Although traditional Japanese tattoos, especially large works such as sleeves, backpieces, or bodysuits, give an initial impression of chaotic complexity and a seemingly infinite number of design elements from which to choose, such is not the case. In fact, traditional Japanese tattoos tend to be drawn from a certain set of symbols, even when it comes to the choice of flowers — primarily the cherry blossom, the peony, and the chrysanthemum.
I built my hut beside a traveled road
Yet hear no noise of passing carts and horses.
You would like to know how it is done?
With the mind detached, one’s place becomes remote.
I pick a chrysanthemum by the eastern hedge
And catch sight of the distant southern hills.
The mountain air is lovely as the sun sets
And flocks of flying birds return together.
In these things is a fundamental truth
I would like to tell, but lack the words.
- Tao Ch’ien, poet (365-427 CE)
In this famous poem by the influential Chinese poet Tao Ch’ien, also known as Tao Qian, we glimpse the importance and symbolic meaning that the chrysanthemum has come to represent. From its identification with autumn, when it blooms, to its association with other fall qualities such as rest after the harvest season, and eventually to periods of quiet contemplation, the chrysanthemum has moved naturally into symbolizing withdrawal and retreat. Even the word itself, in Chinese (“chu” or “ju”), sounds like the word for “wait” or “linger.” Other sound-alikes made the chrysanthemum ideal for messages of congratulations or good will and wishes for long life.However, its symbolic link to longevity and happiness in Japanese culture may draw more from its actual appearance. Circular and symmetric with numberless rays that flow from its center, the chrysanthemum fits into that class of symbols that we recognize as solar. As a sun symbol, it immediately links to representations of life and longevity. Even today, it is the symbol of the Japanese Imperial family. The Chrysanthemum Throne refers to the position of the Japanese emperor.
While the cherry blossom of spring references the brevity and bright beauty of our transient lives, the chrysanthemum plays the opposite role in tattoo artwork. It is the flower of fall and of fullness, symbolizing not only a long life but a complete and happy one as well.