The kamon, or Japanese family crest, is not a type of tattoo symbol that I see often, despite the popularity of Japanese influenced tattoos, possibly because tattoos have been taboo in Japan for so long. Like the heraldry of the West, the Japanese kamon, also known as a mon, served to represent specific families or clans using stylized and abstract symbols with which those families may have been associated. If you’ve ever seen a samurai movie, you’ve no doubt seen mon, but you may not have known.
As in Europe, Japanese heraldry likely began with the aristocracy and, in Japan, it may have been in use as early as the 12th century. By the time the samurai–or warrior–class flourished, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the use of mon had begun to spread widely. As with heraldry, Japanese mon were used on flags, armor, weapons, tents and especially kimonos to distinguish the different factions and clans. Not unlike tattoos in this same period, particularly the body suit tattoo, the use of mon moved into the burgeoning merchant class of feudal Japan and was soon adopted by all sorts of groups–from craft guilds to temple groups and also criminal gangs. In modern Japan, virtually all families have a mon associated with their surname, although their use and even knowledge of them has faded.
In the Round
Typically, mon are framed by a circle, which in the world of heraldry is known as a roundel. Within the roundel are stylized symbols drawn from both nature and industry: animals (that range from cranes to rabbits and include insects), plants (from cucumbers to hollyhock), flowers (the cherry blossom figures prominently), tools (from fans to arrows, and windmills), and patterns (like swirls or kanji).
An oft cited example is the mon of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a legendary shogun of feudal Japan, whose mon consisted of three hollyhock leaves. Similarly, the imperial mon of the royal family is also well known and, not surprisingly is a chrysanthemum. The imperial mon is one of the few whose use is officially restricted. In stark contrast to European heraldry, the design of Japanese mon are simple and graphic and are always monochrome, though not necessarily black.
The particular mon in this tattoo is known as Maruni Yotsume Hishi, which alludes to the forms that we see in it: the circle (maru), the diamond shapes of the water chestnut’s leaf and fruit (hishi or bishi), and the “four eyes” (yotsume). One famous samurai who used this mon as his family crest was Kimura Shigenari (1593-1615). He died in the service of the Toyotomi clan at the Siege of Osaka and so never had to witness the fall of that clan to the eventual shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu. When Shigenari’s head was brought before the victor, Ieyasu observed that Shigenari’s hair was neatly trimmed and perfumed–the way a true samurai goes into battle prepared to die.