The Dragonfly (Tombo) as a Motif in Japanese Art

Posted on | July 17, 2010 | 5 Comments

According to legend, Jinmu, the first divine emperor of Japan, stood on the top of a mountain surveying all of Yamato (the old name for Japan) and remarked that the land resembled the shape of a ring of tombo (dragonflies) in flight.  It is from this phrase that Yamato also became known as Akitsushima, akitsu being another reading of the character for tombo, and shima meaning island.  Tombo is perhaps the oldest design in Japan and has been found on the oldest discovered primitive pottery.

Tombo are also known as kachimushi or “victory insects.”  Besides having such a strong name, tombo are quick to attack and catch other small insects in midair. For these reasons, tombo became a motif favored among the warrior classes. Tombo designs appeared on military implements such as arrow quivers in hopes that arrows would fly straight and fast like the insect. Tombo are often combined in designs with arrows as well as with iris, the straight sword-like leaves of the iris representing a fast sword.

In modern Japan, the tombo has acquired a more natsukashii (nostalgic) image of the long ago days of childhood and chasing dragonflies through the rice paddies.  Although they are seen in abundance in early summer, tombo have become associated with the autumn and are often represented flying among the autumn grasses in Japanese art.  A folk belief persists that the tombo is the steed of departed ancestors who return to visit their families during the summer festival of Obon.

Dragonfly and Cricket Quilted Wall Hanging

Dragonfly and Cricket Quilted Wall Hanging

Available for purchase on my Etsy Store


5 Responses to “The Dragonfly (Tombo) as a Motif in Japanese Art”

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