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Motif Information
Motif kuma 01.jpg
Rōmaji Kuma
English Bear
Kana クマ
Season #
Seasonal Exceptions #
Auspicious #
Motif Type Animal

Kuma means bear. Two species of bear currently live in Japan, the Ussuri brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus, higuma)[1] which is confined to Hokkaido and the Japanese black bear (Ursus thibetanus japonicus, tsuki no waguma)[2] which currently can be found on Honshū and Shikoku. As a motif, kuma mostly refers to the Ussuri brown bear.

Kuma may be observed in the spring, especially females emerging from hibernation with their cubs, approaching fishermen and other humans in areas where food may be found. It is common in Japan for hikers to carry bells to ward off bears. [3]

Kuma are sacred to the Ainu and the sacrifice of a bear is a key part of one of their best know ceremonies, Iyomante[4] (イヨマンテ),in which a cub that has been raised for the purpose is sacrificed and the meat and blood consumed.

Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings

Kuma hibernate in the winter and awaken in the spring. A carved wooden kuma with a fish in its mouth is common souvenir of Hokkaido and represents the kuma's spring emergence to catch spawning fish.

Kuma are rarely depicted in Japanese art,[5] especially when contrasted with non-native predators, such as tora.

Motif Connotations & Symbolism

Kuma are known for their strength. The Japanese folk hero, Kintarō, is often depicted as traveling with or engaging in sumo with a bear.[6]

Common Motif Pairings

  • When paired with a child, suggests Kintarō

Identification & Style Variations

Kuma are a relatively rare motif and are mostly found on men's and boys' items.

In the modern era cute mascot bears like Rilakkuma (リラックマ) and Kumamon (くまモン), the mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture, have gained wide popularity and frequently appear on yukata and hanhaba obi.

Motif Examples

Motif in Literature & Other Usage

In Japanese folktales, the hero Kintarō performs various feats of strength, including wrestling and taming a bear.[7]

The Sankebetsu brown bear incident [8] (三毛別羆事件, Sankebetsu Higuma jiken), a series of attacks by one bear that occurred in 1915 in Hokkaido leading to the deaths of seven people over six days and the serious injury of three more, has been the inspiration for two novels, a manga, a play, and a movie.

In Poetry

Article Notes

Relevant Threads / Discussions

  • Link to any relevant threads on IG


  1. Wikipedia article on Ussuri brown bear. Accessed September 15, 2016.
  2. Wikipedia article on Asian black bear Accessed September 15, 2016.
  3. World Kigo Database article on KumaAccessed September 15, 2016.
  4. Wikipedia article on Iyomante.Accessed September 15, 2016.
  5. Baird, Merrily. Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. Rizzoli. 2001. p.125
  6. Wikipedia article on Kintarō. Accessed September 15, 2016.
  7. Wikipedia article on Kintarō. Accessed September 15, 2016.
  8. Wikipedia article on Sankebetsu brown bear incident Accessed September 15, 2016.

Image Credits

  • Please credit any image used with the exception of images from Immortal Geisha or Moonblossom's photo gallery or anyone else who stated they don't need crediting.

Authors & Contributors

Author/s: tzippurah (IG Username)