In the monshō or hereditary crests of Japanese families can be seen the distillation of many of the basic design motifs of Japanese arts and crafts. The crests shared similar origins and the same historical development as the other motifs discussed in this book, but by their highly simplified nature they reduce common motifs to their essential components. Historically, the crests were the insignia of noted families and were used to mark the formal kimono, household utensils, lanterns, and gravestones of a particular house. Some extensive families maintained a number of crests, and as households split or were divided into branches, variations of the original crest were devised for the branch families. In modern Japan, the high degree of fragmentation of extended families into numerous separate nuclear families has tended to lessen the social significance of crests. And yet, the crests themselves remain as examples of outstanding design. Furthermore, as their function as family symbols declined, crests have been used increasingly by commercial organizations and large businesses, not unlike the trade marks by which Western manufacturers identify their products.
Monshō have played an important role in Japanese society as marks representing both nobility and commoners, but the crests of the various social classes developed out of markedly different circumstances. During the Heian period, crests were used in aristocratic society to mark the ox-carts of each household, serving as both identification and ornament. So, too, as