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Family-crest master fears he’s one of a dying breed

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Dressed in a black kimono and wearing a pair of eye-catching black, triple-framed spectacles, Shoryu Hatoba straightens his back as he sits on the tatami floor of his quaint studio in Ueno, central Tokyo, holding a pair of bamboo compasses fitted with a brush dipped in ink in place of a pencil.

Then he focuses his mind on his hand as he painstakingly describes the simplified outline of a plover. It’s not just any bird drawing he’s doing, though, but part of a family crest. Long an integral part of Japanese culture, these emblems were formerly in widespread use to mark people’s clothes, possessions and even buildings.

But 56-year-old Hatoba is now one of a dying breed of monshō uwae shi (family-crest painters and designers). “I’m an endangered species,” the Tokyo native concedes.

That’s because Japan is now on the verge of losing the tradition of making and preserving the ritual or everyday use of kamon (family crests) — which pretty much everyone in the nation once had. That’s despite the fact that its first known family crests date from the eighth century, when nobles at the Imperial court, and then samurai warriors, started using them as badges of identity or ownership.

But unlike in the West, where family crests were exclusively for the nobility, in Japan their adoption grew exponentially during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and especially during its economically and culturally vibrant golden age known as the Genroku era (1688-1704), Hatoba explains.

Then everyone, but men mostly, started featuring them in whatever design they liked on their kimono. That even included commoners — who mostly had no family names at all until a law in the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912) required everyone to have one — though Hatoba says women were generally late to the kamon party, only adopting them at the end of the Edo Period.

Today, at least 20,000 family crests are on record, though if others in use were to be included, the total would become many multiples of that, explains Hatoba, the third-generation owner of Kyogen, a family-crest business founded in 1910.

The crests’ motifs are derived from a wide range of plants, birds and other animals. For example, designs featuring omodaka (arrowhead), a perennial freshwater plant with leaves shaped like the business end of an arrow, were favored by warriors who believed they would bring them victories. Dragonflies, too, were popular for the same reason, being considered a “winning insect” as they never retreat, Hatoba explained.

Sadly, despite such rich traditions, the trade of designing and painting crests is on the decline. Many Japanese — even those who wear kimono today — pay little attention to their forebears’ family emblems, he says.

“I’m one of very few people who makes a living solely out of family crests,” Hatoba says. “Others have switched to completely different things, like working in a convenience store by day and doing whatever kamon painting they can get from clients at night.”

As a profession, monshō uwae shi demands microscopic attention to detail and command of many sophisticated techniques — not to mention aesthetic sensibilities. And, as Hatoba explains, a crest’s component parts all have to be rendered in a circular design on average only 38 mm in diameter for men’s kimono, and 21 mm for women’s. Interestingly, too, the number of crests on a kimono ranges from one to five — with more crests reflecting an occasion’s greater formality.

Hatoba, who apprenticed under a kamon craftsman for five years before opening his shop, is determined to keep the tradition alive. To do that, he has collaborated with creators and corporations in various genres, featuring kamon designs on everything from bags to boxes of wagashi (traditional Japanese) sweets.

One example of his recent handiwork is a silk pouch-style bag adorned with a family crest in Swarovski crystals. After creating a design for the crest on his computer, he then manually glued each stone onto the bag.

Another of his ideas is to turn the crests into artworks to be framed and displayed like paintings — by featuring them against a background of Edo komon patterns, which are often seen on textiles and characterized by small dots and repetitious tiny motifs.

Most recently, a think tank affiliated with the Itochu Corp. trading house asked him to design five embossed kamon designs for white paper boxes containing five “futuristic wagashi” each, to be handed out at a party the think tank held earlier this month.

In line with the concept for the sweets to be served at five different times of the day, he designed each crest to reflect the time-counting system during the Edo Period, when a day was divided into 12, with the first six marking the hours from dawn to sunset, and the second six from sunset to dawn. For example, at dawn people learned the time from listening to the bell in a community being rung six times in a row, so he divided the circle into six, and featured six equal-size leaves of the mallow plant inside it. For the day’s third sweet, to be served around 3 p.m. — when a bell would have been rung eight times — he drew a design of eight bunches of wisteria in a circle.

“The beauty of family crests lies in the symmetry and regularity of their design, and there is an enormous variety in the patterns,” Hatoba said. “It’s a shame if we lose them. I want to pass them on to future generations — in as beautiful a form as possible.”

Hatoba will show and sell his kamon works at a craftsmanship fair in the 7th-floor event hall of the Mitsukoshi Department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, from June 25 through July 2. Some of his other new works, including furniture and pottery, will also be on sale. For more information, visit his website at www.kyo-gen.com.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    I’d apprentice with him! I would honestly love to apprentice with a Japanese craftsman – it’s a slow and bitter road, but it is a rewarding one.