimono bird pattern and the significance they bring to a design.

Meaning of Crane (Tsuru) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Crane in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Crane - Tsuru

  • Longevity and Immortality: The crane symbolizes longevity and is believed to live for a thousand years in Japanese folklore. They also represent immortality and eternal life.

  • Good Fortune: Cranes are associated with good fortune and happiness, bringing luck and prosperity to those who encounter them.

  • Freedom and Aspiration: Depicted in flight or with wings outstretched, cranes symbolize freedom and aspiration, encouraging the wearer to pursue their dreams.

  • Marital harmony an fidelity: Cranes depicted in pairs in Japanese kimono patterns symbolize marital harmony and fidelity. This stems from the fact that cranes are monogamous birds that mate for life. When cranes are depicted in pairs on kimono patterns, it represents the ideal of a devoted and harmonious relationship between spouses. This symbolism reflects the cultural values placed on love, commitment, and partnership in Japanese society.

The crane, known as "Tsuru" in Japanese, is one of the most used symbol in kimono designs, often representing longevity and good fortune.

Its origins trace back to ancient China, where the depiction of immortal beings riding on cranes became a motif associated with longevity and auspiciousness.

This symbolism found its way into Japanese textile arts around the 11th century, influenced by the spread of Shenxian thought.

In Japanese culture, there's a tradition that folding 1000 paper cranes grants wishes, reflecting the crane's significance in fulfilling desires and granting blessings.

Furthermore, the return of the crane during migration symbolizes the souls of ancestors, adding a spiritual layer to its symbolism in Japanese tradition.

Exquisite Crane Coat

Meaning of Pheasant (Kiji) in Kimono Patterns

 Meaning of Pheasant in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Pheasant - Kiji

  • Prosperity: Pheasants were historically prized as game birds in Japan, and their capture and consumption were associated with abundance and wealth. Their presence in kimono patterns symbolizes the prosperity that comes from a successful harvest or hunt.

  • Courage: Pheasants are known for their vibrant plumage and bold behavior, especially during mating season when males display their colors to attract mates. This boldness is interpreted as a symbol of courage and resilience, qualities admired in Japanese culture.

  • Nobility: In ancient Japan, pheasants were reserved for the nobility and imperial family due to their rarity and beauty. Owning or hunting pheasants was a privilege reserved for the upper class, and their depiction in kimono patterns reflects their association with nobility and prestige

Pheasants are birds of the springtime. Spring, being a time of year for new growth, makes the pheasant a symbol of abundance, prosperity, and promise.

A pheasant adorning a Japanese kimono signals hope and faith that the future will provide plentiful returns.

Why is the Pheasant Japan’s National Bird?

It has been observed that green pheasants are particularly sensitive to earthquakes that go unnoticed by humans.

We can’t feel the smaller ones ourselves, and this way they alert people to impending tremors.

The pheasant may have been responsible for saving many lives in the past when seismometers weren’t invented yet.

As a native bird, the pheasent appears in many literary works.

For example, it is one of Momotaro’s companions in one of Japan’s most famous stories.

The pheasant is even featured on the back of the old 10,000 yen bills!

It has also been a subject in countless artworks and classical Japanese paintings for centuries.

Meaning of Phoenix (Hou-ou) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Phoenix in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Phoenix - Hou-ou 

  • Good Fortune and Protection: Revered for its association with prosperity and divine wisdom, the phoenix brings blessings and protection, especially to the imperial household.

  • Harmonious Leadership: Representing balance between genders, the phoenix alongside the dragon symbolizes harmonious leadership between the Emperor and Empress, ensuring stability and prosperity.

  • Connection to Sun Goddess Amaterasu: Linked to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and progenitor of the imperial family, the phoenix signifies divine connection and guardianship over the lineage.

  • Renewal and Hope: Associated with renewal and rebirth, the phoenix appears in times of peace, offering a message of hope and new beginnings.

The phoenix holds profound symbolism in Japanese kimono patterns, embodying concepts of prosperity, divine protection, and harmonious leadership.

Firstly, the phoenix is revered as a symbol of good fortune and divine wisdom, believed to appear during times of peace and prosperity.

They represent the emergence of a great ruler bringing peace to the country, carrying a message of hope and renewal

This notion aligns with its historical association with the imperial household, particularly with the empress, symbolizing divine protection over the royal lineage.

Moreover, in Japanese culture, the phoenix is closely linked to the sun goddess Amaterasu, representing her vital energy and role as the progenitor of the imperial family.

Thus, the presence of the phoenix in artistic artifacts signifies the Empress's divine connection and her role as guardian of the imperial lineage.

The joint presence of the dragon and phoenix in Japanese art further emphasizes the balanced union between the Emperor and Empress, symbolizing harmony between male and female power.

This complementary relationship reflects the maintenance of the nation's stability and prosperity under their harmonious leadership.

The phoenix's symbolism extends to various attributes such as fire, justice, fidelity, and southern star constellations, adding depth to its significance in Japanese culture.

However, it's essential to differentiate the Asian Phoenix from its counterparts in the Western world (a solitary mythical creature that dies in its own flames to be reborn) as their symbolism and traditions vary significantly.

Lavish Phoenix Coat

Meaning of Mandarin Ducks (Oshidori) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Mandarin Ducks in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Mandarin Ducks - Oshidori

  • Symbol of Marital Bliss and Pair Bonding : In nature, mandarin ducks are known for forming strong pair bonds and staying together for life, reflecting the ideal of lifelong partnership in marriage. Therefore, Oshidori symbolize marital harmony and fidelity in Japanese culture.

  • Balance and Unity : The male and female mandarin ducks often appear together in kimono patterns, symbolizing the balance and unity between masculine and feminine energies within a relationship.

  • Wish for Happy Marriage : Depicting mandarin ducks on a kimono is believed to bring good luck and blessings to marriages, wishing the couple a happy and enduring union.

  • Renewal and Regeneration : Mandarin ducks molt their feathers annually, symbolizing renewal and regeneration, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the continuous growth and rejuvenation of a successful marriage.

The mandarin duck, known as "oshidori" in Japan, holds profound symbolism in Japanese patterns, echoing its significance in Chinese culture.

Revered for their unwavering feeling towards their partners, mandarin ducks have long epitomized eternal love among married couples in Japan, where devoted husband and wife are  affectionately referred to as "oshidori-fūfu" (oshidori couple).

Mandarin ducks have been embraced as auspicious motifs in Japanese art for centuries.

From the Momoyama period to the Edo period, they adorned Noh costumes and kosode, narrow-sleeved kimonos.

These birds are often depicted in pairs against serene waterside backdrops, symbolizing the tranquility and harmony of a loving relationship.

In the past, the traditional design featured a male mandarin duck with its beak open and a female duck with hers closed, symbolizing mutual understanding and harmony.

However, contemporary patterns often depict both ducks with their beaks closed, reflecting a modern interpretation of partnership and unity.

Today, the timeless charm of mandarin duck patterns continues to grace formal kimono and obi, serving as a beautiful reminder of the enduring bond between couples and the everlasting beauty of love.

Mesmerizing Embroidered Coat with Mandarin Ducks

Meaning of Heron (Sagi) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Heron in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Heron - Sagi

  • Longevity and Wisdom : Herons are often associated with longevity and wisdom due to their long lifespan and calm, observant nature. Their presence in kimono patterns conveys wishes for a long and prosperous life.

  • Connection to Nature : Depicting herons in kimono patterns serves as a connection to the natural world, honoring the beauty and significance of wildlife in Japanese art and culture.

  • Seasonal Symbolism : In traditional Japanese art, herons are often depicted in seasonal contexts, such as fishing in streams during spring or standing amidst snow-covered landscapes in winter, symbolizing the passage of time and the cyclical nature of life.

  • Spiritual Significance : In Japanese folklore and mythology, herons are sometimes associated with divine beings or spirits, adding a layer of spiritual significance to their portrayal in kimono patterns.

In Japanese patterns, herons, or "sagi," hold a mystical allure deeply rooted in their serene presence and enigmatic symbolism

Often found standing gracefully in rivers, marshes, and rice paddies, these majestic birds captivate with their long, slender legs and curving necks.

Witnessing a heron take flight offers a glimpse of unexpected majesty, stirring the imagination with its ethereal beauty.

Unlike their cousin, the crane, which embodies peace, luck, and longevity, the heron's significance is veiled in mystery, intertwined with spirits, gods, and the realm of death.

Legends tell of souls transforming into white birds upon passing, likely resembling herons, lending these creatures an otherworldly aura in Japanese mythology and folklore.

Depicted in stories and woodblock prints, white herons often act as messengers of the gods or symbols of purity and transition.

Yet, when other heron species like the blue heron or night heron appear, their presence may carry a more ominous tone.

Gray herons, in particular, evoke feelings of fear or melancholy among the Japanese, contrasting with their more positive image abroad.

For example, the yokai (monster/ghost) known as Aosagibi is portraied as an eerie heron-like monster perched in a tree, emitting a ghostly blue fire.

This glowing bird of a shapeshifting nature that blends seamlessly into darkness and reappears with the light, might symbolize the cyclical nature of life and the journey to the great beyond.

In Japanese patterns, the heron's enigmatic presence transcends the mundane, offering glimpses into the mysteries of existence and the ethereal realm.

Meaning of Hawk (Taka) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Hawk  (Taka) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Hawk - Taka

  • Symbol of Vigilance and Strength : Hawks symbolize vigilance, strength, and determination in Japanese culture, reflecting their keen eyesight and powerful hunting abilities.

  • Associations with Warriors : Hawks have historical associations with warriors and samurai, symbolizing bravery, loyalty, and martial prowess. Their depiction in kimono patterns may honor these noble qualities.

  • Protectors and Guardians : In traditional Japanese beliefs, hawks are seen as protectors and guardians, capable of warding off evil spirits and ensuring safety and prosperity.

  • Majestic Presence : Hawks are admired for their majestic presence and commanding demeanor, often depicted in kimono patterns to evoke a sense of power and authority.

In Japanese patterns, hawks, known as "Taka," hold a prestigious status as symbols of the highest-ranking warrior class among birds of prey.

Throughout Japan's history, hawks have epitomized strength, power, and the ability to soar to great heights.

During the Edo period, hawks emerged as potent symbols of status, prominently featured in commissioned works of art.

With the transition from the war-torn Sengoku period to the peaceful Tokugawa era in the 17th century, hawking became a prominent pursuit for the samurai class, serving as a primary outlet for their martial energies alongside activities like archery, swordplay, and horse racing.

Due to their symbolism of strength and courage, hawk patterns are frequently chosen for boys' kimonos, especially for ceremonial attire during Shichi-Go-San—a traditional rite of passage marking the growth and development of children—when sons reach the age of five.

Meaning of peacock (Kujiaku) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of peacock (Kujaku) in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Peacock - Kujiaku

  • Symbol of Prosperity: Peacocks are commonly associated with wealth and abundance in Japanese culture. Their opulent plumage and majestic presence symbolize prosperity and good fortune, making them auspicious symbols in various contexts, including business ventures, financial endeavors, and household prosperity.

  • Protection and Warding Off Evil: Peacock feathers serve as talismans in Japanese beliefs, guarding against malevolent forces. The radiant eyespots on these feathers are believed to repel evil spirits and attract good fortune. Often displayed in homes for protective purposes, peacock feathers symbolize safeguarding and auspiciousness.

  • Spiritual Significance: Peacocks embody spiritual purity and enlightenment in Japanese culture. Their iridescent plumage symbolizes the transformation of negative traits into positive virtues on the journey toward spiritual awakening. Peacocks are revered as symbols of inner transformation and the pursuit of higher consciousness.

  • Royal and Imperial Symbolism: Historically, peacocks have been associated with royalty and nobility, holding significance in Japanese imperial symbolism. Regarded as emblems of regal beauty and authority, peacock feathers adorn imperial crests, emblems, and ceremonial regalia, reflecting the prestige of the imperial family.

  • Rebirth and Renewal: Peacocks are linked to themes of rebirth and renewal in Japanese folklore. Their ability to shed and regrow feathers symbolizes transformation and regeneration, representing new beginnings. Peacock feathers are incorporated into rituals marking life transitions, such as weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, or New Year's festivities, symbolizing fresh opportunities and personal growth.

  • Resilience and Immunity: The notion of peacocks consuming poisonous plants symbolizes their resilience and ability to overcome adversity. This belief suggests an inherent strength or immunity that enables them to thrive even in challenging environments, serving as a metaphor for resilience in the face of hardship.

  • Transformation and Transcendence: Peacocks embody the transformative power of spiritual practice in Japanese culture. Just as they can ingest toxins without harm, individuals on the spiritual path may metaphorically transmute negativity into sources of growth and enlightenment. This belief underscores the potential for inner transformation and transcendence on the journey toward spiritual enlightenment.

The peacock is perceived as a symbol of fertility, embodying the essence of prosperity. Due to this association, it is prominently featured in wedding kimono patterns, symbolizing abundance and fertility, making it a popular choice for bridal attire.

Meaning of Sparrow (Suzume) in Kimono Patterns

Meaning of Sparrow  (Suzume) in Kimono Patterns
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Meaning of Sparrow - Suzume

  • Domestic Harmony : Sparrows are often depicted in pairs or groups, reflecting their strong social bonds and cooperative nature. In kimono patterns, this imagery symbolizes harmony within the home and peaceful coexistence among family members, promoting unity and familial love.

  • Humble Beauty : Sparrows symbolize modesty and simplicity in Japanese culture. Their unassuming appearance and gentle demeanor represent the beauty found in everyday life, emphasizing the value of humility and understated elegance.

  • Resilience and Perseverance : Despite their small size, sparrows are known for their resilience and adaptability. In Japanese folklore, they are admired for their ability to thrive in various environments, even in the face of adversity. Sparrow motifs on kimonos serve as reminders of the importance of perseverance and resilience in overcoming life's challenges.

Beloved for their cheerful chirping and playfulness, sparrows, or “Suzume”, represent togetherness, harmony, and adaptability.

This makes sparrows a perfect addition to a kimono depicting a natural scene among other motifs such as bamboo, flowers or trees.

Also, objects decorated with suzume motifs are often given as presents to young children.

Kimono Birds Designs – The Meaning Behind the Patterns

As you can tell from the breakdown I've laid out, traditional kimono designs with bird patterns aren't just about looking pretty.

Within these elegant feathers lie symbols reflecting various attributes, qualities, and myths. I am sure that understanding these adds depth and satisfaction to admiring kimonos.

This post aims to serve as a bridge, connecting you to the cultural and artistic significance of Japanese kimono and its enchanting bird-inspired designs.

So, the next time you see a kimono decorated with bird patterns, you'll be better equipped to listen to the captivating stories these garments have to share.

Also, I have a surprise gift for you!🎁😃 

If you enjoyed the poetry I included, you will LOVE the wisdom and insight of traditional Japanese proverbs.

Click the link below, and it will take you to the FREE digital download of 15 Japanese proverbs on stunning Japanese kimono backgrounds.


15 Japanese Proverbs Dowload

You do not need to sign up to receive it, but it would help me immensely as it signals to Google that you found this post intresting. 🙏

Also, if you like wearing bold, colorful outfits you might like this article about advantages of patterns, or my break-down about dressing for joy.)

Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you in another article!

Zuzanna Sato,  blog author, fashion designer
Image from DressYourColor

Zuzanna Sato, fashion designer, founder of DressYourColor

Hi! I'm Zuzanna, the founder of a luxury slow fashion brand based in Japan.

I use vintage Japanese textiles to create sustainable fashion that revels in color and beauty.

I love giving new life to kimonos that can no longer be used in their original form.

In my designs, I use oversized silhouettes to showcase incredible Japanese textiles in all their glory.

I revel in maximal style: bold shapes, patterns, and anything that glitters.

I hope you visit me often and that we can enjoy the beauty of Japanese textiles together! 😊

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