Though tattoos have been around for centuries, they've become more socially acceptable within the last decade or so - a trend of our generation.
Among Japanese American Millennials and Gen Z, there's one specific tattoo trend I've noticed that is unique to our culture: mon tattoos.
Also referred to as kamon, monshō, or mondokoro, mon are Japanese emblems typically used to represent a family – the Japanese equivalent of a European coat of arms – and dates back to the 12th century when they’d be printed on flags and tents and taken into battle. Mon are stylistically circular and can feature plants, animals, or man-made tools. Nearly every Japanese family has one and may have a mon wood carving hanging on the living room wall, or a necklace passed down from generation to generation. There are even historical services for those who have lost their family mon down the line but wish to rediscover them.
Though individuals have been getting their family mon tattooed on their calves, biceps, and the back of their necks for decades, they’ve only recently become widely adopted among young adults. I chatted with Jun Osaki, a Portland-based Japanese American tattoo artist who has tattooed their fair share of mon. I was curious to learn more about the meaning behind different mon styles, such as the ever-popular Japanese flower tattoo, as well as Jun’s own experiences tattooing Japanese art on Asian and non-Asian clients.
How would you describe what mon is to someone who has never heard of it before?
It’s a family crest, but it’s also more than that, at least from an artist’s perspective. I see it as a visual art piece, and I feel like in America there’s a growing interest in Japanese and Asian culture in general, which is why more and more non-Japanese people are learning about mon art. But I also noticed that even among Japanese people who get their family mon tattoos, there’s a lack of awareness of what kind of flower or plant their mon features, or what they represent.
Growing up, I knew what my family mon looked like but knew nothing else beyond that. When did you learn about yours, and how was its meaning explained to you?
I actually didn’t know what my family mon looked like until I visited my relatives’ graves when I went back to Japan. I’m technically first-generation Japanese American; my family moved to Minneapolis when I was five, and from there we just assimilated to American culture. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been digging up more information about our family.
I probably wouldn’t have known what my mon meant until I came across this book I found in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon. It’s this 1970s book called The Elements of Japanese Design, and it has most of the family mon symbols that have existed. There are maybe 3,000 mon in here, and I was able to locate my own family mon. Beyond just the images, there are also descriptions of what the plants or flowers featured in them mean to Japanese culture, when they were used, and who they were used by. When I tattoo mon on clients, I’ll pull out the book and explain the meaning behind the one they have.
What did you learn about your mon?
My mon has a clove symbol, and what was interesting was that the book associated the symbol with dentistry as a vocation. Coincidentally, my great grandfather and his father were dentists in Japan. What’s your mon?
Mine is a bunch of bamboo leaves.
Oh, there’s a lot in here on bamboo – there’s maybe 60 variations. Apparently, bamboo represents versatility, strength, and flexibility given how many things they can be used for.
How many of your clients come to you for traditional Japanese tattoos? Do you feel like you have a responsibility to make sure whoever is getting that tattoo is honoring that culture?
Half my clientele in Portland are people of color, or not white. People will come for me for Japanese tattoos and even Filipino cultural tattoos, like the sun and stars on the flag or the national flower. I’m generally comfortable doing most Asian-inspired tattoos and I’ll do research if need be, but there are specific instances where I don’t feel like it’s right for me to do them. In those cases, I’ll refer clients to other artists who are of that culture and can do the tattoo justice.
I know other artists will disagree with me on this, but I take it as a sign of respect when people come to me for a Japanese tattoo they could’ve gone to a non-Japanese person for. By coming to me, they’re having to digest the culture with me and learn about it, whereas if they went somewhere else, the tattoo is just an image with no meaning. In any sort of productive exchange around cultural appropriation, I think at least one person has to be from that culture.
I’m not here to school people, and I don’t think I have the right to tell someone what they can and can’t put on their bodies. I’m here to have an exchange of knowledge and share.
How often do you tattoo mon on Japanese Americans? What is it like interacting with other Japanese Americans in that kind of setting?
I’m starting to get more Japanese American clients and have tattooed a few mon in the past year, which is cool because I’ve been learning a lot about what it’s like to live in the U.S. for generations. As someone who immigrated here, I definitely have different experiences from someone that is, say, a Yonsei whose family was put in the camps. It’s an interesting way to explore my culture.
In any sort of productive exchange around cultural appropriation, I think at least one person has to be from that culture.
These experiences also led me to start making flash, or pre-designed, tattoos based on some of the mon designs I’ve seen in the book. I mostly tattoo my flash on non-Japanese people. In that exchange, I'll share what the symbols mean and what they stand for.
I also do Okinawan hand tattoos on people of Okinawan descent for free. Indigenous Okinawans historically had tribal tattoos on their hands, but that practice had been suppressed by mainland Japanese people. I have this privilege of being a mainland Japanese person, and Japan has been historically oppressive towards Okinawans, so I felt like offering my services for free was the right thing to do. I don’t feel right taking money from people who want to reclaim their culture.
What would you say to a Japanese person who might feel offended by the fact that you’re tattooing mon-inspired designs on non-Japanese people?
I think it’s valid to be angry and I’d understand those emotions, but I’m also not copying and pasting existing mon. I create my own designs, and in this way, it’s how I connect to my own culture while also sharing it with others. As a first-generation Japanese American, I feel like I’m caught between two cultures. It’s definitely not my place to copy mon, so I don’t do that. My art is an interpretation that allows me, as an American, to feel closer to my Japanese side.
Why are more Japanese Americans getting mon tattoos now than ever?
Tattoos are more socially acceptable in the U.S. today. More people in general are getting tattoos, so it makes sense that more people are getting mon tattoos. The reason why younger people are getting them, I think, has to do with identity. I think when you’re a teen or a young adult, you’re in that place where you’re yearning to connect to something. For many people of color learning about themselves, it makes sense to connect to your culture. A crest is meant to be worn, right? So having a crest on your body is a sign of pride in who you are. I did notice that almost all the Japanese Americans who come to me for mon tattoos are mixed-race.
Oh, wow. I can see that. As a mixed person myself, I feel like mixed folks have a desire to solidify their identity even more because we've struggled with never feeling like we're enough of one thing. Like, getting this symbol of my culture permanently inked on me is my way of claiming that part of my identity.
That makes a lot of sense to me.
I think when you’re a teen or a young adult, you’re in that place where you’re yearning to connect to something. For many people of color learning about themselves, it makes sense to connect to your culture.
I find it fascinating that Japanese Americans are honoring their ancestry with these tattoos when Japan is still a place that considers tattoos to be taboo. Like, people with tattoos are still forbidden from going to bathhouses.
That is fascinating. Maybe that in itself is a reflection of our identity. The mon is Japanese, but the act of tattooing is more American. So it's ultimately a symbol of being both Japanese and American.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.