Japanese culture is rich with symbolism, much of which is steeped in tradition and religion.
One such example is the meaning behind different flowers and their symbolism.
While many flowers have special meanings in Japan, one, in particular, has come to symbolize death – the red spider lily.
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Hanakotoba, also known as the “language of flowers,” is the Japanese tradition of assigning meanings to flowers.
This practice dates back to at least the early 18th century when it was first recorded in the book Karuta Hyakushu, a collection of 100 poems about plants and flowers.
Each poem was paired with a corresponding illustration, and many of the plants and flowers featured in the book were given symbolic meanings.
For Example – The chrysanthemum was associated with autumn, while the cherry blossom came to symbolize spring.
Over time, these symbols became codified into a sort of floral dictionary, with certain flowers coming to be associated with specific emotions or concepts.
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For instance, red carnations are often given to express love, while white ones are typically used to convey condolences.
While the practice of hanakotoba is not as prevalent today as it once was, it remains an important part of Japanese culture.
Many different flowers can be used for hanakotoba, but some of the most popular include roses, tulips, and daisies.
The same flower can have different meanings depending on the color, and many flowers can represent both positive and negative emotions.
Here are just a few of the most common hanakotoba symbols and what they typically represent.
Roses are perhaps the most well-known hanakotoba symbols.
Red roses symbolize love and passion, while white ones represent purity and innocence, and yellow roses signify friendship.
Red tulips are used when the sender wants to declare their love for the receiver of the flowers, but if you are sent white tulips, the sender is asking for forgiveness.
Daisies usually only come in one color; white. This flower is a symbol of innocence and purity.
Red Spider Lily
The red spider lily, also known as the death flower or higanbana, is a beloved flower in Japan with a long history.
The plant blooms in late September and early October, which is also the time of year when Japanese people traditionally visit the graves of their ancestors.
As a result, the red spider lily has come to represent death and mourning in Japanese culture.
Why the Red Spider Lily?
There are many theories about how the red spider lily came to be associated with death.
One story says that the flower bloomed on the grave of a young girl who died before she could be married.
Another story says that the flower bloomed on the grave of a woman who committed suicide after her husband died.
On the slightly less mysterious side, the red spider lily was planted around cemeteries to keep animals away.
The bulb of the plant is poisonous, and it kept rodents from digging up graves.
When the bright red flowers showed up near the graves, it looked like they were stealing the blood from the deceased and the flowers earned a new, unappealing nickname; the corpse flower.
There is a flower that appears in the Buddhist Heart Sutra called a higan.
These flowers are symbolic and don’t exist in this world, so it is thought that Buddhist monks planted the next best thing, the red spider lily.
Higan translates to ‘other shore’ which refers to the Sanzu river that spirits need to cross to be reborn.
For This Reason – You’ll see red spider lilies at Buddhist funerals. The families decorate with these flowers so their loved ones can be reborn and continue the cycle.
On the unfortunate occasion, you learn of someone’s death, you may want to send a bouquet as a gesture of condolence.
But what kind of flowers should you send?
Knowing that a red spider lily is a flower that symbolizes death, you may be tempted to send this flower to the family of the deceased.
However, in Japan, it is considered bad luck to give someone a gift that symbolizes death.
So, what can you do?
The best option is to send white flowers instead.
White roses and tulips are always appropriate, and chrysanthemums are also a popular choice. You can also send a mixed bouquet of white and other flowers.
The traditional way of sending flowers for a funeral is a hanawa or a funeral wreath.
These are made of white or pale colored flowers in a nice arrangement with your name or company printed on a ribbon that hangs from it so the family knows who sent it.
At the end of the funeral, hanawas are cremated with the body so the intent of the flowers can find the deceased.
Since this is the way hanawas are dealt with at the end of the day, you should contact the funeral home or the family before sending anything to see if they are accepting hanawas.
Red Spider Lilies in Anime
The red spider lily is such an iconic flower in Japan that it has made its way into popular culture.
This flower can be found in many animes, often with a dark or sad connotation.
Red spider lilies appear in animes like:
- Kimetsu no Yaiba
- Tokyo Ghoul
Without giving too much away, the flowers appear in many ways. They can be hidden in the background to foreshadow death, or they can be the focus of an episode.
Hopefully knowing the symbolism behind the flower won’t ruin the surprises while you’re watching. Instead, let it add an extra layer of depth to the scenes.
Although the red spider lily is associated with death in Japan, it can also be seen as a symbol of hope.
The delicate beauty of these flowers reminds us that life always goes on, no matter what challenges we face, and the circle of life is neverending.
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