Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Banners & Flags =

by Anthony J. Bryant

About flags

     Banners played an important part in old Japan, even as they do in today’s Japan. Banners of the same style and pattern as appeared on a fifteenth century battlefield can be seen hawking Fuji Film or advertising a sale on rice at the corner market. I’ve even seen aluminum street signs made in the shape and fashioned like the traditional nobori-style banner, such as the sign shown here on the right.

     Only a few banner forms — and there were many — truly correspond with European styles. There seems to have been no tradition of a free-flying banner connected only at the hoist, as is so common in the West. By far the most common banner style was connected at the hoist and chief to the pole and a crossarm: the nobori. Possibly the most famous banner of this type is the famous standard of Takeda Shingen, shown at left — the Fûrinkazan no hata, so named for its use of Wind (fû), Forest (rin), Fire (ka), and Mountain (zan).

     There are two versions of this type of banner which exist: basically square or short rectangular banners, and really longer, narrow ones like the Fûrinkazan. (The long side was always vertical.) These flags could have been made in any size, though sashimono (the flags worn on the back of the armour during the sengoku period) were usually slightly less than one full width of fabric (about one foot to fifteen inches) wide and about three feet long. Those used as standards were usually two or even three full widths (c. thirty to forty-five inches) and twelve or more feet long.

     Sashimono are banners worn on the back by retainers and others needing quick identification. Given the great variety in Japanese armours, sashimono provide a sense of “uniform” to the armies. Sashimono are widely shown in films such as Kagemusha, Ran, and so on. The typical sashimono is a miniature version of the typical banner described above, although there was actually a great deal of variation. Sashimono of several sizes and types are readily apparent in the illustration below, which is a section from a battle screen depicting one of the several Kawanakajima engagements between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen.

     Another style, similar in ways to the European gonfalon, has a long narrow strip of cloth hanging from a crossbar. This crossbar could either be rigidly attached to the pole, or hung free from it by cords at either end and tied to the pole. This is one of the oldest forms of Japanese flag. The 1180 – 1185 Genpei War between the Minamoto Clan, or Genji, and the Taira Clan, or Heike, was marked by the white banners of the former and the red banners of the latter. These banners were generally depicted as being of this style. The loose, long flapping end was free to fly in the breeze (thus necessitating a pole high enough to keep it from being a nuisance), although some variations had a strip of fabric sewn to the center back like a belt loop, through which the pole passed. Occasionally it was also simply seized around and tied to the pole near the base. It could be of any width (one to six feet) and of any length (three to twenty feet).

     Windsocks, pictured above, were also popular, but more so during the sengoku period. The Ichimonji clan standard from the Kurosawa film Ran was such a banner, with many historical models as its source.


     Many banners in Japan actually had no “charges” or crests on them to speak of. Some were merely geometrics: a background color and a stripe or two, or divided or patterned fields.

     Those bearing designs could either bear the mon of the owner, a slogan painted on it, such as the case with Shingen’s Fûrinkazan, or even just a picture. This pretty much holds true for all styles of banner, including windsocks.

     Sometimes the owner’s mon would appear alone, only once, and very large; other times it would be repeated two or three times vertically or in a triangular or other geometric pattern. Even other forms of decoration would be to mix a geometric color shift (e.g.; a broad strip of color across the top, or a color division “per bend”) with the mon above or below.

     In the film Ran, the various divisions of the Ichimonji clan were identified with different color banners and different designs (one stripe for Tarô, two for Jirô, three for Saburô); in Kagemusha, we were shown the same flag — the Takeda mon on a solid color field — with the color of the field marking different divisions of his army. Both of these are legitimate Period techniques.

     Often, banner styles themselves would be mixed and matched — for example, a windsock flying from the point where the support arm of a long, narrow banner met the staff.



     In Japanese practice, personal standards of generals and daimyô were not always true flags, per se. Tokugawa Ieyasu had a huge golden fan, for example; Hideyoshi had a huge golden gourd with several other pendant gourds, and Nobunaga had a cardinal’s hat (!) on a pole. The term for such unique creations was uma-jirushi (= horse signs). Among them have been helmets on poles, hats on poles, large umbrellas, fans, etc., on poles. You may sense a pattern here. They’re on tall, sturdy poles.

     As with the European standard, these represented the man; Shingen’s banner meant Shingen was there. Likewise, they should not be displayed without the physical presence of their owner.

     Most well illustrated books on Japanese history will provide the vexillophile with plenty of ideas for further flag-making; pay special attention to battle scrolls.


Online resources

     Flags of sengoku daimyô. This site, in Japanese, links to pages that show the banners of several famous sengoku daimyô. Click through each link to see various banners.

     Takeda banners. Banners of the Takeda commanders. Unfortunately, the site is in Japanese.

   Historical Artwork of Samurai Banners, with modern artwork depicting various banners used by different commanders.



  This page was last modified on: 12/16/2014

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