What are the diffrences between a coat of arms and a Japanese kamon?

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.


Were cities assigned their own coat of arms?

Written By: Eric Riley

Were cities assigned their own coat of arms? In a nutshell, yes. Cities can and have received official coats of arms.  The coats of arms were an important part of heraldry and date back to the early medieval period in Europe. A typical coat of arms consisted of a shield with a helmet and mantling as well as a wreath. Additional ornaments usually consisted of mottoes, badges, symbolic supporters (often animals but also people representing an idea), and a crown or a coronet.

Initially, they were adopted by knights who used them as a form of identification on the battlefield.  These knights established their coats of arms as a form of heraldry and made them official, passing them down their family lines. Eventually, the coat of arms spread beyond its initial use of battlefield identification and became a kind of flag or logo for noble families in Europe. Although it varied from nation to nation, most of the European nations eventually set up a governing body which oversaw who had the rights to receive coats of arms.

By the 15th century, the rights to have a coat of arms were being granted not just to individuals and families, but corporate bodies as well, such as commercial companies and universities. This most likely came about since around the 13th century. It became common practice that the coat of arms of the royal family, or a variation of it, would become the coat of arms of the entire kingdom. If the kingdom could have a coat of arms, why not other organizations? This also meant municipal entities like cities could have their own coat of arms as well. One of the first cities to have its own coat of arms was the city of London. It features a shield with the cross of St. George and an emblem of St. Paul, the city’s patron.  It is surrounded on each side by a pair of dragons, believed by many to have derived from the tale of St. George.  There are records of the city of London using this heraldic symbol, or some variation of it, as early as 1380.

While nations, corporations, and institutions could have officially recognized coats of arms from around the 15th century, most cities didn’t actually get their official heraldry symbols until much later, around the 19th and 20th centuries. London, for example, although it had been using a coat of arms from around the late 14th/early 15th century, did not get it officially recognized by College of Arms until April 30, 1957.  Of course today, just about every major city in the world has its own coat of arms.  These symbols were chosen carefully to reflect the history and identity of the city they represent.

To return to the original question – were cities assigned their own coats of arms? – the answer is yes, cities were assigned coats of arms. However, for the majority of cases, they were not assigned to them until much later in time, usually around the more modern days of the 19th and 20th centuries.


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