Heraldry is the science of armorial bearings. Like Western countries, Japan possesses a very ancient heraldic tradition, although very different from our coats of arms. Japanese heraldic signs are generally referred to as kamon. They usually feature monochromatic circular-shaped designs, which rely heavily on symmetries.
Kamon are sorted into families, each family representing the same subject or emblem. Those families can in turn be grouped into six broad categories, generally as follow:
Some families can feature more than 100 variations of the same emblem. The wisteria emblem, for exemple, has more than 150 of such variations, while the chrysanthemum (the imperial insignia) has about 200 known different designs. Conversely some families may have only a few kamon: the horse or the lobster emblems, for example, hardly reach half-a-dozen variations.
OTHER HERALDIC DEVICES
If kamon are most widely used and known heraldic marks in Japan, they are not, in fact, the unique component its 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 followed a rudimentary field colour system.
The origins of Japanese heraldry date back in an ancient age, when the country was still heavily influenced by Chinese culture, fashion and state organisation. Records from that era describe the emperor of Japan 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 the mainland and carried esoteric and astronomical complex meanings.
In the 8th century, several marks from China became en vogue at the imperial court in Kyoto. Those designs represented mythical flowers, birds, lions hunted by horsemen, vine and grape, chrysanthemum, or paulownia, a small tree deemed sacred because people believed that phoenixes would perch only on its branches. As time went by, those designs slowly became more geometrical and evolved into what is known as yūsoku mon’yō: patterns of plants, animals and lines 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 emblems per se, but they would become a pool of designs upon which the Japanese kamon would be created for the centuries to come.
The first appearance of kamon in Japan is a controversial topic, still heavily debated. Several hypotheses co-exist. These assumptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and it is in fact very likely that the incentives and the processes for the creation of kamon had been multiple. First of all, it is necessary to distinguish the two currents at the origin of kamon: the insignias developed by the nobility (kuge), and those of the warriors (buke, i.e. bushi or samurai).
From the second half of the Heian period (794-1185) the noblemen in Kyoto found inspiration in the yūsoku mon’yō. Some fancied certain patterns and started to use them recurrently on their garments. It is important to note that the word kamon is written 家紋. Ka means “house” and mon, “mark”. Mon can actually be divided into 糸 and 文, which mean respectively “thread” and “writing” or “decoration”. So the etymology of mon is indeed ”embroidered motif”. The first mon probably gave a faithful representation of the plant or animal they symbolized. As with the coat of arms in the West, kamon aimed above all at distinguishing individuals, although not on the battlefield, but at the imperial court. Kamon subsequently became hereditary because their emblems eventually started to symbolise the power and the position of an individual and his family in the capital. A second hypothesis explains the rapid dissemination of kamon among the nobility: traffic jams. Kyoto, in the late Heian period, is a very congested city: hordes of ox carts were passing palanquins everyday, carrying men, goods or personal effects. It would appear that some noblemen began to paint their kamon on their vehicles as a means of identification. The symbolic power of the mon allowed them to command lower people to clear the lanes and let them pass through.
It seems that warriors adopted kamon after the nobility did, towards the end of the Heian era and at the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). That indeed coincides with the eruption of the Taira-Minamoto conflict, which eventually led to establishment of the first shogunate by Minamoto no Yoritomo. It is interesting to note that although the two clans had a recognition system (a white banner for the Minamoto and a red banner for the Taira), they did not use kamon. However, high ranking retainers on both sides started to decorate their own banners or encampment curtains with simple marks: squares, triangles, circles, stylised bird’s feathers, etc. In the 36th book of Sankō Genpei Seisuiki (参考源平盛衰記— a collection of war chronicles brushed towards the end of the Heian period), we find what is probably the first written reference of a Japanese heraldic insignia. Explaining about a warrior named Kumagai: “His family emblem was the pigeon and the mistletoe, which he naturally embroidered on his hitatare“. There is indeed a kamon named Kumagai Hoya, which shows two pigeons on a mistletoe ball.
It also describes a warrior named Sasaki Takatsuna who asks that his emblem, the Mitsu Meyui, should be embroidered on his hitatare.
In Mōko Shūrai Emaki (蒙古襲来絵巻 — circa 1293), illustrated scrolls that depict the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1981, we can see also half a dozen of kamon painted on the Japanese banners:
To conclude, although the nobility was at the inception of the Japanese heraldic system, it was however the warriors who contributed to its development. Noblemen remained most of their time confined in Kyoto, while the bushi went on colonise the whole country: their kamon followed them everywhere they went and thus got a lot of visibility. Scholars estimate that by the middle of the Kamakura era, every bushi had adopted a kamon, and by the end of the same period, the majority of small landowners had also started to use heraldic emblems. Kamon will continue to spread and diversify during the fourteenth century as families and clans unite or split.
Numata Yorisuke, Nihon Monshōgaku (日本紋章学), Tokyo, Shin Jinbutsu Shūraisha, 1972