A View into our Collection: Japanese Symbols and Motifs

From 1965-95, Susan Tehon lived in Japan and frequented the monthly flea markets at the Arai Yakushi shrine in Tokyo. She purchased used kimonos, which were readily available since the Japanese did not, at the time, like to wear old or used clothing. In 2012, she donated 38 boys’ kimonos and other Japanese costumes, textile, and photographs to the Henry.

The kimonos were used in the Miyamairi (Shinto shrine visit) and Shichi-go-san (seven-five-three) ceremonies, both celebrating traditional rites of passage. The Miyamairi was for one-month-old boys, and the Shichi-go-san for three- and five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls. New research by the Henry Collections staff has revealed some of the folk tales, symbolism, and other meanings associated with the imagery on the kimonos.

In the Miyamairi ceremony, a sashed kimono, like the boy’s kimono pictured below, is draped over an infant boy when he’s taken to the Shinto shrine. The sashes may also be tied around the neck of the person holding the infant. Relatives congratulate the baby by placing paper money between the sashes.

 

TC_2012.3-27

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Japan. Boy’s kimono [front and back view]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.

Amulets (semamori), which are traditionally hand-stitched by mothers or grandmothers, appear where the sashes join the lapel and serve as a charm against evil.

 

Japan. Boy’s kimono [detail of amulet]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.
Japan. Boy’s kimono [detail of amulet]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome) embroidered; Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.

The drum, arrow, and Shinto paper pendant on this boy’s kimono are all symbols of the warrior class. The paper strips on the pendant evolved over time from being symbolic offerings to becoming deities themselves. Warriors would attach the strips or incorporate their design on their standards (identification banners) and clothing in a show of faith.

 

Japan. Boy’s kimono [back detail]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.
Japan. Boy’s kimono [back detail]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.

Many of the Miyamairi kimonos have family crests at the shoulders. This boy’s kimono bears the wisteria crest. It became popular at a time when Fujiwara (“Field of wisteria”) was in power in the latter half of the Heian period, and it is one of the most intricate design motifs in Japanese heraldry. These circular emblems identified an individual or family.

 

Japan. Boy’s kimono [detail of crest]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.
Japan. Boy’s kimono [detail of crest]. 1926-1989. Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (katazome); Painted (on fabric); Printed, stenciled. Silk. Henry Art Gallery, gift of Susan Tehon, 2012.3-27.
Crests appeared on many artifacts, including futon covers and wrapping cloths, and seen illustrated on costumes and textiles on woodblock prints.

Japan. Furoshiki (wrapping cloth). Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (tsutsugaki). Cotton; Vegetable dye (indigo); Pigments; Tsutsugaki printing. Henry Art Gallery, Frances and Thomas Blakemore Collection, 96.2-181.
Japan. Furoshiki (wrapping cloth). Plain weave; Resist dyed, paste resist (tsutsugaki). Cotton; Vegetable dye (indigo); Pigments; Tsutsugaki printing. Henry Art Gallery, Frances and Thomas Blakemore Collection, 96.2-181.

 

The Kabuki actors depicted in this woodblock print performing the play Kanadehon chishingura can be identified by the crests on their respective kimonos.

 

Yoshitaki (Utagawa Yoshitaki). Ozeki. 1865. Color woodblock print on paper. Henry Art Gallery, bequest of Miss Edna Benson, 69.68
Yoshitaki (Utagawa Yoshitaki). Ozeki. 1865. Color woodblock print on paper. Henry Art Gallery,
bequest of Miss Edna Benson, 69.68

 

Explore more Japanese crests identified in the Henry’s collection!
The Henry’s Collection Search now features extended notes in the detailed view option. We have begun to use this feature to showcase our Japanese research and will provide more extended object information in the future.

Thanks to researchers Elisa Law, graduate student in Museum Studies, and Diana Ryesky, costume scholar and volunteer, for their contributions to this research and post.

 

 

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