Written By: Eric Riley
Japanese family symbols, or kamon ((R)), were essentially the Japanese equivalent of the European coat of arms. Both were regarded as identifying symbols of families and both served similar purposes on the battlefield. As they are very similar in function, the main difference between a coat of arms and a mon is in the details.
In European heraldry, coats of arms were adopted by knights during the Middle Ages as a form of identification on the battlefield. A typical coat of arms consists of a shield with a helmet with mantle and crest atop it and oftentimes with a pair of symbols surrounding it and the knight’s family’s motto below it. Initially, only members of the nobility could have a coat of arms, although eventually, around the time of the 15th century, organizations such as corporations and universities were officially granted permission to have their own coats of arms.
In Japan, mon were initially adopted by the nobility as a form of identifying what clan they were from. They were eventually adopted by the samurai as a battle standard to identify each other. This is one difference between kamon and coats of arms: the order of adoption is reversed. Coats of arms were initially conceived by knights as a battle standard and eventually adopted by the nobility as a family identifier, whereas kamon were initially conceived by the nobility as a family identifier and eventually adopted by the samurai as a battle standard. A standard mon usually consists of a single symbol, such as the imperial family’s stylized chrysanthemum blossom or the Tokugawa’s three hollylock leaves inside a circle. There generally wasn’t a set standard as to what a mon could look like.
There is another significant difference between the two. In European heraldry, only noble families were permitted to have a coat of arms. In contrast, in Japan, all families, no matter what caste they were from, could and did have a kamon. This was essentially a necessity as during the Tokugawa period of 1600 to 1868, only samurai were permitted to have a surname – families needed kamon to identify their own lineages. Much like the coats of arms in Europe, organizations such as guilds, temples, shrines, and theater troupes could have mons. However, unlike European heraldry, there was no authoritative governing body that authorized the use of mons. Rather, the way in which a crest could be used was generally determined by social customs and propriety.
Today, there is still no official governing body determining how a kamon can be used, with the exception of the mon of the imperial family and the mon of the prime minister’s office. These are very common, and it is in fact quite likely that you see some on a regular basis. For example, one of the most famous kamons commonly seen is the logo of the Mitsubishi Group, which was originally the kamon of the company’s founding samurai family. Coats of arms require strict, formal guidelines for use as well as authorization from a governing body. That is not the case with kamon – anybody can have one so long as they don’t intrude on others.