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.

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.

Aoizuru. Hollyhock crane. Image taken from Ströhl, Imitationsfiguren, fig. 1.

Aoizuru. Hollyhock crane. Image taken from Ströhl, Imitationsfiguren, fig. 1.

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.

Bibliography

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.

Cite the article as: Julia Hartmann, "The Japanese Mon – An Eastern Equivalent to the European Coats of Arms? (I): Form, Content, Tincture and Blazon", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 02/02/2015, Internet: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/2456.

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. Goebl says:

    There exists a new edition of the book of Hugo G. Stroehl’s Japanisches Wappenbuch from Wolfgang Ettig in 2006, Tengu-Publishing. He has added new comments and interpretations.

  2. lilian says:

    Hello Julia
    You article was great but I may add a few information if you dont mind
    you said “Marshalling and cadency as they appear in European heraldry do not exist either”, actually cadencing does take place in Japanese heraldry. The most famous example is that of the variation on the mon of the Tokugawa which is modified for each of the house of the Gosanke (the three families who were elligible for the shogunate after 1600). No less than 36 variations are known be it on the number of leave or their position or the “rings”(see here http://archive.wul.waseda.ac.jp/kosho/bunko06/bunko06_01734/bunko06_01734_0001/bunko06_01734_0001.html). Actually each damiyo family was susceptible to modify the Jomon and kaemon (secondary mon), slightly or completely, when the bekke (secondary houses of the clan) were reprensenting themselves.

    One can also notice this in the slightly different but very interesting use of the mon by Kabuki actors. Here the lineage is not blood but acting/preceptorship. For instance the most famous name is Ishikawa Danjuro, the actor bear the three rice measures (mitsu masu), http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Torii_Kiyomasu_-_Ichikawa_Danjuro_II_in_Shibaraku.jpg, compare with that of Ichikawa yaozo which is teh same but with the kanji for 8 in the middle,
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_actor_Ichikawa_Yaozo_III_as_Tanabe_Bunzo.jpg,

    Cadencing has not been very well studied and there is a lot of work to be done .

    Lilian

    • Julia Hartmann says:

      Dear Lilian,

      thank you very much for your comment.
      I try to concentrate on the mon during medieval times (mostly Kamakura period; only until ca. 1500, towards the end of the Muromachi period), so the example of the Tokugawa is a rather late one. Do you maybe have any examples of cadency for that time? I am planning on elaborating on the jomon and kaemon in one of my next articles. This article was supposed to be purely about the form. But do you think that we can equate the European brisures with the modifying of a kamon?
      It is nice to know that there are more people interested in the Japanese mon. I hope we can exchange and discuss some more ideas and topics.
      Kind regards,

      Julia Hartmann

      • liliancailleaud says:

        Hello Again
        One of the problem in studying this era is finding reliable sources. You can look at the screens (Byoubou) but they won’t allow you to do a systematical comparison. The closest you can get is by studying the Onin Bukan which purportredly records the mons and families of the Onin war. That being said these book were written and published about 300 years after the facts. You will encounter the same problem in studying them as you would in using Ukiyo-e from the 18th century. In order to study cadencin we need to find sources which chronicles family history. The other problem is that the mon and its construction evolved a lot between the mid 12th century and the 17th century.

        Lilian

  1. 21/12/2016

    […] that there are some similarities between the Japanese mon and the European coats of arms. The second article has shown that although mon appear very different from coats of arms at first sight, comparing both […]

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