The Dōbutsuen: Chō

The Dōbutsuen: Chō

Some members of the Dōbutsuen are ubiquitous. Wherever you look in Japanese culture, you will find them in one incarnation or another; forming a motif. The chō is one animal that both the Japanese and the Chinese venerate, though it holds a very special place in Japanese folklore.

Chō [蝶]

The chō represents a vast array of concepts and meanings in Japan. Butterflies represent the idea of metamorphosis and transformation, and traditionally, are also the souls of the dead, or carriers of souls from the land of the spirits. They can also be messengers. It is considered lucky to follow a butterfly, because it will lead you to the solution of a problem or mystery you are troubled with.

There are many interpretations of the message a chō may impart to you. The colour of a butterfly is important; a white chō is particularly significant, as it is a colour associated with the dead. If you see a chō which is pure white, you have been visited by an anscestor or family member who has passed on. A more colourful butterfly can be a warning that someone close to you is about to pass on, or that you are about to receive an unexpected visitor.

A chō newly emerged from its cocoon can also represent feminine beauty, or the coming of age of a young lady. The chō is a symbol of emerging beauty and grace, of maidenhood, and also of inevitable but joyful change. You will often see the butterfly in the pattern of a colourful furisode [振袖] kimono, worn by young or unmarried women. They are also popular devices found in kamon [家紋], or family crests, which are most often seen as embellishments on the more formal types of kimono.

The butterfly is also, understandably, a popular motif at weddings (interestingly, white is also the traditional colour for Japanese brides). It’s common to see the butterfly on sake jars, which are used as part of Shinto weddings and other formal occasions. Drinking sake in itself is a symbol of happiness to come in the marriage or relationship being celebrated.

There once was an old man named Takahama, who lived in a small house close to the graveyard of the local Shinto shrine. He was a quiet and amiable man who was liked by his neighbours; even though they believed him a little eccentric. In his long life, he had never been married or shown any desire for an intimate relationship with a woman; this was almost unheard of at the time. But Takahama was a pleasant neighbour and so was respected by all for his gentle nature.

As summer came one year, Takahama fell ill. He was so ill that his sister-in-law and her son were sent for. He was as beloved to his family as he was to his neighbours, so they came as quickly as they could. However, when they arrived they saw that Takahama would soon die and so did what they could to make him comfortable.

As his family sat with him, a large white chō flew in through the open window and landed on Takahama’s pillow. Three times the son tried to drive it away with his fan, but each time the butterfly returned and remained, as if loath to leave the old man alone.

Irritated, the young man finally managed to drive the butterfly out into the garden and into the graveyard beyond. It landed for a brief moment on one grave, then when he reached it, the butterfly mysteriously disappeared. Amazed, the son bent down to examine the grave, which was old and covered with moss. All they could make out was the name ‘Akiko’. The grave was surrounded by flowers, which were now beginning to wilt.

When the son returned to the house, he found that Takahama had passed away. He returned to his mother, and told her of what he had seen in the graveyard. She nodded and began to tell him the story of his uncle.

“Akiko was your uncle’s betrothed. They loved each other deeply; but shortly before the wedding she caught consumption and departed this world. Out of grief, your uncle resolved never to marry and to always remain near her grave. All his life he has remained faithful to her memory, and the sweet memories of their short time together ever remained clear and unbroken in his heart. Every day without fail, in the heat of summer and in the falling snow, he went to Akiko’s grave and prayed for her happiness; it was he who swept the grave clean and left the flowers there.

Every day he did so, until he could do so no longer. Then Akiko came to him. The white butterfly was her loving soul.”

Picture credit: From the manga xxxHolic by CLAMP

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