Q Did the samu­rai have the Ja­panese equiv­a­lent of a coat of arms?

BBC History Magazine - - Miscellany - Christo­pher Hard­ing is the au­thor of Ja­pan Story: In Search of a Na­tion, 1850 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2018)

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

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