The Significance and Meaning of Owls in Japanese Culture
The Symbolism of Owls in Japan
In modern Japanese culture, owls are quite significant. Many Japanese people commonly carry an owl charm, but what does it symbolize?
If you walk around the shops or find yourself on the subway in Japan, you'll often come across cute little plastic owl cell phone charm dangles, owl stickers and phone covers, wooden owl figures and owl toys in all shapes and sizes. Owls are popular, just like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma, but for a different reason.
In Japan, owls bring luck and offer protection from suffering.
The reason can be found in the Japanese name for owl, Fukuro フクロウ (梟), which can be written in different sets of characters: One with the meaning of luck (福 fuku, luck; 来ku, to come; 郎 ro suffix used in boys' names), and the other as protection from hardship (不 fu, no, 苦労 kurou suffering/hardship).
Through this play on words, owls have attained different attributions and have become popular as engimono (縁起物) (Japanese for lucky charms). Some people believe that the different colours and shapes of owls have different influences on the type of power and luck. This is why an enormous variety of owl merchandise and souvenirs can be found in modern Japan.
The Changing Symbolism of the Owl in Japan
Well, owls don't only symbolize luck in Japan. In different parts of the country, they have historically been given a variety of other attributions (as a guiding bird and a bird which can predict the weather, for example), but original folktales ascribing these representations seem to have gradually vanished.
Since the Meiji restoration in 1868 when Japan opened its doors to the West, the image of the owl has also changed, and the view on owls as a symbol of wisdom and education became more prominent.
Today, the idea that owls represent lucky charms for fortune and protection and the alternate view that they symbolize knowledge seem to coexist in an unusual and interesting mix, just like the new and old Japan I guess, and this combination of meanings only increases the amount of cute and happy owl designs on the market!
Owl Symbolism Around the World
It's not only in Japan that owls have cultural significance. Owls have been associated with magic, wisdom, and heightened senses throughout history, from ancient Greece to Asia and America. Plains Indians wore owl feathers to protect them from evil spirits, and in Middle Eastern cultures, the owl was seen as a sacred guardian of the afterlife.
In Greek mythology, the owl was linked to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and as the symbol was used on Greek coins, owls also became associated with wealth. However, in Medieval Europe, owls had a bad name: There, in sharp contrast with the associations of knowledge and education that we commonly associate the owl with today, owls were a symbol of witchcraft.