Kamon — Japanese Traditional Identity Design

World of “Zen” like logos

Akihiro Takeuchi
Identity Design
Published in
5 min readJul 5, 2018


Photo by Yu Kato on Unsplash

If you have been traveled Japan or have seen movies of Samurai, you might have noticed simple and modern look symbols. That is Kamon, Japanese traditional symbol to identify an individual or family. Kamon is written 家紋 in kanji, and 家[ka] means “family” and 紋[mon] means “symbol”, “mark”, or “motif”.

As a Japanese graphic designer specialized in visual identity design, I have been always attracted by Kamon. So today, I would like to introduce you the world of Kamon.

Kamon History

The Origin

In Japan, a custom that we decorate objects with motifs had already begun around the Jōmon period (縄文時代 14,000–300 BC). The interesting fact is that Jōmon (縄文) means “cord-marked” because they decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay, which is among the oldest in the world. But we need to wait to see motifs looks like Kamon until Kofun period (古墳時代300-538). Kofun means mound tombs. You can see motifs with triangles which would become Mitsuuroko-mon (三つ鱗紋) later, at Ouzuka-kofun (王塚古墳) in Fukuoka prefecture. Through Asuka period (飛鳥時代 592–710) and Nara period (奈良時代 710–794), many patterns were imported from around China.

Left : Ouzuka-kofun, photo from Goraifuku | Right : Mitsuuroko-mon

It started in Heian period (平安時代 794–1185) that patterns which had been used for decorations or magic changed into Kamon. In that period, Kuge (公家 aristocratic class) started to use motifs to decorate and to identify their bullock carts. And as it became popular, it became symbols as Kamon to identify people or families.

Heiji monogatari emaki (The tale of Heiji) , Tokyo National Museum

Samurai and Kamon

Until Heian period (平安時代) it was aristocratic society. But at the end of the period, Bushi (武士 samurai) appeared and terminated Japanese ancient history. Like Kuge used Kamon, Buke (武家 military class) also started to use Kamon in the end of Heian period to distinguish among allies and enemies in the battle.

Sekigahara no Kassen Byōbu-zu, Gifu History Museum
Famous Kamon of Feudal Samurai Warlords (Shogun) on Encyclopedia JAPAN

Kamon for everyone

In the Edo period (江戸時代 1603–1868), since there were few hard battles among samurai, the role of Kamon was changed to be a kind of symbol of authority. At that time, Japan was a hierarchical society of samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants(士農工商, shi nō kō shō ), so that Kamon was used to indicate social status. But unlike in Europe where only aristocrats were allowed to use emblems, everyone could use Kamon in Japan. Rather, the interesting fact is that ordinary people at that time were not allowed to use surname, though it doesn’t mean that they didn’t have, therefore they started to use Kamon to identify each other.

Kabuki actor Segawa Kikunojo IV (四代目 瀬川菊之丞) wearing a costume with his Kamon

In the very early Edo period, Kabuki (歌舞伎 Japanese dance-drama) was born. As the art form developed all-male theatrical form, though the founder was a woman, and the actors started to wear glamorous costumes on which they printed their Kamon. Also, merchants symbolized their business names and painted them on Noren (暖簾 Japanese fabric dividers). For instance Daimaru-Ya (大丸屋) used “大” (dai, “big”) in “丸” (maru, “circle”).

Ôdenmachô Daimaru gofukudana no zu (The Daimaru Dry-goods Store in Ôdenmachô), Utagawa Hiroshige, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

In this period, it became normal using Kamon on formal dress such as Hakama (袴) or Kamishimo (裃).

As Meiji period (明治時代 1868–1912) began, everyone became allowed to use surname and the caste system was abolished so there were less occasions to judge social statues by Kamon. Also, western culture was introduced so it seemed that Kamon would die out. However, western clothing didn’t become rapidly widespread and ordinary people instead used Kamon on clothing and tombstones.

Kamon in today

Yuzuru Hanyu, the gold medalist of figure ice skating in 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, was wearing Montsuki-Hakama when he was honored by the government of Japan.

After defeat in World War II, more people became interested in western culture, less familiar with Kamon. However, Montsuki-Hakama (紋付袴 Hakama with Kamon) is still the standard of formal dress.

Though it became less familiar for individuals, Kamon still works on today’s society. “Kikumon”— Kamon of Japanese emperor — is printed on Japanese passport. And many companies with long histories have Kamon based logos.

Japanese passport
Kamon of Japanese emperor “Kiku-mon” (kiku=Chrysanthemum) are printed.
Left: Mitsui & Co. (“Mitsui” is written “三井” in kanji) | Center: Sogo | Right: Mitsubishi Group (“Mitsu” means “three”, “bishi” means “diamond”)

And also, you can see many logos inspired by Kamon in today’s Japanese graphic design.

Left: COREDO Muromachi by Shoryu Hatoba, a Kamon designer | Right: Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games by Asao Tokoro , an enthusiast of Kamon

How and Who

Though it started widely using Kamon in the Edo period, it doesn’t mean everyone could draw it. Monsho-uwaeshi (紋章上繪師), referring an artisan who draw Kamon by hands on Kimono, became the tradition in that period. With a ruler and Bun-mawashi (分廻し bamboo compass with a superfine brush), the artisan creates Kamon with combinations of circles and lines.

As the rise of digital tools Monsho-uwaeshi is almost vanishing today, which led that the technique has been registered as an Intangible Cultural Property since 1975.

Voila! It was a short summary and if I write about Kamon’s “design”, definitely need 1 or 2 more articles. Anyway hope you enjoyed. As a Japanese identity designer, I also create Kamon style logos like the ones below. If you want to talk about designing your own, I will be here. 👍

Left: Kobushi | Right: Takasago



Akihiro Takeuchi
Identity Design

Identity designer for people makes positive impacts.