Q Did the samurai have the Japanese equivalent of a coat of arms?
O Adamberry, Gibraltar
A Yes. The closest equivalent of a coat of arms for samurai would be their mon, or ‘emblem’. These were designs based on plants, simple shapes, celestial bodies or even animals, most often printed as a white image on a dark background, or a dark image on a white background. They could be found on samurai helmets, or on their flags and tents, banners and sword scabbards, and sewn onto the uniforms of their soldiers.
Mon date back at least as far as the imperial family’s use of them in the Heian period (794-1185). Great warrior families too began to use emblems and pass them down the family line. Japan did not have the quartering system found in European heraldry. Instead, variations on the theme of the same mon were used to mark out a particular member or branch of the family. One of the best-known mon, for example, is the imperial chrysanthemum – first favoured by Japan’s emperors, it is thought, because of its visual similarity to the sun’s rays (Japan’s emperors claimed descent from the Shinto Sun goddess, Amaterasu). From the late 19th century, when use of this mon was strictly codified, the emperor used a 16-petal flower while princes of the imperial family were permitted a 14-petal version.
Merchants, artisans and others have long used mon as well, and today you will find them employed by Japanese restaurants and traditional craftspeople, and as inspiration for corporate branding, from Mitsubishi’s three-diamond symbol to the red crane of Japan Airlines.
A Meiji-era bronze sculpture of a samurai wearing garments emblazoned with mon – Japanese crests