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"Mitsudomoe" redirects here. For the media franchise, see Mitsudomoe (manga).
For other uses, see Tomoe (disambiguation).

A tomoe (巴 or 鞆絵?, ともえ) and tomowe (ともゑ?) in its archaic form, is a Japanese abstract shape described as a swirl that resembles a comma or the usual form of a magatama. The origin of tomoe is uncertain. Some think that it originally meant tomoe (鞆絵?), or drawings on tomo (?), a round arm protector used by an archer, whereas others see tomoe as stylized magatama.[1] It is a common design element in Japanese family emblems (家紋 kamon?) and corporate logos, particularly in triplicate whorls known as mitsudomoe (三つ巴?). Some view the mitsudomoe as representative of the threefold division (Man, Earth, and Sky) at the heart of the Shinto religion.

The two-fold tomoe is almost identical in its design elements to the Chinese symbol known as a taijitu, while the three-fold tomoe is very similar to the Korean tricolored taegeuk. Also note that the negative space in between the swirls of a four-fold tomoe, forms the shape of a stylized swastika, which is fairly prominent in many Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism. On the opposite side of Eurasia, the Basque lauburu and some forms of the Celtic spiral triskele resemble small groups of tomoe.[citation needed]


Hidari mitsudomoe

Originally, mitsudomoe was associated with the Shinto deity Hachiman and can be found in Hachiman shrines across Japan. Since Hachiman was worshiped as the guardian of warriors, it was adopted as family crests by various samurai clans such as Kobayakawa and Utsunomiya. Among aristocrats, the Saionji family used it as its family crest. The Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism uses the mitsudomoe as a visual representation of the cycle of life.

Mitsudomoe is used as the family crest of the (second) Shō clan, the royal family of Ryūkyū on Okinawa Island. It was called hidari gomon (左御門?) there. Since it was the royal family's crest, its usage was once severely restricted in Okinawa. Because of this, Okinawans who visited mainland Japan shortly after the abolishment of Ryūkyū were surprised that the mitsudomoe banners were flown everywhere.[2] Fragmentary sources suggest that mitsudomoe was also used by Okinawa's first Shō dynasty. Together with the date of 1500, mitsudomoe was inscribed on a wooden coffin found in the Momojana tombs in northern Okinawa. The divine name of King Shō Toku was Hachiman-aji and his half-brother was called Hachiman-ganashi. Shō Toku also founded a Hachiman shrine named Asato Hachimangū. For its close connections to the Hachiman cult, some scholars speculate that the first Shō dynasty had its roots in Wokou pirates worshiping Hachiman.[3][4]

A phantom flag of the Ryukyus created by USCAR in 1954.

A colored variant of mitsudomoe was created by the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR) in 1954. The American military occupier used the flag unofficially and informally for a brief period of time in 1954 but never officially adopted it.[5][6] The flag was part of USCAR's effort in creating a Ryukyuan identity in order to counter the reversion movement by Okinawan people, or Ryukyuans as the occupier labeled them. At first, USCAR tried to impose the complete ban on the display of the flag of Japan but was unable to do so because the U.S. acknowledged that Japan had "residual sovereignty" over the islands. USCAR grudgingly allowed special conditions on when the occupiee could fly the Japanese flag, and Okinawan people fought for an unconditional right. To counter this situation, USCAR attempted to create a Ryukyuan national flag. The American occupier believed that the new flag, which was based on the family crest of the old Shō kings, would stir a Ryukyuan nationalistic spirit. USCAR displayed the flag at the Ryukyu-American Friendship Centers but was soon disappointed with the the occupiee's apathy toward the former royal family's symbol. Most people did not even know what the symbol stood for. The unofficial and informal experiment went largely unnoticed by Okinawans. For this reason, Gabe (1996) called this flag a "phantom flag."[5][6]

This flag appeared in a historical novel titled Ryūkyū shigeki: Tomoebata no akebono (1946). The fiction was written by Chōchin Yara (1895–1957) and was mimeographed in Nara, to which he had fled the war. It remains unresolved whether USCAR referred to Yara's self-published novel.[7]

Another colored image featuring mitsudomoe has been erroneously displayed as "the flag of the Ryūkyū Kingdom" in Wikipedia for many years. In 2012, it got media coverage. In a column on the Ryūkyū Shimpō, Daisaku Kina, a part-time curator at Naha City Museum of History, pointed to the fact that Wikipedia hosted this flag with the wrong caption. He was unable to find contemporary sources in which the phantom flag is used as the national flag. He argued that, as a pre-modern polity, Ryūkyū had no notion of national flag. He raised concern about the circulation of the hoax.[7]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Honda, Sōichirō (2008). Nihon no Kamon Taizen. Tokyo: Togo Shoin. ISBN 978-4-340-03102-3. 
  2. ^ Taguchi Nishū 田口二州 (1978). Ryūkyū monshō fu 琉球紋章譜 (in Japanese). 
  3. ^ Yoshinari Naoki 吉成直樹 (2011). Ryūkyū no seiritsu 琉球の成立 (in Japanese). 
  4. ^ Tanigawa Ken'ichi 谷川健一, Orikuchi Shinobu 折口信夫 (2012). Ryūkyū ōken no genryū 琉球王権の源流 (in Japanese). 
  5. ^ a b Gabe Masaaki 我部政明 (1996). Nichibei kankei no naka no Okinawa 日米関係のなかの沖縄 (in Japanese). pp. 98–104. 
  6. ^ a b Obermiller, David John (2006). The United States Military Occupation of Okinawa: Politicizing and Contesting Okinawan Identity, 1945–1955. pp. 358–364. 
  7. ^ a b Kina Daisaku 喜納大作 (12 June 2012). "Maboroshi no Ryūkyū ōkoku ki 幻の琉球王国旗". Ryūkyū Shimpō 琉球新報 (in Japanese). 

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