Heraldry is the science of armorial bearings. Like Europe, Japan possesses a very ancient heraldic tradition, although very different from the coats of arms of the West. Japanese heraldic signs are generally referred to as kamon; they usually feature a circular-shaped design, monochromatic and rely heavily on symmetries.
Kamon are sorted into families, each representing the same subject or emblem. Those families can then be grouped into 6 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 (ancient patterns, religious symbols…)
Some families can feature more than a hundred variations of the same emblem. The wisteria emblem has more than 150 of such variations, while the chrysanthemum (the imperial insignia) has about 200 known variations. Conversely some families contain only a few kamon: the horse or the lobster emblems for example hardly reach half-a-dozen different designs.
Other heraldic devices
If kamon are most widely used and known heraldic marks in Japan, they are not, in fact, the unique component of the Japanese heraldic system. Each warlord had besides his family emblem several distinctive banners and battle standards, such as the nobori (a long vertical banner), the ō-umajirushi (great battle standard) and the ko-umajirushi (lesser battle standard), etc. Banners usually (but not necessarily) featured the lord’s kamon and used also a rudimentary field colour system.
The Japanese word for “heraldry” is monshō-gaku, 紋章学, which literally translate to “study of insignia”, where gaku means “study” and monshō broadly “insignia”. Nevertheless, Japanese people nowadays usually use the word kamon rather than monshō to designate heraldic signs.
The word kamon is composed of two characters: 家紋, where 家 means “house” or “family” and 紋 “insigne”. Furthermore, the character 紋 divides itself into 糸 “thread” and 文 “script” or “decoration”, which leads to think that this ideogram first designated embroidered marks on garments or fabric. Actually, kamon is not the only word used to designate Japanese heraldic signs. Some may use monshō, as said earlier, but also mondokoro, daimon, jōmon among others, or simply mon.
Crest and seal
The first problem one encounters when talking about Japanese heraldry in a foreign language is how to actually translate the word kamon. In English, people generally use the words “crest” or “seal”. This is convenient, but unfortunately far from accurate. A seal is a device generally made of stone, wood or metal, on which a specific design is carved, and used in order to make an impression so one can authenticate a document. If seals do exist in Japan, they are in most cases carved with Chinese or Japanese characters, and almost never with heraldic signs, so we prefer to dismiss the word seal when translating mon in English.
We encounter the same problem with “crest”. In Western heraldry, the crest is a very specific element of an achievement, situated at the top of the helmet and considered a heraldic embellishment. Thus, the modern use of “crest” as to refer to an entire heraldic achievement is erroneous, and similarly, one cannot speak of a “crest” to denote a Japanese mon. Indeed, some Japanese warlords have from time to time used some heraldic insignias in place of a crest on their kabuto, but this was not the norm at all and most of the crest on Japanese armours were not from heraldic inspiration.
Below is an imaginary simple heraldic achievement, comprising the escutcheon, a helmet, a crest, a mantling and a motto. Of course, Western heraldry features many more elements of embellishment, but this is outside the scope of this article
Western heraldry uses a specific vocabulary and has a very complex system of rules that governs how the colours (tinctures) are associated, where the elements (ordinaries, charges embellishments, etc.) should go, who can use orders’ insignias or other elements, etc. A “crest” refers only to the device attached at the top of the helmet and cannot be used to refer to anything else.
Japanese mon on the other hand, if not devoid of rules, is based on a far less complex system. It boils done basically to a single design featuring (or not) an enclosure; both components do not follow specific rules. The closest thing to a mon we can find in Western heraldry is what we call a “badge”, a para-heraldic insignia associated to a person or a family, often worn on garments. The use of badge was more flexible than that of one’s full heraldic achievement and thus adopted for more casual situations.
Hence, we choose to use in this website the words insignia, badge or emblem, rather than seal or crest, to translate the words mon or kamon. For stylistic convenience we sometime use also the Japanese words, italicised.
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.
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 perched on their branches only.
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 created for the centuries to come.
When the nobility of Kyoto started to rely more and more on oxen carriages for transportation and delivery, people with higher status started to adorn their oxcarts with their favourite yūsoku mon’yō as distinctive marks. Since the passengers were concealed by the carriage’s curtains, adding a specific mark was a way of indicating who was inside. This custom is usually designated by scholars as the birth of Japanese heraldry.
From court to the battlefield
At the turn of the 11th century, provincial warriors (bushi; they later became known as samurai) started to contest political power to the Kyoto court. They regarded status, birth and family name as very serious matters. Some of them eventually introduced hereditary status to kamon as well. Yet, until the 13th century, war in Japan generally saw small bands of mounted heroes duelling one another: the relatively low number of warriors involved did not push for the use of a complex or systematic heraldic scheme. However, with Japanese warfare’s rapid growth in scale soon after and the involvement of thousands of soldiers on the battlefield, a natural need for distinctive and easily recognizable marks arose. Warlords relied on banners and great battle standards called umajirushi and adorned their encampments and equipments with their mon.
Unlike in Western heraldry, the composition of Kamon does not follow a strict set of rules and thus Japanese heraldry slowly evolved and diversified as warriors and clans rose and fell on the battlefield. Some mon disappeared with the death of their bearers while some were newly designed when a soldier rose to a higher position of power.
Pax Tokugawa and the kamon “boom”
So far, heraldry had mainly been the concern of nobles and warriors, but with the end of the Warring States Period (1467-1603) and the establishing of the Tokugawa shogunate, kamon started to spread in the lower strates of the Japanese society as well. Under the Pax Tokugawa, merchants and agricultural holders seized the economical power and started to adopt some of the upper classes customs. Meanwhile, the samurai became the top bureaucrats of an extremely rigid social hierarchy. The display of a warrior’s status then became more important than the display of his martial prowess. Family insignias flowered everywhere: on garments, furnitures, accessories, warehouses, tiles, fences, weapons, saddles, sails, etc. A hierarchy of kamon slowly emerged: some emblems were considered of a higher status while others were regarded as vulgar.
The Tokugawa shogunate enforced a new policy called Sankin-kōtai or “alternate attendance”. The lord of every domain, may it be close to the capital or far away on the northern shores or the southern islands, had to travel periodically between their fief and Edo (Tokyo). When back in their domain, their wives and heirs were required to remain in Edo as hostages. The goal of this policy was to place a huge financial burden on the warlords (especially the ones in the south, mostly hostile to the shogunate) so they cannot foment or finance any action against the central government. During the 250 years or so that saw peace under the Tokugawa shogunate, the kamon played a central role in the display of one’s status during the ceaseless toings and froings of the Sankin-kōtai. Magnificence was the general motto and the travelling lords started to adorn their mon on every possible thing. Hence, woe to anyone on the road who would fail to recognize the insignia of a important Lord and show the expected etiquette.
During the Genroku period (1688–1704), commoners, whose right to bear a family name and adopt a kamon was officially denied, started to use them nonetheless. Their tastes being somewhat different from those of the samurai, they designed a large corpus of new exuberant mon. Some were pure creation but many were complex variations of the time-honoured emblems. This is sometimes called a period of “dandyfication” of the Japanese heraldry. At the same time, kamon were also flourishing in the pleasure quarters of Edo: kabuki actors and courtesans started to use them and eventually began dandyfying further the whole corpus of insignias. Those dandy kamon were referred as datemon.
In 1870, the newly formed Meiji government promulgated the Heimin Myōji Kyoka Rei, a law officially authorizing every citizen of Japan to bear a family name. Subsequently, the government signed in 1875 the Heimin Myōji hisshō Gimu Rei, a law forcing every citizen to choose a family name: the 1870 edict had not been followed by commoners since registering a family name meant the possibility to be drafted into the new Imperial Army…
Furthermore, with family names came the official authorization to choose and use a kamon as well. People either chose to adopt the mon that their family was using informally until then, or an emblem related to their profession, or the insignia of the former lord of the area. Some eventually designed their own kamon. This led numerous unrelated families to share the same mon. Some emblems were also more popular than others, and nowadays, the Jū Dai Kamon or “ten most used emblems” are: the Fuji (wisteria), the Katabami (creeping woodsorrel), the Mokkō (Japanese quince), the Tsuta (Japanese ivy), the Taka-no-ha (hawk feather), the Kashiwa (daimyō oak), the Kiri (princesstree), the Myōga (Japanese ginger), the Omodaka (arrowhead) and the Tachibana.
Officially allowing all the citizens of Japan to adopt a kamon could have meant a new boom for Japanese heraldry, but interestingly when the country discarded its old cast society and evolved into a modern state, mon slowly started to vanish instead.
Elements of Design
The origins of kamon is found in the yūsoku mon’yō, 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 the yūsoku mon’yō 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. Mosaic designs 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.
Of mice and men (and fish)
Interestingly enough, not a single traditional mon represents a human being or human parts. Moreover, kamon 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.
The most striking feature of the Japanese heraldry 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.
In the first half of the 19th century, a Japanese scholar named Doi Toshitsura got his hands on a newly imported object called “microscope”. He decided to use it to study snow crystals. In his researches, he drew almost 200 different illustrations of snow crystals as he observed them through the lenses. His drawings really made an impression and were soon turned into a whole new snow crystal kamon family.
After the Meiji Restauration in 1868 and the transformation of feudal Japan into a modern country, Japanese society went through a westernisation process. For example, traditional garments, the most usual place to display one’s kamon, gave way to European fashion. Nowadays, the rare occasions where someone may wear a mon-tsuki or formal kimono adorned with family emblem, are mainly weddings or funerals (although most people generally wear suits or dresses instead).
A mon-tsuki kimono can display three mon (semi-formal) or five mon (formal). Generally, the insignias on women mon-tsuki are smaller (2cm in diameter) than those of the men (3.8cm).
In nowadays Japan, many people do not know their family mon. To a certain extent, some are even not aware that kamon still exist. When one does not know his family emblem, the surest way to find out is to look for the family chōchin. It is a lamp consisting of a candle in a frame of split bamboo covered by paper. The chōchin usually features the family’s name and mon, painted on the paper. The lamp is mainly used during the Bon festival where it guides the spirits of the ancestors back to the household’s altar. One’s kamon is also generally carved on the stone of the family grave. Graveyards in Japan is probably the place where the heraldic tradition is the most vivid.
Despite this rather alarming situation, Japanese emblems seem to somehow resist to their extinction. Kabuki actors and geisha still embroider kamon on their kimono. Many martial artists do the same on their practice gears, and kendo (Japanese fencing) practitioners have their mon lacquered on their armour. Several Companies and a large number of stores often use a mon or a design inspired by Japanese heraldry as their logo. A famous example would be the Yamaha logo, which represents three crossing tuning forks in two circles. Another example of that trend would be the logo of Japan Airlines, which design is based on the Tsuru (crane) mon. Mitsubishi also uses a three lozenges logo with heraldic inspiration. Kikkoman, a major soy sauce maker, integrates in its logo the Kikkō (turtle shell) emblem, as an allusion to the company’s name. Finally, many shops throughout Japan use a kamon as signs for their frontage.
Recently, non-Japanese people have started to show some interest in kamon. Many find in Japanese heraldry inspiration for their own logos or designs. Fashion brands, music bands, cosmetics…. there are many examples of either direct appropriation (use of an existing mon as it is) or inspiration (creation of a logo based on kamon aesthetics).
Numerous martial arts schools, academies, dojos or federations use Japanese emblems as a base when designing their logo. This trend gives however mixed results: coming up with a new design while still retaining an overall Japanese taste is not as easy as it seems. Many of those logos feature generally an unbalanced or over complicated design enclosed in a circle. Rare are the ones that give a feeling of “genuineness”.
To close this chapter, we wished to show here an example of appropriation of kamon aesthetics by foreign enthusiasts of Japanese martial arts:
This tulip mon is from the Istanbul Kendo Club. Imre Sipahi, president of the club, explained that tulips were common flowers in medieval Istanbul and that it is said that they were eventually exported to Europe to finally reached the Netherlands. A tulip emblem designed as a Japanese mon was the best choice to represent both cultures and the hope that the Istanbul dojo will blossom as it grows.