Hana Yori Dango — Dumplings over Flowers 花より団子

Substance over style, necessities over luxuries. Karatedō teaches us to deeply consider true value and to prefer it to empty cosmetics and shallow things and people. A karateka is a man or woman of substance, as well as style — but substance first.

Hana Yori Dango 花より団子 [pronounced “hah-nah your-eee dan-go”] literally means “dumplings [[1]] over flowers” — and points out the importance of substance over style, and the importance of knowing the difference.

We are also reminded of things, people, and ideas that are deeply nourishing and valuable, versus the momentary flash of luxury and superficial excitement – and the struggle to recognize and identify these things, people, and ideas as what they are, and to choose correctly, which are indeed of importance to us.

Is there Value?

In the rush for achieving great things, or sometimes just in the fog of life’s daily challenges, we are sometimes deceived into accepting the appearance of value instead of delving deeper and demanding true value.

We oftentimes very much want to believe that something (or someone) important to us offers great value; however, Hana Yori Dango 花より団子 counsels us to consider wisely and determine the true value of what we are weighing.

Note that there is nothing being said here about the value of intangibles such as style, appearance, emotional appeal, etc. versus the value of more concrete characteristics such as functionality, performance, or more prosaic measures of value. In the appropriate place and at the appropriate time, we may indeed prefer “flowers” rather than “dumplings” — and not all things in our life should be measured by a rigid yardstick of practicality. We must be aware of the values of intangible, sometimes ephemeral things; if we did hold such value in high regard, we wouldn’t have the world’s great music, literature, or art, for instance.

Yet, rarely is the challenge to "see the flowers" – they are almost always deeply attractive and beckon to us. The real challenge is to discern value, and to prefer value to superficial luxury.

In Our Karatedō

We are challenged to discern value in all things, and that includes in our karate. For instance, kata is of course a very physically challenging exercise. It challenges our strength, flexibility, coordination, and much more.

But is your kata reflective of the bunkai? Is your kata even reflective of karatedō in general? That is a question that you should ask yourself; and if the answer is unclear, or even negative, then consider how to improve not only your kata but how you approach kata.

Globally, as karateka, we are challenged in this regard constantly. Tournaments are a great way to build community, enjoy competition, and even to communicate elements of our karatedō to those who are not karateka. But if our tournaments devolve to much into "sport" and if we lose the fundamental nature of karatedō in how tournaments are structured or run, then have we mistaken the superficial flowers of flashy-sports for the deep value of true karatedō?

Be the Gatekeeper

We must actively weigh the parts of our life, and those parts that need to have strong substance (dumplings) must indeed be measured and we must indeed assure ourselves that we have achieved or are receiving that strong substance, rather than the appearance of it (the “flowers”).

And we must be cognizant of the difference between substance and appearance.

Again, not to devalue the intangible importance of appearance, however. But rather to be more able to correctly value substance, and to correctly measure substance. In general, it is easier for us to see and evaluate the flowers in our lives; it is much harder for us to evaluate the substance in our world.

Modern Challenges

Karateka have always faced these challenges of evaluating and valuing substance over superficiality. But it is also true that in our modern world, we are more deeply challenged to do so more than ever.

Social media creates fake substance. The Internet is replete with them: the ridiculously breathless travelogues of vacations designed to be "instagram friendly"; the non-stop cackling of vapid "influencers" desperately seeking approval (and generally trying to sell something, if only an empty lifestyle); and so much more "content" by "creators" who create nothing but illusion and the trivial, and pretend to offer substance.

Social media itself isn't harmful: but treating it as anything other than empty entertainment is injurious to your ability to live consistent with Hana Yori Dango 花より団子.

Live a Meaning-Filled Life

The flowers in our life make our life worth living; but the substance — the dumplings — make our life not only possible, but meaningful. A life of flowers is hollow; a life of mostly dumplings (with some nice flowers, of course) is indeed a life worth living.


[[1]]: Language note: dango are ball-shaped dumplings, effectively served as a dessert or a snack. In Japan, they’d be part of the general class of snacks called wagashi; this is as opposed to gyoza, which are savory (usually with pork) dumplings, or nikoman, which are like Chinese bao, steamed savory dumplings. This is an especially useful distinction because flowers would be considered “dessert-like” and the proper comparison would be to dango, not to gyoza.

¹ Language note: dango are ball-shaped dumplings, effectively served as a dessert or a snack. In Japan, they’d be part of the general class of snacks called wagashi; this is as opposed to gyoza, which are savory (usually with pork) dumplings, or nikoman, which are like Chinese bao, steamed savory dumplings. This is an especially useful distinction because flowers would be considered “dessert-like” and the proper comparison would be to dango, not to gyoza.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
flower (hana)
より than, better than, over (yori)
団子 dumpling (dango)

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei at the Goju Karate dojo in San Rafael, California on 24 September 2014; this concept was also presented by Sensei at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 20 July 2022, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 19 June 2024.