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How Did the Chrysanthemum Become the Symbol of the Japanese Emperor?

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Chrysanthemums have a long history in Japan.

Chrysanthemums have a long history in Japan.

What Are Chrysanthemums?

Chrysanthemums, the popular fall flower used in autumnal décor are perennial flowering plants that are native to East Asia where they have a long history.

They were first cultivated in China beginning in the 15th century BC. By 1630 AD, over 500 cultivars had been recorded. It should come as no surprise then that a plant so popular and revered would spread out of its homeland to neighboring kingdoms as Chinese influence in the region also spread.

How Did the Chrysanthemum Become the Symbol of the Japanese Emperor?

Chrysanthemums were introduced to Japan sometime in the 8th century AD during the Nara period (710–794 AD). This was an important era in Japanese history. While the common people were farmers and practiced a nativist religion which involved the worship of both natural spirits and their ancestors, the upper classes were influenced by China adopting the dress, writing and religion of their more sophisticated neighbor.

Thanks to the adoption of the Chinese writing system, Japan’s first literary works appeared. There was also an effort to record the history of the country. Equally important was the establishment of Buddhism. Buddhism had been introduced to Japan during the 6th century AD but was not embraced by the populace until the Nara period when Emperor Shomu adopted the religion and actively promoted it throughout the country.

The Imperial Seal of Japan features a stylized representation of a chrysanthemum flower.

The Imperial Seal of Japan features a stylized representation of a chrysanthemum flower.

It was during this period of adoption of Chinese culture that chrysanthemums were introduced to the country. The Imperial family was fascinated by the flower, so much so that they used it on their official seal and even on their throne. Since that time, the term “chrysanthemum throne” refers both to the actual throne as well as the emperor himself. Thus, the chrysanthemum became a symbol of the emperor and imperial family. It remains the symbol of the emperor today.

The Chrysanthemum in Modern Japanese Culture

Chrysanthemums are known as “kiku” in Japan and are immensely popular to this day. They are used in coinage, on passports, and printed on fabrics. There is even an award called the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum. It is the highest honor in the country. Only Japanese citizens are eligible for this prestigious award.

In everyday life the flower colors have specific meanings. Red chrysanthemums have romantic connotations similar to red roses in American culture. White chrysanthemums are used in funerals and on grave sites. White is the color of mourning in Japan, rather than black as it is in the United States

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A Kiku Festival.  Notice the shapes that the plants have been trained into.

A Kiku Festival. Notice the shapes that the plants have been trained into.

Japanese culture has a flower for each month of the year. The chrysanthemum is the flower for the month of September. Japan’s National Chrysanthemum Day (“Kiku no Sekku”) is also called the Festival of Happiness. It is celebrated on September 9, which is the ninth day of the ninth month. In numerology, the number nine is considered auspicious. The holiday was established in 910 AD when the first chrysanthemum show was held. It was sponsored by the imperial family.

Additionally, there are many local fall festivals celebrated around the country that are centered on chrysanthemums. They include old traditions like decorating dolls with the flowers.

A chrysanthemum pruned as a bonsai

A chrysanthemum pruned as a bonsai

How Chrysanthemums for Display Are Created

Long before the autumn season with its kiku festivals, gardeners are meticulously pruning and training chrysanthemum plants into specific shapes, some similar to bonsai trees. Branches are carefully wired to grow in desired directions. Buds are pinched to encourage multiple flowers to create breathtaking displays. The entire process can take 11 months. Then, when the celebrations are over, the plants are cut down and the process is begun again with new plants for next year's festivals.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does the bronze mum flower represent?

Answer: There is no symbolism attached to bronze chrysanthemums. Only the red mums and white mums have meaning in Japanese culture.

© 2017 Caren White


Dianna Mendez on October 17, 2017:

Such an interesting read on this flower. Thanks for sharing.

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