The Japanese Mon – An Eastern Equivalent to the European Coats of Arms? (I): Form, Content, Tincture and Blazon

Cherry blossom (sakura). with serrated leaves. Image taken from Ströhl, Japanisches Wappenbuch, Fig. 166.

Cherry blossom, (sakura) with serrated leaves. Image taken from Ströhl, Japanisches Wappenbuch, fig. 166.

In a previous blog post, I have established that there are several similarities between the Japanese mon and the coats of arms of Europe. But before aspects and perspectives of cultural history can be taken into account, this post aims to focus on the fundamentals, i.e. the mon itself, the images it displays and its blazon.

The Japanese mon has a special structure, displaying its content in a unique way. It is a sophisticatedly constructed and often symmetrically composed sign, crafted with much dedication for detail. Yet, although sophisticated, it can be plain and pleasing to the eye.

In contrast to the European coat of arms, which is displayed on a shield, the mon’s form is usually circular. It can be depicted within a framing ring, either thick or thin, or stand on its own (i.e. the image alone, e.g. a sakura blossom). Shapes and frames like squares, hexagons or octagons are rather rare. Unlike a coat of arms, the mon stands on its own without any helmet, coronet or crest. Marshalling and cadency as they appear in European heraldry do not exist either. However, a distinction is created by the vast amount of different combinations of elements that make the mon such a complex and sophisticated sign.

Maru ni chigai-ya. Two crossed arrows in a circle. Image taken from Lange,

Maru ni chigai-ya. Two crossed arrows in a circle. Image taken from Lange, Japanische Wappen, fig. 848.

A mon can consist solely of one image (e.g. the sakura blossom), but it can also consist of two or more images, combined in a certain way. But what are these images? In European heraldry we distinguish between “ordinaries” and “charges”. This differentiation of image types can be translated into the mon, since they depict both geometrical figures and images of plants, animals, objects etc.

Even though they appear differently in style at first sight, when we have a closer look at the mon, we can see that many of them use the same or similar figures as coats of arms. Much like their European counterpart, the images employed are not depicted in a natural but a stylised way.

The first and most common category of charges is plants: besides the popular sakura blossom, there are many other different flowers and blossoms like the plum blossom, the chrysanthemum (which is one of the most famous mon since it is the imperial mon), the paulownia, the hollyhock and leaves of maple , ivy, and bamboo, but also trees (e.g. cedar, pine).

Animals are not as frequently used as in European heraldry. Yet the crane, for example, is a very important charge on the mon. Besides birds, animals like turtles, butterflies, horses etc. are depicted as well. Lions exist, but since they are Chinese lions, their appearance is very different to the European ones. Mythical creatures exist as well (e.g. dragon). Another possibility is, as in Europe, the application of parts of animals: feathers, dragon scales, antlers etc. Humans, however, are not displayed on mon, nor are their body parts.

From l. to r.: Maruni Chigai Takanoha, the crossing pair of hawk feathers in circle; Triple crane crest; Download medium size480 × 480 px png View in browser You can attribute the author Show me how The Japanese Imperial kamon.

From left to right: Maruni Chigai Takanoha, the crossing pair of hawk feathers in circle (CC-BY-SA-2.5, Wikimedia); triple crane crest (Public Domain, Wikimedia); Imperial kamon. (Public Domain, Wikimedia)

The third big category consists of elements of nature. Waves are frequently depicted, so are stars, the moon, the sun, lightning, mountains and so on. The last category, objects, can be divided into armament (arrows, helmets, etc.), tools (hammers, axes) and other objects (drums, fans, hats). Another common image are kaniji (Chinese and Japanese characters), which, can either be a specific word or a number. These are just a range of images that can be summarised under the category “charges”.

There can be found some similarities between the European “ordinaries”/“subordinaries” and the geometrical figures depicted on the mon, too. They range from squares to circles, rings and bars.

Sjui-kabuto. Japanese helmet with raised ridges. Image taken from Lange, Japanische Wappen.

Suji-kabuto. Japanese helmet with raised ridges. Image taken from Lange, Japanische Wappen, fig. 503.

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