Asanoha, an “Ode to Japan”

Not unusually, throughout time we get accustomed to symbols, glyphs and patterns so easily to the point of shamelessly ignoring their origin. Our society’s immediacy can become an almost unbeatable murderer to history and beautifully crafted stories.  This simple text is a small pièce de résistance.

The Asanoha (or 麻の葉, for those in the know)is a worldly renown, or at least worldly applied, Japanese seamless pattern whose name unfortunately did not become popular outside of the islands. The pattern is assumed to have been created during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), for which it became a symbol. Due to its meaning of growth and endurance, the Asanoha was largely used in children and youngsters clothing in Japan.

As most things, the Asanoha has yet another unsuspicious association to it, that of the romantically dark story of Yaoya Oshichi (八百屋お七), a 16 year old girl sent to death by the Justice for her act of desperation to reunite with her idealistic love. Wikipedia says it best:

"In December 1682, she fell in love with Ikuta Shōnosuke (or Saemon), a temple page, during the great fire in the Tenna Era, at Shōsen-in, the family temple (danna-dera). The next year she attempted arson, thinking she could meet him again if another fire occurred. She was caught by the police and burnt at the stake in Suzugamori for her crimes.

She was sixteen years old, and the magistrate knew it, but he asked her, ”You must be fifteen years old, aren’t you?” at the judgment because boys and girls under fifteen years old were not subject to the death penalty. But she honestly stated her age, and was punished accordingly."

Oshichi’s story is magnificently told by the Kabuki theater until this day!

The Asanoha pattern is constantly being rediscovered and it was no exception with me. "Ode to Japan" is a seamless pattern I made as an interpretation of the traditional Asanoha, meant as an homage to Japan on my part. And it looks like I am not alone!
The Japanese are gifted at translating poetic ideas into design, as you can see on the "Asanoha turning into birds" textile or the all so fashionable "Washi Masking Tapes" from the Kamoi Kakoshi Company.

What about you? Where are you going to celebrate the Asanoha?

[Edit]:A reader wrote to me saying "Very interesting, but I didn’t get how is Asanoha related to the story of Yaoya Oshichi??" so I thought some clarification was called for. Oshichi, the adolescent that she was, used to wear clothes with the Asanoha motifs as most other kids did at that time (notice the kimono she is wearing in the portrait above and to the right — click image to enlarge). With her tragic death for a passionate time at such an early age, Oshichi became one of the most famous characters of the Edo Period and with her, the Asanoha pattern she wore so frequently.

2 Comments

  1. María
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Hello:
    Thank you for sharing this story. I love the Japanese design, and it´s meaning.
    I paint Asanoha in oil on canvas. I have several examples with diferents colors and sizes.
    Thanks,
    María

  2. Deb
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Love this post thanks – always wondered at the meaning of asanoha…
    Could you please tell me the link for the fabric above of asanoha turning into birds red on white)?
    Thanks for the post!

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