There are numerous vernacular publications dealing with Japanese heraldry. When it comes to foreign languages however, the number of publications drops small.
So far, the most “researched” book about kamon in English is probably John Dower’s The Elements of Japanese Design (Boston, Weatherhill, 1971). It features over 2,000 mon and a detailed chapter on the history and symbolism of Japanese heraldry, with bibliographic references.
Pioneer works in the field of Japanese heraldry were published from the end of the 19th century, but this does not mean that kamon were unknown to the Western world before. 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 port in the archipelago where foreign merchants were authorised to drop anchor.
In Nippo Jisho, “Japanese–Portuguese Dictionary” (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”), compiled by the Jesuits in 1603, there is an entry for “mon”. The dictionary 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 kamon were.
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. It does not feature a study of Japanese heraldry per se, but one can find a few allusions to that subject here and there. 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
At the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans were thus aware of the existence of a Japanese heraldic system and knew to some extent the different insignias that composed it. Tab. XXX, mentioned by Scheuchzer, 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 kamon).
Moreover, at the end of the first volume, Scheuchzer explained 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 called insignia imperatoris japonici wasn’t the mon of the emperors of Japan, but indeed the Aoi-gomon, the emblem of the Tokugawa shoguns…
Japanese heraldry would not get much attention from the Western world after Scheuchzer’s book, but this would change at the beginning of the Meiji Period.
The first study of Japanese heraldry was published in 1877 in the journal Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (McClatchie, Thomas R. H., “Japanese Heraldry”, in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, V-1, 1877, pp. 1-24). Thomas McClatchie examined in his article some historical facts about kamon, but also discussed different aspects of a modern type of heraldry that was then emerging in Japan and was closer to the heraldry we know in the West. At the end, McClatchie presented 84 mon, and several flags and standards. After McClatchie’s pioneer study, the topic of Japanese heraldry would become trendy, and by the turn of the century, many people would have published articles and books on the topic.
In 1884, George Ashdown Audsley published the second volume of his Ornamental Arts of Japan (London, Sampson Low. Martson, Searle & Rivington), in which he devoted the last chapter to heraldry. The content relied heavily on McClatchie, but Audsley proposed a larger number of illustrations. Interestingly, Audsley showed each kamon associated with a flag, a system of depiction that would flourish during the Meiji Era, but which has been abandoned since.
In Ancien Japon (Tokyo, Imprimerie Kokubunsha, 1888), Georges Appert, a professor at Tokyo University, attempted to compile a large database of things Japanese: lists of emperors, eras, historical facts, writing systems, a Japanese/French dictionary, lists of daimyō and their rice production, lists of fortresses, etc. Appert also recorded 307 kamon and the clans or families associated to them. It was at that time the most exhaustive foreign catalogue on Japanese heraldry.
In 1906, Hugo Gerard Ströhl, a famous Austrian heraldist, published Japanisches Wappenbuch (Wien, Aaton Schroll & Со.), probably the first foreign book entirely devoted to Japanese heraldry. This 253-page publication proposed a bibliography that lists up both Japanese and foreign texts, including Georges Appert’s Ancien Japon. Followed a rather extensive historical study and a long list of daimyō and their respective kamon. Ströhl finished with a short chapter on flags and banners. Ströhl’s work is still to this day one of the most researched foreign publication on Japanese heraldry.
Gordon Ambrose Lee published “Some Notes on Japanese Heraldry” in Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society (VIII-2, 1909, pp. 270-292). As the title suggests, the author did not dig much deeper than his predecessors on the subject, but the article featured a some illustrations and interesting anecdotes.
Two years after, A. J. Koop published in the same journal “The Construction and Blazonry of Mon” (Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, IX-2, 1911, pp. 280-312). This was the first article that did not deal on history only, but rather focussed on the study of blazons (cf. how to read a mon). It also discussed several aspects of kamon design and set about correcting mistakes found in older publications. Most of the mon vocabulary found in Koop’s text is style in use nowadays.