Kuki Archives: Hidari Mitsudomoe ~ Part 1

Previously, I had spoken about the Kuki clan and the 2 kamon¹, or family emblems, they are known by. I spoke extensively about the 1st family crest, Shichiyō (七曜), many months back here. The 2nd family crest, Hidari Mitsudomoe (左三つ巴), will finally be highlighted, as it is the most recognized out of the two. Since the roots of the Hidari Mitsudomoe are ancient and have a significantly long history, much of the discussion will focus soley on these as a whole. Dividing this topic into two parts, part one will cover much of these roots, from the various meanings, their influence on theoretical views, how they’ve cemented important roles within Japanese culture, as well as the variations in design. Through this, we can transition smoother into discussing solely on the Hidari Mitsudomoe and its history with the Kuki clan in a 2nd separate post.


The Hidari Mitsudomoe is better understood as a spiraling design most frequently called a “tomoe” in Japanese². The word tomoe is believed to have been derived from archery. There are records that point to its roots being that of an armguard worn on the left hand used during archery in ancient times. This special armguard was called a “tomo” (Japanese linguistics), and the written kanji for it is “鞆”. Another thought is that the tomo was a circular design on this type of armgurad. When referring to this based on visual representation, one would say “tomo-e” (鞆絵), with the 2nd kanji meaning drawing or picture. Eventually the word tomoe became its own word, and its kanji was simplified to “巴”. This is what is used today. We can look at this as being the basis of its conception.

In the series of illustration scrolls collectively known as “Nenchu Gyoji Emaki” (年中行事絵巻), there is a drawing of 2 archers, both wearing a tomo around their left wrist. The 1st pic is a section from that particular scroll (includes a drum with the actual tomoe mark). 2nd pic is the enlarged section of the archers. The 3rd pic is a colored version, from Wikipedia.


The symbol of tomoe is said to have strong roots from China’s ancient times, where its original source stems from. There are numerous ideas on how the tomoe came about from surviving records from China’s past, but no way to prove which explains the beginnings of its use. One theory about this circling pattern is that it represents a whirlpool, while another states that it represents the coiling of a snake. Usually indicating 2 or more intertwining forces, this image inspired different forms and usages throughout Asia.

There is the theory about the tomoe which is based around the kanji “巴”. It is said to have been a hieroglyphic character that represented a person whose stomach doubled in size. Whether this is a symbolic meaning of “overeating”, or something different, is difficult to distinguish. The magatama (勾玉), a curved “comma-shaped” jewel first prominent in China, also represents this kanji, and has its own theories for its conception.

Above is a tomoe emblem well recognized in Daoism. Next to it, a depiction of eternal rivalry between the tiger and dragon from Eastern culture. Generally both creatures represent a philosophy dirctly opposite of each other. While seen as a conflict, in reality both are needed to be complete, such as expressed in ying yang theory.

A general universal use of the tomoe as a pattern is where it consists of two parts, being made up of 2 commas. These commas entwine endlessly in a circle, with the head (larger section) of one comma chasing after the tail (the slimmer part) of the other. The head of the commas can refer to the intertwining of 2 individuals; this can be a figurative, or even literal, conflict between these individuals in the form of rivals. In China, this theoretical imagery has a strong connection with Daoism, such that the concept of the everlasting battle between the tiger and dragon found in many folktales and cultural-related activities represent this theory very well.


When the concept of the tomoe came to Japan, it too spread and evolved in different ways. For example, when the comma-shaped jewels called magatama made their way to Japan, they were acquired by certain wealthy families. These jewels were symbolic of divine spirits, and even played an important role within Japan’s story of creation³. Worn as a necklace consisting of many of these commas, these magatama are said to have been used in ritualistic practices to ward off evil and misfortune. They are said to have connections with the tomoe emblem as well.

2 pictures of Iwashimizu Hachimangu located in Yawata City, Kyoto Prefecture. One of many shrines dedicated to the deity Hachiman around Japan, this features the Hidari Mitsudomoe emblem, such as those on the banners in the 1st pic, as well as along the edge of the roof and golden lanterns in the 2nd pic. Pics were taken by Hideki and Genji, respectively, on Pixta. Used with permission.

After such families disappeared, these magatama became hard-to-find relics, but their religious like tones persisted. In time, the tomoe was widely incorporated in religious practices. As an example, beginning from the late 700s onward during the Heian period, many shrines and temples, as well as homes, placed the tomoe as an emblem near their rooftops and doorways as a talisman to ward off misfortune and disaster, such as fire. Along with that, it was utilized as a shinmon (神文, emblem of a deity) by shinto shrines that worshipped a god named Hachiman⁴, who represents the god of war. Elite families, such as the Seiwa Genji (清和源氏) and Kanmu Heishi (桓武平氏), were large supporters of the deity Hachiman. Due to its symbol of strength in battle, these families spread the practice of the worship of Hachiman to many military families, as many adopted this for the sake of praying for victory in battle⁵. Through this, some other families also made the tomoe a family emblem, or added it as an addition to the one they have.


While one of the most familiar design of the tomoe is of the symbol of Daoism (made up of 2 commas), it is not certain if this was the original design in conception. However, it is safe to say that there are numerous designs in history. Later, different variants were created; while their uses varied depending on the person and lifestyle, many of these patterns were used as kamon (家紋, family crests), shinmon (神文, deity crests) and jimon (寺紋, temple crests).

Examples of common tomoe emblems. Click on each for a brief description. From Wikipedia.

There are designs that range from using just one comma, to up to four commas. Then there are a those composing of small differences such as size, while others possess elaborately complex designs, such as the “kuyou⁵” type. A tomoe is further identified by the direction of its spin; the head of the comma can curve clockwise or curve counter-clockwise. This type of spin was traditionally used to indicate which side it is placed on in certain situations, such as clothing, which then identifies what type of tomoe it becomes. For example, if placed on the left side of the body, then the one with the clockwise spin is used, and is labeled a hidari (left) tomoe. Reasoning behind this is if you place the tomoe on the back of the left hand, the head of the comma has to be turning towards the left thumb. The rule is opposite for the right side of the body; the tomoe turning counter-clockwise is used and is labeled as a migi (right) tomoe.

In a case where the number of comma and direction of spin played an important role is seen through wa-taiko (和太鼓), or Japanese drums. During the Heian period, within the main building of a Shinto shrine were various drums used for specific purposes. They needed to be placed in a particular fashion. To distinguish these, drums that were placed on the right side would bear a tomoe mark on top which had 2 commas with a counter-clockwise (right) spin, while the drums on the left would have a tomoe mark which had 3 commas with a -clockwise (left) spin. Take note that this was not always consistent, as these rules may have changed with each generation. There are other meanings behind this which are related to in-yo (ying yang), but the visual differences are what stick out the most.

As a whole, there are over 100 designs in Asia alone. Japan has its own designs that are unique, with a good number of them being family crests. Note that some of these designs are variants of others, which could mean that these variations are merely cosmetic.


Here ends the first part regarding the Hidari Mitsudomoe. More of an overview of its roots from a historical and cultural perspective both in and outside of Japan, we get an understanding of how it is generally conceived and its purpose in use. Please check back in a few days for part 2, which will go much further in discussion both on the Hidari Mitsudomoe and how the Kuki clan not only acquired this as a family crest, but how it is deeply connected to their family and religious practices.

1) 家紋

2) Take note that “domoe” is the same as “tomoe”, only difference is in pronunciation. In cases where tomoe is attached to another word, it will change to domoe. However, this is not always the case, such as the topic at hand. While generally called “Hidari Mitsudomoe”, there are cases where it is instead pronounced as “Hidari Mitsu Tomoe”. Factors for this are very lenient, so both cases are correct.

3) Within old stories such as Kojiki (古事記, Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (日本書記, The Chronicles of Japan), the magatama was portrayed as “Yasakani no Magatama” (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels), which was one of three sacred treasures of the gods. The concept is symbolic, as replicas of these treasures are currently kept by the imperial family in Japan.

4) 八幡. Generally referred to as the deity Hachiman (八幡神, Hachiman shin), also known by the (older) name “Yahata no kami”, as well as several other titles such as “Hondawake no Mikoto” (誉田別命).

5) While often recognized as the “god of war” (武神, bushin), he was specifically called a “god that brings fortune in battle”, or “bu-un no kami” (武運の神) .

6) 九曜.

4 thoughts on “Kuki Archives: Hidari Mitsudomoe ~ Part 1

  1. Thank-you very much for your informative and well-researched post. I am very interested in the connection between the futatsu domoe and the taijitu (the famous Chinese yin yang symbol). Have you been able to pinpoint the first time the futatsu domoe was used as a symbol in Japan? Any further information you have about its relationship to yin yang symbolism would be most appreciated. I was also intrigued by your comment about in-yo and wa-taiko. My interest is in relation to the elements in Japan (physical, Chinese and Buddhist), a topic to which in-yo is intimately connected.

    • Hi Jann, and thank you for the kind words! This has been a very intriguing topic to research, as it has helped to get a better understanding of Japan’s cultural development from olden days to present time. As for your question, I’ve not run into much info on the futatsu-domoe. The only thing I’ve read is that it is associated with the Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) located in Ise City, Mie Prefecture. Supposedly it represents the intertwining relationship between the dragon and Chinese phoenix, and played some significance role in the gagaku (old-fashioned court music) that took place there. This shrine is very old, so maybe looking up its history would help.

      As for the tomoe and its relationship with in-yo is most likely due in part of Daoism, which is where both have their strongest roots in. The wa-taiko connection is a very interesting topic indeed. In this case, both the migi (right) and hidari (left) tomoe are used for different taiko. Japanese music has a very deep history in ceremonial and auspicious practices, in terms of worshiping different gods, requesting protection, fortune, and so on. Although I read up on this, it is not my specialty. I’m sure there are others who have much more knowledge on the topic.

      I hope this helps. Thanks again for visiting my blog!

      • Thank-you for your prompt and helpful response Curtis. Ancient Japanese music is a topic that I haven’t explored yet, only listened to. 🙂 The connection with in-yo is fascinating: the ‘yin yang’ philosophy seems to permeate Japanese culture – the more I look, the more I see reference to it. I have started to do some research on gagaku and Ise Shrine based on your pointers. If the futatsu domoe on one of the two large drums used in gagaku is as old as this form of music, then the symbol has been in Japan for an extended period. Best wishes, Jann

      • Yes, I agree as well. The futatsu domoe is over a thousand years old…some sources claim two thousand. I just wonder how much of its connection to the Ise Grand Shrine and gagaku has been documented. I wish you the best of luck in your research, Jann!

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