Mums the Word ! Chrysanthemums ( KIKU, 菊) in Japanese Culture and History
By Avi Landau
Walking through Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods in November, you will very likely see some impressive chrysanthemums (kiku) displayed out by the front-doors of homes and shops, their big, heavy looking yellow, white or pink blossoms sitting atop their slender leaf laden stems, often supported by round metal frames. You will also often find prize winning MUMS on display and even shows of chrysanthemum SCULPTURE ( kiku ningyo) throughout this season at venues such as shrines and parks.
Though they are NOT a native species, KIKU have not only come to be known as one of Japan`s two important representative flowers of autumn ( the other being HAGI- bush clover), but they have also become the symbol of Japan`s Imperial Family, an institution which in English is in fact often referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Believed by the ancient Chinese to possess special medicinal powers, specifically the ability to cleanse one of spiritual impurities and provide ETERNAL YOUTH, there is evidence suggesting that chrysanthemums were introduced to Japan as early as the 5th century. There are, however, NO references to this flower in the first ( and perhaps greatest) of Japan`s poetry anthologies, the Manyoshu ( compiled in the 8th century).
In the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794- 1185) Periods the aristocrats of the Japanese Court adopted the Tang Chinese custom of drinking chrysanthemum wine and rubbing ones body with cotton swabs soaked with chrysanthemum dew on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month( for the Chinese, odd numbers are YANG – bright and positive. Nine is the highest odd numeral ,which would make 9/9 the luckiest day of the year- right when the mums are in bloom). This event was officially called the Choyo no Sekku （重陽の節句), one of the five seasonal change days which the Japanese adopted from China. These customs are described by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book ( Makura no Soshi- 枕草子) and by Murasaki Shikibu, in her diary( both from the Heian Period).
Because of the fact that the chrysanthemum was so prestigious, with its Chinese lineage and its supposed purifying and life extending powers ( besides the beauty of the flower itself ! ) many of Japans noble families, from the Heian Period on, adopted it in one form or another into their family crests or onto their kimonos or furniture as decorative motifs.
However, what makes the chrysanthemum especially symbolic of the Imperial Family of Japan, is the fact that the large round , yellow blossoms are reminiscent of THE SUN- the ancestor, according to Japanese mythology, in the form of AMATERASU, of the Japan’s emperors.
The first recorded connection between the chrysanthemum and the Imperial family, however, dates back only to the reign of the Emperor Ninmyo ( 仁明天皇 810-850), a grandson of the Emperor Kammu ( who had moved the capital to present day Kyoto). It is said that that Emperor had a great fondness for yellow chrysanthemums and had them extensively planted on the palace grounds. He also liked to wear robes dyed yellow from these flowers.
The KIKU was adopted on the Imperial Family`s crest by the Emperor Gotoba ( 後鳥羽 1180-1239 ), who was also known to have a strong liking for these flowers.
It was not until 1926 ( Taisho 15), however, that the Chrysanthemum Seal became officially recognized.
During the Edo Period ( 1600-1868) the military class, continued ( or should I say revived ) the custom of celebrating the 5 sekku, the seasonal changing days brought over from China in the Nara Period. Of course, the Chrysanthemum Day, the Choyo no Sekku on the 9th day of the ninth month, was among them.
The prestige of the KIKU filtered down to the masses during this time and chrysanthemum breeding became a popular activity. Japanese horticulturalists developed countless varieties, in various shapes and colors.
These growers formed associations which held displays and competitions of both just plain flowers and of sculptures made utilizing them ( kiku ningyo). One of the most famous of these is held every year in Fukushima Prefecture`s Nihonmatsu City.
Of course, in poetry the KIKU came to be used extensively as a symbol of autumn and other things….. one being: homosexual love ( the center of the blossom was thought to look like an anus!).
There are also about 20 smaller native wild varieties of chrysanthemum which bloom at various times of year ( and 8 in Ibaraki Prefecture!). And though not as spectacular as the giant show varieties, they are still beautiful and EDIBLE!
Another custom related to these native chrysanthemums is making KIKU-MAKURA ( mum pillows). Kiku petals are thoroughly dried out and stuffed into cases to make pillows. These were said to be good for headaches, and of course, cleansing away spiritual impurities (kegare).
The Kasama Kiku Matsuri ( 笠間の菊まつり）
If you would like to make an interesting day trip from Tsukuba which would include chrysanthemum viewing ( including some amazing sculptures- though for this there is an entrance fee), as well as pottery shopping or making, why not head up, by car or train, to Kasama, where the Kiku Matsuri ( Chrysanthemum Festival) will be held through Nov. 24th.
Many of the more interesting events related to the festival will be held within the precincts of the Kasama Inari Shrine.
Here is the Kasama Inari Shrine`s English language web-site:
Remember MUMS the word!
Here are some photos of the chrysanthemums grown by local residents which are put on display in November at Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja Shrine for the Kiku Matsuri: