During the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, each aristocratic family had a kamon. Kamon originated in Japan and entered the Ryukyu Kingdom through interaction between aristocratic Ryukyuans and the Japanese.
That circular swirly symbol that you often see in Okinawa- on flags during festivals, on the sides of sanshin instruments, on traditional roofs, etc.- is called the “hidari-gomon” (左御紋). This symbol is also sometimes called the “mitsu-domoe-mon”, where “mitsu” means “three”, “domoe” means “comma-shape”, and “mon” (short for “kamon”) means “family crest”.
The hidari-gomon is the most commonly seen kamon in Okinawa because it was the family crest of the Shō clan, who were the last ruling family of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
A particular kamon wasn’t always unique to a single-family- often, more than one aristocratic family used the same kamon. Sources suggest that the Shō clan may have adopted the Hidari-gomon after the successful invasion of Kikai island in 1465.
This crest is also the family crest of the Shinto war god Hachiman, and so can be seen in various iterations (some clockwise, others counter-clockwise, etc.) on shrines throughout Japan that pray to Hachiman.
The mitsu-domoe-mon is made up of three comma-like shapes within a circle, and there are several variations of it. The one used by the Shō family goes in a counter-clockwise direction, so that’s why it’s called “hidari gomon”, where hidari means “left”.
The comma-shaped tomoe is said to have various origins, one theory being that it is modelled after the “tomo”, an ancient leather elbow pad used by archers to protect against chafing. Another theory is that it’s based on the comma-shaped bead in the Yayoi period. Yet another says the pattern may have originated in China.
Due to its swirly shape, the tomoe is seen to resemble water and is sometimes used on roof tiles as a charm against fire.
Although the hidari gomon is highly visible today, it was not a common sight in the Ryukyu Kingdom, as its use was highly restricted to royalty.
However, in recent times, it has become a symbol of Ryukyuan pride- pride in our culture, pride in maintaining our traditions that go back hundreds of years.
If you ever get the opportunity to go to a festival in Okinawa, look out for the hidari gomon. It’s more than just a cool-looking symbol- it reminds us Okinawans to treasure our culture and remember where we came from.
Sherry is a second generation mixed Ryukyuan-American living on Tongva land. She has been an English language educator for seven years, five of those being in Nagoya, Japan. She is learning her heritage language Uchinaaguchi, and hopes to teach it someday. In her spare time, she enjoys singing and playing tunes on the ukelele.