Balance and Unity: Exploring the Philosophy of the Five Japanese Elements

The Five Japanese Elements

The five Japanese elements – earth, water, fire, wind and void – are represented on gorintou, a small stone tower found on graves. They are also part of a philosophy and lifestyle that seeks balance, as shown by the five taste qualities of salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami.

This article will explore the philosophy of the five elements as it is manifested in traditional Japan through food, architecture and art. It will also touch upon Confucian values such as filial piety, decorum and duty.


The earth is associated with the colour yellow and with the kanji symbol for prosperity. It is also related to the elusive taste of umami that makes Japanese foods so satisfying and which can be found in white rice, miso soup or grilled fish.

The kanji symbol for the earth is a square, below which are spherical rings of water and fire, and above these a half-moon shape of wind and finally a gem-shaped ring of space/void. These five elements are a part of the philosophy of kizuna or kzen that helped the Samurai to develop their bushido code of discipline and frugality that was founded on Buddhism’s emphasis on frugality and realism, Shinto’s love of nature and agriculture, Confucian values of filial piety and decorum, duty and loyalty, as well as the Chinese cosmology of earth, wood, fire, water, air and space/void.


The Water element is associated with emotions and creativity. In balance, it allows for flexibility and adaptability. When out of balance, it can lead to rigidity and a lack of imagination. The Water element is also related to a healthy urinary tract, bladder function and menstrual flow.

The Chinese concept of the five elements (Wu Xing) was brought to Japan via Buddhism and then further adapted through the Japanese philosophy of gogyo and inyo. These principles permeate everyday life in many ways through the astrological calendar, days of the week, colours and numerous festivals and rituals.

One of the most obvious examples is the gorinto, the five-ring pagoda used in Shinto shrines to symbolize the elements and their relationship to human life. Other important influences include Confucius (551-479 B.C.E), whose teachings emphasize filial piety, decorum, duty and learning.


The fire represents explosive energy, power and aggression. It is also the element that burns, digests food and gives life to plants. Fire is also the element that supports and sustains all the other elements.

For example, it is common for the gorinto () – a five-story pagoda of modest size found mainly in Buddhist temples and cemeteries – to symbolize godai. Its topmost story corresponds to the space/void element, while the other stories represent, from bottom to top: a square earth ring, a spherical water ring, a triangle of fire, and a reclining half-moon shape that is associated with wind.

The concept of gogyo and the five worldly elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space/Void – permeate Japan’s traditional culture through the Zodiac cycle, days of the week, colors, seasons, and many other aspects of life. They are also represented in Japanese poetry, cuisine and a variety of traditional arts, including koei games.


The Wind element (Japanese = Gon Dai ) is associated with movement, evasiveness and strength. It is also a symbol of change, balancing the earth and water elements. The Wind element represents the ability to change one’s mind. It is often paired with the Fire element.

Japanese stone lanterns have five divisions that represent the five elements. The bottom section, touching the ground, symbolizes chi; the next section, encasing the lantern’s light or flame, symbolizes sui; the third section, pointing up to the sky, represents ka; and the topmost division, representing space or void, symbolizes Kong.

In Esoteric Buddhism, the five worldly elements are combined with a sixth element, Mind or Spiritual Consciousness to create a Six Elements system. Hence, many statues or paintings of the Dainichi Buddha show him clasping his hands in a mudra that symbolizes the union of these elements.


Void is the highest of the elements and can be translated as sky or heaven. It is associated with creativity and pure energy. Void is also linked to communication and the ability to sense things outside of our physical senses. It is a powerful force that is used in martial arts and can help to connect a warrior with a power greater than themselves.

Void is also the fifth of five elements that form a philosophy commonly adopted by samurai such as Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin-no-sho (The Book of the Five Rings). In addition to the classical Chinese elements of wood, water, fire, and metal, samurai philosophers add a sixth element called ku or emptiness. The elements are considered inanimate and unconnected until a sixth element, mind or perception, is added, which gives them a sense of unity.

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