The Japanese Mon – An Eastern Equivalent to the European Coats of Arms? (I): Form, Content, Tincture and Blazon
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.
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.
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.
Whereas in Europe colours are used to distinguish between different coats of arms, tincture is not particularly important for the Japanese mon. Mon are mostly depicted in one light colour on a dark background. There is, however, an interesting way of how to achieve a variety of mon with the same image without using different colours. The first one is, as already established, the combination of two or more elements (e.g. moon and stars). The other one is a very unique fusion of elements, which Ströhl calls “imitation figure” (cf. Hugo G. Ströhl, Imitationsfiguren der japanischen Heraldik, in: Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprache an der Königlichen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin 13 (1910), 1-17). An interesting example of combining an animal with a plant is the “hollyhock crane”. One element is used to compose a different one; in this case the crane is created through the hollyhock.
Compared to European heraldry, there is no heraldic terminology for blazoning. Mon are described with everyday Japanese which can lead to inaccuracy: Such a “blazon” can stand for more than one mon and vice versa.
To sum up: Although one can see similarities in the types of images employed, the mon looks very different from its European counterpart. But what similarities can be found, if not in shape and outward appearance? The emergence and function of the mon can shed more light on that, which will be treated in the following blog entries.
Rudolf Lange, Japanische Wappen in: Mitteilungen des Seminar für Orientalische Sprache zu Berlin (1903), <http://www.unterstein.net/Toyoashihara-no-Chiaki-Nagaioaki-no-Mitsuho-no-Kuni/mon.html> (25/02/2014).
Paul M. Spiegel, Japanese Heraldry: A Study of Mon, in: Coat of Arms 9 (1966-1967), 128-138, 166-176, 204-208.
Hugo G. Ströhl, Imitationsfiguren der japanischen Heraldik, in: Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen XIII/1 (Ostasiatische Studien), Berlin 1910, 1-17.
Idem, Japanisches Wappenbuch. Nihon Monchô (publ. and ed. by Wolfgang Ettig, Treisberg 2006) (Monographien zur Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte Japans, 4), Vienna 1906.