Kiri-mon (paulownia patterns) is a generic name for Monsho (crests or coats of arms) that are based on paulownia. It is also called Toka-mon. Since it was incused on money such as koban (former Japanese oval gold coin) after Muromachi period, it became widely recognized by the nation as the Monsho representing Japanese government.
The basic design consists of three erect inflorescences and three leaves. It was originally the family crest exclusively for the Imperial family as well as Kiku-mon (crest of Chrysanthemum), but it later turned to be used by non-Imperial family as well. The design with three, five and three flowers in respective inflorescences is general and called Gosannokiri (also referred as Gosangiri). The one with five, seven and five flowers is called Goshichinokiri (also referred as Goshichigiri). There are more than 140 kinds of Kiri-mon such as Midaregiri (wild paulownia), Kiribishi (diamond and paulownia), Koringiri (Korin's paulownia), and Kiriguruma (paulownia and circle).
Since they were used by a wide range of people including common people, samurai (warriors), and daimyo (feudal lords), they are recognized as typical family crests. Especially Gosannokiri was widely used by common people, therefore they could lend or borrow formal kimono with family crests. The restriction of using some Kikuka-monsho (the Imperial Crest of the Chrysanthemum) was specified in the edict of Dajokan (Grand Council of state) in 1869. However as it was announced in an official gazette in 1884 that they didn't limit the use of Kiri-mon, people could use them without any restrictions.
Kiri-mon in politics
In politics, Goshichinokiri was used heavily as Fuku-mon (alternative family crests) for the Imperial Family and Imperial Court. Therefore people used not only the standard designs but its variants such as Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI who used Taikogiri (Kiri-mon with a design of flowers and leaves of paulownia). Not limited to Goshichinokiri, Gosannokiri was also used, for example, by the Ministry of Justice.
Since it was incused on money such as koban during Toyotomi period and Edo period and circulated across the country, it was well-established as the Monsho representing Japanese government.
Paulownia had been deified as a tree which a hoo (mythological sacred bird in Chinese lore, phoenix) perched on. One theory held in Japan that it had been used for embroidery and shaped resist dyeing on Emperors' clothes, and thought to be a family crest with the highest social status after 'Kikuka-monsho' since the time of Emperor Saga. Also after the Middle Ages, it was the family crest that samurai families desired, and Takauji ASHIKAGA and Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, and so on, received it from the Emperors. Therefore the awareness that Goshichinokiri was 'the family crest for people who hold the reins of government' became established. However, some people declined the use of paulownia for their family crests such as Ieyasu TOKUGAWA who was assigned to the seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians").
In 1872, the Meiji Government designated taireifuku (court dress, full-dress uniform), and ruled that imperial appointees had to have 'Goshichinokiri' on their taireifuku jackets. It is the conventional Monsho for Japanese Government (prime minister, cabinet [Japan]), and is treated in the same manner as the national emblem. It is used for the design of Orders of the Rising Sun, the decoration of documentations such as visas and passports since it is regarded as the same as 'Kikuka-monsho' which represents the Japanese Emperor and the Imperial family, supplies in the official residence of the prime minister, and the plate mounted on the podium for the prime minister.