The Significance and Meaning of Owls in Japanese Culture

Updated on June 9, 2015
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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!

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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.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        JP 

        19 months ago

        I am freaked out there is an owl in my chimney stuck - what does this mean please?

      • profile image

        Sheila 

        19 months ago

        Some native American tribes do not see the owl as good luck. But for years I have had four carved owls, and a painting with three owls, and all of these were done by Cree artists from Northern Ontario. Found your information interesting.

      • profile image

        Maryanne 

        24 months ago

        I purchased a piece of Jewelry red owl what's dose that mean I also send it to my daughter is that's good sign it just stood out and thought it was very appealing cheers

      • profile image

        hello 

        2 years ago

        i like owles

      • Kamalesh050 profile image

        Kamalesh050 

        7 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

        Very interesting and informative, well written. Thanks for sharing. Voted Up. Best Wishes,

        Kamalesh

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        7 years ago from Wales

        Very interesting and thanks for sharing.

        Take care

        Eiddwen.

      • ForestBear profile imageAUTHOR

        ForestBear 

        7 years ago

        thank you twilanelson, I'm glad it was useful.

      • twilanelson profile image

        Twila Nelson 

        7 years ago from Carmichael, California

        In the U.S.A we always hear about the wise old owl. Thank you for sharing your interesting knowledge about owls throughout history and a mixture of cultures.

      • ForestBear profile imageAUTHOR

        ForestBear 

        7 years ago

        Hi James, thank you for stopping by and for mentioning Africa. I appreciate it!

      • James Agbogun profile image

        James Agbogun 

        7 years ago

        Am happy to find out that there are important uses associated with the Owl. I should also add that, Apart from medieval Europe, Owl is still associated with Witchcraft in some Cultures of Africa today. Thanks!

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