This article originally featured in the September 2009 issue of the Japanese magazine “Pen”. The English is a translation I did a few years back. I also wrote the footnotes at the end of the article.
One rarely notices traditional family crests in modern-day Japan. However, family crests were literally a matter of life and death during the Sengoku (Warring States) period. In this, family crests are to be appreciated for far more than their aesthetic value.
Sanada Clan Family Crest: Roku-mon sen (Six Pence)
The six mon (pence) is a reference to the six coins placed on caskets of the dead in a Buddhist context, equal to the price of passage across the Sanzu (Styx) River. This family crest symbolized the Sanada clan’s resolve, unshaken even in the face of death. I chose to have this family crest put on my kimono for our wedding ceremony.
For most people in Japan today, family crests aren’t really a part of their daily lives. The only time one may catch a glimpse of these traditional symbols is at a wedding or maybe a funeral. When one examines the history of these symbols, one discovers that family crests have been in use since the Heian period*1 (794-1185). Scholars believe that family crests were first adopted by nobles, and used on their ox carts as a way of identifying themselves (a nice analogy would be imagining a glorified business card or logo). However, with the outbreak of the Hogen revolt in 1156*2, the Heian period gave way to an age of civil war and social unrest, with the capital and much of the country transformed into a battlefield. In order to tell friend from foe, as well as provide proof of one’s exploits in battle, a “badge” to identify oneself was needed. Thus, many samurai set about to creating their own unique design and using this insignia on their own personal battle flags. This marks the beginning of family crests as we know (in Japan at least).
A symbol of Sengoku daimyo (lord) authority and family status
Between the Nambokucho period*3 (1336-1392) and the subsequent Muromachi period (1336-1573: overlaps with the Nambokucho period because one of the Imperial regencies was merely the puppet of the reigning Ashikaga shogunate), the number of family crests literally exploded, as even the descendants of illegitimate children of the nobility adopted their own crest. As a result, a book was published in which all the prominently used family crests were massed into a single volume. This book was called the Kenbun Shokamon (literally translates to “The various family crests one comes across”), and its creation signified the need for samurai to readily distinguish the family crests of their adversaries.
There are literally thousands of family crests, rich in variety and style. Though most designs incorporate a plant-oriented motif, other items were also used, such as animals, astronomical elements, tools and weapons, as well as buildings. There were even some incredibly original designs that probably turned more than a few heads on the battlefield, such as the backwards facing rabbit, and even a key. Entering the Sengoku period, the Imperial Court or the Shogun would often confer special family crests upon distinguished samurai families. This was called shiyo*4, and in turn resulted in many daimyo using multiple family crests. For formal occasions the family crest that was used was referred to as the joumon (literally “the specified crest”), while the other crests used were called fukumon (or “sub-crests”).
An example of this in practice is the Mori family, who rose to prominence and ruled over the Chukoku region (western Honshu, which is the main island of the Japanese archipelago). For their joumon, they used the “ichimonji ni mitsuboshi” (three stars beneath one line), but they also used the “go-shichi kiri” (5 and 7 paulownia leaves) as their fukumon. This is the crest the Imperial Court bestowed upon their family. Family crests were also used by the Shogun and the Imperial Court to boost their own prestige and authority.
Mori Clan Family Crest: “Ichimonji Ni Mitsuboshi” (Three Stars beneath One Line)
Up until this point, one was practically free to choose whichever family crest they desired. However, towards the end of the Sengoku period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to impose restrictions on family crests, specifically forbidding the use of “kiri” and “giku” (paulownia and chrysanthemum, respectively) motifs for family crests. Later, Tokugawa Ieyasu would prohibit the use of the hollyhock motif, assigning it as the official family crest for the shogunate in efforts to boost the shogunate’s authority and legitimacy.
The Tokugawa reign (1603-1867) came to be known as the Edo period (Edo being the capital, now present day Tokyo). During this time, family crests became a necessary formality, with the insignia sewn onto one’s kimono as a means of identifying both their family and indicating their social status. This time was a period of peace, leading to the rise in the number of designs and variations employed for family crests.
Ishida Clan Family Crest: Dai-ichi Dai-man Dai-kichi (1 for 10,000, 10,000 for 1)
This crest sports a unique design composed entirely of kanji characters. It conveys the desire for one man to work for the happiness of 10,000 people, with those individuals returning the favor
In conclusion, it is readily apparent that family crests were far more than a decorative accessory implemented to accent one’s wardrobe. Upon examining the historical roots of these symbols, one discovers that family crests were an important symbol that fulfilled an important role. The family crest not only indicated one’s family identity, but also acted as a symbol on the battlefield and legitimate representation of authority.
Please pardon me for taking the easy route and citing wiki. But rather than pester you with lengthy footnotes, I encourage you to click the links and read on if you are interested. While I cannot guarantee that wiki is accurate, it is a good place to start.
I was a little disturbed to see that the English entry on wiki is far more detailed than its corresponding Japanese entry. Guess that goes to show where the emphasis of historical study lies.
4. 賜与 This kanji compound doubles up two verbs that both mean “to give”, though the first kanji carries a far more formal, essential regal connotation.