Originally, “mon” or family crests were used in Japan in much the same way that nobles in Europe used heraldic devices. Imperial court families have been recorded using “mon” in the 8th century, but the practice was not very widespread or rigorous. With the rise of the samurai class, there was a greater need for identification of friend and foe and “mon” proved popular and easy forms of identification. The wars of the centuries prior to the peace of the Edo period spread the popularity of crests throughout the samurai class and also saw the nobility adopt the custom.
Family crests became highly developed and popular during the Warring States and Edo periods, but can be found mentioned as far back as the Nara period (710-794) in the imperial court. Early crests were often simple: the 12th century wars between the Minamoto and the Taira families took place under simple red and white banners (friendly competitions in schools or on television are still conducted under these colors).
Crests began to be identified with particular warrior families. The Tokugawa, for example, adopted the hollyhock as its crest while the 16-petal chrysanthemum became the imperial family’s. As the prestige of the samurai rose, use of crests spread further; they were eventually adopted by all the court nobility who applied their standards of taste to the design of crests. Their influence essentially imprinted crest designing with strict standards of beauty and simplicity which nevertheless succeed in producing refined levels of creativity pleasing to the eye then and now.
During the peace of the Edo period, “mon” attracted the attention of the merchant, the peasant, and the artisan classes. And just as samurai used crests as family identification as well as on battle standards, weapons and armor, these classes also used “mon” in their work as well as for their families. Merchants and artisans put crests on items of business; bills and invoices as well as the actual items produced. Wine was labeled with the company’s “mon” or cakes with the producer’s crest. They also used “mon” on their clothing after the manner of the samurai. Even richer peasants adopted crests although few of them had the right to bear a family surname until that right was extended to them in the Meiji period. Every prosperous farmer had a “kura” (store house) and on the front and probably on the roofing tiles, he would put his “mon”. The ruling samurai class objected, of course, to the appropriation of symbols of great importance to them. Specific complaints were directed at use of a prominent family’s crest and general complaints objected to the lower classes using crests at all. Neither complaint was effective; even the hollyhock of the Tokugawa house was appropriated. In this way, “mon” began to develop into trademarks but without the legal framework which protects modern trademarks from being stolen or misused.
Crests became more than family identifiers; they were also awarded in return for exceptional service to a lord. The design was often reworked for this purpose in order to both bring into the extended family the loyal retainer as well as to maintain a visible difference between the true family and the retainer’s descendants.
Crests also developed into an art form. Great effort was spent refining variations of specific designs so that although there are only about 250 basic designs, there are at least twenty times that number of “mon” and probably many more that have been forgotten, lost, or destroyed. By the end of the Edo period, family crests were liberally festooned on clothes, food, packages, wrapping paper, wood block-prints, roof tiles, and so on. Even peasant families, at least the richer ones, in small post-towns along the Nakasendo indulged in use of crests with as much pride as the samurai. In the modern period, use of crests as family crests began to die out; as Japanese clothing gave way to Western clothing, there was no longer any place to wear a “mon”. Their use as trademarks and their service as models for design and taste in developing trademarks, however, has remained strong.
Today, there are no limits on ordinary people using “mon” and whether walking along the Nakasendo or through the city streets, crests can be seen everywhere. Companies have adopted crests as company logos which are festooned on packaging, containers, and advertising. Advertisements on wooden boards from the turn of the century had stylized “mon” burned into them just as today’s plastic cases for beer, sake or soy sauce have them molded on.