Kuki Archives: Hidari Mitsudomoe ~ Part 2

This is the continuation of the discussion on the Hidari Mitsudomoe, one of 2 family crests of the main Kuki line. In part 1 the historical, cultural, and spiritual symbolism in relations the tomoe emblem in Japan, and Asia as a whole, was introduced. For this post, we will focus solely on the Hidari Mitsudomoe’s connection to the Kuki clan, from how it was possibly acquired to how it played a role within their own personal history.


The Kuki clan’s main line has, for as long as it is known, been associated with this family crest. It is visibly shown in some of their works and activities. It may even appear on banners in public activities they take part in as well. While this crest is generally called “Hidari Mitsudomoe”, take note that there are actually 2 variations: one is a regular version, and another is a slimmer version called “Hosoi Hidari Mitsudomoe”. For the slimmer one, the 3 commas are much thinner, but still round out to make a proper circle. Is there any significant differences between the two? Other than appearances, possibly not.

These photos show the book “Kukishinden Zensho: Nakatomi Shintō, Kumano Shugendō”. 1st pic features the cover of both the book and its box dust cover. 2nd pic is of the back of both items. Note that on the back is the Hidari Mitsudomoe, which overlaps another emblem called “Jurokuyae Omotegiku”.


While mentioned to be a family crest even within their own works, The Kuki clan have not put out much info regarding the source from where they acquired the Hidari Mitsudomoe. Actually they are not entitled to, especially since in today’s generation the use of family emblems do not possess the same weight as in the past. Piecing together possible sources of information on the topic takes a bit of work, primarily with historical documents that deal with cultural practices.

Fortunately, there are valuable sources that keep records on the numerous family crests used through Japan’s history, which explain detailed information from the meaning behind each one, to the families that are linked to them. Looking back at the roots of the Kuki family has given me an idea of the possible source of the family emblem in question.

The general consensus from sources regarding kamon history state that the Kuki clan are indeed hereditarily associated with the Hidari Mitsudomoe. One theory on this is based on the original roots of the Kuki clan. The founder of the Kuki clan, Kuki Ryūshin, originally bore the family name “Fujiwara”. The Fujiwara clan was a noble family of the imperial court. There are several Fujiwara lines to be exact, so to be more specific, it is said that he is a descendant of the Fujiwara no Takaie¹. Takaie was the 4th son of Fujiwara Kitaie², who belonged to one of the Fujiwara lines that used the Hidari Mitsudomoe as a family emblem. This is primarily because Kitaie’s family were worshipers of the deity Hachiman (god of war), and helped spread its influence throughout Japan with the construction of many small shrines. This theory tends to be the common and most feasible in Japanese sources.

Next, a point to consider is the connection between the Kuki family and their role within Shinto practices. For many generations they have served in Shinto shrines, from when their ancestors were still a part of the Fujiwara clan, to even after this when the Kuki clan established in Kuki Ura. If we look at when several members served as betto³ (chief administrative of a temple) for the Kumano Hongu Taisha, the perception of the tomoe with its spiritual connections and as a mark of protection was already in place at the time. Being the shinmon (deity emblem) of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the Hidari Mitsudomoe can be found all over this shrine. Another interesting point is that another emblem called “Jurokuyae Omotegiku⁴” (a type of Kikuka⁵ emblem) is also associated with this shrine. On top of this, the Kuki clan uses a combination of both emblems, with the Hidari Mitsudomoe overlapping the other. Apart from the association due to the connection with Kumano Hongu Taisha, I am not sure the reasoning behind using both emblem in such fashion.


Kuki Yoshitaka is generally mentioned in association with the Hidari Mitsudomoe. It’s stated that on such items like the back of his jinbaori⁶ (a special vest worn by a commander) and the flag of his large ships bore the Hidari Mitsudomoe mark. Other members of the Kuki clan also used this emblem openly. Of course, this was by those who inherited it or were granted permission to use it. Places where this can be seen at an abundance are where they had resided as land owners, such as Kuki Cho.


A pic of a miniature-scaled large battle ship “Nihon Maru” (日本丸). From the book “Kukishinden Zensho”.

A town in Kuki Ura after Kuki Ryūshin moved his family to reside there, Kuki Cho is an area where the Hidari Mitsudomoe saw great use. Apart from being used as a family crest, many old buildings within Kuki Cho are said to bear this crest along the eaves of roofs and sides of the walls. It is also found on grave sites of certain Kuki members as well. Due to their control over this area, it would make sense that they would express their presence in such manner. The same can be said in other places such as where Toba castle once stood (Toba, Mie Prefecture).


In the book “Kukishinden Zensho: Nakatomi Shintō, Kumano Shugendō⁷”, which is based heavily on the documentations kept in the care of the main line of the Kuki clan, features a page with a discussion on the Hidari Mitsudomoe. Other than stating much of the popular conceptions about this emblem explained in part one, this also contains views and insights about what it means to the Kuki clan itself. Below are a few excerpts from that page, with the actual Japanese text followed by my translations.


The page from the book “Kukishinden Zensho”, where the original Japanese text about the Hidari Mitsudomoe is taken from.



Incidentally, the triple 3-head left sided comma…is the family crest of the Kuki clan.


This kanji “巴” (ha⁸) is thought to be a hieroglyphic character representing the appearance of a snake or of such nature coiling upon itself. It’s also said to to be a character that symbolizes a whirlpool’s turning waters. As such, from this idea of “whirlpool’s water”, it was then used as an abumigawara (a roof tile consisting of a semi-cylindrical tile and a decorative pendant) for shrines and temples as a charm to ward off fire.


The 3 commas is thought to express (3-point) ideas such as heaven-earth-person (creation of all things), wisdom-virtue-valor (3 primary virtues), and the religious idea of “spirit–present-astral” (3 boundaries of the physical & spiritual realms). However, in the Kuki clan’s case, this is also found in the Shinto prayers to the grand kami of the Takamikura Jingu, a shrine that they also have a connection with….


The last point is key to understanding the significance of the Hidari Mitsudomoe to the Kuki clan, for it is very unique to them; the 3 commas are symbolic of Mihashira no Ookami⁹, or 3 grand gods pinnacle to the creation of all things within their version of shinto. There’s also connections to the term “mitsu no tomoshibi¹⁰” (3 guiding lights), which involves the rescue of Southern Emperor Godaigo, along with the 3 sacred treasures that were retrieved by and protected by Kuki Ryushin in the 1300s. However, despite these details explained in the aforementioned book, trying to understand the full gist of all this is a difficult task to undertake for many reasons, which will steer far away from this post’s main focus, which is on the Hidari Mitsudomoe.


We’ve reached the end of this topic regarding the Kuki clan’s use of the family emblem called Hidari Mitsudomoe. As mentioned from the 1st post, there is much history regarding the tomoe emblem, let alone the Hidari Mitsudomoe. The same can be said with the Kuki clan due to their religious background and beliefs. I hope that touching upon different aspects of this has helped to get an understanding its relationship with the Kuki clan, and why it would be used as their kamon. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more!

1) 藤原隆家. The “no” part is generally omitted in written form, but said verbally.

2) 藤原北家

3) 別当

4) 十六八重表菊. This is considered an imperial emblem.

5) 菊花

6) 陣羽織

7) 九鬼神伝全書中臣神道熊野修験道. Written by Agō Kiyohiko (吾郷清彦), an associate to the main line of the Kuki clan who was given the task of reviewing & archiving their many documents.

8) “Ha” is another pronunciation for tomoe. This is onyomi (non-native Japanese reading) for this kanji, and is shown that to be so as it is written in katakana, which is one of Japanese’s writing styles and can indicate words that are foreign.

9) 三柱大神

10) 三つの灯火

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.