A Roll of Japanese Armory

by Solveig Throndardottir (Barbara Nostrand, nostrand@acm.org)

© 1992, 2000 by Barbara Nostrand; all rights reserved.
Appeared originally in the Proceedings of the Known World Heraldic Symposium, Madrone, An Tir (Seattle, Washington) June 26-28 AS XXVII (1992)

Following the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, very Japanese was granted the right to have a family name and the other privileges of the samurai class were abolished. Consequently, there arose a large-scale market for family crests (kamon) which became available to all Japanese families. Thus, kimono merchants offered the customer every possible variation afforded by the design system employed by kamon.

To understand kamon, it is important to observe that they are fieldless and without tincture. They appear to have an origin in the decorative designs printed as seme in the cloth from which the clothing of court nobles was constructed. The same designs were also placed on battle flags and used to decorate useful objects ranging from armor to storage boxes. Thus, the Japanese kamon is much more similar to a Western badge then it is to a Western idea of Arms. Further, as the name (ka "house", mon "design") implies, these designs represent families and larger groups of people such as clans and not individuals. Thus, again, they bear a great similarity to the Western use of badges as described by Stephen Friar. Finally, since kamon represents groups rather then individuals, the Japanese did not develop either a system of cadency or a system of marshalling.

The Japanese did, however, have several regular methods for differencing kamon so that the stock of available charges was effectively extended to produce a multitude of distinct designs. The first, and most easily misunderstood, method was to surround a charge with a "ring" of some sort. This ring can be thin, fat, multiple, or even, occasionally, square. Thus, by adding a bordure, a new design is achieved. There is, however, no requirement for a bordure to exist at all and there are several examples of kamon without borders in the accompanying roll.

Second, a design can be differenced from another by grouping and number. Identical charges can be arranged in squares, diamonds, partial diamonds or even as an annular grouping around a single central (identical) charge.

Third, a design can be differenced from another by its orientation. This differencing can easily go unnoticed elsewhere but is considered significant in Japan. One example of this is evident in the kamon employed by Katagiri Katsumoto. His kamon is within an annulus, two hawk feathers in saltire (Pl. 6, Col. 2, Row 1). However, which of the tow feathers is on top is significant. Similarly, the crossing pattern of the two triangles in the Star of David would be significant, as is the direction of the tail in the triple whirlpool design popular in Japanese armory.

Another difference between Japanese armory and Western armory is the greater popularity of beasts regardant as in the kamon known as Nanbe Cranes (Pl. 3, Col. 3, Row 1) and the use of radial symmetry such as the triple fans born by Matsudaira Nobutsuna (Pl. 2, Col. 3, Row 4). Radial symmetry is also seen in the triple whirlpool design used by Kamou Ujisato (Pl. 2, Col. 3, Row 1) and the triple kashiwa leaf design of Yamuchi Katsutoyo (Pl. 6, Col. 3, Row 4).

Unfortunately, the accompanying roll is rather incomplete. However, all of the kamon depicted in this fragmentary roll was born by individuals who were significant in Japanese history. The roll does not contain the kamon borne by most of the generals present at the battle of Sekigahara. The use of kamon in this battle graphically illustrates both the lack of cadency in Japanese armory and the fact that kamon did not serve as a reliable means of identification on the battlefield. In this battle, Oda Hidenbou and Oda Nagamori both bore the Oda Kiuri (Pl. 1. Col. 1, Row 3) kamon which had been borne by Oda Nounaga, even though they were members of opposing armies. Thus, the arms of these two generals appear side by side in the roll. The majority if duplications of armory appearing in the roll are instances of unrelated individuals bearing identical armory.

Unfortunately, numerous technical difficulties were encountered during the preparation of this paper. Thus, while it is possible to precisely identify each of these pieces of armory that are attributed, it was not possible to provide proper attestation for all of them.

Bear in mind, while every effort was made to ensure that the name recorded for each kamon depicted in this article receive its correct pronunciation, alas, many of them are shown without either the name for the design or the correct pronunciation of the name of the person who bore it. This is not an article on onomastics and therefore should not be used to document any Japanese names.

In addition, the examples of kamon illustrated in this article belong to individuals of historical significance. The kamon from Plate 7 to the end (including the unattested examples) belong to generals and daimyou present at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

I sincerely hope that this short article will encourage others to study Japanese kamon.


Taniguchi Gyokusen, Sekigahara Gosen ni Manabu (Houzouji, 1983).

Yoshia Taiyou, Kamon Kakei Jiten (Shoubunsha, 1987).


Plate 1 (40K)
Plate 2 (40K)
Plate 3 (40K)
Plate 4 (40K)
Plate 5 (40K)
Plate 6 (40K)
Plate 7 (40K)
Plate 8 (40K)
Plate 9 (40K)
Plate 10 (40K)
Plate 11 (40K)

Editted by Avelina Keyes and Arval Benicoeur. Published by the Academy of Saint Gabriel