Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Heraldry =

by Anthony J. Bryant


     Heraldry in Japan has never been as carefully regulated as it was in England or other European countries. There is no administrative body, no College of Heralds, no Kings of Arms; there is no registering body, nor are there provisions as in Scotland to maintain their use correctly. All of this is made abundantly clear in a recent case in the Imperial family.

     The emperor’s second son, Aya no Miya, married several years ago and left the imperial family to start his own household. He was granted the name Akishino no Miya, and he was given a crest for the use of his own family. The Imperial Household Agency had to go to a professor of art history and culture at a Tokyo university to have it designed.

     The vast majority of mon (crests) are by definition assumed “arms,” that is to say, they were chosen by the bearers with little restrictive control exercised.

     There are only a handful of designs considered at one time functionally restricted; they are the paulownia and the chrysanthemum; these being essentially Imperial emblems. Nevertheless, there are dozens upon dozens of designs incorporating these elements. Many of these were bestowed after a fashion by emperors past upon houses that had they wished to honor, or whose help they needed. Others are born by institutions (notably shrines and temples) to display their erstwhile imperial connections. Today, paulownia and chrysanthemum variations are legion, and there is no great restriction placed on the former.

     Mon are more than heraldic crests; they are a major part of Japan’s graphic arts history. The Takeda clan crest could — and can — be seen as a fabric motif. The only difference is that while the Takeda were exercising their influence in Japan, it would have been more than a little cheeky to wear something with their crest emblazoned all over it in their presence.

     Actually, if you are interested in making something with a crest as an all-over pattern, it may be wise to have it be your own mon, just to be safe.

     Many designs later considered crests (chrysanthemum, wisteria, paulownia, peony, etc.) were first given life as fabric patterns. It is not really clear when they first began to be used, but during the latter part of the Heian Period there are indications that certain designs had come to be favored by certain families, which used them to the near exclusion of others, making these functionally the first kamon (family crests), although they were still not clearly so defined.

     It was the outbreak of civil wars in the twelfth century that really gave crests the spurt they needed; after that there was no question that certain families used this design, other families that. The Môko Shûrai Ekotoba (a scroll depicting the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281) clearly shows mon had come into use as identifying markers. In the scroll, crests can be seen on flags, camp curtains, horse furniture, etc.

     The first compilation of crests was completed under the auspices of the Muromachi bakufu around 1510 – 1520. The Tokugawa bakufu compiled very detailed records, creating what was called a bukan, listing the “armorial bearings,” standards, and residences and incomes of all the daimyô in Japan. Lesser books were also kept for clans and other, lesser families.

     During the Edo period, designs became excessively rococo, as their primary purpose of identification was no longer an issue. Also, many wealthy merchants began to assume airs of gentility, and began adopting mon. Actors and courtesans followed suit. Most of the mon in books which can be purchased today are Edo designs.


Categories of mon

     There are six commonly recognized divisions of mon: plants, animals, natural phenomena, man-made objects, abstract designs, and ji (= characters). To this, I personally add a catch-all seventh category: “miscellaneous” (some things are just too difficult to categorize). Estimates of the number of actual different designs hovers between 4,000 and 5,000, representing 250-odd different subjects.

     The plant category is by far the numerical leader, though the man-made implements category has some 120 different subjects represented, compared to 75 for plants. The animals category (including birds and insects) is third, with about 30 different subjects.

     Martial motifs (and those with otherwise auspicious meanings) were very common and particularly popular in Period.

     Contrary to popular opinion, all mon are not enclosed in a circle. A great number are, but there are a great many different kinds of enclosures. The simplest way mon were changed was with a slight alteration of the design; changing the number of veins on a leaf, making the lines slightly thicker, reducing the number of petals on a flower. (And the SCA College of Arms used to talk about “points of difference”!) A design could also be doubled or trebled; or it could be put in an enclosure that is narrow, fat, medium sized, or derived from some abstract design.


Designing a mon

     It is not impossible to design an attractive mon that can be used in the SCA: I have done several; if you look through the Armorial you can easily spot others.

     The thing to remember is that in the SCA mon are by default monochromatic — light on dark or dark on light. To a Period Japanese artist that would be a strange concept. “Dark on light?” he might ask. “Light on dark? There is only one design, the background is irrelevant!” There would be no difference to him between “sable a crescent argent,” “gules a crescent or,“ or even “argent a crescent sable.” All he would see is the crescent. What would matter to him is, is the crescent thin or thick? Does the crescent have sharp or soft horns? Is it ovoid or round? Is it open or closed?

     This is the problem you will face doing a Japanese design to Western heraldic rules. It is not impossible, but it takes an awful lot of work. It would be best to work on this with a herald, and better yet a herald who really knows Japanese design and Japanese heraldry. Nevertheless, a good herald and a book on Japanese heraldry can work wonders on a submission. Both of the two mon on the left (those of the Shimazu and the Hongo, respectively) are perfectly acceptable and blazonable in English (well, heraldspeak). Not all mon, unfortunately, are as easy to deal with.

     Don’t be afraid to try something that others may pooh-pooh. In many cases, you will be treading on uncharted ground, and you have nothing to lose by making the attempt.

     One advantage of Japanese heraldry (although that advantage is perhaps offset by its very nature) is the number of “new” charges. Whatever you use on your mon must be blazonable in English, however, and something that can be recognized and identified. And replicated. Any herald knows what a “lion rampant” or an “oak tree eradicated” looks like and can duplicate it without looking for references. You probably will have to overcome that hurdle.

     It is only natural that there is a large number of charges which exist exclusively in Japanese heraldry, or are specifically Japanese objects. These may be used as well, but need to be prefaced by use of the word "Japanese."

     In addition, there are many elements that are used as charges in both Japanese and European heraldry, and despite some minor artistic design variations (which may or may not really matter), are perfectly recognizable. At left, for one example, is a Japanese carriage wheel (in Japanese heraldic terms, a “kuruma.”) In terms of stylist convention, it could just be blazoned as a wagon wheel, and the detail could be considered artistic license.

     Many others could benefit from the identifying preface, “Japanese —”; for despite the existence of similar concepts, the execution may be different. Another possibility is that the same name be applied to two completely different charges; one correct for the European heraldic idiom and one for the Japanese. This is already done in several cases; for example, the difference between “lamp” and “oriental lamp” is long recognized in heraldry (for an example of the latter, think “Aladdin’s magic lamp”).

     What this all really means is that common sense must be the guiding factor. If a submission to the College of Heralds is being made under a Japanese name, it is only logical to assume that the charges would be the Japanese ones. If, however, the submitter’s name is not Japanese, it would be best to clarify what charges are Japanese and what are not. Consider the case where the blazon is “argent a helmet affronty sable” it would be quite different if the helmet was identified as a Japanese helmet.



     As Japanese enclosures are set in their shape, unlike the European bordure which must by default conform to the line of the field, it would be best to stop calling them “bordures.” Granted, we submit and register badges on roundels; but are they restricted to round representation? I don’t recall seeing a ruling which said a badge could not be displayed on a square. Or a trapezoid. This would substantially alter the design of the mon unless it is specified that the enclosure should not be tampered with. The easiest way to do that is to blazon a round bordure as “an annulet,” and leave some of the badge field showing on the outside. This actually holds true for any enclosure; you should leave some of the field showing beyond the object or border you have chosen to use.

     Although the SCA doesn’t really recognize all of the traditional Japanese enclosures, there is no reason they can’t be used and submitted to the heralds. They are all documentable, and may be found in virtually every mon book ever written, be it English, Japanese, or Ruritanian. (To be on the safe side, enclose photocopies of the particular object to get the idea across.

     Some of them have considerable variation. The melon enclosure, for example, as shown at left in the mon of the Oda, can be of three, four, five, or even six lobes; the four-lobed version can be rounded, diamond in form, or like a lozenge on its side. The well box (the “frame” for a game of tic-tac-toe) can be square, rotated 45º, or rotated and flattened into a lozenge. (Note: these are pretty much the default variations in shape) All, however, are four-lobed melons or well boxes. Here is where the SCA’s concept of “artistic license” comes into play; for SCA usage, these are stylistic variations.

     Consider a barrel helm in European heraldry: is there a reinforcing bar along the front? Is it straight or cruciform; simple or ornate? Are there breathing holes? What shape are they, and how many? In Japanese heraldry, each one of these variations could be a different mon. In SCA usage, they are all artistic license, variations up to the submitters, the herald-painters, college of scribes, and whoever can be found to paint someone’s shield.

     In the same way, the above minor variations should be up to the submitter to specify and use. In our terminology they really don’t change the emblazon much.


Japanese blazon

     Japanese blazon, unlike English Heraldspeak, is a surprisingly simple thing. Despite the variation in depiction of charges, there is no great vocabulary called for. The Tokugawa crest is blazoned simply as “Maru ni mitsu-ba aoi,” which means, “three hollyhock leaves inside a circle.” Looking at a mon book will show dozens of variations on mon with exactly the same blazon. This is why some crests are identified specifically by the name of the family that used it, or the family it is most associated with.

     Plant charges are by default round and smooth; the paulownia is a classic case. There are two main representations for the pendant leaves; smooth (default) and with sawtoothed edges (the variation). Those plants displaying this departure from the norm are called “oni,” (= devil) plants. A smooth paulownia would be simply “kiri,” and a jagged one “oni-kiri.” The number of blossoms on paulownia is also important; there is the five-three variety (“go-san no kiri”) and the seven-five variety (“shichi-go no kiri”). In Japanese, these are all distinct designs, but within the confines of SCA heraldry, they are identical.

     Charges — especially plants — seen from the back are termed “ura” (= back) thus “ura tachibana” is the back side of a Mandarin orange blossom, showing the emerging stem.

     Enclosed charges are described after the enclosure, the opposite of European heraldry. The idea, apparently, is that if you have a limited amount of space, you start by defining the outside, and then work with what is left on the inside. A simple circular enclosure would be blazoned as “maru ni —”; objects that are within a ring of wisteria are “fuji-wa ni —”; those within a bamboo ring would be “take-wa ni —”; and so on.

     Specific shapes defined by the outlines of charges are blazoned simply by their shape. A “chô” (butterfly) would usually be drawn “in flight” or “displayed addorsed,” but when drawn so that the wings form the common outline of a horizontal lozenge (in Japanese, “hishi”) it is “hishi no chô”; a crane so drawn as to form a circle with its wings is “maru no tsuru.” Many times one common charge is forced into the shape of another as shown here, with a regular single tomoe, a sprig of wisteria in the shape of a tomoe, and a clove in the shape of a tomoe.

     Note the difference between “ni” and “no” here; the former means “inside,” and that a conventionally shaped charge is inside an enclosure of whatever shape or type is specified, while the latter means that a charge itself is forced into that shape.

     Charges that are silhouetted against another are called “kage,” or shadow, charges. An example would be a paulownia on a moon, being a black plant on a white disc; “tsuki ni kage-kiri.” At left is a conventional representation of “rising wisteria,” and a shadow depiction of the same design.

     The trick is that the blazon works from the outside in, the top down, and left to right (or dexter to sinister). If you can find the Japanese word for a charge, it is not unlikely that you can blazon even without knowing the language.

       Charges can also be duplicated. In the case of tomoe, it can be up to four and even more (as shown at right). Often, the pattern is three duplications of a charge, and typically it is “one and two” unlike the conventional Western default (to fit on a shield) of “two and one.” Below are the single and tripled versions of several motifs.


Characteristic charges

     There are many examples of charges unique to Japanese heraldry or Japan, which SCA Japanophiles may wish to take note of, in books on Japanese design or heraldry. Consult the reference list in the bibliography.


Online resources

     Kamon. English language site.

     Mon of sengoku daimyô. This page is in Japanese.

     Nihon Kamon Kenkyûkai. This page, in Japanese, is the homepage of the Japanese Family Crest Study Society.

     Kamon World. In Japanese, this site is a treasure trove of articles and information on Japanese heraldry and its history.



  This page was last modified on: 12/17/2014

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