NIHON / JAPAN
Symbols of Government
Japanese Symbols of Government
The Achievement of State
The Symbol of the Emperor
The Symbols of the Shoguns
The Japanese symbols of government
are of two kinds. The first is the Chinese system, and is said to be
introduced in the Nara-period (710-784) and copied from the contemporary
Chinese T´ang system. It is more likely however that this system was only
introduced in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and was inspired by the
symbolism of the Qing-dynasty (1644-1912). It is characteristic for the
Sakoku-period (1641-1868) The other is the Japanese system, introduced in the
Meiji era and inspired on a supposed pre-Nara-period system. Different from these
two systems is the typically Japanese mon-system of family crests
which was also introduced in government symbolism in the Meiji era.
The Chinese system was abandoned at the occasion of the enthronement of Emperor Meiji. The traditional ceremonial dress of Chinese design, the raifuku, was replaced then by cermonial dress in traditional Japanese sokutai style. )
THE CHINESE SYSTEM IN JAPAN.
In the Chinese symbols of
government there are cosmic symbols, symbols of the executive powers and
symbols of rank.
I. The Empire, the State and the Ruler
Like in many other societies in
Chinese society, the Empire is symbolized by the sun, the State by a moon and
the Ruler by his image.
1. THE SUN
The sun is depicted as a red disc.
Sun (hi). The circular red
“rising sun” first appeared as a popular decorative pattern on fans in the
early Heian Period (794-1185). It was not adopted as a national emblem until
1854, and the Japanese “rising sun” flag was
not designed until 1870. Even
as an imperial symbol, the sun was not conspiciously emphasized until around
the beginning of the thirteenth century, when gold and silver embroidered
circles representing the sun and the moon respectively were displayed on the
emperor’s brocade banners. The solar symbol derived, of course, from
Japan’s legendary origins and the alleged genesis of the imperial line from
the Sun Goddess. Despite its belated formalization as an imperial and then
national emblem, however, surprisingly few families adopted the sun, or sun-and-sun-in-rays,
as a family emblem (Dower n°s 111-115).
2. THE MOON
The moon is depicted as a white
disc, sometimes also as a white crescent.
Moon (tsuki) One of the most familiar poetic images of Japan,
the moon was used as a design or crest not only for its elegant associations,
but also in some cases for religious or even martial reasons. Many epithets
play with this imagery. Thus elegant prose and poetry was described as fugetsu,
“wind-moon”; Kyoto in ancient times was known as Tsuki
no miyako, City of the Moon, in reference to the imperial presence there;
and in Buddhism, the moon symbolized wisdom or the Buddhist law, and one
reads of the “moon of enlightenment”. […] Those versed in Chinese geomancy
knew the moon as a manifestation of yin, the passive female force of
the universe, while Buddhists associated the moon with the Boddhisattva and protective war deity Myoken.
(Dower, p. 41)
3. THE IMAGE
There are no pictures of Japanes
emperors in ceremonial dress accompanied by a sun and a moon. In this respect
the Japanese Emperors are an exception to the rule. It seems that no
portraits of ruling Emperors were made because the image of the prince could
be the subject of black magic. Before
the Kamakura-period no portraits of Emperors were made at all but later a
tradition of posthumous portraits developed. On these portraits the Emperor
is always depicted in court dress but never in ceremonial dress. Nevertheless a ceremonial dress existed,
inspired by Chinese examples. The last Emperor actually inthroned in this
kind of ceremonial dress was Komei.
There is a complete ceremonial dress in Chinese style in the Imperial
In tegenstelling tot Japan werden
er in Korea, waaraan Japan in cultureel opzicht veel heeft te danken, wel
staatsieportretten gemaakt. Er zijn ook afbeeldingen van koninklijke
audienties. Hierbij zat de koning vóór een scherm waarop een rode zon en een
witte maan boven een bergachtig landschap. Zulke schermen, die tesamen met de
vorst dus een afbeelding vormen van het Rijk, de vorst, de staat en het
territorium zijn uit Japan niet bekend.
II The Executive Powers
The three executive powers, the
religious, administrative and armed power, are considered as functions of the
sun, the moon and the stars. The symbols of the three powers are depicted on
the Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the
emperor. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period
(710-784) when the court-ceremonials were designed. In 1868 a new imperial
robe of Japanese design was introduced for the enthronement ceremonies of
of the outer robe of
the ceremonial court costume of emperor Kōmei (r. 1846-1866).
19th century. (Imperial
Collections of Japan).
The Constellation of the Great
as on the back of the raifuku.
The spirit of the sun is
symbolized by a crow, sometimes with three feet.
Crow (karasu). In Chinese and Japanese mythology, the crow is
associated with the sun. Jimmu (660 B.C. / = 40 -10 B.C), Japan’s
semilegendary first emperor, was visited by such a divine bird during his
migration from Kyushu to the Yamato (present Nara Prefecture) area. In later
centuries, the crow became the sacred envoy of Kumano Shrine, and because of
this association, several parishioners adopted it as a family crest.
Traditional Japanese versions of the crow are hardly distinguishable from
renderings of other birds such as the pigeon.
sun charged with a crow is the symbol of religious authority.
The spirit of the moon is
symbolized by a rabbit and a toad.
Rabbit (usagi) The white rabbit has numerous auspicious
and quasi-religious associations in Japanese tradition. It was regarded as
embodying the spirit of the moon: it appears in the myth cycle related in the
Nikon Shoki; and it was associated in some early texts (e.g., the
Heian-period Engishiki) with the tortoise and crane as a symbol of
A toad or frog is absent in
Japanese mon-art and is certainly of Chinese origin. A crescent
charged with a toad and a rabbit is known from 2nd century B.C.
China. A moon charged with a toad and
a rabbit is the symbol of administrative authority. The moon of the
ceremonial dress of Emperor Komei is charged with a vase with
Paulownia-flowers between the two beasts.
Stars are depicted as small white
discs. On the emperors´ dress there are seven stars arranged into the
constellation of the Great Bear. The Seven Stars symbol is of very ancient
origin, it was common in 9th
century B.C. Assyria where it seems to have symbolized the “Seven
Gods”or the Pleiades. It is probable that with the Seven Gods actually were
meant seven Urartian vassals. From Assyria and the Middle -East the symbol of
the seven stars seems to have spread by cultural diffusion to the Far-East
Stars (hoshi). Superstitious Japanese of the Nara
and Heian periods took readily to the astrology and geomancy of the Chinese
tradition, and stars played a conspicious role in this tangled spiritual
realm. Each person had his own
particular guardian star determined by his date of birth. Similarly,
certain stars and constellations had their own particular associations and
were believed capable of exerting protective influence. Picture scrolls of
these early centuries reveal the circular “star” pattern to be one of the
most common motifs on the costumes and carriages of the aristocracy. The
design was further popularized by the warrior class, and for similar reasons:
it was auspicious, graceful, and easy to identify. A depiction of three
stars, for example, was associated with Orion and called the “three warriors”
or “stars of the generals” in both
Chinese and Japanese. In a similar manner, seven or more stars were
associated with worship of Ursa Major, a practice adopted from China in the
early Heian period (794-1185) and gradually worked into Buddhist belief - and
particularly belief in the Boddhisattva and protective war deity Myoken.
(Dower, p. 43)
From l. to r.: Three stars called
Three Warriors; Six stars featuring on the Empress’ headdress; Seven stars
called the constellation of the Great Bear.
III. Symbols of Rank
1. THE DRAGON AND THE PHOENIX
The Ruler is symbolized by a
dragon on the one side, and a phoenix on the other side thus demonstrating
the dualism of the function of the ruler.
The dragon (ryu) is the
symbol of the highest rank of the military hierarchy. This position was held
by the emperor himself.
Dragon (ryu). according to Japanese reference
sources, the uninitiated can recognize a dragon by the following
characteristics: 9,981 scales on its back; four legs and five claws per foot;
horns like a deer; eyes like a demon; ears like a cow; beard; protruding jaw;
and ferocious expression. It is variously reported as residing either in
water or clouds, but in either case it is capable of leaping through the
heavens, where it controls the thunder and summons the rain. The dragon is
one of the most ancient of all images in China, and is traditionally
associated with the unicorn, phoenix and tortoise as one of the four auspicious creatures. Both its imperial and
Buddhist associations were transferred to Japan, and it was particularly
associated with Zen. In a legend possibly based on the discovery of iron in
Japan, the Kojiki recounts how the
god Susano-o slew an eight-headed dragon and found a sword embedded in its
tail. As a design, the dragon can be represented by its tail, and scales. A
variant representation, the amaryu,
or “rain dragon,” was also used in Japanes heraldry. (Dower, p, 93) )
The phoenix (hoo) is the symbol
of the head of the administrative hierarchy. This office was held by the
Phoenix (hoo). Fortunately for art, depiction
of the mythological phoenix did not maintain fidelity to its legendary description:
front of the body like a goose; rear like a unicorn; head like a snake; tail
like a fish, or alternatively a dragon; back like a tortoise; neck like a
swallow; and beak like a chicken. The phoenix allegedly was seen only when a
virtuous ruler appeared; that is, almost never.
2. THE JAPANESE DRAGON AND THE CRANE
Japanese dragon (ryu) on
the sleeves of the raifuku.
As the emperor of the East was of
a lower rank than the supreme Emperor of the Middle, also the symbols of his
rank were of a lesser degree than the dragon and the phoenix of the Chinese
Emperor. On the raifuku Japanese dragons are embroidered which are
identical to the Chinese dragons but have only three claws on their feet, one
of their forepaws having four, instead of the five claws of the Chinese
Also, the administrative rank of
the Japanese emperor was somewhat lower than the rank of the Chinese emperor.
In fact the Japanese emperor was classified as a civil servant of the first
rank in the Chinese administrative hierarchy. We can see this on the sun in
splendour on the benkan or imperial crown which is charged with a
II THE JAPANESE SYSTEM
1. Cosmic Symbols
A. COSMIC SYMBOLS IN JAPANESE
A flag with a sun (hino-maru)
was first used on the first day of the first month of the first year of Taiho
(702). The Wakan Sansai Dzuye says: “The Emperor Mommu, on the first
day of the first month of the first year of Taiho, held a court in the
Taikyoku Hall, when at the front gate there was set up a banner with the
figure of a crow; on the left, banners with images of the sun, of the azure
dragon, and of the red bird; and on the right, banners with images of the
moon, of the black turtle and of the white tiger.”
Another book says:
“In ancient times, on the first
day of the year and on the occasion of a coronation, there was set up, in
front of the Hall, a flag with the image of a bird; on the left, flags with
images of the sun and of the red bird.”
In the Taiheiki there is a
“In the beginning of the Genko Era
(A.D. 1331-1382) the Emperor (i.e. Kogon 1331-1333) set up on Mt. Kasagi a
brocaded flag with gold and silver images of the sun and the moon.”
Again it is said that the flag
which one of the Emperors of the Southern Dynasty (1336-1392)
bestowed upon the family of Gojo of Chikugo was a kind of pennant, and
that one of the streamers bore the device of a golden crow, symbolic of the
sun, and the other that of a hare, symbolic of the moon. ]
B. COSMIC SYMBOLS IN MODERN JAPAN
modern Japan the symbols of the ranges of authority are not
worn on the ceremonial dress of the emperor but are a part of the hair
ornaments (on-kamiage-gu) of the court costume for the enthronement ceremony
of the empress. They consist of a three-rayed sun, the disc charged wit six
stars, and a hair-comb in the form of a crescent.
2. The Executive Powers
A. THE THREE SACRED TREASURES
The three executive powers in modern
Japan are symbolized by the so-called Three Sacred Treasures (Sanshu no
Shinki) belonging to the Japanese regalia and kept for centuries in
temple treasure-houses (shoso-in).
It is said that the Sanshu no
Shinki go back to the sun-goddess Amaterasu and are handed over through the
ages from one emperor tot the next. It is probable that the tradition of
these regalia was re-invented after the Meiji revolution when the Chinese
symbolic system was abandoned altogether.
The Three Sacred Treasures consist of a mirror (for the
administrative power), a sword (for the armed power), and a string of curved
beads (for the religious power).
The actual Three Sacred Treasures
and Imperial Regalia.
The three sacred treasures legitimate
the authority of the imperial throne and are
said to symbolize the virtues of wisdom,
courage, and benevolence.
Mirrors with a polished surface on
one side and cosmic symbols on the other side are intermediaries connecting
the individual and the cosmos. Such mirrors are known from the end of the
Warring States Period in China (475-221 BC) and were used until the Q’ing-dynasty (1644). They were
given to civil servants at the Emperors birthday. The oldest ones just show a
circular pattern that can be interpreted as a sun. Younger specimen show a
sun in the form of a semisphere in the middle, surrounded by figures
symbolizing heaven. Sometimes the figures are abstract and show a
compass-card with the eight directions
of the wind. On others the sun is surrounded with the twelve signs of the
zodiac. From about the Han Dynasties (207 B.C. - 220 AD) the four wind
directions are symbolized by a tortoise for the North, a dragon for the East,
a phoenix for the South and a tiger for the West. In the Tang dynasty (618-907) these symbols
were reduced to one or two dragons, the combination of dragons and sun symbolizing the “Emperor of
the East”, and the “Imperial Government of the East”. In this form the mirror
is the intermediary between the emperor and his officials. From this time
also, we know eight-lobed mirrors, the lobes symbolizing the eight
wind-directions. The eight-lobed form
of mirror was adopted in the 19th century as the mirror in the
heraldic device of the Japanese empire.
The Japanese Sacred Mirror as
illustrated here is of a type common in the Eastern Han period (25-220 AD).
It shows a sun and an eight directions-symbol. However we can not be sure
this is the original mirror or one of its replica´s.
Kusanagi-no-tsurugi is actually called Ame
no Murakumo no Tsurugi (litt. “Sword of gathering clouds of heaven")
but it is more popularly called Kusanagi (lit. “grasscutter” or more probably
“sword of snake”). It may also be called Tsumugari no Tachi. The
actual Kusanagi, if it exists, is likely to be a sword of the Roman spatha-type
which is typically double-edged, short and straight; very different from the
more recent katana backsword style. It has the form of the Chinese jian,
itself derived from the Scythian akinake and introduced about 500 BC. 
This kind of sword is not depicted in
Japanese mon-art. In crests a broad, double edged blade of Chinese
origin was depicted.
Magatama, are curved beads which first appeared
in Japan during the Jomon period, around circa 1000 BCE and in Korea (where
they are called Gogok or Kokkok) during the Prehistoric period, mainly in the
Bronze Age and Neolithic.
They are often found inhumed in mounded
tumulus graves as offerings to deities. They continued to be popular with the
ruling elites throughout the Kofun Period of Japan, and are often
romanticised as indicative of the Yamato Dynasty of Japan. Some consider them
to be an Imperial symbol, although in fact ownership was widespread
throughout all the chieftainships of Kofun Period Japan. It is believed that magatama
were popularly worn as jewels for decoration, in addition to their religious
meanings. In this latter regard they were later largely replaced by
In modern Japan, the magatama's
shape of a sphere with a flowing tail is still the usual visual
representation of the human spirit (hitodama). Wearing one during life
is considered a way of gaining protections from kami.
In this mon we recognize the three
symbols of power: the yin-yang-symbol of religion, the crossed swords of the
armed power and the mirror of administrative power.
B. THE OFFICIALS
The executive powers were
monopolized for centuries by only a few Japanese families. The imperial
family after the the Heian period had to content itself largely with a
ceremonial religious role. In fact the regime in Japan from 1185 until 1868
was a military government directed by a shogun or supreme commander.
Only in some interim-periods the administration was delegated to a regent.
The symbol of the emperor is a
chrysantemum, kiku, which is obviously a solar symbol which can be
associated with the Empire itself and the religious power as well After the Meiji Revolution the symbol
became treated as a family-symbol, the members of the imperial family
(members of the House of Peers) bearing different versions of the kiku-mon.
The administration was for about a
century controlled by the Hojo-family (1203-1333). In this time the paulownia
(kiri) became popular. During the Ashikaga-shogunate (1338-1573) the
paulownia was frequently bestowed to the shoguns and the imperial regent
Toyotomi Hideyoshi made it to his preferred mon. From this we may
conclude that the kiri-mon was closely associated with the administrative
power executed by the Hōjō regency, the Ashikaga-shogunate and the
imperial regent at the end of the 16th century. The fact that the
Hojo- and Ashikaga families also used family crests makes it the more
probable that the kiri-mon has to be associated exclusively with the
office of head of the administrative power.
In the meantime there seems not to
have been a symbol exclusively for the office of supreme commander. Maybe
this has been the red solar disc as we may conclude from certain 17th
century pictures. In any case the ships of the would-be shogun at the Battle
of Sekigahara (1600) displayed banners
with the red solar disc (hi). Also we may take into account that the
first hinomaru (sunflags) were hoisted on war ships The family crests
of the shoguns were of a different kind. The Kamakura-shoguns of the
Genji-clan displayed a gentian (rindo), the Ashikawa clan a
stripe (hikiryo) and the Tokugawa-family a hollyhock (aoi). Th aoi-mon
is best known and was even made into a kind of state-symbol in the middle of
the nineteenth century.
configuration would be like this:
Supposed symbols of the tenno (emperor), shikken
(regent) and shogun (supreme commander):
1. chrysantemum: kiku-mon
2. paulownia: kiri-mon
3. red solar disc: hi
III Symbols of Rank
1. THE DRAGON AND THE PHOENIX
After the Meiji Revolution there
was no reason to continue the use of the Japanese dragon and the crane as
symbols of imperial rank, as Japan became to be considered as a fully sovereign
nation, independent of China. As a consequence a dragon with five claws and a
phoenix were introduced as symbols of imperial rank. We can see a dragon on a
golden 20-yen piece, minted 1870-1892. Dragons were also displayed on the
dragon belt (sekitai) of Emperor Meiji. After the Meiji-era however,
the dragon became obsolete as an imperial symbol.
Reverse of a golden piece of 20 yen,
1870-1892, showing a dragon. On
the obverse is the Japanese achievement of 1870.
Jewel of the Order of the Precious Crown (1888),
showing a new benkan with a phoenix instead of a crane.
Also the phoenix was introduced as
a Japanese imperial symbol. We can see this on the design of a new benkan,
which is on the jewel of the Order of the Precious Crown, founded by Emperor
Meiji in 1888. The new crown is of a different design as the benkan of
Emperor Komei, allegedly of the model of the early Kamakura-period. On the
new crown the crane is replaced by a phoenix, placed just below the sun. It
is not known if this crown actually exists.
We are informed that “The phoenix is inseparable from Japanese royalty. It crowns the Takamikura, the August High Seat,
the throne of the Emperor in his palace in Kyoto.
From its beak depends the sedge
umbrella which is held above the Emperor as he makes his stately progress to
the Yuki-den and the Suki-den, there to hold communion with the gods. It
surmounts the Imperial carriage in which His Majesty rides at the time of the
One of the chief halls of the
Imperial Palace in Tokyo is known as the Phoenix Hall, for this mythical bird
furnishes the art motif for the room’s decoration.” ]
© Hubert de Vries 2008-10-03
 ) Ceremonial Costumes an
Treasures of the Emperors of Japan. Apeldoorn, 2000, p. 101
Dower, John W: The Elements of Japanese Design. A Handbook of Familiy Crests,
Heraldry and Symbolism. Weatherhill Inc. New York/Tokyo, 1971. 170pp. ill.
With over 2700 crests drawn by Kiyoshi Kawamoto
 ) Matsunami, N: The National Flag of Japan. Tokyo, 1928, pp. 13-14.
 ) Enthronement of the one hundred twenty-fourth Emperor of Japan. Tokyo, 1928. Pp. 63-65.
 ) China, Hemel en Aarde. Brussel, 1982. P. 198.
 ) Ibid. p. 84.