Mythology, Shinto

Tomoe: What does it mean?

tomoe2If you are familiar with Shinto or Japanese culture at all, you will most likely have seen the tomoe symbol. Tomoe,  (巴 or 鞆絵, とも) is a Japanese symbol that is widely accepted as the symbol of Shinto. ‘Tomoe’ can roughly be translated as ‘comma’, with mitsu-tomoe meaning ‘three commas’. The mitsu-domoe is the version usually used as a symbol in Shinto, with three being a sacred number. The tomoe symbol can also come in other versions with less or more commas, as seen here:

The tomoe is an ancient symbol which has been used in Japan for thousands of years. It has long been associated with samurai, household crests and martial arts. The comma shape itself is also an ancient symbol originating with magatama (勾玉) -stones, clay and later jewels shaped into a comma that appeared in ancient Japan from around 1,000 BCE to 300 BCE. It is believed that originally magatama were used simply for decorative purposes, but gained use as religious ceremony objects by the end of this era.

HUNT_52677(from artstor)

Magatama continued to develop and were used heavily throughout Japanese history and religion as a symbol. What the magatama originally symbolizes has always been up for debate by scholars; It could represent the shape of the soul, a good luck charm, an animal tooth, energy, the moon, an unborn fetus or any number of things. In the modern era magatama are worn as a protective symbol, a symbol of power and a symbol of spirituality and heritage.

It is also possible that the magatama and tomoe could have been inspired by the ancient Daoism symbol (called the taijitu and known in the West as the ‘yin-yang symbol’, should it have existed then and should the Japanese have encountered it. The two symbols have very similar meanings associated with them and it is not unusual to see the taijitu also used in both Shinto and Buddhism.

Magatama are mentioned numerous times through the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, two classical chronicles on the mythological history of Japan.  They are associated with the kami Amaterasu-Omikami, with magatama being one of the items that was used to lure the sun Goddess from her cave in one of the classic stories.

The Shinto Symbol – The Mitsu-Tomoe

In Shinto, the mitsu-domoe is mostly used and commonly represents the interaction and union of the cosmic forces that make up the Universe. These can be seen as The High Plain of Heaven – Takama-ga-hara (高天原), the Earth and the Underworld, or as Heaven, Earth and Man. The spaces in between the commas can represent the unknown dimensions – those parts of existence that dwell between the physical and spiritual.  The mitsu-domoe represents a life cycle which never ends, a constant moving forward of energy and regrowth, the philosophy of Shinto itself.

I was also contacted by Kityrinn on Tumblr who added ‘Regarding the Mitsu Tomoe, it is my understanding as imparted to me from Rev. Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, that a leftward spiral is the spiral of materialization or Ki coalescing to matter and representative of actions of the female kamisama. And the rightward spiral is the spiral of spiritualization of matter returning to Ki, or ascending to heaven, and refers to the actions of male kamisama.’

The mitsu-tomoe is often associated with Hachiman, the kami of warriors and can be found in abundance at his shrines. As samurai were known to worship Hachiman, the mitsu-tomoe also became associated with them as a symbol of strength and courage.

Mitsu-tomoe on a horse statue at a Hachiman Shrine. Image credit: Green Shinto

Three is a very sacred number in many religions, Shinto included. According to Japanese mythology, the first beings to exist in the Universe were three kami born out of the nothing. In the story of Izanagi and Izanami, Izanagi washed away his impurities in the river Hi and his three most renowned children were born; Amaterasu-Omikami – the Sun kami, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto – the moon kami and Susanoo-no-Mikoto – the sea (and later natural disaster) kami. The Imperial Regalia of Japan are also three items: A sword, a jewel and a mirror.

The idea of three, inter-dependent things is something found all over the World in many cultures. Some examples could be:

Mind, Body, Spirit (New age faiths)
The Three Jewels and the Three Bodhi (Buddhism)
The Son, The Father, The Holy Spirit (Christianity)
Sky, Sea and Earth (Modern Druidry)
The Maiden, The Mother, The Crone (Wicca/Witchcraft/The Occult)
The Three Pure Ones (Daoism)
The Trimurti and Tridevi (Hinduism)

The symbol of the mitsu-tomoe is also not strictly unique to Japan and Shinto. There are many other symbols across the World that represent similar themes. The swastika, although tainted heavily by WWII Germany is still a sacred symbol across the World and is thousands of years old.

Here are some examples of swastikas and various other similar symbols:

What the Mitsu-Tomoe symbol means to me

For me, the mitsu-tomoe is a powerful symbol of continuity in life. It reminds me that life goes on no matter what happens. I use it as a protective symbol, a symbol of my faith and something to signify the union of all forces. It reminds me that good things come in threes and that when I have bad times I just need to wait for the circle to spin around once more. I very much believe in the concept of karma and so it also symbolizes the ‘what goes around comes around’ aspect of life.

I guess the closest ‘general’ meaning I can apply to the mitsu-tomoe is that of ‘mind, body and spirit’ – except in this case it’s more ‘mind, body and kami‘. It is a powerful symbol and I wear a magatama daily to enforce it’s meaning even more. It is an image of peace, sincerity and faith.

In the end, mitsu-tomoe can be a very personal symbol and mean different things to different people. Ask around in Japan and you’ll get a variety of answers! But it’s part of this unknown aspect I feel that makes the mitsu-tomoe such a powerful and potent symbol.

What does the mitsu-tomoe mean to you? Do you use any other kinds of religious symbol? I would love to hear your input and I truly hope that this post was informative!

Thank you for reading!


Thanks to KityRinn for their information on the mitsu-tomoe and also corrections on the Celtic

8 thoughts on “Tomoe: What does it mean?”

  1. I knew the Tomoe in a path of spirituality and curiosity, I apreciate your article, it’s very interesting, and complementary. You can articulate a researched information like the historical, spiritual, cultural topics, and a valuable personal opinion. Thanks for this. Regards from Colombia

  2. I had the leftward-spiral mitsu-tomoe tattooed onto my left forearm back in 1993 without knowing anything about it at the time. I was still recovering from a sudden and painful divorce and chose it on the spur of the moment. I felt instinctually drawn to it. Over the years, I came to define it as representing stability and balance, qualities I for which was was in desperate need at the time I chose it. The arrival of the internet allowed me to finally discover its true origin and definition. I was pleased to learn that my interpretation was pretty spot-on. I cherish it as it’s been a constant companion and ever-present reminder to nurture those qualities in my life and those I love.

    1. This is a wonderful story! I feel that the symbol is a very powerful and I like how a lot of people assign their own personal meaning to it. I’m so glad it is a great reminder to you!

  3. Thank you for your detailed description,

    I wear this Symbol since years, with interpration as “Karmic Wheel”, as well as life goes and balance of powers – including the Yin Yang. So I am glad to read your own interpreatation, as well as the analysis of ist origin. Since I have been to Japan (1996) and an enthusiastic fan of Taiko drumming (such as KODO), I often seen the symbol – now I have a better understanding of the variety of meanings!

    Thank you again!

    Stefan from Germany

  4. three is an important and powerful number and concept. i enjoyed your article. it wasn’t what i was looking for, but your screen name i couldn’t resist. the fox is my guide.

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