The crane – white-feathered, soaring and graceful – is a popular motif on the Japanese kimono. Not only for its beauty, but for what it symbolises: faithfulness and longevity. Cranes mate for life and perform elaborate courtship dances to strengthen the bond, circling, leaping dramatically, spreading their wings and throwing up their heads to trumpet in unison. In Japanese tradition, the crane is also fabled to live for a thousand years and is therefore a national symbol of longevity and good fortune. For these reasons the crane is an important image in New Year and wedding ceremonies in Japan and is depicted on kimonos – especially wedding kimonos – more than any other bird or animal.
These beautiful vintage kimono designs reflect the popularity of the crane:
Near-extinction and recovery
Cranes may not live for a thousand years but they can last up to 30 years in the wild and 60 in captivity. “May you live as long as a crane”, goes a popular Japanese saying. The Japanese or red-crowned crane lives on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, but is now an endangered species. They were once found all over Japan: the indigenous Ainu people performed their own dance mimicking the bird and honouring the ‘god of the marsh’, and in feudal times, the shoguns or military governors permitted one crane to be killed per year as a gift for the Emperor’s feast. But by the early 20th century Europeans had hunted the birds almost to extinction for their beautiful plumage.
Rescue efforts began when just 20 survivors were discovered in the Hokkaido marshes in the 1920s. After being granted ‘Special Natural Monument’ status in the 1950s, the colony made a dramatic recovery and now numbers more than 1,000 birds.
The following short video shows cranes dancing in the Hokkaido snow:
(Credit: photo of two flying cranes at top of page is by Spaceaero2)