Posts tagged Kamakura period

Mon: Japanese Crests

Mon, or Japanese crests, are one of my favorite Japanese design elements. Mon served much the same purpose as European heraldry: they were used for identification on the battlefield, to mark personal property, and to show family relationships, and sometimes they were given by a superior as a mark of honor. Mon are much simpler, design-wise, then European devices, however. For one thing, mon are monochromatic: color is not considered part of a mon, and the same mon could be drawn white on black, blue on yellow, or any number of other combinations. Secondly, while European devices can be divided in all sorts of different ways and incorporate a large variety of charges, mon tend to be of a few simple designs: one to eight or so copies of a single element, possibly in an enclosure of some sort. There are some patterns that incorporate two elements, but mon never reached anywhere near the density of European devices. Mon favor plant motifs, with the animal motifs favored in Europe quite rare, with the main exception being occasional birds.(JM:Heraldry)

Design elements that would later be mon date back to the Nara period (710–784). These designs were initially used on carriages and clothing, and first saw widespread use in battle in the Kamakura period (1185–1333).(SH:7,12) They were used by the court nobility and by samurai up until the Edo period (1603–1868), when their use, under strict regulations, spread to actors and merchants. Mon are still used today, their clean designs lending themselves to corporate logos such as that of Mitsubishi, which is actually named for the mon used as its logo (“three diamonds”).

There are many interesting categories of mon I could discuss, but let me start with the big, obvious one: Imperial mon. The 16-petaled chrysanthemum has long been the symbol of the Imperial family. Some historians think it actually originated as a stylized sun, referring to the Imperial line’s heritage as descendants of the sun goddess. This was one of the few mon that had usage restrictions on it even before the Edo period; the mon proper was restricted to the Emperor’s household, with the variant of a 14-petaled chrysanthemum seen from the rear for imperial princes, and other variations used by other members of the imperial family at various times. Those who one the favor of the Emperor would sometimes be given permission to use a mon incorporating the chrysanthemum, such a crest being a symbol of imperial favor but also loyalty to the Emperor. Similarly, during their rule of Japan the Ashikaga shōgunate was given use of the paulownia (kiri) mon by the Emperor, and in turn would grant the right to use mon based on it to loyal followers.(SH:6)

16-petaled Chrysanthemum mon

Variations on the paulownia crest

Still, most mon were much less strictly defined, and I’ll discuss more about mon and variation another time.

Following Directions

A few weeks ago, I talked about Rokuyō, the six-day calendar cycle of varying auspiciousness. Another key part of Japanese astrology, or Onmyōdō1, was concerned with auspicious and inauspicious directons.(en.wp:Onmyōdō) Which directions were auspicious or inauspicious for a given person, along with monoimi (personally inauspicious days), were determined by Onmyōji, professional diviners licensed by the court. They depended both on the calendar and on the time of day, in a similar way to the Rokuyō.

These divinations weren’t limited to cardinal directions; 24 directions were used, associated with animals in the Chinese zodiac, the 10 calendar signs (each in turn a combination of one of the 5 elements2 and yin or yang), and one of the eight trigrams of the I Ching.(ja.wp:干支) These associations were often mapped out with ornate compasses along the lines of the following.
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O Auspicious Day

It’s a new year,1 and that means a new calendar. My new calendar, given to me by a mysterious benefactor, is a Japanese calendar with very nice pictures of Japanese castles. One thing I did not expect is for each date in the calendar to be annotated with an additional label in Japanese, in a mostly six-day cycle. It turns out that this is a system called Rokuyō (六曜) which came to Japan (from China, of course) towards the end of the Kamakura period.(ja.wp:六曜)

Rokuyō was supremely easy to use: just add the number of the lunar month to the number of the day in the month, and look at the remainder when divided by six.2

  1. Daian3 (大安): an auspicious day. Good for ceremonial occasions. The kanji literally mean “great peace”.
  2. Shakkō (赤口): unlucky except for the hours around noon, which are auspicious. Be careful with fire and sharp things. Literally “red mouth” (a Taoist reference).
  3. Senshō (先勝): lucky in the morning, but inauspicious in the afternoon; getting things done quickly is advised. Literally “victory before”.
  4. Tomobiki (友引): good day for trials and competitions, but bad for funerals. Lucky in the morning, unlucky around noon, and very lucky in the evening. Literally “friends pull”.
  5. Sembu (先負): basically the opposite of Senshō: unlucky in the morning and auspicious in the afternoon. Avoid haste and judgment. Literally “loss before”.
  6. Butsumetsu (仏滅): a very inauspicious day. Horrible for ceremonial occasions,4 but good for memorial services. Exercise restraint. Literally “Buddha’s death”.

The auspiciousness of a given day was a big deal. In fact, in much of Japanese history this and other astrological concerns were primary reasons for maintaining the calendar.(Lunar) Auspicious days were strongly favored for major events such as adopting a child, as recounted in the late-10th-century Kagerō Diary;(TJL:245) issuing a decree, as recorded in the 11th-century Tale of Flowering Fortunes;(CJP:206) and holding a wedding, as in the late Muromachi period street performers’ tale Shintokumaru.(TJL:1172)

In addition to ceremonial events, examples of travels being structured around these day categories can be seen in many places in Japanese literature. In the Kagerō Diary, we find, as the author sets out on a pilgrimage: “However, the day I decided on is inauspicious, so we make a pro forma start a day earlier, staying the night around the neighborhood of Hōshō Temple.”(TJL:230) The author goes to the trouble of spending the night at a temple in town to work around the restrictions of the Rokuyō. Similarly, in the Sarashina Diary, from around 1059, the author recounts making a similar preliminary start on a journey to the capital to allow the group to technically leave on the Daian instead of the Shakkō.(TJL:455)

The Japanese weren’t content with just this simple astrological system, however. In addition to the Rokuyō, there were days of abstinence (monoimi/物忌) for individual people, determined by astrologers, where one would stay isolated indoors, seeing no visitors, fasting, and generally abstaining from all activity.(TJL:256) Then we have auspicious and inauspicious directions, which also feature heavily in Japanese literature. We’ll explore those next week.

For now, if you’re ever wondering whether a particular day is a good day for an important undertaking, feel free to consult my Rokuyō script. I take no responsibility for your actual luck, however.

Footnotes »