W is for Wa

Wa, 和, Harmony, unity.
Used to designate traditionally Japanese concepts.

When I sat down to figure out a topic for today’s entry, I realised I had a surfeit of words beginning with W. Not just W, but “wa”. Then it hit me, these words all have the same root and explaining why that is, and what that root really means, would be a perfect subject. Rather than pick one word, I’m essentially doing all of them!

I’m sure you’ve noticed the common thread of wa- used in Japanese items. Here are some of the more common ones that crop up, especially amongst kimono collectors and fans of traditional arts and crafts. But why is that, exactly?

The character , Wa, alone is most frequently translated into English as harmony, like I mentioned above. However, it’s really so much more than that. It’s come to represent an intangible quality of a Japanese-ness, a cultural identity that defies any real definition. It’s often used as a way to distinguish the Japanese version or aesthetic of something that has a western or cross-cultural equivalent as well. For example, where yofuku means “western clothes”, wafuku means “Japanese clothes” and is used for kimono and all related bits and bobs. Yogashi are often elaborate, French-style desserts like tiny pastries and cream cakes, whereas wagashi are the iconic, minimalist, seasonal sweets made from traditional ingredients like bean paste and sakura leaves. Less frequently but becoming more common, yoshitsu can be used to describe rooms (particularly hotel bedrooms) that have a raised western-style bed and legged chairs and tables, where washitsu regularly describes the idealised Japanese room with tatami flooring, sliding screens, and seating on the floor.

There are so many more examples of words using this root, but here’s a small selection that are the most likely to crop up on this blog. This list is far from complete, but if you see a word that begins with wa and is written with theyou can be fairly certain that it’s got at least something to do with traditional Japanese arts and aesthetics.


U is for Ume

Ume, 梅, Plum

Another of Japan’s more iconic flowers, ume or plum blossom can be found on nearly as many things as sakura nowadays. While their blooming season is not as celebrated, they’re an icon of the new year (since they bloom in winter), and a common motif for luck and prosperity. They’re one third of the “three friends of winter” or sho-chiku-bai, the other two being pine and bamboo. This combination can quite often be found on formal celebratory kimono such as wedding kakeshita or kuro-tomesode.

Visually they’re quite similar to sakura; five-petalled blossoms directly on wooden branches, with little to no foliage. There’s one obvious difference that allows for easy identification though, where sakura petals have that tell-tale notch in the tip, ume petals are very round. In more stylised representations they may even be depicted as full circles.

Ume is primarily a late winter motif, However, much like sakura, ume has become such a common and popular flower that it shows up on items for all seasons nowadays. It’s often used in the summer on things like yukata to evoke a feeling of coolness.

All the photos in this entry come directly from my collection. You are welcome to use them for personal projects and reference, but not for anything commercial. If you’re uncertain, feel free to contact me.

S is for Sakura

Sakura, 桜, Japanese cherry blossom

Few things are as aesthetically emblematic of Japan as the sakura blossom. It’s an easy visual shorthand in movies and anime for spring, new love, and youthful exuberance. All for good reason. They bloom in profusion across the entire country, a season as looked forward to as the holiday season here in North America. The blooming of the sakura trees is celebrated on coins, with parties, by time-limited merchandise, clothing, picnics, drinks at Starbucks, you name it.

They are a perfect example of mono no aware, or the acceptance of the transience of life. They burst open in a cloud of soft colour and last mere days.

When it comes to kimono, sakura can be depicted many ways. However, there are some constants that make it easy to identify. Sakura will always have five petals in the central or main layer, and each petal is slightly elongated with a tell-tale notch in the tip.

Traditionally, sakura is a spring motif, worn right before the real ones bloom. However, it’s become such a ubiquitous design that it shows up in all seasons nowadays. Unless you’re going to a very strict event, I believe you can wear it any time.

Here are some examples taken from my collection, so you can see the variations and similarities.

All the photos in this entry come directly from my collection. You are welcome to use them for personal projects and reference, but not for anything commercial. If you’re uncertain, feel free to contact me.

M is for Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko, 招き猫, Beckoning Cat (Lucky Cat)

Sometimes, spontaneous things work out better than the things you’ve planned out. My initial goal for today’s entry was to do an ikebana involving matsu (pine), but the weather’s been pretty miserable and I’m not feeling great (nothing worrisome, just that time of the month) so I didn’t much feel like tromping around in the yard looking for the perfect branch to work with. Thankfully, this utterly adorable Lego Maneki Neko kit arrived yesterday, and saved me from failure! I realised it was the perfect inspiration point for a fun little knowledge post.

Maneki neko is one of Japan’s most enduring cute little traditions. They’re immediately recognisable and found all over the world. Traditionally made of ceramic or carved wood, they can now be found made of plastic, metal, eraser, food, vinyl, and yes, even Lego!

The name maneki neko means “beckoning cat.” What it’s supposed to bring to you depends on which paw is up and beckoning, and occasionally the colour of the cat itself or the character on its bib. Typically the left paw up is said to be for bringing in customers, and the right paw up is for bringing in wealth. It’s common to see the left-paw style in restaurants and businesses. While they were all originally white or calico-patterned, much like the daruma they now also come in different colours to represent different aspirations such as red for health, pink for love, or gold for wealth.

One day I would like to get a tattoo of a maneki neko to bring me health and luck wherever I go! Until then I will have to satisfy myself with figurines and statuettes.

J is for Junithitoe

Junihitoe (also juunihitoe), 十二単, “twelve layers”, traditional layered robes

When you think of “historical” Japanese clothing, what comes to mind? Odds are, at least one thing is the gorgeous, elaborate, cumbersome junihitoe worn by high-ranking women of the Heian era court. Like many things that we now consider intrinsically Japanese, the junihitoe was inspired by contemporary Chinese fashion. The elegant drape and sumptuous layers evoked the sophisticated hanfu, with a distinctly Japanese flair.

The name junihitoe literally means “twelve layers”, but is a bit of a misnomer. It included the kimono-like layers but also under-layers and over-layers. They were known to have anywhere from four to twenty layers (can you imagine the bulk?!) but were eventually fixed at a specific arrangement. The entire structure was composed of the following:

  • Kosode - Narrow sleeved under-robe
  • Nagabakama - Long, formal hakama
  • Hitoe - Single unlined silk layer
  • Itsutsuginu - Five or six colour-coordinated layers forming the bulk of the ensemble
  • Uchiginu - Stiff silk robe to provide shape and support
  • Uwagi - Smaller, narrower decorative silk layer often denoting rank
  • Kawaginu - Short jacket-type layer
  • Mo - Decorative apron-like skirt worn trailing in the back

The colours of the itsutsuginu have specific meanings and representations. The combinations would change depending on the season or specific celebratory event. For a very thorough and easy-to-read list of these combinations, please check out this Guide to Kasane no Irome on Sengoku Daimyo.

Since women of the court often devoted themselves to intellectual and aesthetic pursuits such as writing, painting, and poetry, the weight and bulk of the junihitoe was not a significant impediment to daily life. They had attendants to assist them with nearly everything from the dressing process to fetching food and items.

However, they’re obviously utterly impractical for the modern woman. Nowadays, there are very few places you’ll see someone in one of these ensembles. Typically, when a new emperor is enthroned in Japan, both he and his wife will wear traditional court robes; for the empress this means junihitoe.

Aside from traditional ceremonies such as these, people can choose to be professionally dressed in junihitoe at henshin (dressing) studios and then pose for photographs. There are also wedding uchikake made to recall their multi-layered feel, such as those made by designers Mai-Curren, but the layers in these are faked, using extra fabric around the collar, sleeves, and hem as well as a trailing hem reminiscent of the mo (apron). They have a very distinctive look to them.

If you had the opportunity, would you choose to try a junithitoe on? It seems very overwhelming, but I would still love to wear such an ensemble, if only for photographs.