Kamon: Discovering My Family Crest

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For many years, my family didn’t know if we had a “family crest,” called a kamon (家紋). It was only recently discovered that my family does, in fact, have one. But, as it turns out, we possess two!

Kamon once played a significant role in a Japanese family’s identification and social status. It was handed down through the generations carrying the hopes of our ancestors. So, I assumed the discovery of my family crests would serve as a critical clue to helping me to connect the dots with my family’s roots in Japan. I hoped to discover my ancestors by going beyond my grandparents and great-grandparents, who emigrated from Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

But, as I learned, most families like mine will find it nearly impossible to rely on their kamon alone to trace their family’s lineage beyond one or two generations. More often than not, the kamon has become an unreliable device to identify an individual or descendant as a blood relative.

Unless a family has an aristocratic background or if the crest was used to identify a family for centuries ago, the kamon isn’t likely to identify a family’s heritage. Resources aren’t readily available to help families like mine to discover their origins without investing a substantial amount of time and research. So, the best way to do your research is to travel to Japan. 

Despite this, I proceeded to examine my family’s kamon in hopes that whatever I uncovered would provide new clues to help connect me with my ancestral roots in Japan. There’s a story behind my family’s kamon that I wish to discover and share.

Every Japanese American family should have a family crest, known as a kamon. Some families may be fortunate to still possess their kamon. Luckier still, other families may have a household heirloom bearing it. But not in my home. Not one family possession bears my family’s crest, nor displayed anywhere. 

Nowadays, it’s rare to find a kamon on display in a Japanese American household. The same can be said even in Japanese homes.

Kamon Can Still Be Seen
Figure 1: (A) Gatō with kamon;
(B) nokimarugawara;
(C) nokihiragawara

Today, you’re more likely to see a kamon displayed on a noren (暖簾, sign curtains) hung at the entrance of Japanese restaurants or stores engaged in traditional Japanese crafts and specialties, which often incorporate a kamon into their logos. You can see kamon on traditional furoshiki (風呂敷, wrapping cloth), tenugui (手拭い, hand towels), and chōchin (提灯, paper lanterns). They’re also seen as decorative architecture on kura (蔵, storehouses), and even on kawara (瓦, ceramic roof tiles).

Figure 2: Onigawara

The most commonly decorated kawara where you can see kamon are on the gatō (瓦当) and the onigawara (鬼瓦). See Figures 1 and 2).[1] The gatō are the decorative round caps of the eave-end tiles. The onigawara are decorative ridge-end roof tiles used more as accents on the corners and peaks of tile roofs and seen on traditional-style Japanese buildings and homes.

Some Japanese American households may be very fortunate to have their crest displayed on a family heirloom like a traditional kimono (着物, T-shaped, full-length robe). Sometimes, you’ll see it prominently displayed at celebratory occasions like a wedding ceremony. Men will wear formal kimono called montsuki (紋付, “with crest”) that typically has two crests on the front and one crest in the back. You’ll also see it at solemn events like a funeral service. It’s common to see kamon on butsudan (仏壇, Buddhist household altar) or engraved on the haka (墓, cemetery gravestone monument) of a deceased family member. But, recently, it has become fashionable among the younger generation who have kamon merely as tattoo art or other artsy designs.

You can even see kamon at the entrances of Buddhist temples (jinmon, 神門) and Shinto shrines (shinmon, 神門) (see Figures 3a and 3b).[2]

Figure 3: Imperial chrysanthemum crest decorates the Meiji Shrine torii gate.

At the Konpira Grand Theater (金毘羅大芝居 Konpira Ōshibai), the oldest kabuki theater in Japan, lanterns depicting the kamon of the kabuki actors in the cast are hung from the ceiling (Figure 4). The Konpira Grand Theater is a restored kabuki theater in Kotohira in Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. The theater was originally constructed in 1835.

Figure 4: Lanterns depicting the kamon of the actors in the kabuki cast. 
Konpira Grand Theater. 

Additionally, many Japanese corporations like Kikkoman, Japan Airlines, and Mitsubishi have company logos that originate from family crests (see Figure 5).[3] Their use as corporate logos and their service as models for design in developing trademarks has remained strong.

The Mogi and Takanashi families began making shōyu (醤油) along the Edo River in the small city of Noda, located close to Tōkyō as early as 1603. In 1917, after more than 250 years, their ancestors began shōyu production, the Mogi and Takanashi families merged to form Noda Shoyu Co., Ltd. The company’s name changed to Kikkoman Shoyu Co., Ltd. in 1964, and again in 1980 to Kikkoman Corporation. The hexagonal logo found on Kikkoman products represents a tortoiseshell. Inside is the inscription of the Chinese character for 10,000. According to Japanese folklore, the tortoise lives for 10,000 years and is a symbol of longevity – what every company hopes to achieve.

Figure 5: Kikkoman, Mitsubishi, and Japan Airlines logos

In 1959, Japan Airlines adopted a logo based on a crane known as the tsurumaru (鶴丸). This logo was created in 1958 by Jerry Huff, the creative director at Botsford, Constantine and Gardner of San Francisco. It had been the advertising agency for Japan Airlines from its earliest days. In the creation of the logo, Huff became inspired by the family crests of samurai families he found in a book, “We Japanese.” He found the crests of the crane and wrote: “I had faith that it was the perfect symbol for Japan Air Lines. I found that the Crane myth was all positive – it mates for life (loyalty) and flies high for miles without tiring (strength.)”[4]

Mitsubishi’s Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of the old Mitsubishi organization, chose the three-diamond mark as the emblem for his company. The mark is suggestive of the three-leaf crest of the Tosa Clan, Yataro’s first employer, and of the three stacked rhombuses (diamonds) of the Iwasaki family crest.[5]

Even though kamon has been a part of Japan’s traditional culture going back over 1,200-years, woefully, it’s losing its essential meaning with each passing generation. My experience as a third-generation Japanese American or Sansei 
(三世) is far from the exception. Despite its popularity as art and fashion designs, a rising number of Japanese Americans aren’t even aware of their family crest, not interested or don’t care has increased over the years and generations, especially among the Yonsei (四世, fourth-generation) and Gosei 
(五世, fifth-generation).

Preserving a waning tradition

In present times, the traditional use of kamon to symbolize family kinship is rare in people’s daily lives. It continues to decline in use even in Japan. Practically everyone once had a kamon, and it used to be widespread. It was incorporated into the Japanese daily lives, marking people’s clothing, possessions, and even buildings, including homes, businesses, and temples. The nation is now on the cusp of losing its tradition of making and preserving the ritual or everyday use of kamon. Aside from such rich traditions, the trade of monshō uwaeshi (紋章上絵師), craftsmen who design and paint mon (紋) onto kimonos, are an endangered species. The monshō uwaeshi profession was born sometime in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) when samurai started to wear their crests. Their main work was to draw the pattern of the crest on kimono.

One of the oldest surviving family crest businesses in Japan is Kyogen, founded in 1910. Shoryu Hotoba is Kyogen’s third-generation owner.[6] He’s one of the few remaining monshō uwaeshi who not only paint but also design crests. He and his son are determined to keep the kamon tradition alive.

The prime time for traditional uwaeshi was back during the Sengoku period. Back then, the samurai bore their family crests on the battlefield to distinguish between ally or foe and recognition of their achievements on the battlefield. Another time was back in the Edo era when samurai still needed the family crests for the rituals and events to signify their lineage and authority. Also, wealthy merchants and artisans began to use family crests in this period which boosted the number of crests rapidly.

Japan is fighting to preserve its tradition of using kamon. As the years go by, many Japanese – even those who wear kimono – pay little attention to the details about their forbearers’ family crest. Also, because fewer people wear kimono these days in favor of western-style clothing, it makes it more challenging to appreciate the beauty and significance of kamon. Not surprisingly, there’s a continuous decline in the industry of artisans who create kamon.

Figure 6: Wagashi mold

But despite this decline, new opportunities have opened to create kamon in contemporary and innovative ways to revive its daily use. Traditional monshō uwaeshi, such as Hotoba, have been venturing out and actively seeking to collaborate with artists and artisans from different genres. They want to come up with new ways to create new kamon patterns and applying them to new mediums. These artisans are facing the extinction of their art. So, they have been collaborating with several types of businesses featuring kamon designs on everything. It includes women’s purses and handbags, folding screens, tableware, and tiles to wagashi (和菓子), which are traditional Japanese sweets.

Figure 7: Kashigata mold with 
katabami kamon motif

A type of wagashi is namagashi (生菓子), which is commonly served as an accompaniment for tea ceremonies. It’s handmade from mochiazuki bean paste, and often has a soft, mold-able texture (see Figure 6). Wagashi can also be made using kashigata (菓子型) or wooden molds often carved from cherry wood (see Figure 7). Common kashigataka mon motifs in the Edo period were the kiku (菊, chrysanthemum), sakura
(桜, cherry blossom), and ume (梅, plum) blossoms. The decline in kashigata artisans today has made kashigata carving a dying craft and making the molds itself a sought-after collectible.

For these reasons, I became very excited when recently learning of the existence of the Ebata family crest. Until then, I had never seen my family’s crest, nor did my family speak of one. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t think my family even had one, let alone two, so I had never given it much thought, except until now. My interest in kamon was suddenly peaked.


I first became aware of my family’s kamon from my eldest brother, who, in turn, learned about it from an auntie. According to my brother, the Ebata family crest initially came up in 2000, the year my second brother passed away. An uncle wanted to use it on letterhead to raise funds for my second older brother, who was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. His treatment was creating mounting medical costs.[7]

My eldest brother received a copy of the kamon from my auntie. Still, the poor quality of the print made it impossible to distinguish the outer circle surrounding the kamon. He consulted with my auntie about it and to get a better quality image of the crest. She explained that the outer circle enclosing the crest represented two rice bundles. The crest, she said, was decorated on her wedding kimono, and represented the “wood sorrel with the sword,” known as the ken katabami (剣酢漿草, oxalis) crest.

Fast forward 15 years later, and during that time, my eldest brother had gotten busy at work. He had little time to do further research on the family’s kamon. Unfortunately, my auntie passed away in December 2015.

The following year, one of my cousins renewed her efforts for a reunion of all the Sansei first cousins in July 2017. She felt an urgency to get this reunion going. Many of the first cousins were either retired or near retirement. Subsequently, the Ebata cousins began researching and gathering information about each of their family’s genealogy in earnest.

It was during this time I learned about my family crest, the one my auntie claimed was displayed on her kimono. Still, regrettably, she died a year before the cousins began our research. My auntie’s son searched through all his mother’s belongings for the kimono but came up empty, so verifying her claim became impossible.

Fortunately, there was excellent news. A cousin who lives on Hawai’i Island went to visit the Ebata family’s gravesite at the Pa’auilo Hongwanji Mission cemetery (see Figure 8). Engraved on the gravestone of my great-grandfather Shinzō (Teizō) Ebata, he found a kamon, albeit weathered by time (see Figures 9 and 10). The crest turned out to be the ken katabami, a similar motif as the one on my auntie’s kimono. But there was a surprise. The kamon on my auntie’s kimono had an additional element that the one on my great-grandfather’s gravestone didn’t have – two rice bundles encircling the crest.

It seems, the Nisei generation of my family knew the existence of both kamon, but it wasn’t passed on to the Sansei. It’s unfortunate that knowledge of these precious family possessions, which are such an essential part of our family’s heritage, wasn’t freely passed-on. Instead, the Sansei had to “discover” it.

Figure 8: Ebata family gravesite. Pa’auilo Hongwanji Mission, Pa’auilo, Hawai’i (from left to right) Gravestone #1: Tsuru Ebata (12/11/1874 – 6/5/1949. Age: 75). Gravestone #2: Shinzō (Teizō) Ebata (1870 – 1920s. Age: 50s). Gravestone #3: Unknown sibling (26-years-old). Gravestone #4: Unknown sibling (3-years-old). Gravestone #5: Harumatsu Ebata (4/13/1885 – 10/18/1962. Age: 77), Tetsu Ebata (4/6/1893 – 12/8/1949. Age: 56) and Yoshiki Ebata (10/25/1925 – 12/14/1944. Age: 19).
Figure 9: My great-grandfather’s
gravestone with ken katabami crest

Ironically, after initially not knowing whether my family even had a kamon, there were now two different ones, and from two completely different sources. But, unlike my auntie’s claim, now there was tangible evidence of my family’s crest right on my great-grandfather’s gravestone. Both kamonare variations of the famous plain katabami crest, so it was interesting. Why was there a difference between the two kamon? Why did my family have two crests?

Consequently, I was inclined to accept the kamon from my great-grandfather’s gravestone. It was the only tangible evidence available, making it irrefutable verification. However, I didn’t know enough about Japanese kamon and my family’s history to disregard my auntie’s claim. My auntie’s case was intriguing since family crests do share a strong connection with kimono. It was usual for kamon to be a decoration on formal kimono worn on ceremonial occasions, so her claim seems legitimate as well. Unfortunately, actual physical evidence of this crest on the kimono was not available.

Figure 10: Ebata kamon – ken katabami

Since I had little knowledge about kamon when I began my research, it was essential to understand it before confirming my auntie’s claim. I couldn’t just blindly accept her assertion as credible or as fact until it could be investigated and validated. It’s especially true since there were now two different kamon from two different sources, and both could be my family’s crests.

It’s only speculation, but the crest found on my great-grandfather’s gravestone may represent my family’s household back in Japan. And then, the one on my auntie’s kimono may represent the Ebata family’s new home in Hawai’i. In any case, I set out to find out if this was true.

As you can tell, this is an example of why it’s hard for Japanese American families to try to investigate their lineage based on their family crest. Most families will find it nearly impossible or very difficult to use their kamon to track their family’s genealogy beyond one or two generations. The resources aren’t readily available without having access to the family registry in Japan. Typically, the kamon is an unreliable source to track their blood relatives.


Undertaking this task wasn’t going to be easy for a few reasons. First, most commoners didn’t adopt kamon until about 150 years ago during the Meiji period when it became compulsory to choose myōji or family names. Some commoners took unofficial crests during the Edo period. But, in 1870, the newly formed Meiji government officially authorized every Japanese citizen to have a family name. Then, in 1875, the government made it mandatory that every citizen chooses a family name.

With family names came the official authorization to choose and use a kamon as well. People decided to adopt a kamon that either their family used informally or a crest-related to their profession or the crest of a former lord of the area they lived. Some eventually designed their own kamon, and it led to numerous unrelated families to share the same designs. Some designs (such as the katabami) were also more popular than others. Consequently, using the kamon to trace your family’s lineage will be very difficult. Many commoner families adopted kamon, much like their family names – they chose whatever crest design they wanted, so it was a free-for-all.

Second, there may be as many as 20,000 distinctive individual kamon designs in use today in Japan alone. There’s a lot more research and identification yet to be done by scholars in this area. In fact, the actual number of crests is unknown. Since kamon weren’t intended for individuals but were the property of a family or household and passed down through the generations, thorough research can be challenging. Most of the research done so far targets the most common, and on the nobility and samurai families of rank. Conclusive research on how families from the farmer/peasant, artisan, and merchant classes acquired their kamon is only just beginning. Few Japanese American families know of or can claim a kamon without doing considerable research to find their family’s crest back in history.

Third, the task is complicated further because the katabami crest is one of the most favorite designs regardless of class. It’s probably the third most popular kamon, which has led to as many as 200 variations of the original design adopted for kamon, including my own family’s crest.

Fourth, and most importantly, modern-day use of kamon cannot be counted on as a reliable means of identifying an individual or family descendant because of the abolishment of the traditional family system, the flexibility of the kinship system, and the practice of yōshiengumi (養子縁組) or adoption (of a male heir). Today, it’s tough to come up with information about one’s blood relatives and family history solely through the family crest.

After World War II, the Japanese government abolished the traditional Japanese family system or ie (家). Japanese society quickly changed to a more Americanized nuclear family system and evolved into a modern state. Interestingly, when the country discarded its old caste system, people lost their keen emotional attachment to “family” and eventually recognition of kamon as a family symbol had also lost much ground. Some families continue to respect family traditions and customs and have restored the original kamon from their ancestors, the fundamental meanings of the kamon, and the history of the family. But each family’s ancestral roots and information have gotten lost. Unfortunately, the kamon, which was supposedly the clue of the family tree, is neither a reliable family crest nor can it be counted on to identify an individual as a blood relative.

Despite these seemingly tricky challenges, I proceeded to investigate my family’s crest. I hoped that whatever I find will provide new hints about the origins of my family’s crest, how it came to be adopted, and its meaning. My intention wasn’t to dispel my auntie’s claim, just the opposite. Instead, I was inspired to learn the truth about my family’s kamon. My auntie’s contention had given me a clue of where to begin my research because, honestly, it would have been an arduous task without such a suggestion.


The Japanese developed a system of unique emblems designed to represent “family crests” called kamon. It served to distinguish an individual’s connection to a specific family or household; each Japanese family possesses one.

“Kamon” is written in kanji as ka (家), meaning “family or household” and mon (紋) meaning “crest.” The same kanji for ka (家) can also be pronounced ie (house; family; lineage), uchi (one’s own home; one’s own family) or ke (house; family). When using 家門 for kamon, it also means “one’s family or clan.”

Furthermore, the character for mon (紋) divides itself into the radicals ito (糸) meaning “thread, yarn, or a string” and aya (文) meaning “design or decoration,” which means that kamon may have originated from fabric patterns or embroidered marks on garments such as kimonokamon added formality to a kimono. Consequently, kamon shares a strong connection as a decoration on formal kimono, a traditional Japanese garment worn for different occasions and seasons.

It became a highly important matter of decorum among the nobility and samurai class of the Heian period to wear one’s family crest on formal kimono such as a kamishimo (裃) (see Figure 11), a formal kimono worn with kataginu (肩衣) (sleeveless vest with extended shoulders) and hakama (袴), a pleated skirt-trouser worn over a hitatare (直垂れ), an official court robe. This ancient protocol stipulated that three to five crests with a circle are affixed on the front and back of formal kimono and both sleeves. The crest is readily visible to identify a person’s family or clan and status. The more kamon displayed on a kimono, the more formal the kimono.

Figure 11: Kamishimo

From this practice, originated the custom of family crests that had been passed down from one generation to the next over a thousand years. This tradition enabled kamon to be used to conveniently indicate an individual’s origins – i.e., family lineage, bloodline, ancestry, and status in ancient times.

Kamon is hereditary, so it’s often compared to European heraldic devices (coat of arms), but it is not synonymous. European heraldry was held exclusively by individuals of aristocratic families and used to distinguish the nobility. But in Japan, all families, regardless of their social status, could use their kamon as a personal mark. Its design was unique, and each had its meaning. This difference is probably the most significant.

European heraldic devices were also highly regulated as far as design and colors depending on bloodlines and status. In Japan, there were no formal limitations placed on usage. There was an unspoken rule that discouraged families from freely using another family’s kamon. It was to avoid causing frictions or conflicts, especially using kamon of a person of higher-class, such as a daimyō or shōgun.

Historically, Japan was a very rigidly ordered society, and family crests were exclusive only to the nobility during the 8th century. The use of kamonlater extended to samurai, and it became a symbol of samurai authority and identity during the Edo period. Subsequently, the use of crests expanded to commoners during the Meiji period. Every family could possessa kamon regardless of their position in Japanese society in the same manner as myōji (名字) or family names. Thus, kamon served as emblems that represented a family’s identity and social status, clearly revealing the family name of its owner.

The only kamon off-limits were those belonging to the ruling clans of Japan, such as the Tokugawas aoi (葵, wild ginger), and the Emperor’s kiku (菊, chrysanthemum) and kiri (桐, paulownia).[8] Accordingly, it was an unspoken rule to avoid using a kamon already in use by higher-class clans or families of another family’s identity as much as possible.

Except for European heraldic devices, other countries don’t have any similar tradition which identifies family or clan and only happens in Japan. Thus, kamon is said to be an example of Japan’s own unique culture and tradition.


Kamon is a thousand-year tradition that Japanese families pass their crests from one generation to the next. It can be summed up in four critical periods in Japanese history.

Before Japan opened its doors to modernity and globalization, every family had their own crests. The first known family crest dates to ancient Japan, the era covering the Nara period (710-794). Kamon was once a privilege and held exclusively by the nobles in the Imperial court until the ending of the Heian period.

Eventually, the use of kamon was extended to the samurai class during the Sengoku or “Warring States” period (1467-1568). It was a turbulent era for civil war. Feudal lords battled one another in endless plays for land and power and trying to seize control of the country under a single ruler. Identifying between ally or foe became extremely important, and the family crest they bore were critical for recognition of accomplishments on the battlefield.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), after the samurai left the battlefields, and there was relative peace, they still needed kamon for rituals and events to clarify their lineage and authority. The popularity of kamon spread throughout the samurai class; many started to put their family crests on their kimono. The Genroku era (1688-1704) was the golden age not only of the Edo period but for Japanese kamon. Thus, kamon became highly developed during the Sengoku and Edo periods.

Finally, the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) was a time when the emperor made it compulsory for everyone (including commoners) to have a family name and a kamon. All Japanese citizens now had the freedom to choose a design or create a crest designed for them, which boosted the number of crests exponentially.

Asuka/Nara/HeianPeriods (538-1185)

It’s told that the kamon originated in Japan over 1,000 years ago to the patterns court nobles used during the latter part of the Heian period (794-1185) when Kyōto was in its heyday.

Since the Nara period (710-794), only the kuge (公家, nobility) at the Imperial court who served the emperor held a mon (紋). Various motifs decorated furniture and dishes that later were used for its artistic quality as well as to distinguish the property of the nobles. But, the use of mon may have started even earlier when the capital was still in Asuka (538-710). Some noble houses were already using their mon to decorate their belongings even before the capital moved 25-kilometers (15.5 miles) north to Nara.[9]

By the late Asuka period, mon took on a more practical matter. There were already too many noble houses in the capital, and those houses filled with retainers, servants, errand-boys, cooks, and so forth. They had to transport their lord’s possessions – carriages, litters, oxcarts, horses, food trays, vegetable baskets, and so on – in public places and public events. These properties had to be marked clearly to be able to differentiate which palanquin or coach belonged to which family by its design of the crest.

In Kyōto, extravagance and aestheticism prevailed among the nobles in the Imperial court. It gave rise to the elegant custom of displaying mon as decoration on the sides of lacquered palanquins and canopied carriages drawn by oxen. Mon established the noble lineage of the person conveyed by them. It’s why they marked their possessions with their mon to serve as a unique emblem to distinguish their own family’s property from another’s. At the time, mon took on designs of natural patterns like flowers and plants. Nobles often tried “one-upping” one another by placing their mon on their oxcarts and walking around the streets of Kyōto, showing off their aristocratic status. They evidently wanted to show off their family’s identity on formal visits to the capital by the design of their crests. Afterward, mon became popular among the nobles, and various designs created as a result.

Figure 12: Tomoe-mon (mitsu-tomoe

The mon was initially used only by one generation of a family. But as the society of court nobles grew, the mon came to be passed on and inherited by their descendants along with hereditary occupations and family ranks to become kamon. In this way, the kamon was gradually established and became the mark of a family. It was used mostly for decorative purposes on furnishing and personal possessions of value, and their designs were often luxuriant. Including a kamon indicated the item’s formality and valuable. It became the face of the family to society, and it was clearly used to in the hope for continuing prosperity..

After this, kamon became popular among the nobles, and various crests created. The oldest kamon mentioned in ancient documents was the “Tomoe-mon” during the Heian period, between 1032 and 1091. It consisted of “comma-like” swirl or circular patterns drawn on oxcarts to differentiate between owners (see Figure 12).[10] A tomoe-mon is a tomoe used as a kamon. When its design appears as a set of three, it’s known as mitsudomoe (三ツ巴) and is commonly seen on kawara.

During the Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) of China, the golden age of Chinese civilization and most sophisticated culture in the world at the time, heavily influenced crest designs and it followed aristocratic preferences of the day. Many of the favorite motifs of today have roots dating back to this period when Buddhism, Taoism, and other Chinese influences were at their height. It was also a period considered to be the peak of the Japanese imperial court. It noted for its art, especially poetry, flower-viewing, and literature. So, the designs of kamon tended to be elegant and delicate, emphasizing aesthetics. Even today, most descendants of aristocrats use flower or plant crests, many originating over a thousand years ago.

After the court nobles started the trend, samurai families began to use kamon toward the end of the Heian period; each kamon classified according to bloodline or historical origin.

Figure 13: Flags used by the Minamoto (White) and
the Taira (Red) in the Gempei War

By this time, power in Japan was divided nearly evenly between two powerful clans, the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike). It resulted in a conflict between the two dominant clans, which broke out with the Gempei War (1180-1185).[11] Both families saw Japan as a prize to be fought over and sought to replace the Fujiwara, who had been in power since the 7th century serving as regents for the Imperial Court.

Sensing the Fujiwaras power waning, the Minamoto and Taira would begin a five-year conflict between the two clans for power over the Imperial Court. At this time, the samurai had almost no significant crests to put on their banners, so they had to fall back on using colors instead. The Minamoto used a white flag, and a red flag was used by the Taira to represent their respective clans (see Figure 13). The significance of the Gempei War was the first step for the samurai toward independence from the imperial government, and its aftermath established red and white as Japan’s national colors. Today, these colors make up the flag of Japan.

Kamakura Period (1185-1336)

At the start of the Kamakura period, different clans consolidated and fought for influence and power. As the samurai clans gained more control and Japan went into a period of warfare, kamon played a very significant role in feudal lords. The samurai needed symbols to signify new alliances and to differentiate allies from enemies.

By the middle of the Kamakura period, most samurai clans displayed their kamon, and this became an established custom among the samurai class. The idea to use kamon to identify a specific family or clan began from the samurai class while the status of the clan, or myōji, initially communicated its power and history.

But, after the mid-Kamakura period, kamon spread widely among the samurai, each started to have their own. Most of the samurai families’ crests developed from the symbols used in all manner of things. Kamon became a kind of alternate identity; it was increasingly used among samurai clans to show who they were on the battlefield at a glance.

The Kamakura period provided many opportunities for the samurai to prove themselves in battle. On the battlefield, many samurai in various provinces throughout the country took to decorating everything with their kamon. Everything from their hatamaku (旗, battle flags), manmaku (幔幕, encampment curtains), and umajirushi (馬印, battle standards) to saya (鞘, sword scabbards) and oo-yoroi (大鎧, armor); they used it to show off their military achievements or to distinguish friend from foe. Its increased use was motivated by the practical need to be recognized easily for their accomplishments that contributed to clans they belonged to as well as to advertise or boast about it.

Figure 14: Japanese family crest on the battlefield

In this era, it became imperative to confirm achievements and give rewards to a samurai’s services on the battlefield accurately. People were assigned to carefully observe a battle and provide a report about who had done the most rewarding service. In this job, each observer had to be able to tell apart from each ally clans from enemy clans precisely. They needed to denote their unit or division along with their clan or lord – and kamon came in very handy for this reason (Figure 14).

Gradually, carrying flags and banners with samurai families in the Kamakura period made widespread the practice of decorating their clothing with kamon. During the Nanbokuchoperiod, adorning formal garments with kamon became an accepted custom among samurai. They added their kamon to ceremonial court robes called hitatare no hakama (垂領の袴, long-sleeved jacket with trouser skirt). Hitatare is an upper-body garment with a double panel width body, open down the front and sides. The sleeves are attached halfway down the body, and it has an open collar.

Nanbokucho (1336-1392)/Muromachi Periods (1336-1573)

During the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392), a time that occurred right after the Kamakura period and during the foundational years of the Muromachi period, there was significant cultural growth despite a time of political instability.

Supporters of Emperor Go-Daigo, who sought to restore the imperial power in the Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336), provided a brief resistance during this period. The attempted restoration failed and was replaced by the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573), establishing the Muromachi period

For the Imperial court and the samurai, kamon increased in importance and authority; it became potent symbols for families. Some samurai families wore highly elaborate ceremonial kimono called daimon (代紋), which is short for daimon no hitatare (代紋の垂領) or “great robe” (dai 代 means “large,” and mon 紋 means “crest”). It was an upper-body garment identical in cut to the hitatareDaimon is a cloth (usually not silk) hitatare with five large kamon sewn on the center, back, each breast, and center of each sleeve back.

While kamon spread quickly among the samurai class during the Kamakura period, the nobles didn’t need to use kamon to boast of their achievements. So, the use of kamonearly died out at the beginning of the Muromachi period.

At this time, a single kamon represented each samurai family. But, in the Nanbokucho and Muromachi periods, some families with the same myōji (名字) or family name had the same kamon. Internal fighting among families increased and caused them to divide into rival factions. Using the same kamon caused confusion between ally and foe. So, as these factions established, they developed new designs to symbolize their allegiances, contributing to the increased use of kamon during these periods. Samurai families may have had more than one kamon depending upon the occasion – some kinds of kamon were either for public or private matters.

The design of kamon used by the samurai was often different from those possessed by the nobles. The samurai preferred designs that were more appropriate for warfare. Over time, the patterns became more embellished, and they began to adopt flowery patterns with “stylized blades alternating with petals.”

The idea to design kamon on all formal clothing spread from the middle of the Muromachi period. Clothes like suō (素袍), a large-sleeved jacket with matching nagabakama (長袴) or long trouser-skirt decorated with a kamon, worn by lower-ranking samurai. Kataginu (肩衣), a large sleeveless vest and exaggerated, wing-like shoulders and worn with hakama, like trousers, to form complementary outfits and became quite fashionable, were developed from daimon. At the same time, a traditional Japanese kimono-like jacket called haori (羽織) made about hip-length or thigh-length was worn over a kosode (小袖), a basic Japanese T-shaped robe with short-sleeves worn by both men and women. Although worn as both an undergarment and overgarment, the kosode is what most people imagine when using the much broader term kimono. During the Edo period, today’s kimono replaced the kosode.

By the late Muromachi period, kamon became standardly used in more moderate ways to decorate various every day and formal garments worn by samurai, generally with three or five kamon 1.5-inches in size. It’s believed that the third Ashikaga shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1368-1394) of the Muromachi period, was the first person to make the kamon a fashion statement by having it adorned on his clothes.

Sengoku Period (1467-1568)
Figure 15: Oda family crest
is the mokkō

By the middle of the Muromachi period, a century-long period of political upheaval and warfare had begun with the Onin War (1467-1477). It collapsed the Japanese feudal system under the Ashikaga shogunate. It ended when the system was re-established under the Tokugawa shogunate by Tokugawa Ieyasu. This period is known as the Sengoku period, sometimes referred to as the “Warring States” period. It was a period of civil war led by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616). They fought one another for control over the different regions of the country. It was during this time that kamon began to identify with individual samurai families, and the kamon of these famous warlords who contributed to the unification of Japan is well-known.

Figure 16: Toyotomi family
crest is the kiri

The kamon used by the Oda family is the mokkō mon (木瓜紋, cross-section of a melon or a bird’s nest). It’s also the crest of Yasaka Jinja, the shrine famous for holding the Gion Festival in Kyōto (Figure 15). The mokkō mon looks like the shape of a bird’s nest with eggs in it when seen from the top, and for that, it signifies prosperity.

The kamon used by the Toyotomi family is the kiri-mon (桐紋, paulownia) (Figure 16). The kiri-mon, along with kiku-mon (菊紋, chrysanthemum), was traditionally only used by the Imperial family and were symbols to show the family with the highest authority in Japan. Several powerful samurai families – Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara, and Tachibana – had the imperial family emblems, the chrysanthemum, or paulownia, bestowed on them during the Heian period.

Figure 17: Tokugawa family
crest is the Aoi (wild ginger)

The paulownia is a widely cultivated, fast-growing deciduous tree in Japan. It belongs to the figwort family paulowniaceae, and it’s also known as the “princess tree” or “emperor tree.” The tree was adopted as a crest motif because it symbolizes good fortune. According to legend, the paulownia is a sacred tree because it’s the only tree a phoenix would land on and valued as a special plant; it’s painted on the costume of the emperor. Hideyoshi is said to have given the sacred kiri-mon by the emperor of the time when he started calling himself Toyotomi.

The Tokugawa family crest has commonly been mistakenly identified as the “triple hollyhock” crest. But they adopted the aoi-mon (葵紋, wild ginger) as its crest. It came from the Futaba-Aoi plant (Figure 17), which belongs to the birthwort family and translates as “wild ginger.” When Ieyasu used the wild ginger as a crest, the symbol became more superior to the crest of the chrysanthemum and paulownia..

The aoi-mon is initially the crest for Kamo Jinja (Kamigamo and Shimogamo Jinja), the shrines in Kyōto. All the shrines that have a close relationship with Kamo Jinja also use this crest. The Tokugawa family had the exclusive rights to use the wild ginger crest during the succeeding years of the Edo period. The wild ginger leaves always look up to the sun and favored as a favorable sign.

Nijō Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) once displayed the Tokugawa shōgun’s kamon. In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered all daimyō to provide materials and labor to construct Nijō Castle. Construction on the castle began on 1603 and was completed in 1626. It served as the Kyōto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, although they only used it a few times over the years of the shogunate’s existence. The primary purpose of the Nijō Castle was to display the splendor and power of the Tokugawa to the world, which ubiquitously displayed the Tokugawa aoi crest. After the Tokugawa shogunate fell in 1867, the Imperial Court assumed prime position. Nijō Castle was used as an Imperial palace and the Tokugawa crest was replaced by the Imperial Chrysanthemum crest. Thus, kamon reflected the persistitude of life and politics.

Nijō Castle, Nijō Karamon Gate. Detail of the highly ornamented gold leaf fixtures and carvings on the Karamon Gate. Decorations include butterflies, cranes, a dragon, and the Imperial Chrysanthemum crest.

By the mid-16th century (Sengoku period), flags and banners used were in much higher numbers than ever before, and in a variety of styles, shapes, and colors (Figure 18).

Figure 18: Samurai flags
  • Nobori (幟) was a long, narrow cloth banner attached to an L-shaped pole. It included a kamon or other identifying marks on it to recognize the samurai or daimyō who carried it.
  • Sashimono (指物) was a small rectangular flag on a pole worn on the backs of ashigaru (足軽, ordinary foot soldiers). They typically featured the kamon of their daimyō or clan and used colors to denote units or divisions.
  • Jirushi (印) consisted of various flags or banners used as a means of identification. Hata-jirushi (旗印) were long streaming banners attached to a crosspiece and held up a long bamboo or wooden rod. Uma-jirushi (馬印) massive, three-dimensional, banners used to distinguish the daimyō or other top commanders on the battlefield. The sode-jirushi (袖印) badge worn on the shoulder armor. Kasa-jirushi (笠印) badge worn on the helmet, often used in place of sashimono in night attacks, ambushes, sea fights, and on stormy days.
  • Horo (幌) was a cloak-like garment that worn on the back, which was supported and shaped by a series of bamboo or wooden sticks. It served to display an identifying mon, making the samurai appear larger-than-life while serving as an arrow entangler. Ultimately, it marked that warrior as someone significant, usually a messenger or scout, and worthy of honorable treatment, even by his enemies.

Armies were more massive than in the past. The number of clans present on any given side in a battle had increased as well. In any one fight, a single daimyō could have several other daimyō under him – each with some units or divisions, and sub-commanders – and the individual samurai of such reputation (or wealth) as to warrant their banner.

The plethora of flags meant that the commanders, especially the daimyō at the head of each side of the battle, had to have unusually large and noticeable standards to identify their location. Samurai needed to know where to rally around, whose orders to follow, and what those orders were. Thus, the role of kishu (旗手) or standard-bearer was a dangerous one and, therefore, a very honorable position on the battlefield.

Azuchi-MomoyamaPeriod (1573-1603)

The Azuchi-Momoyama period was a very short period controlled by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was a period of significant change in Japanese society from feudal to more modern. As the economy improved, the period experienced the development of urban centers developed and the rise of the merchant class in those cities. The lavish castle architecture and interiors adorned with painted screens embellished with gold leaf called kinbyōbu (金屏風) reflected a daimyō’s power. It also exhibited a new aesthetic sense that indicated a clear departure from the dull monotones favored during the Muromachi period. Consumption and luxurious culture increased among the wealthy.

Thus, the practice of wearing kamon on the ceremonial dress had firmly been established by the late 1500s during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. These occasions were quite frequent under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Also, the usage of kamon had been familiar enough to spread to merchants in the capital.

Edo Period (1603-1868)

Up to now, kamon was restricted to the nobles and high-ranking samurai, such as the shōgun and daimyō. By the end of the Sengoku period (1437-1603), the Tokugawa shogunate was established and took control and unified the country (see Figure 19). The warfare period ended, and an era of relative peace prevailed throughout the land during the more than 260-years of this period.

Figure 19: Various kamon can be seen in the Battle of Sekigahara

Although there were a few minor clashes that broke out among samurai clans, people did enjoy a relatively peaceful life. People were able to enjoy a quiet life and developed more arts. Meanwhile, kamon started to spread to the lower classes of Japanese society as well, resulting in a boom in the number of kamon.

Japan was a hierarchical society with a definite class separation of samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants during the Edo period. At the top of this extremely rigid social hierarchy was the samurai. The practical role of kamon changed, so the display of a samurai’s family status and authority became more important than the display of their martial prowess in battle. Kamon used by samurai families were readily distinguishable. The design had become much more elegant and artistic to indicate a family’s authority and rank to others and to ascertain the social standing and lineage of others.[12]

The Tokugawa shogunate enforced a new “alternate-year residence” policy called sankin kōtai (参勤交代). Daimyō of every domain throughout the country were required to travel every other year between their fief and Edo. Their wives and heirs were expected to remain in Edo as hostages. This policy intended to place a substantial financial burden on the daimyō, especially those in the south who were mostly hostile to the shogunate. In this way, they couldn’t provoke or finance any action against the central government.

Kamon played a significant role in the display of one’s position and influence during the sankin kōtai (Figure 20). It was usual for commoners to see daimyō and their many retainers on processions going back and forth in massive parades to and from Edo. Because of the number of banners, flags, and kamon on clothing, everyone could identify who’s procession it was. In fact, when daimyō traveling to Edo Castle passed each other on the road, they had to give an appropriate greeting following their relative positions in the social hierarchy. The lords often went as far as hiring special retainers who were experts on kamon to help them identify an approaching daimyō.

Figure 20: Daimyō procession during the sankin kōtai. 
The kamon of the Mori clan can be clearly seen.

But during this period, commoners were formally banned from possessing a myōji or family name. Still, there wasn’t any restriction on using a kamon. For this reason, more kamon would be needed and started to be used to differentiate between one’s family or house from another’s. So, there was a rapid increase in the number and diversity of crests.

By the mid-Edo period, during an era known as Genroku (1688-1704), the merchant class began to ascend to its highest point, marking a time of great renaissance in the Japanese commercial economy and development of a lively urban-culture in Kyōto, Ōsaka, and Edo (Tōkyō), the administrative capital of the Tokugawa shogunate. Meanwhile, Ōsaka served as the country’s commercial hub, and rich Ōsaka merchants generally were the ones who defined Genroku culture, and aristocratic and common arts flourished. Free of the rigid codes that restricted samurai, merchants could spend their leisure in the pursuit of pleasure, while their profits created a cultural upsurge.

The bunraku (文楽) puppet theater and kabuki (歌舞伎) developed into high dramatic art with the works of the playwrights Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takeda Izumo. The stories of Ihara Saikaku humorously depicted urban life, while haiku poetry was refined by Matsuo Basho. In art, the woodblock prints or ukiyo-e (浮世絵) of Hishikawa Moronobu rank among the earliest masterpieces. Other notable pieces of ukiyo-e soon followed, including those of Suzuki Harunobu, who developed the multicolor technique.

There was, in fact, a minority of commoners, such as wealthy merchants and great artisans and artists, who had special privileges and could hold self-proclaimed family names. They seized the economic power and adopted some of the customs of the upper classes, including the adoption of kamon. The samurai class became severely in debt to the merchants, into whose hands the wealth of the country was to pass. It was a time of jovial self-expression on the part of the merchant class. As the samurai class came into a chronic fiscal crisis, they became dependent on the contributions of wealthy merchants. So, they allowed these merchants to have family names in return for the cancellation of their debts.

During the Genroku, kamon became showier and elegant and more in the public spotlight. Merchants, artisans, and artists came up with more elaborate motifs. They put it on their goods as well as bills and invoices. They also used kamon on their clothing, just like the samurai did on their kimono. Their tastes were somewhat different from those of the samurai. The merchant, artisans, and artists had kamon that were pure creation. But many were complex variations of kamon from respected ones; they even used an artisan’s yagō (屋号) or trade name or logo.

Kamon began to appear on daily necessities such as sensu (扇子, foldable fans), hashi (箸, chopsticks), shikki (漆器, lacquerware), chōchin (提灯, paper lanterns), wagasa (和傘, oil-paper umbrellas) and kimono.

Even wealthy peasants in the countryside adopted crests. Every prosperous farmer had a kura (蔵) or storehouse, and on the front and probably on the kawara, they would put their kamon. At the same time, kamon was also flourishing in the yūkaku (遊廓) or pleasure quarters (“red light districts”) of Edo as kabuki actors and courtesans started using them and even coming up with their creations.[13]

When examining kamon designs, the original model of Japanese kamon design were familiar objects like flowers or Chinese patterns, and they were created realistically with delicate lines. Later, especially during the Edo period, kamon began to take on more abstract designs and changed to a typical circular style.

While the traditions in the use of kamon formed in the Edo period, by the Meiji period, the feudal class was abolished by modernization. Everyone could use a family name again, and the use of crests expanded to commoners during the Meiji era, regardless of their social class. But, the culture of kamon has stayed alive and until the present.

Meiji Period (1868-1912)

By the Genroku period (1688-1704), the Tokugawa bakufu (幕府) began to dwindle, and people had more time to pursue leisure and luxury.[14]Clothes, in particular, became much more extravagant and ornate than before, and the kamon that had initially been symbols of family names were used merely for decoration. People also began to modify or even replace their original kamon, opting for something more elegant or refined.

Kamon also came to be more in the public spotlight. Wealthy merchants, who had special permission to wear haori (羽織, kimono jackets) and hokama (袴, full, pleated trousers) and carry wakizashi (脇差, short swords), had already begun to decorate their jackets and lanterns with kamonHaori-hakama had five kamon emblazoned on the kimono became the preferred formal wear for men. They were official garments in the mid-19thcentury and remained in use in modern Japan. Some merchants, who wanted to make their shops more conspicuous, displayed kamon on their noren (shop curtains).

Artisans and even entertainers like rakugo (落語) storytellers, actors, and even prostitutes used kamon, employing them as personal trademarks. They came up with more elaborate design styles, which resulted in a rapid increase in the number of kamon. Farming villages would sometimes band together and form an association. The creation of a new design for the official crest of the new community was a vital part of unifying the villages. For that reason, the use of kamon spread rapidly and extensively, so even more kamon were needed to distinguish between one family and another. But at the same time, the system of using a single kamon design to represent a family line was thrown out into confusion.

Led by the Ministry of Finance, who was trying to modernize Japan, the newly formed Meiji government’s policy for myōji started to change course in 1870. The heimin myōji kyoka rei (平民苗字許可令), a law allowing every Japanese citizen to bear a family name, was officially announced on September 19th.[15] But people were very suspicious of the law. They usually believed at the time that they would have to pay a tax if they decided to use a myōji. The edict wasn’t followed also because they thought having a family name meant the possibility of conscription into the new Imperial Army.

Consequently, few people opted to have a myōji. Even the monks refused the law claiming that by entering the priesthood, they didn’t need a myōji. As a result, a law called jūshoku sōryo myōji hisshō gimurei (職僧侶名字必称義務令), which forced monks to have a myōji, was enforced in 1872.[16]

Even after that, commoners still hesitated to use myōji. In response, the Meiji government created another law, called heimin myōji hisshō gimu rei (平民苗字必称義務令), which forced everyone to have a myōji, and that went into effect on February 13th, 1875. Being that having a family name was sort of a “duty,” there’s a “Family Name Day” in Japan, called myōji seitei kinenbi (苗字制定記念日). It means “Commemoration Day for the establishment of family names,” and it’s celebrated on February 13theach year.[17]

Changing a woman’s myōji to that of her husband’s myōji was traditional at the time (and still is today). But, according to the daijōkan fukoku (太政官布告), the Proclamation by the Grand Council of State, it became tough to change legally registered names. As a result, people began to question the government about the right to change their wives’ myōji after marriage. In 1876, in acknowledgment of this issue, the daijōkan shirei, the Order of the Grand Council of State, decided that wives and husbands must keep their own myōji, and it can’t change following the marriage.

The system of husbands and wives keeping their myōji separate lasted until the meiji minpō (明治民法), the Meiji Civil Code, was enforced in 1896. Marriages in Japan are unions between families, not individuals. So, when introduced by law, it was customary for a woman to leave her family to become part of her husband’s family. This system of family naming is still in use today.[18]

Since kamon weren’t official, there weren’t many limitations regulating how a family could choose and use their kamon, although social custom determined the selection of a design. Among the lower-class families, it became fashionable to take a kamon showing a family crest-like those used by the upper-class families. They would then develop many styles of kamon of their own.

My family’s kamon based on the katabami is an excellent example of taking a favorite design resembling those used by the upper classes and then introducing some modifications considering their agrarian and martial origins. 

After the Meiji Restoration, anybody who wanted a kamon could adopt one; almost anything was up for grabs. Some picked the popular ones, who tended to be chosen by a significant number of different families, while others picked whatever was available. As a result, many Japanese families, regardless of their class, also adopted the use of kamon. So, the number of kamon became widespread.

Since there weren’t strict rules or limitations on how a family could choose their crest, almost anything was up for grabs. There was a tremendous boom, and it created much confusion. The unwritten rules on using kamon, according to social customs, seemed to no longer apply. It resulted in so many Japanese families having the same crests even though they were unrelated to each other. Sometimes this happens when several clans descend from the same lineage. Still, often, it’s because it’s nothing more than different families tended to select the same popular designs – so many chose the katabami design.

After World War II, the traditional Japanese family system, the ie (家), was abolished, and Japanese society quickly changed to a Western nuclear family system. People lost their secure emotional attachment to “family.” Eventually, recognition of kamon as a family symbol also lost much ground, and its popularity has declined since. Some families continued to respect their family traditions and customs. They restored the original kamon from their ancestors, and the fundamental meanings of the family crest, which was supposed to be the clue of the family tree. But the history of the family and each family’s ancestral roots had gotten lost.

After the establishment of the new Japanese constitution in 1899, people became more interested in individual achievements than keeping track of their family’s lineage. Sadly, today, the kamon has become an unreliable symbol and cannot be counted on to identify an individual as a blood relative.

The kamon is typically the responsibility of the genealogical male. In some cases, the eldest son carried the original crest while the younger sons used a modified version of the crest. Still, quite often, all sons in the family use the same kamon. It’s interesting to note that women are no longer obliged to adopt their husbands’ kamon. There’s an option where the wife could wear the kamon of her maiden family name, known as onna kamon (女家紋) or a maiden kamon. By doing this, she’d still be able to honor the origin of her own family. In such cases, the size of the kamon was traditionally smaller than of her husband’s.

Modernization abolished the traditions in the use of kamon that was formed in the Edo period. By the Meiji period, everyone, regardless of their social class, was required to have a family name or myōji. As a result, most common families also adopted the use of kamon.

Unfortunately, today, unless a family has an aristocratic background or if the symbol was used to identify a family from centuries ago, the kamon isn’t likely to identify a family’s lineage. It’s especially true in the late Meiji period where crests became less of a family lineage and more of a neat mark. There may be thousands on thousands of families that may have the same family crest with or no blood connection to the original family. There may be thousands on thousands of families that may have the same family crest with or no blood connection to the original family.

While the identification of my family’s crest is validated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have connected the dots to my family’s ancestral roots in Japan. My family’s origins are from a humble line. I come from a commoner’s lineage of rice farmers from a small rural town in Niigata Prefecture. It was once a domain once held by the Nakajō clan, a samurai clan from Echigo who served as lords of their small agricultural realm. It’s more likely, therefore, that my family’s ancestors adopted an unofficial crest believed to have been used by the Nakajō clan. There was no connection to the original family bloodline but decided to take the one used by the Nakajō because the katabami appealed to farmers.


Now, returning to my auntie’s claim. I’ve been able to confirm, my great-grandfather’s gravestone bears the ken katabami crest, as shown in Figures 9 and 10. His gravestone is located at the Pa’auilo Hongwanji Mission cemetery on Hawai’i Island. My auntie’s kimono, supposedly the one displaying my family’s kamon, is nowhere to be found. She passed away, so validating it became a bit complicated. But, still, we have two different kamonpointing toward two distinct sources.

Katabami Crest
Figure 21:
Katabami crest

In any case, both kamon in question originates from the plain katabami (酢漿草) crest or “wood sorrel” (Figure 21); its pattern based on the leaves of the wood sorrel plant. As a member of the oxalis family, it’s the largest genus in the wood-sorrel family Oxalidaceae, as shown in Figure 22. The wood sorrel plant produces a small five-petal flower typically white, yellow, pink, or violet depending on the species. Still, the katabami crest bases its design on its trifoliate (three-leaf), heart-shaped leaves rather than its five-petal flower.

Figure 22: Wood sorrel (Oxalidaceae)

Many families, regardless of their class, adopted and used the wood sorrel as their crest.[19] Because of its elegant and aesthetic design, it was mainly popular among the nobility during the Heian Period. The plant represents the three essential requisites: balanced character, high intellect, and perpetuation of one’s descendants. Traditionally, the leaves were used to polish mirrors, and so it has also come to symbolize self-reflection and discipline.

The fruit of the wood sorrel contains lots of seeds, and it’s an incredibly prolific plant. It reproduces vigorously. It grows exceptionally well as a wild weed, so once it establishes itself and starts propagating it’s difficult to uproot. Many families cite those characteristics as an auspicious symbol for long life and the future proliferation and prosperity of their families, leading to “the house is constant.” The founder of this crest must’ve had a firm belief in continuing the family line and had probably wished their descendants would flourish and prosper. So, it’s easy to understand why the wood sorrel retained its grassroots popularity by the samurai families and then later used by commoners for their kamon.

The samurai class adopted kamon more for aesthetic, elegant designs, like the katabami possessed by the aristocrats. It was usual for them to introduce some modifications to be more in line with their martial spirit. This popularity leads to variations of the original design adopted, both by clans wishing to make their crests unique, as well as individual members or branches of the same family to mark differences. The samurai preferred designs that were more appropriate for warfare. As time went on, the motifs became more embellished, and they began to adopt flowery patterns with “stylized blades alternating with the leaves.”

Ken Katabami Crest 
Figure 23: Ken katabami

Among the most popular kamon designs by samurai families was a combination of the katabami (wood sorrel) and ken (剣, sword) to create the ken katabami (剣酢漿草) crest or “wood sorrel and swords.” The katabami appears with three additional “leaves,” symbolizing swords or swordsmanship, suggesting a more military origin, as shown in Figure 23. As previously mentioned, my great-grandfather’s gravestone bears the ken katabami crest. It hints at the possibility that my family’s lineage may have had some military service or martial skills background (see Figures 9 and 10).

As it turns out, my auntie’s son, uncovered evidence of the kamon she claimed, came from her kimono; it was found on a sheet of paper. It would help validate my auntie’s claim. As luck would have it, my cousin nearly threw away that piece of paper while cleaning out my auntie’s room after she passed away. The drawing may have served as a template of the kamon and then used to dye or paint onto the fabric of my auntie’s kimono. So, even though there’s no kimono, the good news is that the drawing provides a way to verify my auntie’s claim.

Maruni Ken Katabami Crest
Figure 24: Maru ni ken
katabami crest

The kamon decorated on my auntie’s kimono is a variation of the maruni ken katabami (丸に剣酢漿草) crest or “katabami and sword with a circle,” shown in Figure 24. Its origins are believed to be from the Genroku period. Its design is a combination of the ken katabami with maru (丸), which means “circle.” The circle emphasized the ken katabami emblem inside it.

The maruni ken katabami crest was a favorite among samurai lords during the Sengoku period. Motochika Chosogabe, who ruled the Shikoku area, and Shigetada Sakai, a loyal vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu, were two that favored the maruni ken katabami. The Sakai were direct retainers of the Tokugawa and were believed to have adopted the clan’s wild ginger crest. The Sakai chose instead the yellow wood sorrel crest, which looks like the wild ginger. In fact, they used several katabami crests; the most familiar was the shōnai katabami.

There’s a critical difference between the maruni ken katabami crest from the crest decorated on my auntie’s kimono. The crest on my auntie’s kimono has two rice bundles or ine no taba (稲の束), as shown in Figure 25. The word ine (稲) means “rice plant,” and taba (束) means “bundle.” A rice bundle frame encircles the ken katabami instead of a circle frame. The design itself hints at both agrarian and military origins. In either case, the kamon from my auntie’s kimono is a variation of the maruni ken katabami.


There’s no relation between the image used for the kamon and the pronunciation of the family name. But some kamon are related to the occupation of the family.

Kamon in Japan designated a family’s trade or skillset (i.e., farmer, blacksmith, healer, samurai, etc.). So, the use of rice bundles in my family’s crest suggests my ancestors’ occupation as rice farmers on their small plot of land in their hometown of Nakajō, located on the Echigo Plain of Niigata Prefecture. My ancestors probably came from a line of rice farmers, so they may have chosen the crest because farmers loved the wood sorrel and its symbolism.

Figure 25: Kamon claimed to be
from my auntie’s kimono

My family’s kamon also suggests martial origins with the use of the ken katabami in the crest. In feudal Japan, male family members did face conscription as part-time, peasant foot soldiers. They were employed by the samurai, called ashigaru (足軽, “light [of] foot”). They   had to leave their rice paddies for battle on the command of their lord to protect their province. They fought side-by-side with land-owning samurai in many wars.

It’s no wonder why my father and two of his younger brothers studied and were skilled practitioners of the Japanese martial art of kendō (剣道).[20]They were very accomplished and represented Pa’auilo District on Hawai’i Island in many tournaments; the brothers were well-regarded throughout the kendō community on Hawai’i Island and O’ahu. After Pearl Harbor, the family hid or buried kendō swords (shinai), body armor (bōgu), and practice clothing. They had to get rid of anything that could be construed as being loyal to Japan.

It’s well-known that as a noble or samurai family prospered, and their lineage expanded, it became necessary to distinguish between the main family and its branches. To do this, a growing family had to modify its original kamon to create a variety of related crests, so many kamon don’t relate. In my family’s case, they added a couple of new stylistic elements to the original kamon.

A crest can be associated with several family names. But many crests don’t retain a single motif or decorative design throughout their history and undergo gradual changes. Some crests incorporate further themes or blend with different ones, slightly altering their form. In many cases, reasonably close relatives may have somewhat different family crests. The simpler the crest, the thicker the lineage of the family.

Figure 26 shows variations on the designs for the katabami crest. The most common method of altering a kamon was to add a circle frame around the crest. Adding a maru (circle) frame to enclose the original katabami (wood sorrel) created a new design called the maruni katabami or “circle wood sorrel” crest.

Figure 26: Examples of variations of the katabami crest

Adding something within the crest involves adding another element to the original design. By combining the ken (sword) to the katabami (wood sorrel), produced a new design called ken katabami (wood sorrel and sword) crest; it is the kamon engraved on my great-grandfather’s gravestone. By adding a maru (circle) to the ken katabami (wood sorrel and sword) crest, it produced yet another design called maruni ken katabami (circle wood sorrel and sword) crest.

Kamon are heirlooms handed down within Japanese families for centuries, but there’s no law restricting their alteration, and today, families are free to change them as they wish. Also, some crests used have been within a single lineage. It’s possible to develop a new crest for one’s own family, requiring no application or legal registration, as shown in Figure 27.

Figure 27: Example of variations on the katabami crest


Kamon share a close connection with kimono. They have been used to decorated formal kimono worn on ceremonial or official occasions. The display of kamon on a kimono made it a formal on. The number of kamon, the decoration of the kimono, and its shape were quite typical to identify the owner’s family lineage or clan and to show the wearer’s social status or class. The more kamon, the more elegant and formal the kimono and the decorum of an occasion or event.[21] Casual kimono don’t have any kamon at all.

kimono in the middle-range of formality will have one or three kamon. For example, a hitotsumon (一つ紋) would be a kimono with one kamon (under the eri 襟 or back collar) and a mitsumon (三つ紋) would have three kamon (under the back collar, plus one on each sleeve over the elbow more to the back). By far, the most formal kimono is the itsutsumon (五つ紋), which has five kamon (located on the back collar, back of sleeves, and front lapels of the kimono). In a wedding ceremony involving a family member, for example, the most formal kimono is to be worn by the bride or groom’s family. A tomesode itsutsumon (留袖五つ紋), which is a formal black kimono with five kamon, is worn by the mother of the bride or groom. If you’re a friend or an acquaintance of the bride or groom, it’s considered well-mannered to avoid wearing tomesode with itsutsumon. As for iro (色, colored) tomesode itsutsumon – a kimono with a background color other than black and its patterns are woven only in the lower part of the kimono – three kamon decorate it at the center in the back and the back of the sleeves. In general, the more formal a kimono, the more kamon it will have and always put in the same position. For hōmongi (訪問着, visiting wear), it’s a woman’s semi-formal kimono with design on the skirt, and one kamon decorated at the center in the back.

When families first started to use kamon on battle flags and other battle equipment, the shape and size of the crests weren’t restricted. But in the Sengoku Period, two formal kimono styles that displayed kamon were created. They were suō (素袍), a ceremonial robe for samurai, and kataginu (肩衣), a sleeveless ceremonial robe for samurai. These kimono styles standardized the crests’ shape and size, so crests were often enclosed in round or square frames.[22]

As with many aspects of kimono style, kamon designed have gone through many variations over the years. During the Edo Period (and prior), the kamon was large and dramatic, forming a notably visual part of the design on an item. As time passed, though, the kamon dramatically decreased in size, to the point of being nearly indistinguishable on many modern kimonos, and they could appear with or without a circular border. Kamon was drawn either by hand or with a stencil onto a formal kimono. It was either dyed or embroidered onto the fabric.

Figure 28: Tokugawa “book” of family crests

It was during the relatively peaceful Edo Period that the Tokugawa shogunate began regulating kamon (see Figure 28). For that reason, kamon was needed to distinguish between one’s own family and others among people, so more was required. A census of kamon was taken and then recorded in a book. The shogunate released a decree that this book was to be the official reference for making up new crests. All kamon had to follow a “universal” standard pattern based on a circle. The shogunate fixed the rules concerning where, when, and how to put crests on people’s clothing. The rendering of the design for all family kamon had to be in a circular motif. It emphasized enclosing the kamon in a circle because circles looked better on kimono, compared to the warring period crests, which didn’t show any difference from the usual patterns on textile. According to the Tokugawa, women’s kimonos looked best with round crests whose diameter was 0.8 inches or 21-mm. Meanwhile, men’s kimonos looked best stenciled with larger crests whose diameter was 1.5-inches or 38-mm. The number of crests on a kimono ranged from one to five – with more crests reflecting an occasion’s greater formality. Interestingly, these rules are still in place today.


As I previously learned, the Ebata family possesses two kamon. But, it’s not necessary to conclude that my family must choose one kamon over the other. It’s a fact that Japanese families, especially among the samurai class, often possessed more than one kamon.

The powerful daimyō, Oda Nobunaga, who attempted to unify Japan during the late Sengoku period, had as many as seven kamon during his lifetime. The main four crests included the standard Oda family crest, the Oda Mokko, which is said to represent the Japanese flowering quince shrub (see Figure 29). The Oda claimed to have descended from the noble Taira (Heike) clan, who was known to have used the kiri mon (paulownia crest) and was used by the Imperial family. Later, the Imperial Court used it as their family crest as well as the Ahega-cho, a swallowtail butterfly. Later, the Imperial Court used it as their family crest as well as the Ahega-cho, a swallowtail butterfly.

Figure 29: Oda clan kamon

Another familiar crest used by Nobunaga was the Eiraku Tsuho coin. It’s believed Nobunaga used this crest because of his victory at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560. His army went against an army ten times that of his own. Before the battle, Nobunaga stopped at the sacred Atsuta Shrine to pray for success. When making an offering of five copper coins, he and his men were surprised and encouraged when all five coins landed face up. It was a most auspicious occurrence.

The Takeda clan of Kai used several kamon at once. The patriarch Takeda Shingen preferred the simplified flower petals that appeared on his banners as four diamonds. Meanwhile, his son Katsuyori (Oda Nobunaga’s son-in-law) opted for a flowery version of the same crest. Katsuyori himself used two kamon, his father’s crest and his mother’s crest from the Suwa clan. Plus, he also had his battle-banner and regiment’s sign. So, in every battle, Takeda Katsuyori alone displayed at least four different kamon at once. Altogether, the Takeda used up to seven kamon: the four diamonds, four diamonds surrounded by a solid ring, two cranes bowing their heads together, a centipede, hanabishi (花菱, three vertical flowers), Furinkazan (風林火山, “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain”), and the Tai (大) character (see Figure 30).

Figure 30: Takeda clan kamon

Why so many kamon?

Remember that kamon wasn’t regulated concerning its use and came to function as symbols of a family or clan. During the Edo period, commoners (i.e., wealthy merchants, artisans, and even prosperous farmers) couldn’t officially have a family name. Still, upon further examination, there weren’t any official restrictions that prevented them from adopting kamon.

As mentioned previously, conclusive research on how families from the farmer/peasant, artisan, and merchant classes obtained their kamon is only just beginning. Generally speaking, only one kamon per family name (or myōji) existed because the function of the kamon was to symbolize the family name itself. Kamon was needed to identify one’s own family from another. But kamon was sometimes passed on to other families with different family names in several ways. So it didn’t always correspond to a family’s bloodline, except in cases when the descent is apparent.[23]

Ways of acquiring more than one kamon

There were several ways to obtain more than one kamon. One way was through capture. Some daimyō got there second and third kamon not via family ties, but through battles. After defeating an enemy clan, the victor often celebrated the taking of the enemy’s crest, which was viewed as a symbol of the victory. If a daimyō liked the crest of the enemy that he had defeated, he could use the crest, or take it as a trophy so that other rival daimyō would know he was the victor.

During the Sengoku period (1467-1603), for example, many lesser soldiers, or even peasants with no distinguished lineage became themselves, lords of castles and provinces they acquired in battle. They did it by taking it into battle as a reward. By distinguishing themselves in combat (e.g., the Nakajō clan took and held Tossaka Castle on Mt. Shiratori in Tainai City, Niigata, during the Nanbokucho Period). Since they didn’t have a kamon, they had to adopt one. So, they chose a kamon, preferably something that looked like someone else in high regard, or even just one that no one happened to be using at the time. Many would take their kamon from very old and well-respected families claiming to be able to claim their family’s lineage back to them. That said, many vital retainers would choose their kamon by closely emulating but slightly changing the look of their kamon based on their lord’s crest. Or, they just made up their own, and some clans ended up having the same kamon.

Another way to acquire another kamon was for a family head to bestow a gift of his family’s kamon to one of his retainers who had performed a meritorious deed. Or to someone who could carry on the family name through marriage. Some others got their second kamon as gifts. A lord could give license to his generals and vassals, just like shōguns, chancellors, regents, and overlords could receive kamon from the emperor. It’s one of the reasons samurai family crests could be like other samurai families even though there was no business whatsoever between them. The Nakajō may have acquired their kamon because they supported the Uesugi during the Sengoku Period and distinguished themselves in the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima.

A third way was to transfer a family’s kamon between families with the same social class, which was commonly used to ensure family name succession through marriage. My grandfather, Harumatsu Hori, was adopted into the Ebata family, and the Ebata kamon was transferred to him, the ken katabami. He may have later modified the kamon to make it his own, see Figure 31.

A fourth way was to for a family to borrow the crest of another prominent, well-respected family and use it as their own, which was usually considered an honorable practice. My family’s ancestors may have borrowed the Nakajō clan’s kamon. They may have altered it by adding ken (sword) and maru (circle).

Crests could be passed on in several ways, so it wasn’t uncommon to have a given family name represented by more than one kamon. In such cases, it was necessary for the family needed to determine which kamon would officially serve its family name. The official kamon for a family name was called jō-mon (定紋, regular crest) or sei-mon (姓紋, official crest) and used it for official ceremonies and documents.

Figure 31: Kamon of
the Nakajō clan

The Nakajō clan initially used the same official kamon as the Miura and Sakuma clans. It was the 引両 (Miura Mitsuke Crest; Miura mitu hiki; Miura Three Cut; 引 pull crest), which belonged to the Ashikaga Takauiji, as shown in Figure 32.[24] The Miura clan descended from the Minamoto clan. They supported Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Gempei War (1180-1185). The Sakuma clan descended from the Miura family of Sagami Province, and settled in Owari at Yamazaki Castle and came to serve the Oda. 

kamon didn’t become official just because it had been passed down for many generations. A crest received as a gift from an honorable lord or one representing successful military exploits often took precedence over the hereditary one and was used as the sei-mon. It’s unclear what the relationship was between the Nakajō clan and the Miura and Sakuma clans. Still, what can be determined, the Nakajō clan was somehow related to both families.

The unofficial kamon distinguished from the official one was called kae-mon (替え紋, alternative crest), fuku-mon (副紋, second crest), ura-mon (裏紋, extra crest), etc. It couldn’t be used in official situations.

Since the origin of the Ebata kamon may link to the Nakajō clan, it’s likely that my family’s ancestors initially adopted one of their unofficial kamon. Farming villages would sometime band together and form an association. Creating a new design for the official crest of the new community was a vital part of the process for the people of the village to come together. Nakajō Fujisuke may have permitted the villagers to use the katabami kamon as a gift for their service to the clan. But, at the same time, the system of using a single kamon design to represent a family line was thrown out into confusion. For that reason, the use of kamon spread extensively. Farmers ended up with more than one kamon, an official kamon representing their community, and an unofficial one to distinguish between one family from another.

Even the Nakajō clan had more than one kamon. The Nakajō are known to have also used the katabami as one of its crests, along with the Nitta, Hida, Taga, Aki Fukuhara, Sakai, Shinshi, Odachi, Wada, Kido, Nakazawa, Okada and Hosokawa Reizei clans.

The Ebata family roots are from Nakajō, formerly a town named after the Nakajō clan. Since they were farmers, it’s more likely that my ancient ancestors may have adopted the kamon once used by the Nakajō clan. They adapted it to their style and handed it down. Over the generations, the kamon may have been altered to fit the times. At the time, commoners couldn’t have a family name or myōji the kamon became a substitute for a family name. So it didn’t correspond to the bloodline.

My great-grandparents (Teizō and Tsuru Ebata) and grandparents (Harumatsu [Hori] and Tetsu Ebata) likely brought with them the ken katabami kamon when they immigrated to Hawai’i.

When great-grandparents decided to settle in Hawai’i, they may have chosen to create a new kamon to symbolize a new life in America. From this point on in my family’s history, my great-grandparents and grandparents would’ve planted new roots in America.

I suspect that the family chose to retain the basic design of the ken katabami. Then, they added the rice-plant bundles (ine no taba) to encircle the flower with the swords to honor our family’s rice farming heritage. So, as it turns out, it possible that my family adopted both kamon and that it represents two family histories, the one in Niigata, Japan, and the one in Hawai’i.

I can’t conclusively say (at this time) that the kamon my auntie claims as the Ebata family’s kamon is, in fact, our true kamon. The source of kamon is said to be from a formal kimono that belonged to her, but, unfortunately, the kimono remains lost.

The only actual evidence of the family’s kamon, as I mentioned earlier, was found on my great-grandfather’s gravestone in Pa’auilo on Hawai’i Island, as shown in Figure 10. But the crest etched on his gravestone is different from the one my auntie claimed was on her wedding kimono as being the Ebata family’s kamon, as shown in Figure 25. The two kamon don’t match up. Why is that? One is etched in stone while the other dyed on a lost kimono.

The fact that the design of my auntie’s kamon emphasized the circle of rice bundles is consistent with what’s known about my family’s ancestors as rice farmers from Niigata Prefecture. A prefecture known for its high-quality rice and rice-products. Also, the kamon hints at a military origin with the use of the ken katabami design. So, there’s a possibility that my family’s lineage may have had some military service background or skills. It’s highly debatable. Indeed, it’s only speculation whether male ancestors in the Ebata family participated in battles. Many peasant farmers were often required to serve their lord and protect their domain.

In the end, it’s best to say that my auntie’s claim may be true until further examination can reveal more insight into my family’s kamon


[1] Onigawara (鬼瓦) are decorative roof tiles typically placed at the ends of the main ridge on temple structures, shrines, and residences. As a decorative architectural element, onigawara (literally “demon tile” or “goblin tile”) came to prominence in the Kamakura period (1185-1332). But the term is also used for decorative roof tiles to display a family or clan’s kamon (family crest) and floral, plant and animal motifs that were already used in the earlier Nara and Heian periods to prevent leaks and general weathering. The goblin-faced onigawara is one of many decorative elements found in Japanese religious architecture. In most cases, these elements serve decorative, functional, and protective roles in preventing weathering and in warding off evil spirits, fire, etc. Today, onigawara are found most frequently on temple structures.

A little less outstanding but with a great visual impact are the round, disk-shaped tiles that cap the ends of the eaves called gatō (瓦当). Decorated with floral motifs, with an arrangement of swirling commas symbolizing water named tomoe mon (巴紋) or, most frequently, with the family or clan’s kamon, it has an aesthetic and a practical role of deflecting rainwater out. The gatō is attached by broad, semi-circular eave-end tiles called nokimarugawara (軒丸瓦). It alternates with concave eave-end tiles called nokihiragawa (軒丸瓦).

[2] The terms shinmon (しんもん) and jinmon (じんもん) refer to a “kami gate.” Both are written using the same kanji, 神門, but pronounced differently. The character 神 means kami (god, deity, divinity, spirit); it also means shin or jin (spirit, psyche). The character mon 門 means “gate.” Thus, for a Shinto shrine (jinja 神社), the term shinmon is used and refers to a “shrine gate,” and for a Buddhist temple (ji 寺), the term jinmon is used and refers to a “temple gate.”

[3] One of the best examples of a kamon used as a corporate logo is the Mitsubishi logo. The name “Mitsubishi” refers to the three-diamond emblem. “Mitsubishi” is a combination of the words mitsu and hishiMitsu (三つ) means three. Hishi (菱) means water chestnut, and the Japanese have used the word for a long time to denote a rhombus or diamond shape. Japanese often bend the “h” sound to a “b” sound when it occurs in the middle of a word. So, they pronounce the combination of mitsu and hishi as mitsubishi. Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of the old Mitsubishi organization, chose the three-diamond mark as the emblem for his company. The mark is suggestive of the three-leaf crest of the Tosa Clan, Yataro’s first employer, and of the three stacked rhombuses of the Iwasaki family crest. Retrieved from http://www.mitsubishielectric.com/company/about/history/logo/logo_more.html

Kikkoman and its famous shoyu (soy sauce) began as early as 1603 when the Mogi and Takanashi families began soy sauce production along the Edo River in Noda, a small city located around Tōkyō. For more than three centuries, the company formed by these families has created soy sauce that has won prizes worldwide. It included the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, and the distinctive position as the official sauces for the Japanese imperial household for many years. Yet the name Kikkoman means more than just superior shoyu. According to Japanese folklore, the tortoise lives for 10,000 years, and thus is a symbol of longevity – what every company hopes for. Therefore, kikkō (亀甲), which means tortoiseshell in Japanese, and man (万), meaning 10,000, were chosen first as the trademark for Mogi’s best shōyu and later as the company name. (The hexagonal logo found on Kikkoman products represents a tortoiseshell. Inscribed inside is the Chinese character for 10,000.) In 1917, more than 250 years after their ancestors began shōyu production, the Mogi and Takanashi families merged to form Noda Shoyu Co., Ltd. The company’s name was changed to Kikkoman Shoyu Co., Ltd. in 1964, and again in 1980 to Kikkoman Corporation. Retrieved from http://www.kikkoman.com/en/corporate/about/outline.html

In 2011, Japan Airlines (JAL) announced that it would go back to the original red crown crane logo that it had used for more than 40 years, beginning in 1959. In Japanese culture, the crane is viewed as a symbol of long life, prosperity, and good health, and red is the color of happiness. That’s why for weddings, anniversaries, and other auspicious occasions, the custom is to decorate with a thousand origami cranes to express good wishes. When JAL started operations in 1951, they adopted a logo that was special to JAL from its creation and introduction in 1959, which is a crane known as the Tsurumaru (鶴丸). It became part of the company for many years to come in its history. The Tsurumaru JAL logo was created in 1958 by Jerry Huff, the creative director at Botsford, Constantine and Gardner of San Francisco, which had been the advertising agency for Japan Airlines from its earliest days. JAL had used several logos up until 1958. When the airline arranged to buy the new Boeing 747’s, they decided to create a new official logo to announce the inaugural of their jet service worldwide. In the creation of the logo, Huff was inspired by the personal crests of samurai families. In a book he’d been given, “We Japanese,” he found pages of crests, including the crane. On his choice of the crane, he writes: “I had faith that it was the perfect symbol for Japan Air Lines. I found that the Crane myth was all positive—it mates for life (loyalty) and flies high for miles without tiring (strength.)” Retrieved from http://logos.wikia.com/wiki/Japan_Airlines

[4] Zinzin. (2014, February 19). Observations (& Inspirations): The brand identity 100: Japan Airlines (JAL). [Blog post]. Retrieve from https://www.zinzin.com/observations/2014/the-brand-identity-100-japan-airlines-jal/.

[5] Mitsubishi. (n.d.) About Mitsubishi – Mitsubishi Mark. Retrieved from https://www.mitsubishi.com/e/group/mark.html.

[6] Otake, Tomoko (2013, June 16). Family-crest master fears he’s one of a dying breed. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2013/06/16/general/family-crest-master-fears-hes-one-of-a-dying-breed/#.Wwztpy-ZPRZ. Shoryu Hotoba is one of those dying breeds monshō uwaeshi (family-crest painters and designers), a third-generation owner of Kyogen, a family-crest business founded in 1910. He is one of the few monshō uwaeshi who makes a living solely out of family crests.

[7] My uncle Jack Katsumi (Ebata) Suwa was a futsuyōshi or adopted child. He was the fifth eldest son of his seven Ebata siblings. My brother, Kevin Matsuto Ebata was battling lung cancer and emphysema. He passed away on December 31, 2001, at the age of 45. My Auntie Carol Chieko Suzuki was the sixth of seven Ebata siblings; she passed away on December 7, 2015.

[8] The Tokugawa’s clan crest, the “triple hollyhock” has been a readily recognized icon in Japan, symbolizing in equal parts the Tokugawa clan and the last shogunate. But the crest has commonly been mistakenly identified as “hollyhock,” the aoi (葵). It belongs to the birthwort family and translates as “wild ginger” (asarum caulescens).

The crest derives from a mythical clan, the Kamo clan, which legend says descended from the Yatagarasu (八咫烏, “eight-span crow”), the “Three-Legged Crow.” The appearance of the great bird is construed as evidence of the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs. Matsudaira village was in Higashikamo District, Aichi Prefecture. Although Emperor Go-Youzei offered a new crest, Ieyasu continued to use the crest, which was not related to the Minamoto clan.

Although Tokugawa Ieyasu never used the Matsudaira family name before 1566, his appointment as shōgun was contingent on his claim to Matsudaira kinship and a link to the Seiwa Genji. Recent findings have revealed that the genealogy proffered to the emperor contained falsified information; but, since the Matsudaira used the same crest as the Kamo clan, some academics suggest that Ieyasu was likely a descendant of the Kamo clan.

In jidaigeki (film, television, video game, and theater period dramas in Japan), the crest is often shown to place the story in the Edo period. In works set during the Meiji Restoration movement, the crest is used to indicate the bearer’s allegiance to the shogunate. This is opposed to the royalists, whose cause is symbolized by the Imperial throne’s chrysanthemum crest.

[9] The Asuka period is noted for its significant artistic, social, and political transformations, It had its origins in the late Kofun period, but it was affected mainly by the introduction of Buddhism from China, marking a change in Japanese society and the name of the country from Wa (倭) to Nihon (日本).

[10] The tomoe (巴) is a symbol seen all over Japan at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Tomoe means “turning or circular,” referring to the motion of the earth. The tomoe is related to the yin-yang symbol, and has a similar meaning, representing the play of forces in the cosmos. Visually, the tomoe is made up of interlocked flames (or magatama) resembling tadpoles. The magatama is an ancient emblem of Japanese identity. The original magatama was small, animal-tooth shaped amulets made of stone (usually jade), bone, or animal horn. These magatama appear in Japanese and Korean burial sites from 1,000 BC and might have served as status symbols.

The most common tomoe emblem has three flames (mitsu-tomoe), but one, two, or four are not uncommon. A mitsu-tomoe reflects the threefold division of Shinto cosmology, and is said to represent the earth, the heavens, and humankind. It is often associated with the Shinto war deity Hachiman. A tomoe-mon is a tomoe used as a kamon.

[11] The Gempei War came at a troubled time for the Japanese people as within five years, they had to endure several natural disasters and their consequences. A typhoon hit the island in 1180, plague and famine came followed the next two years, and then, in 1184, there was a devastating earthquake. These events and the consequent hardships of the Japanese people are described in Kamo no Chomei’s 1212 work Hojokin (“Tales from My Ten Foot Square Hut”). Of course, it seriously interrupted the progress of the war and prohibited any swift end for either side. The Gempei War ended following the Battle of Dan-no-ura, one of the most famous and significant sea battles in Japanese history. It resulted in the defeat of the Taira and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1192.

Most kamon images or designs are usually of plants, animals, insects, geographic features, and abstract designs. It could explain that the traditional Japanese way of life intimately associated with their natural surroundings.

[12] Genroku was a Japanese year name spanning from September 1688 to March 1704. The years of Genroku are the Golden Age of the Edo period.

[13] Yūkaku meant the regions in Japan where brothels recognized by the government were situated. In theory, prostitution was legal only in the Yūkaku region, but there were some places where prostitution was provided illegally. In January 1946, GHQ issued an order nationwide to abolish Japan’s licensed prostitution system. The brothels in Yūkaku had to change their name to café or ryōtei, which transformed the Yūkaku into Akasen regions.

[14] Heimin myōji kyokarei (平民苗字許可令): heimin (平民, commoner); myōji (苗字, family name); kyoka (許可, permission); rei (令, administrative and civil code).

[15] Juushoku souryo myōji hisshō gimurei (住職僧侶名字必称義務令): jūshoku (住職, chief priest of a Buddhist temple; sōryo (僧侶, priest or monk); myōji (名字, family name); hisshō (必称, ?); gimurei (義務, duty or obligation); rei (令, administrative and civil code).

[16] myōji seitei kinenbi (苗字制定記念日): myōji (苗字, family name); seitei (制定, enactment); kinenbi (記念, commemoration); bi (日, day).

[17] McClurry, Justin, (2015, December 16). Japan upholds rule that married couples must have same surname. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/16/japanese-court-rules-married-women-cannot-keep-their-surnames. Note: Japan’s supreme court ruled in December 2015 against a lawsuit brought about by five women who argued that the requirement, as stipulated in the 1896 civil code, violated married couples’ civil rights. The supreme court ruled that that 19th century law forcing married couples to use the same family name – almost always (96%) that of the husband – does not violate the constitution. This fuling struck a blow to women’s equal rights in Japan.

[18] The plain katabami (酢漿草) or wood sorrel plant is a type of Oxalis (Oxalis corniculata) in the wood-sorrel family Oxalidaceae.

[19] Besides the 18-petal golden chrysanthemum, which is the Imperial family crest, the following are the ten most popular crest designs: mokko (like a nest of petals), kiri (桐, paulownia flowers), fuji (藤, wisteria flowers), miyoga (wild ginger-like plants), tachibana (橘, orange flower), takanoha (eagle’s feathers), omodaka (沢瀉, gingko flower), katabami (酢漿草, wood sorrel), kashiwa (柏, oak leaf), and tsuta (蔦, ivy).

[20]Kendō (剣道) is a Japanese martial art, which descended from fencing (kenjutsu 剣術) and uses bamboo practice swords (shinai 竹刀) and protective armor (bōgu 防具). Swordsmen in Japan established schools of kenjutsu (the ancestor of kendō), which continued for centuries and which form the basis of kendo practice today. The formal kendō exercises known as kata were developed several centuries ago as kenjutsu practice for warriors. They are still studied today, in a modified form. The introduction of the shinai and bōgu to sword training is attributed to Naganuma Shirozaemon Kunisato during the Shotoku Era (1711–1715).

[21] Quintal, Diane (n.d.). Kamon. Immortal Geisha Wiki. Retrieved from http://www.immortalgeisha.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

[22] For information regarding individual garments historically worn by Japanese men, see the following URL link at http://www.sengokudaimyo.com/garb/garb.ch01.html#hitatare

[23] Stone Bridge Press (Ed.). (2007). Family Crests of Japan. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

[24] The Nakajō clan shared the same kamon as the Miura and Sakuma clans. The Miura family (三浦氏 Miura-shi) of Sagami Province (present-day Kanagawa Prefecture). He was one of the branch families descended from Miura Yoshiaki (d. 1181), who himself was a descended from Miura Takemichi (who claimed Taira ancestry). They held large fiefs and retained great political influence. They were one of the primary opponents of the Hojo family of regents in the mid-13thcentury, and again at the beginning of the 16th. Miura remains a common family name in Japan today. The Miura clan supported Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Gempei War, which established the foundation of the Kamakura bakufu, and afterward gained considerable influence, but were later annihilated by the Hojo Tokiyori in 1246. But the Miura family name was reassigned to a supporter of the Hojo clan, and the Miura clan continued to rule Miura Peninsula through the Muromachi Period until their defeat at Arai Castle in a 1518 attack by Hojo Souun. The Sakuma clan were descended from the Miura family of Sagami Province. They settled in Owari at Yamazaki castle and came to serve the Oda.

4 Replies to “Kamon: Discovering My Family Crest”

  1. How do I find my family crest of Komaru? I have asked relatives and they dont seem to know. Please help. It is important to me.


    1. Hi Mandee. I’d be happy to help!

      First, may I ask why finding your family crest or kamon is important to you? Are you trying to trace your family roots?

      Second, are you third generation (Sansei) or fourth (Yonsei) generation?

      Third, do you know where your first generation (Issei) gravesite is located?

      If you can get back to me I’d appreciate it.

      Thank you,


    2. Hi Mandee. I apologize for the delay in responding. I’d be happy to assist you. But first. Can you tell me why you need to find your family crest? Why the importance? Second, I’ll need some background on your family history. If you are trying to trace your family’s history, I don’t recommend tracing it using your family’s kamon. The kamon is not a reliable means to learning about the family’s lineage. There are better ways to do that.

      Anyway I hope to hear from you.



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