This site is a mirror of the original site, made in 2022 by Heraldry of the World. The original site is unaltered. This mirror functions as an archive to keep the material available on-line.
All rights remain with the late Hubert de Vries, the original site owner.



Japanese Symbols of Government



Japanese Symbols of Government


The Symbol of the Empire

The Achievement of State


The Symbol of the Emperor

The Symbols of the Shoguns


Shansu no Shiki, the Three Treasures




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. [1])



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.



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).



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)



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 Treasures.


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 Emperor Meiji.




Front 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 Bear,

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.


A 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 longevity.


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 and Japan.


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



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) [2])



The phoenix (hoo) is the symbol of the head of the administrative hierarchy. This office was held by the empress.


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.





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 dragon.


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 crane (tsuru).





1. Cosmic Symbols



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 passage:

“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. [3]]






In 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




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).[4]

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. [5]

Chinese jian


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 Buddhist prayer beads in the Nara period.

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.



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.

The 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




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 Enthronement ceremonies.

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.” [6]]


Back to Main Page

© Hubert de Vries 2008-10-03

Updated 2010-04-02

[1] ) Ceremonial Costumes an Treasures of the Emperors of Japan. Apeldoorn, 2000,  p. 101

[2]) 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

[3] ) Matsunami, N: The National Flag of Japan. Tokyo, 1928, pp. 13-14.

[4] ) Enthronement  of the one hundred twenty-fourth Emperor of Japan. Tokyo, 1928. Pp. 63-65.

[5] ) China, Hemel en Aarde.  Brussel, 1982. P. 198. 

[6] ) Ibid. p. 84.

Flag Counter In cooperation with Heraldry of the World