[Intercultural Perspectives:] The Japanese Mon – The Aim to Capture the Moment of Perfection

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu with depictions of the mon of the Tokugawa shogun dynasty - three hollyhock leaves in a rounding, 17th c. (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, with representations of the mon of the Tokugawa dynasty – three hollyhock leaves in a rounding, 17th c. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese have been aiming to capture the perfect moment of the sakura (cherry-) blossom for hundreds of years now. Yet this aim is very difficult to achieve and in their eyes almost impossible. For that reason, they seek to find it every spring anew. But it is not just the sakura that the Japanese aim perfection for; their whole culture comprises such an aim, especially when it comes to arts. When, for example, creating a kimono (Japanese traditional gown), ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) or Japanese garden, this is done meticulously, delicately and with an exceptional aesthetics. The experience of things such as the sakura blossom and the attempt to capture this specific instant of perfection is of great essential to the Japanese culture. Apprehending and recognising this is a first step to understanding the Japanese culture and thus the subject of this entry: the Japanese Mon.

When we think about European coats of arms and heraldry in general, we have a specific image in our mind. But what comes to our mind when we think about Japan? Would you expect that there is a Japanese sign similar to our European coats of arms, which has various aspects in common with its European counterpart?

Actually, in Japan there has been a similar development of symbols and patterns, namely the mon. Comparable with our European coats of arms, their study could give us new important insight for our research on European heraldry.

Mon and coat of arms share a resembling historical context: the need of warriors to distinguish their enemies from their allies in battle, and the nobility requiring to bestow upon their family an unique identity in society. However, in Japan the individual was not as important as the family/clan, which poses a contrast to Europe where the identification of the individual itself was of greater importance. Additionally, there are several kinds of mon with different specific functions like the kamon (family crest) or kaemon (alternate/secondary or informal mon).

Another difference is that mon have not derived from the shield (as the coats of arms in Europe) but most likely from the patterns displayed on the gowns worn by the Japanese nobility or their palanquins. Similar to Europe, the questions of the exact date of origin, the reason for their emergence, and how they developed specifically are still to be answered and equally highly debated by scholars. Naturally, as their question of origin is not fully resolved, there are various legends as to how and why and when they developed and also why a family chose or received a certain mon as their kamon.

Pages from a modern Japanese armorial (source: Waseda University Library)

Pages from a modern Japanese armorial (source: Waseda University Library)

Mon (紋 ; sing. and pl.) means coat of arms or family crest (also kamon; 家紋) and originally “pattern”. It is a mostly plain but very delicately and sophisticatedly designed pattern/symbol and it is often displayed in a rounding or circle. The scenes are kept simple but elegant and precious at the same time, and the potentiality of combining different images and thus creating new mon is very complex. The images used range from animals (birds, rabbits, turtles, etc.) to plants (flowers, blossoms, leaves, etc.) and other earthly objects (moon, sun, stars, waves, mountains, etc.), objects (tools, weapons, etc.), patterns (circles, squares, etc.) and Japanese/Chinese characters. The mon tries to capture specific moments (like the sakura blossom) of objects and living creatures in their highest perfection. This becomes especially evident when one looks at the mon capturing the movements of, for example, a crane. The types of images used already show a similarity to the ones used in European heraldry, although their style in depiction is fairly different. Tincture does not seem to be as important as in European heraldry; mon are mostly depicted in one colour.

There are various other topics which could be interesting to compare with European heraldry like the princely grant of arms/mon, the laws of arms, their specific rules of creation, the blazon, where and on what objects and buildings the mon were displayed and for what reason and function, the inheritance of mon, their diffusion, who was allowed to bear a mon, etc.

This entry is just meant to serve as a short introduction of this field of study. Further blog entries on specific topics concerning the mon and their emergence, use, function and meaning in Japanese society are in the planning stage. Comments and questions on the topic are most welcome.

Cite the article as: Julia Hartmann, "[Intercultural Perspectives:] The Japanese Mon – The Aim to Capture the Moment of Perfection", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 30/09/2014, Internet: http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/1501.

Julia Hartmann

Julia Hartmann studies History and English Studies at Münster University and currently at Durham University (for one year; 2014/15).

6 Responses

  1. liliancailleaud says:

    Hello Julia
    You describe your last illustration as an “armorial”, but it is actually somewhat different from what us westerners call an armorial. The full name is 紋帳色葉分 or Moncho Irohawake, which we can roughly be translated as an “ABC of mon”. The Iroha system was the old way of remembering the japanese kana (kata kana and hiragana). It was also used to organised methodically things that were presented by their name. In this specific case we can see different Mon but not specifically those of the buke (warrior class= samourai) and kuge (court noble attached to the emperor in Heian Kyo “Kyoto”) but rather types available for reproduction on fabrics or other materials. We can of course find descriptions such as the Hitotsuyanagi Kukinuki (not on this slide) which is translated as the “nail extractor of the Hitotsuyanagi” refering to a “charge” used by a the Hitotsuyanagi Ke (house/clan). However the majority of the mon in the Moncho Iroha give no indication of ownership. However you can see the “blason” over each mon, which in this case is written in hiragana and katakana.

    • Julia Hartmann says:

      Dear Lilian,

      thank you very much for this detailed information. You seem to know a lot about the mon. It would be nice to exchange ideas and thoughts and discuss different topics.

      Julia Hartmann

      • liliancailleaud says:

        Hello Julia
        I would like very much to help you. I have been studying Japanese heraldry for 15 years now but its hard to find the time and place to share. I do not know how to give you my email address (I woudl rather not share it publicly) but Marcus can tell you how to get in touch with me.
        Lilian

  2. Liebe Frau Hartmann,
    herzlichen Dank noch einmal für diesen wunderbaren Beitrag, der Lust auf mehr macht. Es ist schön zu sehen, was Sie aus dem bereits schon guten Essay gemacht haben, den Sie in der Heraldik-Übung geschrieben haben. Der Vergleich zwischen europäischer Heraldik und japanischen Mon birgt in der Tat ein erhebliches Potential für unsere Auseinandersetzung mit Wappen und Zeichen. Ich bin schon sehr gespannt auf ihre nächsten Blogbeiträge!
    Torsten Hiltmann

  3. Elmar Hofman says:

    Dear Julia Hartmann,

    Thank you for your interesting post. I find it fascinating to read that in a totally different culture a similar system to European heraldry occurred. The next question came up while reading your text.

    In Werner Paravicini’s article ‘Gruppe und Person. Repräsentation durch Wappen im späteren Mittelalter’ he states that there was a tension between the person and the group in the representation through coats of arms. Simply put, sometimes the arms represented a group (such as a family) and sometimes it represented a single person. He poses the thesis that there was a gradual shift from group-representation to personal representation in the course of the Middle Ages.

    You write that in Japan the individual was not as important as the family/clan. Does that mean that mon never represented a single person? Or was there in Japan a development similar to Paravicini‘s thesis?

    Best whishes,

    Elmar Hofman

  1. 21/12/2016

    […] my two previous articles on the Japanese mon I have introduced the topic as such. In the first article I have claimed that there are some similarities between the Japanese mon and the European coats of […]

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