In Japanese design, mon or kamon are monochromatic badges originally used by nobles and samurai as heraldic insignias. There are thousands of those mon. They evolved from ancient designs imported from China and diversified into a wide corpus of different emblems. To learn more about the history of kamon, please follow this link.
Kamon are sorted into families, each representing the same subject or emblem. Those families can then be grouped into 7 broad categories, generally as follow:
- Plants (flowers, trees, vegetables…)
- Animals (insects, birds, shells…)
- Natural phenomena (waves, lightning, snow…)
- Human constructions (boats, cabins, gates…)
- Man-made objects (weapons, fish nets, headgears…)
- Emblems and symbols
The origins of Japanese heraldry date back in an ancient age, where the country was still heavily influenced by Chinese culture, fashion and state organisation. Records from that era describe the Japanese emperor displaying at his court two rows of banners featuring, at the left, the Sun, the Azure Dragon and the Red Bird, and at the right, the Moon, the Dark Warrior (a tortoise) and the White Tiger. Those symbols were all imported from China and carried esoteric and astronomical complex meanings.
(See Aston W. G., “The ‘Hi No Maru’ or National Flag of Japan”, in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, XXII, 1894, p. 28-29.)
In the 8th century, several marks from the mainland became en vogue at the imperial court in Kyoto. Those designs represented mythical flowers, birds, lions hunted by horsemen, vine and grape, etc. Among them, the Kiku or chrysanthemum, which flower was often assimilated to the sun, and the Kiri or paulownia (also known as princesstree), a sacred tree in Chinese myths, because it was believed that phoenixes only perched on their branches.
As time went by, those original Chinese images slowly evolved into a more geometric type of designs known as yūsoku mon’yō. They consisted in repeated patterns representing plants, animals or abstract geometric lines, and usually laid out in a mosaic fashion. The yūsoku mon’yō soon decorated the Japanese nobility’s silk garments and kimonos in a tasteful variety of colours. At that stage, those patterns did not constitute heraldic marks per se, but they became a basic pool of designs upon which the Japanese mon would be designed for the centuries to come.
A wide collection of yūsoku mon’yō exists. We will introduce here a few examples only, but it is easy (at least in Japan) to find books on Japanese design that reference them in a more encyclopedic way.
(See for example: Ike Osamu, Yūsoku no Mon’yō, Kyoto, Mitsumura Suiko Shoin, 2016.)
Japanese Design and the Art of Kamon
No mammals please!
The yūsoku mon’yō were patterns that repeated themselves in a mosaic fashion, embroidered or woven into silk garments. The result was the very ornate, gorgeous and somewhat majestic attires of the Kyoto nobility that retained a certain exuberance imported from China. Yet, when those slowly evolved into kamon, they did so through the lens of an emerging Japanese taste, which, if not yet completely attracted to minimalism, was leaning towards more simplicity. Mosaics were gradually reduced into a badge, often circular, displaying a unique subject (or a limited number of elements): a leaf, a flower, an insect, a bird, a man-made tool, etc. Japanese heraldry was born.
Interestingly enough, among a corpus of thousands of kamon, not a single one represents a human being or human parts. Moreover, mon figuring mammals are extremely rare: we only find rabbits and horses. One may think that since the rabbit and the horse are two animals of the Chinese zodiac, there might be emblems based on the other mammals (rat, ox, tiger, goat, monkey, dog, pig), but they are nowhere to be found. A few kamon indeed feature a shishi, although this is a mythological lion, a chimera, not an actual one. A fewer mon represent a bat, but bats were probably considered a bird rather than a mammal in the past. Finally, there are mon that feature deer antlers, but they never show the animal itself.
Surprisingly for an island, there is no fish depicted in Japanese heraldry, at least traditionally. Since anybody can pretty much come up with his own design and claim it as his mon, there is in fact one example of a fish emblem. During the 18th century, the Santai Jinja, a Shinto shrine located in present day Gunma prefecture, adopted a mon featuring a carp.
Noble vs. warrior
From the earliest stage of Japanese heraldry, it is possible to draw a line and distinguish two categories of kamon. On one hand, we find the refined and tasteful mon based on Chinese elements and adopted by the court nobles. On the other hand, there are the rather crude and simple insignias that were first adopted by warriors to ornate their banners and armours.
The whole corpus of Japanese mon slowly evolved through centuries by mixing over and over those original court and warrior elements of design and by adding (or subtracting) minute variations leading to the establishment of the different emblems categories.
The most striking feature of the heraldic Japanese design is probably its “circular essence”. Many emblems (but not all of them) are indeed designed on a circular base, or are enclosed in a circle. There are many types of enclosures. People devised them in order to distinguish, for example, different branches of a family that would share the same emblem.
Taka-no-ha (hawk feather) mon with different enclosures
In most cases, Japanese insignias display a unique emblem, or an emblem and an enclosure. However, some mon can sometimes consist of one enclosure, inside which a second enclosure frames the main design. Another possibility would be a kamon featuring one enclosure framing two superposed emblems. The vast majority of insignias consists of one to three elements; a mon that features four or more elements (such as two enclosures and two superposed emblems, etc.) would be rather rare. The concepts of “marshalling” or “quartering” as seen in Western heraldry don’t really have an equivalent in Japanese heraldry.
Each kamon has a formal name, made of the different elements that constitute its design. Actually, that formalisation occurred rather late, probably from the 17th century.
With the proliferation of both kamon and users during the Genroku Period, artisans (mon lacquering, carving, painting, embroidering, weaving, chiseling…) soon needed a reliable and easy way to identify and record each specific variations of an emblem. They consequently devised a standardised way of naming and reading the mon.
Like in western heraldry where arms are “blazoned” (to “blazon” achievements means to describe them using the formal heraldic language), each Japanese mon has a formal name (in some rare occasions, they may have two) and can thus be “blazoned” following a small set of rules:
— Whenever there are enclosures, a mon is named/read from its outside element to its inside element.
— Whenever there is a superposition, a mon is named/read from its top element to its bottom element.
— Enclosures prevail on superposition.
— Japanese grammar being somehow reversed compare to English, the English reading of a mon‘s name is generally done backward.
* a circle enclosing a “A”.
-> Japanese reading: Maru ni A (maru ni means “in a circle”)
-> English reading: A in a Circle
* a circle enclosing a “A” that encloses a “B”
-> Japanese reading: Maru ni A ni B
-> English reading: B in a A in a Circle
* a “B” superposed to a “A”
-> Japanese reading: B ni A
-> English reading: A and B (or eventually “A below B”)
* a circle enclosing a “B” superposed to a “A”
-> Japanese reading: Maru ni B ni A
-> English reading: A and B in a Circle
There is also the special case of overlapping superposition, when the top and bottom elements touch. The usual superposition rule may apply, or not. Here, as a rule of thumb, the widest element is generally read first (in Japanese), even if it appears at the bottom. However, there are mon that break that rule.
* a circle enclosing a “B” superposed to, and overlapping a “A”
-> Japanese reading: Maru ni B ni A
or Maru ni A ni B, only if “A” is wider than “B”
I – Circle Enclosures
The most basic kamon enclosure is the circle: maru in Japanese, but sometimes also called wa.
Most of the kamon featuring a circle enclosure will be named “Maru ni X”. However it happens sometimes that the thickness of the circle is also mentioned. From thickest to thinnest, Japanese heraldry distinguishes:
– kokumochi: plain circle (the main design is then inverted, ji-nuki, inside the plain enclosure)
– janome-wa: snake’s eye circle
– atsu-wa: very thick circle (rarely used)
– futo-wa: thick circle (rarely used)
– chūfuto-wa: medium thick circle (rarely used)
– maru: circle. Sometimes indicated as chū-wa: medium circle. However, chū-wa (medium circle) can sometime be slightly thiner than maru
– hoso-wa: thin circle
– ito-wa: thread circle
– ke-wa: hair circle (rarely used)
Kokumochi Jinuki Karigane (Inverted Wild Goose on a plain Circle)
Janome-wa ni Uroko (3 Snake’s Scales in a Snake’s Eye Circle)
Futo-wa ni Suzu (Small Bell in a Thick Circle)
Ito-wa ni Mitsu Fundō (3 Masses in a Thread Circle)
II – Other Circular Enclosures
More intricate circular enclosures also exist:
– take-wa: bamboo circle
– fuji-wa: wisteria circle
– genji-wa: wheel circle
– tsuki-wa: moon circle
… Among a few other variations.
III – Non Circular Enclosures
The vast majority of mon enclosures are based on the circle, but one can find several non circular enclosures as well. We list up here the most usual designs. As for the circular enclosures, virtually any emblem can be framed in the non circular ones.
– yuki-wa: snow crystal ring
– kikkō: turtle shell
– goka: melon
– hishi: lozenge
– igeta: well-curb
… Among a few other designs.
Blenders are a key element in the design of kamon. To our knowledge, this concept has not been formally researched yet, at least not in English, so the word “design blender” is ours and has yet to be officially accepted.
So what is a “design blender”? As an example, let’s take a look at the Tomoe mon, which represents a traditional Japanese jewel (some people link the tomoe design back to an archer protective gear rather than a jewel, but let’s not get swamped into that debate). The Tomoe family contains almost a hundred variations of its core design. The “Left-oriented 3 Inverted Jewels in a Plain Lozenge” presented above is one of those. In that particular case, the tomoe design is the main emblem and the plain lozenge its enclosure. However, the tomoe also exists as a “blender”, i.e. a design function that blends an emblem from another family into the tomoe shape, as shown below:
In that case, the tomoe is a function, a mould by which the main emblems Fuji and Tōgarashi are transformed to create a new variation. Regarding classification, the cayenne pepper and the wisteria being here the main subjects, the Tōgarashi Tomoe and the Fuji Tomoe mon belong to their respective Tōgarashi and Fuji families, not the Tomoe family.
There are several different blenders that are frequently used in Japanese heraldry, but we will present here a few examples only.
The butterfly emblems form a rather large mon family. This family actually divides itself in three main designs: the Fusen, the Agehachō and the Kochō. The Fusen is quite a mysterious blender: the word fusen originally means a weaving pattern close to twill; yet, in Japanese heraldry, fusen is associated for an obscure reason to a butterfly with a very peculiar shape.
Another popular blender is the Kiri emblem, or paulawnia (princesstree). Originally, the Kiri mon was the crest of the imperial family, and it is thus a very prestigious emblem. Using the Kiri as a blender was a way to “borrow”somehow a bit of that prestige for oneself and one’s family.
Below, from left to right: the Kiri mon, then blending the Aoi (wild ginger) and the Yūgao (calabash leaf) emblems:
Apart from enclosures and blenders, Japanese heraldry uses several strategies to generate new mon variations. A number of fixed patterns are recurrently applied to emblems: the X or “crossing” pattern, the “embracing” pattern, the “splitting” pattern, the “inverting” pattern… Those are but a few examples of recurrent patterns that compose Japanese heraldry.
The Chigai pattern is probably one of the most used. It consists of a X cross with each branch of the X made of the same emblem. There are actually two ways of drawing the Chigai pattern, depending on which branch is on the top and which one at the bottom. The most famous Chigai design is probably the one based on the hawk feather, for it was used by prominent lords in Japanese history. Below are the two possible variations of the “crossing” pattern.
The Chigai pattern is sometimes altered into what is called Irechigai: the two elements still cross, but one is drawn upside down. Irechigai can in turn be altered into Wari Irechigai: One element is still upside down but it does not cross the second anymore.
The vertical symmetry in Japanese heraldry is called Daki or “embracing” pattern. It splits an emblem in two, and because most kamon are of a circular nature, the result looks like both sides of the mon are embracing its centre. As a matter of fact, a Daki pattern often literally embraces a second emblem placed at the centre or the bottom of the composition.
The Wari or “splitting” pattern can be of different forms, but the most common one is the Mitsu-wari pattern, which divides an emblem in three identical parts. Some Wari-ed kamon can be split only in two or sometimes in four, but those are rather rare. As seen earlier, an Irechigai pattern can be associated with a Wari pattern in order to generate a Wari Irechigai insignia.
The last pattern we will introduce here is the Kage pattern. Literally, kage means “shadow”, but it refers in Japanese heraldry to an inverted emblem.
Below, left to right, the Kikyō (balloon flower) kamon and its inverted variation:
Japanese heraldry relies on several other patterns and blenders. A longer (yet non exhaustive) list can be found here.