Family Crests

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Hitoshi Takasawa

    Main Guest

    Head of the Japan Kamon Society, following in the footsteps of his father Shigeru Chikano, Takasawa has spent many years researching family crests all around Japan. His writing on the topic is also informed by a broad knowledge of history, including classical Japanese literature and the leaders of the Sengoku period. His published works include dictionaries of Japanese kamon.

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May 9, 2017

Family Crests

*You will leave the NHK website.

Compared to its East Asian neighbors, Japan is a country with a huge diversity of family names. One of the main reasons for this is that the majority of family names held by Japanese have a relatively recent history, dating back only as far as 1875, and a law passed as part of the sweeping administrative reforms of the Meiji era (1868–1912). In order to enable efficient taxation, the law, one of many steps towards modernization that followed the end of feudal rule and the opening of Japan’s shores to foreign influence after several centuries of isolation, decreed that all citizens were required to take family names.

The previous lack of official family names for the majority of the populace was itself the product of an earlier law passed by the great military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98). That directive expressly outlawed the use of family names or the bearing of swords by anyone outside the samurai warrior class. It was intended to subdue the proletariat as part of the measures taken by Hideyoshi to unify Japan towards the end of the Sengoku (warring states) period (c. 1467–1603), and was strictly enforced. This situation continued into the subsequent Edo period (1603–1868), when the Tokugawa clan of shoguns oversaw an age of peace and prosperity in which Japan’s culture flourished. 

But without family names, how were people able to distinguish their businesses or wares from competitors? The answer came in the form of family crests, or “kamon”: from “ka” (family) and “mon” (crest). 

Tens of thousands of these crests are still in use by families today, and the earliest roots of the insignia stretch back around a thousand years to the aristocracy of the Heian period (794–1185). But it was during the Edo period, as commoners favored crests inspired by the triple-leaf crest of the Tokugawa clan and the paulownia emblem of Hideyoshi, that compact images enclosed by a circle, and often displaying some degree of symmetry, became the norm. Popular motifs included plants as well as elements that directly reflected the line of business in which particular households were engaged.

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Main guest Hitoshi Takasawa has spent decades researching Japan’s kamon, or family crests.

With more and more people clamoring to use mon, the new trade of crest artist arose. Crests needed to be applied to various possessions including clothing. This craft employed a variety of tools and techniques, including paper stencils, bleaches, and bamboo brushes and compasses to trace the circles and arcs that were to become so characteristic of Japanese mon.

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Crest artist Shoryu Hatoba shows Peter how to use a bamboo compass to achieve perfect arcs.

Although crests are used less often nowadays, these skills are still maintained by crest artists such as Shoryu Hatoba, visited by host Peter Barakan in this edition of Japanology Plus, who specializes in applying mon to formal garments such as the haori (men’s outer-kimono jackets), and the tomesode (short-sleeved) kimono traditionally worn by married women to attend formal occasions such as wedding ceremonies, as well the kimono worn by children at the Shichi-Go-San (seven-five-three) rituals held to pray for their healthy growth at the ages referenced in the name.

These days, the current generation of crest artists, including Hatoba and his son Yoji (visited by reporter Matt Alt) apply their time-honored techniques to more contemporary tasks such as product design. In a further bid to boost popular interest and preserve the art of mon for future generations, Yoji Hatoba even holds workshops in monkirigata, a simplified version of crest making that involves precise folding and cutting of paper to create mon templates with perfect radial symmetry. It is hoped that this fun, family-friendly approach reminiscent of the Western practice of cutting folded paper to create garlands or decorative snowflakes for Christmas can put the art of Japanese crests back on the crest of a wave.

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Shoryu Hatoba’s son Yoji, also a crest artist, shows Matt how to fold paper in order to make a five-point star.

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Monkirigata is the art of folding and cutting paper to create shapes with precise radial symmetry.

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Tens of thousands of family crests are recognized in Japan. These entries are for names starting with the character “ya,” which means “arrow.”

Also appearing

Shoryu Hatoba

A crest artist of more than 40 years’ experience, Hatoba applies family emblems to formal garments using ink and a selection of bamboo brushes.

Yoji Hatoba

Following in his father’s footsteps as a crest artist, Hatoba is also working to preserve the craft of monkirigata, cutting crests from folded paper.

Masakazu Ota

Manager of a long-established kimono store in Tokyo.

*You will leave the NHK website.