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Japanese Emblems in History, 1971
Katsube Atsuko writes for Graphic Design Issue 42
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The following is an introduction to Volume 4 of Top Symbols & Trademarks of the World written by Colin Forbes and offering an insight into British logo design in 1973. It’s illustrated with images from three sections of the book, Great Britain, Belgium and Netherlands. If you enjoy articles like this, and would like to support the project, subscribe to Logo Histories.
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Each Japanese family has its family emblem or crest. This apparently was surprising to Europeans, who have family emblems only if their families are of the royalty or nobility. After Japan was opened up to the world after about 21 centuries of voluntary isolation, Dr. Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) came to Japan in 1823 as a doctor attached to the Dutch Trade Office in Nagasaki, he pointed this out in his book which was published later.
After World War II, the traces of Japan's feudalistic family system were removed by the new constitution, and traditional customs and manners are rapidly disappearing, but it can be said that family emblems are still close to the daily lives of the Japanese. Even today, they wear "montsuki" (with family emblem) kimono on ceremonial occasions, and "furoshiki" (wrapping cloth) with family emblems are distributed as commemorative items on auspicious occasions.
When and by whom were these individual family emblems designed? They have been handed down through the ages with no one knowing about their origins. The simple, clear-cut and beautiful designs of these family emblems have a thousand variations, and they are the focus of interest both inside and outside Japan as symbol designs with no parallel in the world and also as the "birthplace of modern design" in Japan.
Family emblems and Japanese seasonal feelings
The motifs of family emblems can generally be divided into astrology, geography, plants, animals, materials, architecture, patterns, ideograms, phonograms, amulets and signs. The greatest number consists of plant life.
The Spanish historical philosopher Luis Diez del Corral visited Japan several years ago, and he described in detail his impressions of Japan's climate and traditional arts in his book, "Del Nuevo al Viejo Mundo." He said that the outstanding feature of life as a whole in Japan, which is in harmony with the myriad changes in nature, is that it is "essentially a vegetarian civilization."
He said in his book: "From the days of the ancient empires, the European emblems are deeply rooted in animals, particularly the wild, ferocious ones. In contrast, the Japanese emblems are basically from the plant world. No flower can threaten the life of a human being. The symbols of supreme power in the West in the form of emblems with eagles and lions are basically different from the beautiful Japanese Imperial emblem, the 16-petal chrysanthemum. In the case of the Tokugawa family, the 'aoi dome' (three-leaf hollyhock in a circle) in its family emblem softened its severe, police state type of government."
The Japanese climate is replete with seasonal changes, and the flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, plants and nature as a whole vividly show the changes in the four seasons. Since the Japanese were basically rice farmers, they had to endure the typhoons and heavy rains attendant on monsoon areas. The production cycle of sowing in the spring and harvesting in the fall made the seasonal feelings of the Japanese very receptive from about 300-200 B. C. This island country took in all the religions and cultures, for instance, Buddhism, coming from the advanced countries of the Asian continent; at the same time, it created original things, while harmonizing them with time-honored things such as Shintoism. In other countries the new has chased out or destroyed the old, but in Japan, different ideologies, religions and ideas have been absorbed and continue to coexist.
The aesthetic sense of the Japanese as seen in the tea ceremony and the poems of Bashö, which have a single plum blossom represent spring or have the pause after the trill of an insect describe fall, is the product of the long history of culture based on such an aggregation. It could only have existed in the climate of Japan. It is a philosophy of sensitivity which grasps nature as an extension of one's self and which crystallizes the meeting between one's self and nature at a point in space. This is what Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) called the "thing" itself. Here, nature is nature itself along with man, and there is no search for the "reason' of natural beauty and man-made beauty. Both life and death are grasped within the fluid natural rhythm and process and studied in this concept. Although it was greatly abbreviated in form, it did not become a cold abstract thing; it resulted in the warmth of living things being condensed into concrete form. It can be said that this natural gift was given full play in the designing of family emblems.
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