Unlike in Europe where family crests were used to distinguish nobility from commoners, Japan’s family crests (kamon) were not only exclusive to noblemen. The use of family crests also extended to samurai warriors and commoners.
Although the kamon was exclusive only to nobility during the eighth century, it then became a symbol of identity or ownership of samurai warriors during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Later the use of crests expanded to commoners during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
Today, there are at least 20,000 records of family crests in Japan. The designs of the crests are derived from celestial bodies, atmospheric phenomena, heaven and earth. Earth motifs include animals and plants which are also the most common family crest motifs. Some of the most common plant motifs used as a family crest include the chrysanthemum (kiku), pawlonia (kiri), hollyhock (aoi), wisteria (fuji), and gentian (rindo).
Chrysanthemum is a perennial plant belonging to family Asteraceae which is native to Asia and Europe. It was widely cultivated during the ancient times in China as an herbal plant. It was from an ancient Chinese belief that this plant signifies longevity that Japan regarded the plant as the noblest of all flowers. Thus, the chrysanthemum became the emblem of the Imperial Family. According to historical records, Emperor Gotoba and his three succeeding emperors enjoyed using chrysanthemums as a pattern. Although this crest was reserved to the Imperial Family, it was also awarded by the imperial court to other people who had shown excellence in service to the imperial household. However, the crest was exclusively reserved to the imperial household after the Meiji Restoration. Today, the Imperial Family still use this crest.
Paulownia is a deciduous tree that is widely cultivated in Japan. It belongs to the figwort family Paulowniaceae and it is also known as the “princess tree” or “emperor tree”. This tree was adopted as a crest motif because it symbolizes good fortune. In China, people consider it a lucky tree where phoenixes reside. It was also believed that these phoenixes sing “long live the king!” in the high, blooming branches of the tree. Because of this belief, the paulownia tree became a pattern used in the emperor’s clothes and then later became a crest during the end of the Kamakura period. This crest is awarded by the imperial court to retainers. The retainers also awarded the crest to vassals who had performed exemplary deeds.
Also known as alcea, this perennial plant belongs to family Malvaceae (birthwort family) and is only native to Asia and Europe. According to history, some young court nobles perhaps used the young leaves of hollyhocks to decorate their clothes, carts, and even horses during the Hollyhock Festival. This plant then became a crest for religious symbols. But, when Ieyasu Tokugawa used the hollyhock as a crest, the symbol became more superior than the crest of chrysanthemum and paulownia. Only the Tokugawa family had the right to use the hollyhock crest during the succeeding years of the Edo Period.
Wisteria is a woody vine which is part of the plant family Fabaceae (pea family). This plant is native to Japan and it is the subject of poetry in the anthology of Man’yoshu. Japanese feast over wisteria blooms every year and it is also used as a pattern in kimono prints. Wisteria was also used as a pattern in kimono prints which was also illustrated in Eiga Monogatari and Genji Monogatari. The pattern was then changed into a crest design and families bearing the kanji for wisteria often adopt the crest.
Gentian is a perennial plant which belongs to family Gentianaceae (gentian family). This plant received a great admiration from the people during the Fujiwara period. In fact, this emblem was featured in Genji Monogatari and Makura no Soshi. Depicted as a decorative pattern, this plant eventually became a kamon design used mostly by court nobles.
There are many symbols used for the thousands of kamon in Japan. Hopefully you enjoyed learning about these historically important and prominent motifs.