The Seal of the Emperor: the importance of chrysanthemums in Japanese culture

Chrysanthemums have their origin in Eastern Asia and have been used by the Chinese culture for more than 3,000 years. But when we speak about the influence of this genus of plants in men, the most significant society is definitely the Japanese. With a history that starts about 1,300 years ago, the relevance of these flowers today is as strong as it has been from the beginning. Follow us on this brief voyage on the history of chrysanthemums in Japanese culture.

As said before, chrysanthemums were first cultivated in China. There are written recordings dated from around the 15th Century BC describing them. The plant was originally conceived as a healing herb and was believed to contain the power of life, as several legends show. Thus, boiled roots were used as a pain reliever, young sprouts and petals were eaten in salads, and leaves were brewed as a hot drink.

Fiction and facts

There are a few legends that narrate the arrival of the chrysanthemum to the island of Japan. One of them grants the foundation of the Japanese Empire to the flower. It says that a Chinese emperor was told that he could find a herb which gave eternal youth in the Dragon-fly Island in the Sunrise Sea. Rumors said only young people could collect the herb, so he sent twelve boys and twelve girls to the island with baskets of chrysanthemums in order to trade for the magic herb. Once they arrived, after surviving wild storms, they noticed the island was completely empty. They refused to go back to sea and decided to stay in the island, planting the flowers they carried as an offering. That is the Chinese version of how chrysanthemums got to Japan, alongside with civilization.

Now, considering historical facts, the flower became relevant to the Japanese people in the 8th Century. Chinese influence in the island brought Buddhism, centralism,  writing, and the love for the beauty of chrysanthemums and its uses; legends were kind of accurate after all. It happened during the Nara period (710-794 AD), called this way because the capital was established in the city with the same name. This fact means a lot because until then, the capital city was changed every time an emperor died; they believed the death would set a curse all over the place.

Fun fact: of the eight Empresses that have ruled Japan, six did it during the Nara period.

 Meanings of chrysanthemums

With the new figure of the Emperor and its power, came a new symbol, meaning longevity and eternal youth. In other words, having determined the chrysanthemum as the seal of the head of state worked as a manifest of the Japanese Empire’s posterity. The yellow flower, with sixteen petals on the front and sixteen on the back (almost hidden), became not only the representation of the monarch, but of the throne itself. What is more, even today it is still known as the Chrysanthemum Throne.

After this, the chrysanthemum became a regular icon on all levels of Japanese culture. You could, back then, and yet today, find it in jewelry, home decoration, cloths, coins, etc. Furthermore, the highest Japanese honor order awarded by the Emperor, is the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum. Last, but not least, it continues to be used as a diplomatic and official symbol, being seen in passports, orders and other documents.

With its original color being yellow, almost golden, and its shape resembling the biggest star in our solar system, it is no surprise that Japan took the Chrysanthemum as its seal, and the seal of its maximum leader. A perfect symbol according to the prosperity of the Land of the Rising Sun.

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