Japanese Symbols of Government

The Symbol of the Empire

The Achievement of State

The Symbol of the Emperor

The Symbols of the Shoguns

Sanshu no Shinki, the Three Treasures

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I. The Symbol of the Empire


As of so many other empires the symbol of the Japanese Empire is a sun. The personification of this sun is the Goddess Amaterasu (the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity) and the connection of this sun-goddess with Japan is postulated in the legends of the Koj-iki (The Record of Ancient Matters), a chronicle published in 712.




About the Japanese solar symbol Dower writes:


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 [1]


Display of red-disc-sun banners at the Battle of  Sekigahara (1600), decisive for the accession of the Kamakura Shogunate.


The use of the red sun as a kind of national symbol originated even somewhat before the Tokugawa-shogunate (1603-1868). The red sun was displayed amongst others on banners of different colours. Seventeenth century drawings show different versions of these banners, for example white with three or more red discs.


In 1853, after the opening up of the country, at the instigation of the daimyo (prince) Nariakira of Satsuma who favoured this flag, it was proclaimed that all Japanese ships had to fly the sun-flag Hino-maru. This was officially confirmed on the 5th of August 1854. The flag, showing a red disc on a white field, was officially adopted on 17th of February 1870 and was hoisted for the first time in 1872 at the occasion of the opening of a railway line. [2]


Ietsugu Banner and Battle standard

Sakakibara Motonao Banner and Personal  Standard


Ietsugu (1564-1618) was the son of Sakai Tadatsugu and held Yoshida from 1578 until 1590, at which point he received a 30,000-koku fief in Kôzuke province (Usui). He saw his income raised to 50,000 in 1594. He fought at Sekigahara (1600) and the Osaka Castle campaigns and in 1619 received a 100,000-koku fief at Takata in Echigo province.


Sakakibara Motonao (榊原職直) (1564-1642), was the second adopted child of Sakakibara Yasumasa  He was adopted from the Hanafusa family (花房), retainers of the Ukita.

This Motonao was born in 1572, adopted by Yasumasa in 1599, participated in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) at the age of 24; and had previously received the title of Hida no kami. [3]


Photo H.d.V. 2010

Horse ensigned Hi

Painting on wood. Sold Amsterdam, 2010




However, for the symbol of the empire a red radiating sun was favoured instead of the simple red disc, the red disc in fact being the symbol of the Chinese Empire. A sun in splendour appears for the first time on coins minted in 1869 [4]]. By decree of the 27th  of February 1870, ratified the 5th of May 1870 it was officially laid down that the symbol of the empire would be a red radiating sun.

The sun in splendour was placed on a mirror in the Imperial State Achievement appearing on coins of the same year and on the jewel of the Order of the Chrysantemum, founded in 1877.



After the promulgation of the Constitution on 11th of February 1889 this symbol was placed on the ensign by decree of 3rd of November 1889.



The sun in splendour disappeared from coins in 1938 and was replaced by the imperial kiku-mon


II. The Achievement of State




18th century Imperial coat of arms in a french source [5]


This Quane is Go-Sai (1655-’63).


After 1853 state emblems of Japan were described in Western sources. It is not clear if these state emblems were really existing and used emblems or that they were just made up from oral and written descriptions. In fact the documentation of the symbols of Japanese government is very weak and scarce and for the time being the following is only what I could gather from different Western sources.

The symbols occurring in the arms and achievements documented in European sources are certainly symbols of the armed power.




Two coats of arms of Japan

 in Die Wappen der außerdeutschen Souveräne und Staaten”, Nürnberg 1857 (1870).


The coat of arms on the left is not of Japan but of Japara (Java, Indonesia)




The first emblem or coat of arms consists of two swords in saltire and a crescent, a free European interpretation of the symbol of the “Boddhisattva and protective war deity Myoken” and should be considered as the symbol of the armed forces.


Another coat of arms is: Azure, within a bordure Or, between four five-pointed stars Or, an oval escutcheon Or, charged with a sphere within an orle of six five-pointed stars Argent. In this coat of arms we recognize in the oval escutcheon with the sphere and stars, the seven stars of the Great Bear, another symbol of the “Boddhisattva and protective war deity Myoken”. The four five-pointed stars in the corners can be interpreted as the four cherry-blossoms (sakura), borne nowadays on the flag of the commissioner of police. We meet six stars on a yellow field on a coat of arms documented by the 18th century encyclopeadia of Diderot and d’Alembert where they are given to “Quane Empereur du Japon”. It is not clear what high official hides behind this “Quane”.


The coat of arms with the stars also occurs in an achievement in which it is supported by two flags and a banner of the aoi-mon of the Tokugawa shogun Iesada (1853-1858).


Achievement of Japan on a chart entitled  “Armoiries des Principales Puissances”, 1877.

The arms are:

Azure, within a bordure Or, four mullets Or and an oval Or, a sphere within an orle of six five-pointed stars Argent. Behind the shield two flags: white, a black bar, and a white gonfanon with the aoi-mon of the Tokugawa family.


These two coats of arms and the achievement are probably the symbols of the authorities the Europeans had most to do with after the opening up of the country: the army and the police.


After the adoption of the sun-flag Hinomaru in 1854, a new achievement occurs. In this achievement the central shield is occupied by the aoi-mon of the Tokugawa-family on a blue background. It is supported by six national flags and two cannon in saltire. If the achievement of state is meant, the state is presented as a function of the armed forces here and the shogun is considered as the head of state. This achievement, which is like the former ones, very weakly documented, disappeared after the abolition of the shogunate in 1868.




After the Meiji-revolution of 1868 new symbols of state were designed. The symbol of the Empire was adopted early 1870 and in the same year coins were minted on which a (new) symbol of state was displayed. In its first design this symbol consisted of the newly adopted symbol of the Empire, surrounded by the symbols of the Emperor: the kiri-mon and the kiku-mon, and a garland or crown of chrysantemum and paulownia. In this achievement the ‘Imperial Rule’ as it is called in the Charter Oath (Gokajō no Goseimon) of the 7th of April 1868, is represented as a function of the Empire and a mission of the Emperor. The Emperor himself is represented as the head of state invested with the religious and the administrative power only, thus sparing the position of the daimyo or feudal ruler-class. [6]]

In this first more or less official achievement of state we can determine westen influence in the fact that it is a composition of different symbols, which is quite common in western heraldry but unknown in Japanese mon-art. In particular the western heraldic scheme of shield, crest and supporters is to be noted.


First design of the Achievement of State.

On a 20 sen-coin, 1870


A.: Within a circle of dots, a red sun in splendour.

Crest: A kiku-mon between two kiri-mon.

Garland: A Chrysantemum and a Paulownia-plant


In a second version of the achievement of state the central symbol is a mirror charged with the sun in splendour. Imperial Rule is represented here as a reflection of the Empire and divine will, which in itself, according to legend, finds its legitimation in the sun-godess Amaterasu.  

Like the sun in the earlier achievement the mirror is surrounded by the symbols of Imperial power: the kiri- and the kiku-mon. Also two red banners are displayed, showing a silver moon on the dexter and a golden sun on the sinister, these being the banners of the Empress and the Emperor respectively.



Second design of the Achievement of State,

On a golden 20 yen-coin 1870-1892


A.: A mirror (kagami) Argent, charged with a sun in splendour Gules.

Crests: A kiku-mon in chief and a kiri-mon in base

Garland: A Chrysantemum and a Paulownia plant proper.

Supporters: Two banners Gules in saltire, te dexter charged with a crescent Argent, the sinister charged with a sun Or.




After the promulgation of the Constitution on 11th February 1889 / 29th November 1890  the heraldic representation of Japan was changed.


The Constitution provided:


Article 4

The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution.


As the Emperor thus became the absolute monarch by descend, the kiku-mon of the Imperial family became the main symbol of the heraldic representation. From then on it has to be considered as the symbol of Japanese sovereignty instead of merely the symbol of religious power as it was before.

Because the Imperial power comprised the administrative and armed powers the kiri-mon disappeared and no special symbol was adopted for the armed power, formerly represented by the mon of the shogun.   



surrounded with a garland of chrysantemum and paulownia, supposed to be the achievement of the House of Peers. The garland symbolizing the imperial mission [7]


Mirror (kagami) charged with a sun (hi).

As on coins until 1938 and supposed to be the achievement of the House of Representatives.

The mirror symbolizing the divine mission.


The Emperor reigned with the aid of the Imperial Diet. This Imperial Diet, according to Chapter III, art. 33, consisted of two chambers: a House of Peers and a House of Representatives.

The next Articles stipulate:


Article 34

The House of Peers shall, in accordance with the ordinance concerning the House of Peers, be composed of the members of the Imperial Family, of the orders of nobility, and of those who have been nominated thereto by the Emperor.


Article 35

The House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected by the people, according to the provisions of the law of Election.


Corresponding with the two Houses of the Imperial Diet, from this time two different achievements were used:


1. The supposed achievement of the House of Peers consisting of the Imperial kiku-mon surrounded with a garland of Chrysantemum and Paulownia. thus considering the House of Peers as a function of the sovereign Imperial family.


2. The supposed achievement of the House of Representatives which consists of a mirror charged with a sun in splendour, thus considering the House of Representatives as a function or reflection of the Empire.


Both achievements disappeared in about 1938.





The Japanese Constitution of  November 3, 1946 / May 3, 1947, provides in Chapter I:


The Emperor. We, the Japanese people [……] do proclaim that sovereign power resides with the people and do firmly establish this Constitution.


Article 1

The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.


As a consequence the Imperial symbol of sovereingty has become identical with the symbol of the sovereign  Japanese people. 







From this time on the symbols of Japan consist of the national red-disc flag, adopted in 1854, and the Imperial State symbol consisting of the traditional golden chrysantemum.



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 © Hubert de Vries 2008-10-03 Updated 2010-04-02; 2018-07-15; 2021-02-01




[1]  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. N°s 111-115

[2]  Matsunami, N.: The National Flag of Japan. Tokio, 1928.


[4]  1-Sen coin, 1869. Shown in the head of this article.

[5]  Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers. L’.  Diderot et D’Alembert. Paris, 1751 -1765.  Receuil de Planches sur Les sciences, les arts liberaux et les arts méchaniques avec leur explication. Paris, MDCCLXII.

[6]  The era of the daimyo ended in 1871 when their fiefs, han, were abolished and  prefectures were established instead.

[7]  Ruhl, Ju;ius Moritz: Die Wappen aller Souveränen Lander der Erde sowie diejenigen der deutschen Staaten, der preussischen Provinzen, der schweizer Kantone, österreichische Bundesländer, der englischen Dominions, ferner ehema­lige Reichswappen, Wappen deutscher Staaten und österreich-ungarischer Kronländer, endlich Herrscher- und Adelskronen. Verlag Moritz Ruhl, Leipzig, 1928.