An Icon for Everyone: Shoryu Hatoba, Japanese Crest Artist

Having hardly any memory of my own family’s insignia, a kamon (Japanese family emblem) to me evokes the crests of powerful lords from TV period dramas. But according to monsho-uwaeshi (crest artist) Shoryu Hatoba, a family emblem is something that any Japanese person can have. Japanese crest artists developed from the Heian era. Today Hatoba has a studio in Tokyo’s Inaricho, near Ueno, and his emblems are rather different to classical designs, beautifully overlaid with geometrical patterns. We visited his studio to ask him about his work with crests and more.

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Yoji Hatoba (left), fourth generation crest artist, and Shoryu Hatoba (right), third generation

This is my first time to visit and I was struck by the harmony of the modern interior with a Japanese house. And the kimono you’ve got on now is a little unusual, isn’t it?

This kimono resembles the clothes of a kuroko (the stagehands in kabuki). Leather is used for the collar and obi. Ten years ago I got the idea from people I know to make kimono in a playful way. I dressed my son in the costume of a kabuki actor, and adding a cowl and mannifer to the kimono it became a kuroko.

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I didn’t used to wear kimono when I was young, but I thought I’d try to make a business out of wearing kimono when I started my company, so I bought yuki-tsumugi kimono and nobakama in Asakusa. But I didn’t know how to tie up the skirt so I looked online and discovered there was this casual kimono contest. I made alterations to the kimono and put on high-cut boots, and came second place. From then on I used to go out a lot in kimono and started playing around with making them. Around this time, I made a summer kimono with mosquito embroidery and a “watermelon” kimono.  shoryu-hatoba03

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Shoryu Hatoba standing outside his Tokyo studio, wearing his “watermelon” kimono.

The watermelon kimono is the color of the fruit’s skin on the outside, and then orange on the inside. On the back there is a watermelon motif for a seal. The obi (belt) is plain hemp that I bought from Tokyu Hands, folded over each other and with lappets sewed into it. I played around like this for half a year. For the kimono contest in 2001 I made a denim kimono and this won. Around this time, I created the kimono brand Wai, and a few of my products were displayed in United Arrows shop windows. After that I started to sell t-shirts with kamon and Swarovski wallets.

It all sort of spread from wearing a customized kimono, then?

Yes. This was from when I was fifty years old. I was wondering if I would just keep on going as an artisan. I thought about doing contemporary versions of the framed kamon my father made. I made the ‘Kamon Komon’ series with kamon crests drawn onto komon (kimono with intricate patterns) fabric, and then through an aquaintance I got introduced to someone from the Austrian embassy. In 2007, I had a solo exhibition at a museum next to the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

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‘Kamon Komon’ © 2010 Kyo-Gen. All rights reserved

From around this time, you continued to work as a craftsman, but also as an artist.

Yes, that’s right. I’m continuing the ‘Kamon Komon’ series even now. In 2011, I made something with a crest stencil motif. Today you don’t come into contact with kamon so much, so I want people to get in touch with them, even if it’s just in a playful way. Playing with pattern cutting was something that children did at elementary school up till the war. By folding paper up and cutting it out as patterns, you can make kamon. Watch TV drama from the early Showa period and then you can see holes in sliding doors stopped up with paper cut into the shape of cherry blossoms, right? Everyone learnt that in elementary school.

I took those pattern sheets and drew them on a computer to make a kit where you could play around with the sheets easily. By drawing things on Illustrator you can understand the graphic design behind kamon. It’s really interesting. You can make all kinds of things by computer. I took photos of Chinese bellflowers and cosmos plants, and then took the silhouettes from the photos and made kamon crests. By looking at actual photographs you can make new discoveries about the shape of the petals and the valves.

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Kamon image file made from a photograph. © 2010 Kyo-Gen. All rights reserved

The lines are overlapped in a complex but beautiful way.

A kamon is a plane designed using circles. An image made using Illustrator can then overlay hundreds of individual circles. This ‘Peony’ kamon uses 638 circles.

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‘Peony’ image layer for Illustrator. © 2010 Kyo-Gen. All rights reserved

Are all the kamon lines created from circles?

Yes. All the curved parts are circles. From this I developed the ‘Mon-Mandala’ series. Based on the kamon drawing technique, the circles are picked out and then the kamon is etched out by the kirazuri technique.

It’s interesting that someone who used to draw crests by hand now uses a computer to do it.

I like it! [Laughs] Actually the number of people using computers is increasing more than those who draw by hand. It’s interesting.

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‘Mon-Manadala’ © 2010 Kyo-Gen. All rights reserved

Young people today aren’t conscious of possessing a family emblem, and many people don’t even know their own crest. What is a kamon in the first place?

Yes, today many people just first select their emblem when told to “choose the one they like” from a moncho insignia book for their family grave.

You can use the emblem that you like? It’s surprisingly informal.

Oh, yes. We tend to think of emblems as formal but actually they’re not. For example, it’s not one crest per family — some households have several emblems.

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A moncho book of crests.

Do you then use different ones for different occasions?

Yes, you can. A long time ago your emblem expressed who you were. This means, though, that you put on the crest and people know who you are. So, when you want to hide your identity, you would use a different emblem. The phrase “leaving by the back gate” could also be called the “under crest”.

That’s interesting. What about emblems in Europe?

In Europe, only the aristocracy had insignia and I don’t think you could just change your crest so easily. It started with the symbols on knights’ shields around the tenth century and these then became the family crest, so there were lots of martial ones like eagles and tigers. And that’s why many car emblems today are also in the shape of shields.

If we look back at the roots of Japanese crests, the motifs are fundamentally plants. Among the old ones, there is a kashiwa (oak) in one around AD 70. About that time there were different crests for the different functions serving the Emperor. Chefs had a kashiwa emblem, which was derived from how food was offered to the gods on an oak leaf. This then eventually became the crest of shrines. From this the culture of giving insignia to professions began and with the Heian period we enter a world of court nobility, and elegant (miyabi) things from the Asian mainland were favored. This led to plovers and cranes being used a lot in design.

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Emblems expressing place names came after the concept of the “house” (ie, or ka or ke) appeared, like the Fujiwara family. Before the ka there was only uji (or shi), as in the Fujiwara-uji, to show a tribe or clan. But the Imperial court was totally dominated by the Fujiwara clan, so uji were divided into households with the name of the place where they lived. The concept of the household spread through the Five Regent houses (Go-seike) of Konoe, Takatsukawa, Kujo, Ichijo and Nijo.

Until the Heian period, emblems were only used by the aristocracy and warrior families, but from the Edo era (1603-1868) ordinary people also started to use them. So in Japan all families have insignia. That’s very special compared to the rest of the world. Japan emblem culture is very particular.

Today the custom of using an emblem hasn’t been carried on, has it?

Well, today there still exists the custom of dressing new-born babies up in noshime with kamon crests when taking them to a shrine. The kimonos worn during Shichi-Go-San and coming-of-age ceremonies also feature crests.

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And your son is the current fourth-generation emblem artist in your family. You seem to have this incredible skill to interpret just about anything through design in your own style. I guess that’s what a real artisan can do!

Well, in my circle right now there aren’t so many people creating as well as designing. I guess I’m a bit strange! [Laughs] I just like creating things. If I’m asked, I’ll do it! Recently my design work has increased, so I do more work digitally than actually drawing kamon. For example, making crests for kimono for a specific project or crests for the packaging for a Japanese confectionary store. And for work for individuals, I’ve previously made a crest for a cat.

You really can make a crest for anything!

Yes. We say “emblem” but it’s really more like having your own icon.

Right, a Japanese “icon”! Do you have any future plans?

It’s important lots of people know about kamon. I want more people to be aware of crests. I have an exhibition at Mitsukoshi in June. I plan to exhibit the ‘Mon-Mandala’ series using Japanese paper by Living National Treasure Ichibe Iwano, as well as the ‘Kamon Komon’ series, and vases and chests of drawers made in collaboration with a designer. I want people to come into contact with kamon crests, even just with their playful elements.

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Shoryu Hatoba