Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Enchanting Edo: Craftsmen strive to protect 'kamon' family crest for modern Japan and world

A publication from the Edo period shows directions on how to draw family crests, as seen in this photo from the National Diet Library Digital Collections.
'Monsho uwae-shi' craftsman Shoryu Hatoba is seen drawing a traditional family crest onto kimono fabric in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)
A traditional Japanese compass made of bamboo and a superfine brush used by craftsmen to make 'kamon' family crests is seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- Most families in Japan have logos with unique patterns, called "kamon," passed down as proof and representation of one's lineage. Although the crests are not often seen in homes anymore, the distinctive emblems are usually engraved on tombs and other places commemorating ancestors. Two craftsmen in Tokyo are working to preserve this Japanese tradition in the modern day.

    Shoryu Hatoba, 63, and his son Yoji, 36, craftsmen at Kyogen, a workshop near the capital's Ueno area, inscribe family crests onto kimonos. Their profession's official name is "monsho uwae-shi." According to Shoryu, there are at least 50,000 types of patterns used in kamon crests, with common motifs including astronomical patterns like the moon and stars, plants and trees, animals, samurai armor and other instruments, and abstract patterns. Although there are emblems depicting animals such as horses, rabbits, birds, dragons, shrimp and crabs, there are apparently no patterns featuring dogs, cats, cows, mice, or fish.

    Kamon crests are said to have been used from the latter part of the Heian era, or from the late 11th century to the end of the 12th century. The Fujiwara clan, which occupied central positions in the imperial government, grew and divided into different branches. Family crests unique to each group were created using wisteria and peony motifs, and the crests were then put onto clothing and ox-drawn carriages to indicate who and what belonged to which family. As families branched out, subtle differences arose in designs using the same motif, and the emblems grew in variety.

    Kamon crests became widespread during the Edo period (1603-1868). Although individuals belonging to the samurai warrior class were allowed to have family names, common people were only officially authorized to have first names. However, family crests could be used freely among all social classes. Kimono was the attire worn by Japanese people at the time; samurai warriors' formal dress was "mon-tsuki hakama," which translates to "hakama with an attached emblem," and had family crests adorned on them. Merchants made extensive use of kamon as logos for their shops. Common people were also easily able to include family crests on their clothing or belongings.

    An emblem depicting a horse which was drawn on the computer by applying the traditional technique of family crests is seen in this photo provided by Shoryu Hatoba. The drawing was apparently completed using a total of 250 circles.
    Tools used to draw 'kamon' family crests, including a traditional Japanese compass made of bamboo called "bunmawashi," a ruler, a glass rod, and a superfine brush, are seen in this photo taken in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    "The kamon family crest, owned by shogun and daimyo feudal lords, was most likely a status symbol and object of admiration among ordinary Edo people who could neither read nor write. Family crests were also included on made-to-order garments, and served as markers of ownership," said Shoryu. His craftsman title "monsho uwae-shi" includes the term "uwae" (which loosely translates to "upper picture") which signifies the drawing of emblems onto kimonos.

    Originally, "uwae" denoted a picture that serves as a "finishing touch," as opposed to "shitae," (which loosely translates to "lower picture") which means "rough sketch." One could say that "uwae-shi" that add in family crests are craftsmen that put the finishing touches to belongings, thereby turning them into items unique to each family.

    In the past these craftsmen could be found in any town, but the usage of kamon crests dropped significantly with the arrival of Western culture to Japan, and people no longer wore kimonos during the Meiji period. After World War II, traditional family structures under the "ie" system were abolished, and the traditional concept of membership in clans diminished amid a growing trend toward nuclear families. In the decade between 1965 and 1974, silk-screen printing technology began to be used in kimonos. Now, only a handful of craftsmen making hand-drawn kamon emblems remain in the country.

    This sample image provided by Kyogen shows a 'kamon,' or a traditional Japanese family crest, which is said to have been used by the family of 16th century lord Takeda Shingen.
    This sample image provided by Kyogen shows a 'kamon,' or a traditional Japanese family crest, depicting wisteria.
    A family crest made by cutting folded paper to a template is seen in this photo taken in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    At their workshop, the kamon craftsmen showed this Mainichi Shimbun reporter the actual process of drawing family crests onto kimono fabric. The only tools they used were a calligraphy brush, a traditional Japanese compass made of bamboo called a "bunmawashi," and a ruler. The craftsmen said that in general, any complex design can be rendered with just these tools for drawing circles and lines -- after all, it is a traditional art handed down since the Edo period. The traditional compass, one arm of which has a brush, was being used with precision to draw a meticulous crane pattern onto a cloth. "Even schoolchildren can do this kind of activity, if they have a compass and a ruler. I'd like them to give it a try," said Shoryu.

    Worksheets for making kamon patterns, and links to videos that show the drawing process, can be found on the studio's website. Kyogen has also designed a kit that allows people to engage in traditional paper-cutting activity Monkirigata, which was enjoyed in the Edo period. Users can cut folded paper based on a template to create their own family crest. Shoryu commented, "Monkirigata, which creates complex designs through simple methods, is a very creative activity which appeals to kids and adults."

    In recent years, the craftsmen of two generations have been actively creating works that arrange this traditional technique into a modern style, including arranging and designing family crests for costumes and architectural walls, and also putting on laser shows using traditional logos. It may be a source of Japanese pride to discover that kamon crests were the inspiration behind clothing designs shown at a prestigious Western fashion show.

    Although the craftsmen's main profession is drawing family crests onto kimonos, they say that their recent work has primarily consisted of creating designs incorporating the kamon motifs. Yoji said, "We're often introduced overseas as designers or artists."

    He went on, "Kamon has a unique way of using space that can also be applied to a modern design sense. It is indeed rich and profound. We'd like to put this beautiful form into practice within our modern lives, instead of having it remain dormant. I think that this is our duty."

    This traditional Japanese design, which has a history lasting over 1,000 years, also seems to be serving as a source of new designs that will make their way around the entire world.

    'Monsho uwae-shi' craftsman Shoryu Hatoba, left, and his son Yoji are seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    For more information, visit Kyogen's website at

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    Kyogen is also featured in the online museum exhibition "Edo Tokyo Rethink," a project directed by a contemporary artist in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, that provides a unique perspective on Japanese traditional art and culture. The online exhibition, as well as Kyogen's feature page, can be accessed via the following links.

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media