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A translation of a unique 17th-century compendium of samurai heraldry, annotated with the symbolism and stories behind the banners. Read more

Cambridge, MA Academic
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This project was successfully funded on September 2, 2014.

A translation of a unique 17th-century compendium of samurai heraldry, annotated with the symbolism and stories behind the banners.

Cambridge, MA Academic
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About this project

Across history, people have used banners and heraldry to declare their identity and what they command.  Japan, too, developed a system of heraldry with its own unique style, using crests, banners, and other devices to identify forces on a battlefield, to identify leadership at home or while traveling, and to symbolize hierarchy and prestige.

In feudal Japan, knowing heraldry was important, both to distinguish friend from foe and to avoid offending or being presumptuous.  While some crests were well known, Japan's size and the distribution of samurai lords among the various provinces made compiling a complete picture of the heraldry in use a challenge.

The Source

O-umajirushi is the earliest surviving color compendium of Japanese crests and heraldry. It's a 205-page book, in six scrolls, published circa 1624–1644 by a monk named Kyūan.  At the time, wood block printing was just starting to allow for widespread distribution of books in Japan. O-umajirushi took advantage of this technology to make color reproductions of the various banners and other devices used by 170 different samurai commanders.

This Project

While Japanese crests have been in use for over a thousand years, most resources available today, both in Japanese and English, focus on modern and late Edo period usage, ignoring this rich history.  With this project, I hope to do my part to make this history more accessible.

I will produce an annotated English translation of O-umajirushi.  The core of this book will be full color reproductions of all 205 pages of the original source, courtesy of the National Diet Library of Japan.  I will translate all of the names, captions, and other text in the source.  Pages will be presented in right-to-left order, reflecting the order in the original scrolls.

But there's more needed to understand O-umajirushi than the raw images and translations alone.  Japanese heraldry at the time had many kinds of banners and other devices with distinct uses and purposes, and the entries in O-umajirushi assumed the reader would have some familiarity with these concepts.  As a result, the author did not go into detail about them.  Also, the samurai are listed with only family name and title, making it difficult to identify which individual is being referred to and to understand the relationships between them.  Thus, in addition to a literal translation of the captions, annotations are necessary to fully understand the work.  In addition to explaining the captions and the individuals involved, I will also add context from other works about the various crests and motifs.  Many crests and other devices derive from traditional legends, and telling some of these stories will help make O-umajirushi come alive.

Beyond these annotations, I'll also include an introduction giving history and context, a glossary, a comprehensive index, and a bibliography referred to by in-text citations.  The intent is to make a book that's clear and accessible for someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, but detailed and engaging enough for an enthusiast.

We've currently reached three "stretch goals". The first is to add a section on mon origin stories and legends. The second is to include images from Japanese battle scrolls and other sources showing historical Japanese heraldry. The third is a section discussing ways that crests were used beyond banners.  If we reach $10,000, I'll let each $50+ backer specify a public or non-profit school, library, or similar organization for me to donate a copy of my book to.

See a reduced-quality example page (rough draft)

Why Kickstarter?

The main reason I turned to Kickstarter is to reach a audience.  In addition to helping me find people who might be interested in my book, Kickstarter could also help me raise funds to produce additional copies to donate to interested schools and libraries, making it available more widely.

The money from this Kickstarter will be used to acquire additional books for research purposes, to cover the actual production cost of the books, for shipping and handling, and to produce additional books to donate.  Any additional money raised will allow additional donated books or cover improvements or expansions to the book.

Risks and challenges

The challenges in this project are twofold: translation and production.

Translation of Classical Japanese is always a bit of an adventure. However, I've translated Classical Japanese works before, and have the necessary skills and resources. I've already completed a translation of the first of the six volumes; since the other five volumes are similar in structure, I don't anticipate any major difficulties completing the translation.

On the production side, book printing is a common operation, and I've researched multiple good alternatives. I've got a printer lined up, and if something falls through I have good backup options.

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FAQ

  • You can use something from O-umajirushi, something from elsewhere in Japanese history, or something custom you specify that fits with the general style of Japanese heraldry. I'm happy to work with you to come up with something that'll make you happy, whether that's picking a historical device or creating something custom that's personally meaningful for you.

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  • I work as a Software Engineer, but historical Japanese art and culture have long been a passion of mine. This has led me to minor in Applied International Studies focused on Japan, study and translate classical Japanese poetry, and spend time living and working in Japan. Japanese heraldry caught my attention because of its elegance and rich history. I teach classes on it in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Researching for those classes and finding limited English resources inspired me to work on this project.

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Rewards

  • You selected
    Pledge $10 or more

    87 backers

    Just the PDF: one searchable DRM-free PDF copy, usable on any device

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  • You selected
    Pledge $25 or more

    139 backers

    The Book: one full-color paperback copy, plus a PDF copy

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    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $50 or more

    144 backers

    Deluxe Hardcover: one limited-edition premium color hardcover copy, signed, plus a PDF copy

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    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $75 or more

    10 backers

    Double Dip: one limited-edition premium color hardcover copy and one full-color paperback copy, both signed, plus a PDF copy

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    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $100 or more

    1 backer Limited (9 left of 10)

    The Digital Daimyō: one deluxe hardcover, signed, plus a digital print in the style of O-umajirushi of the banner or other heraldic device of your choice

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $250 or more

    3 backers Limited (2 left of 5)

    The Real Deal: one deluxe hardcover, signed, plus a hand-printed wood-block print in the style of O-umajirushi of the banner or other heraldic device of your choice, along with the wood blocks used to make it

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world

Funding period

- (30 days)