Written By: Remy Sherman
Japan has been long admired for its sense of style and cultural identity and there is perhaps no greater symbol of this than the Kamon or Japanese family crest. Often round and symmetrical in shape, Kamon were traditionally found on clothing or armor as well as at the entrance or gate of a feudal estate and occasionally hand painted on the surface of lanterns hung during Obon, a summer festival honoring passed ancestors.
A Clear and Bold Style
Their clear, bold style has been emulated around the world on logos and in advertising as well as in some unfortunately underplanned tattoo designs.The oldest recognized family crest in Japanese history dates back to the 12th century when Kuge, nobles who served the Emperor of Japan, started to use symbolized designs of flora, animals and other designs on their belongings such as carts, chests, furniture, and clothing. In those days, only a limited number of people of the upper class were allowed to use such markings.
Symbols Drawn From Nature
Japanese famliy crests can be roughly broken down into 3 categories, each depicting either flowers, animals, or natural phenomena. Some of the most famous are the Chrysanthemum crest of the Imperial family or the Maruni Mitsu Aoi featuring a geranium motif signifying the Clan of Tokugawa, the last great Shogunate of Japan.
Tapping Ancient Roots
While repeating elements of varying numbers are common, a preponderance of Kamon feature manifestations of three. This may trace its roots to the ancient Indian symbol of Chintamani which signifies happiness and may also refer to the trinity of mind/body/soul which is found in belief systems around the globe.
The Mark of a Warrior
The clear, crisp design syle of most Kamon is derived from when these symbols were used to identify warriors on the battlefield, necessitating a bold demarcation of friend or foe, even from a distance. Some parallels may be drawn to European family crests, however Kamon are typically much less elaborate, lacking such formalized structure as the shield, wreath, motto, mantle, and helmet found on so many Western crests.
Elegance From All Angles
While several Kamon display bilateral symmetry, quite often a radial symmetry pattern may be observed causing many to draw similarities to mandalas used in Buddhist and some animist religions, although Kamon do not themselves have an intrinsic spiritual meaning.
Some Kamon eschew representational motifs entirely and are composed of geometric symbols. Others include interlocking diamond or triangular shapes reminiscent of Celtic knotwork designs.
A Wealth of Diversity
Recognized Family Crests in Japan are reported to number greater than 10,000, however several are simply redesigned variations created for the purpose of expressing geneological heritage. When a second or third-born son marries and establishes his own family, he often chooses to modify his family crest in order to indicate a differentiation in the family line. The first son generally inherits the original crest used by his father, while younger siblings might modify the original crest by placing a ring or square around the outside or adding another new element.
A Trancendence of Time
Kamon may be found on many traditional items in Japan such as formal kimonos and placards outside of residences, however these days they are also commonly seen on T-shirts, keychains, business cards, and accessories, as well as, of course the shoulders or lower backs those who might have had one just one too many.