Review: “Symbols of Japan”

o Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design, by Merrily Baird

An encyclopedic volume that covers, in order: the cosmos, heaven, and earth; trees and their fruit; diverse plants; birds and insects; land and sea animals; demons, deities, and figural groups; religion and good fortune; objects of everyday life; music, board games, and cultural pursuits (taken from the table of contents).

The book is written in an academic style, meant as a reference rather than something to be read from start to finish, and serves this purpose very well. Although, like encyclopedias, it covers a very broad range of subjects and thus pays the price with some lack of depth, it is nonetheless an excellent reference. There is a great deal of hard-to-find information all in one place, such as background on wolves in Japan and the Japanese view of ghosts and goblins (for instance, human ghosts in Japanese tradition usually have no legs or feet, their lower halves “portrayed in a tapering, smokelike form”; and most are female).

As relates to kimono it is a good foundation for those who would like to interpret designs, although it’s best used in conjunction with something like one of the online references on symbolism, motifs and colors, since the book does lack some seasonal specifics and doesn’t particularly address kimono in detail.

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