Hanakotoba: The Japanese Language of Flowers

Long before the Victorians developed their language of flowers, the Japanese had their own system of symbolic flower meanings. With a culture intertwined with an aesthetic appreciation of nature, it’s not surprising that Japan’s system, Hanakotoba, has been around for a long time.


In Japan, choosing the correct flowers to send and carefully combining them into the perfect arrangement became an art form. Both men and women participated in Hanakotoba, and sending flowers were not done lightly. The flowers and their colors were carefully chosen to fully convey a message without words. How the flowers were arranged was just as important to their meaning as the flowers themselves. Message senders not only had to learn all of the flowers’ potential meanings, but also study Ikebana, the art of flower arranging.



While Hanakotoba describes the symbology of flowers, Ikebana describes how those flowers are arranged. The practice of flower arranging began as far back as the 7th century when it was customary to leave offerings of flowers on altars. The first flower arrangements were far cruder than modern arrangements. Blossoms and branches were placed into vases with no particular order and no symbolic meaning. Gradually, Buddhists tea masters continued to refine Ikebana until it became one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, alongside incense and tea appreciation.


Shin-no-hana or “central flower arrangement” was the first organized refinement of Ikebana. This technique involves choosing a large evergreen branch to form the center of the arrangement with three to five seasonal flowers placed around it. The branch represented a distance scene and the flowers represent the foreground scenery. By the 16th century, Ikebana had grown in popularity and became more sophisticated. The practice was divided into two branches; rikka, which was more decorative and formal, and nageirebana, which was more simple and natural.


Today, Ikebana is not as popular as it once was, but there are still over a 1,000 schools that teach Ikebana. The practice even has some famous followers. While Ikebana was always a popular hobby for well-off aristocrats, it also acquired a reputation as a pastime for diginiged people. Two of Japan’s most famous generals, Hideyoshi and Yoshimasa, were devoted practitioners of flower arranging. They felt that arranging flowers provided mental training that calmed the mind and helped them make better battlefield decisions.


Ikebana Styles

There are three main styles of flower arrangement that include the classic Shogun Ashikaga, the natural nagarie, and the modern moribana styles. Today, only the latter two are common to Ikebana practitioners. Moribana means “piled up.” In this style, arrangements are made in shallow, wide containers. The most common styles are upright or slanting. Nagerie means “thrown in.” They can also be uprights or slanting and arrangements are made in narrow, tall vases.


If you want to try and make your own Ikebana arrangement, there are few rules to keep in mind. While you can choose a vase made from any material, make sure that it will complement and not overshadow your flowers. Think about what kind of aesthetic you want to convey with the color and texture of the foliage that you want to use. Choose three to five flowers or branches for your arrangement that compliment each other. Finally, the most important part of the arrangement is to bring out the essence of the plant in its natural environment. Only remove the pieces of the plant that are unnecessary to the finished piece, and consider how each floral element should be viewed from different angles. To add an extra layer of meaning to your arrangement, consult the list of Hanakotoba flower meanings below.




Hanakotoba, a Japanese Secret Language Using Flowers

17 Japanese Flower Meanings

Ikebana 101

Ikebana: The Art of Flower Arranging

Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arranging

Japanese Flower Arrangement


Hanakotoba Symbology

Amaryllis – Shy

Anemone, White – Sincere

Ambrosia – Pious

Aster  – Remembrance, I won’t forget you

Azalea – Patient, Modest

Bluebell – Grateful

Cactus – Lust, Sex

Camelia, Red – In Love Perishing with Grace

Camelia, Yellow – Longing

Camelia, White – Waiting

Carnation – Fascination, Distinction, Love

Cherry Blossom – Kind, Gentle, Transience of Life

Chrysanthemum, Yellow – Imperial

Chrysanthemum, White – Truth

Four-leaf Clover – Lucky

Fringed Orchid – My thoughts will follow you into your dreams

Daffodil – Respect

Dahlia – Good taste

Daisy – Faith

Edelweiss – Courage, Power

Erica – Solitude

Forget-me-not – True love

Freesia – Childish, Immature

Gardenia – Secret love

Hibiscus – Gentle

Holly – Single, Looking for love

Honeysuckle – Generous

Hydrangea – Pride

Iris – Good news, Loyalty

Jasmine – Friendly, Graceful

Lavender – Faithful

Lily, White – Purity, Chastity, Lesbian love

Lily, Orange – Hatred, Revenge

Lily of the Valley – Sweet

Tiger Lily – Wealth

Red Spider lily – Never to meet again, Lost memory, Abandonment

Sunflower – Respect, Passionate Love, Radiance

Lotus – Far from the one he loves, Purity, Chastity

Magnolia – Natural

Mistletoe – Single, Looking for love

Morning Glory – Willful promises

Narcissus – Self-Esteem

Pansy – Thoughtful, Caring

Peony – Bravery

Poppy, Red – Fun-loving

Poppy, White – Rejoice

Poppy, Yellow – Success

Primrose – Desperate

Rose, Red – Love, In love

Rose, White – Innocence, Silence, Devotion

Rose, Yellow – Jealousy

Rose, Pink – Trust, Happiness, Confidence

Sweet Pea – Goodbye

Tulip, Red – Fame, Charity, Trust

Tulip, Yellow – One-Sided love

Verbena – Cooperative

Violet – Honesty

Zinnia – Loyalty