Kamon (Japanese Family Crests): Ancient Key to Samurai Culture
There is a kind of crest in Japan called a kamon, first used in the era of the Heike and Genji (a.k.a. the Taira and Fujiwara) to distinguish the clans of the time. Indicating family and lineage, kamon evolved to become the family names of today. Differing in nuance from the coat of arms and emblems of Europe, kamon are considered a unique part of Japanese culture.
The History of Family Crests
The origin of kamon goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), but scholars say it was the Warring States period (late 1400s to 1590) in which they truly proliferated. There were many conflicts during this period, and the number of kamon rose considerably as they allowed combatants to differentiate friend from foe. With the increasing peace of the Edo and Meiji eras, kamon held on as representations of lineage and became a fixed part of Japanese culture. You’ve probably seen old photographs featuring kamon, perhaps on someone’s mon-tsuki hakama (traditional black menswear with kimono and loose trousers) or printed on a paper hand lantern.
Also, it isn’t uncommon even in the present day for practitioners of traditional arts (e.g., kabuki, Noh, etc.) and established shops with long histories to present their kamon to the public, such as on their noren (cloth entrance curtain). Additionally, the tradition of donning formal funeral wear marked with a family’s kamon remains even now widely practiced as part of Japanese culture.
Types of Family Crests
A kamon can be assigned to one of a number of different categories depending on its subject. These categories include kamon based on plants (shokubutsu-mon), on flowers (ka-mon), on animals (dōbutsu-mon), and on natural phenomenon (tennen-mon), as well as kamon constructed from traditional patterns (monyō-mon) and military influences (shōbu-mon). The five most common and widely-spread crests, the Godaimon, are all included in these greater categories.
The Godaimon (The 5 Kamons)
1. Takanoha-mon (Hawk Feather Crest)
2. Katabami-mon (Woodsorrel Crest)
A shokubutsu-mon that depicts a stylized creeping woodsorrel (a durable, vigorous plant that multiplies quickly), popular as a kamon among the masses owing to its nuance of prosperity for ones descendants
3. Mokkō-mon (Woodmelon Crest)
4. Fuji-mon (Wisteria Crest)
A ka-mon that depicts a stylized wisteria flower, often used as a kamon by families with the wisteria kanji (pronounced “tō” or “fuji”) in their name, e.g. Fujiwara, Katō, Saitō, Gotō, Naitō, Fujii, Itō, etc.
5. Kiri-mon (Paulownia Crest)
There are branches and further sub-divisions within the Godaimon, as well. Even if we only look those crests that are confirmed and recognized, kamon in Japan are thought to number in the thousands.