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Motif Information
Motif yanagi 01.jpg
Rōmaji Yanagi
English Willow
Kana やなぎ
Season Late spring
Seasonal Exceptions Summer
Auspicious Yes
Motif Type Tree

Yanagi is a willow tree (Salix spp.). There are numerous species of yanagi both native to Japan and imported from China and Korea. The most iconic is the weeping willow (Salix babylonica) introduced from China.

Yanagi are deciduous trees with paired oval-shaped leaves. Their flowers are called catkins, and appear as a fuzzy "spike" before new leaves in the spring. Yanagi love damp soil and are often seen growing by streams or rivers. They can easily be propagated by placing a cut branch in water; it will rapidly grow roots.

Salicin can be extracted by soaking willow bark or leaves in water. Salicin is metabolized in the body into salicylic acid, a precursor to aspirin. Salicylic acid is mainly used topically today to treat skin conditions like acne or dandruff.

Yanagi musubi was popular among geisha in the Taisho period and remains popular with Tokyo based geisha today. Famous sights (meisho) of Yoshiwara and Shimabara were the "look-back willow" at the exits.

Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings

Yanagi and sagi on inro in the collection of LACMA
White-Robed Kannon (白衣観音図, c.1857) seated under yanagi, grasping a branch in her hand by Kawanabe Kyōsai in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Yanagi is associated with late spring when their yellow-green leaves begin to appear. Yanagi can also be used into summer if there are summer motifs included in the design. Yanagi under snow is more rarely seen in textile designs than in the fine arts and naturally takes on the winter seasonality of the snow.

Motif Connotations & Symbolism

Yanagi is highly associated with feminity.

Auspicious Nature

From the Chinese, the Japanese received the beliefs that yanagi could "ward off demons, prevent blindness, and purify."[1]

Yanagi branches were used as a women's hair decoration on the third day of the third month, during the Heian era, as a wish for a long and healthy life. Today, yanagi are placed near the dolls displayed for Hina Matsuri. In chado, yanagi may be displayed around the New Year for its auspicious connotations as well as during Hina Matsuri.

Yanagi is also highly associated with Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She is often depicted as holding a willow branch in her right hand that she uses to sprinkle healing water from a jar in her left hand.

Common Motif Pairings

Identification & Style Variations

Yanagi have gracefully drooping branches, most easily confused with weeping sakura. However, yanagi bear catkins, a flower without petals, unlike sakura with their easily distinguished five petal flowers.

Motif Examples

Motif in Literature & Other Usage

The “Looking Back” Willow on the Nihonzutsumi Embankment, Shin-yoshiwara (新吉原日本堤見帰柳, 1853) from the series Famous Places in Edo (江戸名所) by Utagawa Hiroshige

Karyūkai (花柳界) is written with the kanji for flower, willow, and world leading to Flower and Willow World being a common Anglicization for the separate realm inhabited by geisha and oiran. Yanagi were planted at the exits of the famous pleasure districts of Yoshiwara (and later Shin-Yoshiwara), Shimabara, and Shinmachi.

In Poetry

One of the most famous poems about yanagi was written by the Heian era Buddhist priest, Saigyō:

道のべに michi nobe ni Alongside the way
清水流るる shimizu nagaruru Clear water flows
柳影 yanagi kage In the willow's shade
しばしとてこそ shibashi tote koso Thinking, I'll stay for just awhile
立ちどまりつれ tachitomaritsure I stood rooted

Matsuo Bashō was directed by a local official to the same willow four centuries later and wrote this response, presumably after standing awhile and watching the field nearby being planted:

田一枚 ta ichimai One field planted
植て立去る uete tachisaru I take my leave
柳かな yanagi kana of the willow

Saigyō's poem is also the basis for a Noh play, Yogyo yanagi (The Priest and the Willow) in which a wandering priest and his disciples are guided to the willow tree of the poem. Having achieved a great age and having become withered, the willow is ready to achieve enlightenment according to the beliefs of Pure Land Buddhism.

Article Notes

Relevant Threads / Discussions

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  1. Baird, Merrily. Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. Rizzoli Press. 2001. p.66.

Image Credits

  • Sarcasm-hime

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