The Japanese Mon – An Eastern Equivalent to the European Coats of Arms? (II): The Emergence of Mon
In 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 European coats of arms. The second article has shown that although mon appear very different from coats of arms at first sight, comparing both in their forms and contents in detail uncovers some fascinating similarities, especially concerning the content (i.e. the images displayed) of shield and mon.
The following articles will focus on the functions and purposes of mon for Japanese society. Thus the emergence of mon is a very important topic to focus upon. When did the mon first came about and for what purpose? Furthermore, one might ask if this purpose has changed over time and, if so, how it has changed. Additionally, it is important to establish which social group (nobility, the warrior class, etc.) started bearing mon at which time, and if we can draw similarities to the European system.
The question of the origin of mon is similarly difficult to answer as that of European coats of arms. The main problem is that we do not have reliable sources. Accordingly, a lot of legends have arisen over the past centuries. However, it seems to be generally accepted that mon developed out of the patterns worn on clothes (kimono) by the nobility at the court of Kyoto during the Heian period (794–1185). One argument in favour of this theory is that the word mon means ‘pattern’ (cf. first article). This, however, poses some problems, since according to most sources mon did not appear on garments until much later. Besides the garments of the court nobles, the patterns displayed on their lacquered palanquins, i.e. oxen-carts are another possible influence.
Especially patterns displaying flowers or other plants were very popular even before the emergence of the mon. However, it is difficult to establish the time of their development as symbolic signs. Some scholars roughly assume the date 900 AD as the time of their emergence and the adoption of symbolic functions. This is however highly debatable.
The social change that occurred between the Heian period (794–1185) and the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the beginning of the feudal era, also had an impact on the emergence of mon. Warriors were increasingly drawn to court; they were needed by the nobles to assist them in their conflicts. Simultaneously, the development of the warrior class, in turn, was in need of a symbol for identification in order to be able to distinguish between friend and foe. Thus the process of the emergence of mon accelerated and by the end of the 13th century mon were used among the whole warrior class throughout Japan.
There is a variety of different kinds of mon with different terms and purposes which I will introduce in a later article, but the most common is the kamon (家紋), which is the “family mon” (or “family crest”). The term kamon emerged in literary texts approximately in the middle of the 11th century. But it is not possible to identify when exactly the mon received its meaning as kamon and was inherited by the following generations. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), certain mon were connected to certain warrior families – in the beginning only the most powerful ones. In the Muromachi period (1333–1573) the need arose to distinguish between the mainline of a family and the different branches. This was a cause of civil war in which different branches of one and the same family fought against each other.
Eventually, the military purpose started to decline (and disappeared with the peaceful Edo period 1603–1868) and the civil use of mon increasingly predominated. Warriors started displaying their mon on ceremonial gowns. First fragments of rolls of arms and evidence of mon in literary texts have survived from the Muromachi period (1333–1573).
Like in Europe, there were no laws which determined who was allowed to wear a mon. In the beginning only nobles, officials and warriors bore them. Moreover, they too were a sign of patronage, bestowing benefits. Thus, officials or servants wore the mon of their lords. Only since the Edo period (1603–1868), mon were used by all people of society.
In conclusion, the origin of mon still needs further research and discussion amongst scholars – as does the emergence of the coats of arms (cf. articles on this issue by Michael Jerusalem, Jonas Lengeling and Sophie Spiegler). In fact, the whole topic of the Japanese mon is a field of study which has not been adequately researched so far.
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