If there are numerous vernacular publications on the subject of Japanese heraldry, their number drops however small when it comes to foreign languages.
So far, the most “researched” publication on monshō in English is probably John Dower’s The Elements of Japanese Design, published in 1971. This book features over 2,000 mon in black and white thumbnails and a detailed chapter on the history and symbolism of Japanese heraldry, with bibliographic notes. Dower, however, did not attempt to discuss much the aesthetics aspects of the insignias.
(Dower John, The Elements of Japanese Design, Boston, Weatherhill, 1971)
Pioneer works in the field of Japanese heraldry appeared from the end of the 19th century, when Japan opened its territory to foreign countries after more than 200 years of diplomatic seclusion. But this does not mean that Japanese heraldry was unknown to the Western world until then. Although somewhat limited, interactions between Japan and Europe had been continuous since the middle of the 16th century, mainly via the island of Dejima, the only place in the archipelago where foreign merchants where authorized to drop anchor. Thus, for example in the Nippo Jisho, literally “Japanese–Portuguese Dictionary” compiled by the Jesuits in 1603, there is an entry for “mon”. It states that a mon is “a sign or a device that is painted on curtains, on garments or on weapons, etc.” This is a very succinct explanation in which the words “heraldry” or “family emblem” do not appear. There is no illustration either so people who consulted the dictionary back then probably did not have a clear image of what mon was referring to.
Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam com Adeclaração em Portugues … feito por alguns Padres e Irmaõs da Companhia de Iesu, Nagasaki, Companhia de Jesus, 1603, sub verbo “mon”
In 1727, a librarian named John Gaspar Scheuchzer published in London a translation of a Dutch manuscript, penned by Engelbert Kaempfer and titled Historia Imperii Japonici. The History of Japan (2 volumes). The book relates not only Japanese history but also compiles political, social and religious observations. There is no study of Japanese heraldry per se in it, yet one can find a few allusion to it in different parts of the text. First, Scheuchzer mentions some Japanese books kept in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane that deal with heraldry.
“Three Books of Heraldry, containing the Coats of Arms of the Emperor of Japan, as also of the Princes and Noblemen of the Empire, together with the Pikes, and other Badges and Ensigns of Authority, which are usually carried before them. I have engraved several of these in the Frontispiece, and in Tab. XXX.”
Scheuchzer John Gaspar, The History of Japan vol. 1, London, 1727, p. LI
Thus by the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans were aware of the existence of a Japanese heraldry and knew to some extent the different insignias that composed it. The frontispiece, as its name indicates, can be found at the beginning of the 1st volume. Tab. XXX, on the other hand, is located at the end of the second volume and features a map of Edo (Tokyo) flanked on both sides by 42 badges (thus totalling 84).
Moreover, at the end of the first volume, Scheuchzer explains that:
“The frontispiece is the very same, which the Japanese prefix to all their printed books, to which I have added. 1. The arms of the Emperor of Japan, at the bottom of the plate, with a singular kind of tortoise, the bambous-cane, and the fir, the usual emblems of the Imperial greatness, as they are to be seen upon the walls, skreens, hangings and other furniture of the Imperial Palace; as also the pikes, and other ensigns of honour, which are carried before the Emperor, when he appears in publick. 2. Several coats of arms of the Japanese nobility; the whole as represented by themselves in their books of heraldry.”
Scheuchzer John Gaspar, The History of Japan vol. 1, p. 392
Interestingly enough, Scheuchzer made a mistake in his frontispiece: what he calls insignia imperatoris japonici is indeed not the mon of the emperors of Japan, but the Aoi-gomon, the emblem of the Tokugawa shoguns…
After Scheuchzer’s book, Japanese heraldry will not get much attention from the Western world, until the beginning of the Meiji Era.