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The art of kamon from Japan

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By Shirley Iida

Family crests called kamon give valuable insight into Japanese genealogy and can help inspire future generations to trace their roots from hundreds of years ago.

Some Japanese locals, like Bernice Hirai, display framed pictures of kamon in their homes to honor and share their ancestral lineage with others. Hirai bought her picture frame from the Iida’s store when it used to be in Ala Moana Center more than 25 years ago.

She has 2 kamon in one frame, her husband’s Hirai family crest on the left and her father’s Yamagata crest on the right. Hirai, 93, is an award-winning koto artist and adviser of the Hawaii Hiroshima Heritage Study Group that meets once a month to study Japanese genealogy.

Kamon originated from the feudal society of the late Heian Period in the 1100s. At that time, nobles made beautifully simple patterns of flowers, trees, plants and birds as symbols for their identity. Especially useful in times of conflict, these symbols appeared on samurai swords and armor, ceremonial formal attire, woodblock prints and roof tiles.

“Of course, in those days, they didn’t have such things as a television,” says Company President Robert Iida. “All they could use was their imagination.”

Japan later became a hierarchical society during the Edo Period, and kamon helped distinguish social ranking among samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants. In Europe, crests or what’s called “coat of arms” were used only among aristocrats. But in Japan, kamon’s popularity extended to commoners.

Today, there are more than 10,000 kamon with hundreds of symbols in slightly different variations, Iida said. Practically all families in Japan have one. Some common designs are derived from sakura, bamboo leaves, folding fans and flying cranes, just to name a few.

Other designs are officially designated. The crest of a chrysanthemum blossom with 16 petals is exclusive to Japan’s Imperial Family. The paulownia crest is reserved for the Prime Minister of Japan. Kamon are also used as company logos for Japan Airlines and Mitsubishi Group.

The Iida family has an “umebachi” kamon with a design of a plum in a bowl. The motif came from a group of earthenware merchants from a small district in Osaka during the Edo Period, Iida said. His grandfather, Suisan Matsukichi Iida, is from the district and emigrated to Hawaii in 1900. The plum blossom is the only flower strong enough to bloom and withstand the winter season, he said.

Then, there are families who don’t know their mon and have no idea where to start. Hirai suggests asking maternal relatives what prefecture their ancestors came from. Buddhist temple registries, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii’s Resource Center, Consulate General of Japan and LDS Mormon Church Family History Center are other excellent resources. Most importantly, she said, just start with what’s comfortable or familiar.

Hirai welcomes anyone to her group, which meets 10:00 a.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month at her home in Manoa, 2526 Ferdinand Avenue.

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