Years ago I asked Laurence Sickman, one of
the greatest experts on Chinese art in the twentieth century, if he knew
what the particular significance of this motif was. He
told me that it
represented Chinese armor. He may or may not have mentioned that it was
derived from the tortoiseshell. It was so long ago that I don't quite
remember. While trying to research this subject I have been struck by the
paucity of information both on the Internet and in my library which is
relatively extensive. (Everything is relative.) I looked at Merrily Baird's
book Symbols of Japan, but her only reference to it was in a
description of diaper patterns where the tortoiseshell could be hexagonal or
octagonal. She notes an inlaid box in with this tortoiseshell pattern or
kikko mon stored at the Shosoin in Nara, but she makes no
connection with anything military.
The Dictionary of Japanese Culture
by Kojima and Crane was no better. A good book, but unhelpful in my quest.
The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan was also silent on this topic. I
began to doubt my memory. My respect for Sickman's knowledge was too great
for me to doubt him so I had to doubt myself. And then I looked up the
character for armor in Japanese and lo and behold there it was --- the
character 甲 for armor was the same as the character for tortoise shell. The
connection was clear. Sickman was correct.
The disconnect between a decorative
motif and is original meaning is understandable considering the source,
i.e., the box mentioned by Baird in the Shosoin. However, Kuniyoshi's use of
it on Suikoden figures indicates that there had to be some knowledge of its
alternative usage. Remember the fighters of the Suikoden were based on
Chinese warrior bandits.
It is amazing what patience will do for you. Or, at least,
for me. Finally I found the term for this particular pattern: Bishamonkikkō
- a combination of the name of one of the Seven Propitious Gods and the
tortoiseshell patterned armor he wears. This motif is also related to one
called the 'sword tip' pattern or kensaki (剣先 or けんさき) which also described
the shape of a squid.
What is even more amazing to me is that there seems to be
a term for just about anything. If something exists someone has named it.
Could this get any more esoteric?