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Down a narrow alley in the quiet neighborhood of East Ueno, Tokyo, a linen shop-curtain with a sign reading Monsho Uwaeshi flutters in the breeze.

Behind the curtain and through the sliding door, is the workplace of Shoryu Hatoba, 58, and his son Yohji, 31, respectively third- and fourth-generation designers of kamon (Japanese family crests).

Popularized since the 12th century by powerful clans using crest-emblazoned flags to identify themselves when riding into battle, kamon became useful as signifiers—at a glance—of family alliances. Gradually, having a crest conveyed the caché of belonging to a high-profile family, or of working for one.

Arti1By the Edo Period (1603–1869), kamon designs had proliferated and, unlike with European heraldry—the practice of creating, and granting the right to use coats of arms—people in Japan were free to choose a design, or have an original one created for them.

This is where the uwaeshi (kamon painter)—whose job it was to design and hand-paint family crests on montsuki (crest-embellished) kimonos—came in.

Arti2These days, with kimonos rarely worn and with cheap ways to print crests on fabric readily available, the job seems an anachronism.

“It’s really no easy thing to make a living designing kamon,” Hatoba admits, as we sit down to talk in his elegant studio. “That’s why there are very few of us left. Of those who design real kamon, in which the traditional rules are followed, my son and I are among the last.”
Still, Shoryu and Yohji, whose company, Kyogen, opened in 1910, are passionate about preserving the rich history of Japanese crests.

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“I still do a lot of work by hand,” Shoryu says, showing me a bunmawashi (bamboo compass designed for a brush) and mizoshiki (glass rod and grooved ruler guide), the tools of his trade.

“I don’t want to lose the skill,” he adds.

To keep the concept of kamon alive, Shoryu and his son have a varied approach. Their first—and most salient—tactic is to wear montsuki kimono, and to look smashing in them. Clothing may make the man, but kimono makes men visions of streamlined elegance. Kimono with kamon ups the game.

“There are 20,000 registered kamon designs, but far more than 50,000 designs exist,” Shoryu explains, showing me an antique washi (Japanese paper) book of categorized crests.

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“Each design carries metaphorical significance and utilizes an element from nature, usually arranged within a circular format,” he adds.

Pointing out one design, resembling a giant comma in a circle, he gives me a glimpse of the depths behind the designs.

“This one is called tomoe,” he says. “It’s one of the oldest designs, used by Emperor Ojin [15th emperor of Japan] and Hachiman shrines to the deity of war. The shape is a stylized tomo (forearm protector for archers).

That’s why samurai adopted it, too. Warriors would take whatever flower, bird, grass, or animal they favored and have it designed into the shape of the tomoe to impart strength to their family emblem.”

Shoryu’s second tactic is teaching people the rich history of kamon.

As we talk, he takes scissors in one hand and a gossamer sheet of folded washi in the other.

“With a single cut,” he says, “I will produce a classic kamon shape.” After one snip, he gingerly unfolds an intricate crest. “Children used to learn this in school,” he says, “but now I teach [it to] university students.” The study surely promotes dexterity, foresight, and mathematical calculation, to say nothing of keeping kamon alive in the minds of students.

I note that his son anticipates any tools or documents his father might need, wordlessly and swiftly providing them.

I ask Yohji if his upbringing was particularly strict. Laughing, he nods. “That’s true; but now it’s the other way around,” his father replies, nodding toward the computers in his studio.

Yohji has taught his father how to use various design programs to create both kamon and advertisements for their diversified products. Their relationship and interdependence, I sense, is crucial to the success of Kyogen.

The Hatobas have delicately sand-etched crests to the base of drinking glasses, made of wafer-thin Usuhari glasses and silk-screened kamon, on paper made by washi artisan Ichibei Iwano XI, a Japan government-certified Living National Treasure.

They have worked with Swarovski AG to create kimono kamon from tiny crystals, and burned crests into masu (celebratory wooden sake cups). Many of their products are elegant, refined, difficult to produce, and priced accordingly.

On the other hand, a kamon badge, their newest product, costs less than lunch: ¥500. “You can also purchase one packaged in a handmade paulownia presentation box for ¥3,500, but the concept,” explains Shoryu, “is to get kamon images into as many hands and minds as possible.” The product is portable, sturdy, and visually pleasing.

Shoryu’s real passion, though, is designing bespoke crests from scratch, a service which costs ¥80,000. On the computer, he shows me a bush warbler kamon he is refining.

“The warbler is fatter than you’d think,” he muses, “and it’s hard to get him neatly into the circle.”

He flipped through research photos of warblers and I realize he is right. Behind each crest, I learn, is a profound study of, and respect for, nature. Would that this were a sign of our times.

Arti-sense monthly haikuArtiHaiku

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Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.

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I note that his son anticipates any tools or documents his father might need, wordlessly and swiftly providing them.