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