Thanks to my interest in symbols and symbolism, I have been doing some research about kamon (家紋), ‘family crests’, in Japan. At the moment the research is at a relatively early stage and my knowledge is based primarily on a couple of books that I bought during a trip to Japan in 2020 and some websites.
Recently, I have done some posts about the Netflix series Age of Samurai and also about Sekigahara and noted about the use of kamon in relation to the Sengoku Period. As I do some more research in this area – initially for a class on the subject for my final year students – but eventually as part of a bigger project that I have planned, a few things have jumped out and surprised me.
First, is the sheer number of kamon. While there appear to be certain key ones, one of the books (Morimoto, Y. and Nihon Kamon Kenkyukai (eds.), 2013, Nihon no Kamon Daijiten, Tokyo: Nihon Jitsugyo Shuppansha) that I picked up is a dictionary of 5,676 kamon. These kamon can be grouped into 5 or 7 main groups – but the system is not fixed and some may fall into one than group.
Second, despite the number of possible kamon, and their historical significance, it seems that nearly 80% of Japanese have no knowledge of what their own kamon may be (Morimoto, Y., 2019, Kamon Musou, Tokyo: Chigakusha, page 6). It is probably due to this that the use of kamon doesn’t seem that widespread today in Japan. Although they may be used on the top of houses, it doesn’t always happen (I will need to do more observations about this on future trips) and it is still most common for the family name to appear by the front of the house rather than a kamon. Kamon apparently can also appear on grave-stones, though I cannot see any on the pictures that I have from my visits to a few graveyards, nor can I see any in the photographs of any of the bohyo at Osutaka-no-One for the victims of the JL123 crash.
Third, kamon need not have any direct relationship to the name of the family. This, combined with other factors, points how kamon appear to be very much chosen symbols and that while they may represent something, there is a seeming lack of natural meaning that is often found with symbols. While the same could be said to some degree with coats of arms (see my post on HMS Hood for an example of one), for those with knowledge of coats of arms would be in a position to ‘read’ a coat of arms (aided by the existence of a motto also) in a way that doesn’t seem possible with kamon.
As I learn more about kamon, I have more questions. Questions which I hope to get answers to in the coming months and years.
Main image taken from https://www.patternz.jp/japanese-family-crest-list-symbol/