Do You Know These 5 Important Animals in Japanese Culture and Their Symbolism?

  • Myths and legends are common things in Japan. From city origins to shrine deities, the country has rich stories for how things came about, where they are from, and what they mean for modern Japan. Animals are no exception. In fact, they are highly revered by the Japanese, to the point that they build shrines and assign a day to commemorate their sacred existence. Not all animals have significant meaning, though. Below are five of the most meaningful ones along with their symbol in Japanese culture.

    1. Butterfly

    Butterflies are admired for their natural beauty. They come in a variety of colors and sizes and can have different meanings across different cultures. Japan considers the butterfly as a symbol for human souls.

    When someone dies, it is believed that their soul is locked in a butterfly as they travel the realms of the living to the dead. Others also consider the butterfly as a symbol for girls’ transformation to womanhood.

    2. Turtle

    Whereas others see turtles as ordinary animals, Japan surprisingly pays high reverence to it. Turtles are popular symbols of wisdom and luck. With the animal’s long lifespan, they are also seen by a lot of locals as an important symbol of longevity.

    In pop culture, a giant turtle with a snake tail called “Genbu” is seen as a powerful symbol, often considered as one of the four animal guardians of Japan.

    Turtles are also seen as a symbol of heaven and earth, with its solid shell representing the vast heavens and its square-like body as the earth’s land mass.

    3. Cat

    They say that cat symbolism is divided into two: one that brings good luck, and the other that signifies bad omen.

    The latter is often attributed to black-colored cats and can mean disaster, health problems, and the like. The more popular lucky cat or “maneki-neko” is what a lot of Japanese revere. Its notable figure is a cat with a raised paw, which is said to bring good luck for whatever purpose you have in mind.

    For business entities, it can mean more money coming in. For personal reasons, it can signify fortune and happiness. The popularity of maneki-neko is so widespread that a lot of shops across the country have one.

    4. Cow

    One popular site in Tokyo just near the Imperial Palace is Hirakawa Tenmangu. It is a shrine that houses “nade-ushi,” a popular cow statue that symbolizes the divine ability to heal.

    Many locals believe that rubbing the part of the cow where you yourself experience an illness will result in eventual healing. Of course, this remains to be contested and no documented medical reports confirm how it works. Still, it’s astounding to see locals flock to the shrine and pray for healing in front of the statue.

    5. Frog

    One may not normally see frogs as special creatures as they are often wild and can’t be tamed, but Japan sees them differently. Frogs are considered as important symbols of safe travel. It’s also the reason why some locals carry with them small frog lucky charms when embarking on a journey.

    Animals are part of any country’s agriculture and livelihood. Some are crucial creatures to maintain balance in our nature. But for Japan that is rich in heritage, these animals mean so much more.

    Let us hear what you have to say about these beliefs! Anything that sounds familiar?