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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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FAQ: How do we interpret inscriptions and seals?


Reading titles, signatures, seals, inscriptions, and various other marks on Japanese prints can often be a daunting task, but some of what appears on ukiyo-e prints is standardized and decipherable. Such information may include the following:

  1. Series title
  2. Subtitle
  3. Artist's signature
  4. Artist's seal
  5. Publisher's seal
  6. Censor's seal
  7. Date seal
  8. Printer's seal
  9. Carver's seal
  10. Other inscriptions, such as poems, biographies, descriptive stories, and declarations of many kinds.

In addition, actor prints may include the names of the actors, the roles they performed, and the play titles. A brief summary of some commonly encountered inscriptions and seals may be of use to those unfamiliar with this aspect of Japanese prints. For an illustrated example of a print with some of these inscriptions and seals, refer to the Annotated Print by Kuniyoshi.

Japanese prints frequently include titles, either for the particular design or for the series to which the print belongs. Translating titles can be challenging, as printmakers or their publishers often used rather imaginative combinations of ideograms (kanji) with meanings or connotations that now escape us.

Shigefusa sigArtists' signatures
Artists usually signed their prints with their artist or studio names (called or geimei; the latter can also can refer to the stage name of an actor). On some rare occasions print artists used a kakihan, which was a 'writing seal' or distinctive character, mark, design, or flourish that was used as a substitute for an artist's signature or seal.

In a few cases the word monjin ("student" or "disciple") with a teacher's or master's name would preface a signature as an acknowledgment to the artist's master (see the example at the immediate right for Shigefusa signing as a pupil of Shigeharu: 'Shigeharu monjin Shigefusa ga'). Name changes would sometimes be indicated with a previous followed by 'aratame' ("changing to") and then a newly chosen name. Artists would occasionally announce a requested design by placing oju ("by special request") before their signatures. Unusual instances of signatures exist as well. For instance, Utamaro appended shômei ("genuine name") to his signature in a few designs to indicate that the print was authentic. Some artists changed their names throughout their careers, Katsushika Hokusai being perhaps the most celebrated (using more than 60 signatures with different names or combinations). To make matters even more complicated, artists sometimes signed their works with their literary names (called haimyô or haigô), not their studio names. Finally, most artists usually affixed an ending to their signatures, either ga (picture') or hitsu (fude, painting), which in the context of ukiyo-e printmaking meant "drawn by" or "painted by," respectively. There was typically no special significance to an artist using either of these suffixes, although occasionally an artist would drop one in favor of the other at a particular moment in his career, and thus it might serve as an aid in dating a print.

Artists' Seals
Many artists frequently used seals with their signatures. Some used only a few, while others used a wide array of seals, which sometimes help to identify the period in which the print was designed. Seals were derived from a variety of sources, such as names of the artist designing the print, names or emblems used by earlier masters, literary names, studio crests, family names, and so on. In the example above right, the red circular seal reads 'Shigefusa' in a seal-style script (compare with the black-ink characters above the seal).

Publishers' Seals
Many ukiyo-e prints bear seals that identify the publisher (hanmoto). Most that we encounter are simple trademarks or ciphers, or seals that are combinations of ideographs and pictorial marks. Occasionally we find more elaborate publisher cartouches, as in some early ukiyo-e. The example below from circa 1737 (read right to left) combines the print designer's information ("painted by the artist Torii Kiyomasu") with the publisher's trademark and name ("the publisher Urokogata-ya"). Other examples include those in which the publisher's name and street address are inscribed along with the seal and perhaps even additional information such as advertising slogans or appeals to purchase the print. Much later, in 1876, ukiyo-e print publishers were required to include their names and addresses on prints, which they often placed in the vertical margins.

Kiyomasu cartouche

kiwame date sealsDate Seals
The date seals used on Japanese prints identify one of the 12 animals of the zodiac and a specific month for that seal (see Kuniyoshi print: Inscriptions and Seals). Although these signs repeat every 12 years, there is usually no question as to which year a particular sign of the zodiac belongs because other supporting evidence helps to establish an exact year (such as other seals, the artist and his style, or subject matter). Some date seals were used in combination with separate censor seals (see example at right, which includes a 'kiwame' censor seal above a date seal reading u shichi ("hare seven" or 7/1807), while other seals incorporated both date and censor information within a single seal.

Censor Seals
Before 1790 the restrictions upon publishing of books and prints were enforced by magistrates and governors known as machi-bugyô ("administrators of the town"), who were empowered by the shogun's government. In the 5th month of 1790, however, the publishers' guilds were requested by edict (part of the so-called 'Kansei' reforms named after the era in which they took effect) to appoint their own censors (gyôji or "judge"), who were in effect a committee of rotating members (see Sumptuary Edicts). The seals were known as kiwame ("approved"; see circular seal above the date seal on right) and later aratame ("examined"). The earliest known examples of ukiyo-e prints bearing censor seals seem to be from either late 1790 or early 1791, so it appears that it took some months before the new system of censorship took effect, at least as far as including the new censor seals on the prints. Sensitivity to the application of censorship caused publishers to take various measures to avoid prosecution. See, for example, Utamaro and the Physiognomists. Then in 1842 the self-censorship of the publishing guilds was ended and government censors called e-nanushi ("headman of prints") were appointed to approve or reject designs (see the Kuniyoshi illustration for two nanushi-style censor seals). The use of various censor seals singly or in combination lasted until around 1875. Various forms of these seals or their combinations allow us to date some prints with precision, while other seals permit only an estimate within a range of years. In 1876 a new arrangement for censorship was established that required publishers to submit their designs to the Naimusho ("Home Ministry"), with the requirement that all prints must include such information as name, full address, and date. Publishers would comply by inscribing this information either inside their seals and cartouches, or simply listing it in the margins.

Sada and Nao seals Printer and Block Cutter Seals
Despite the significant contributions made by printers and block cutters, the vast majority of ukiyo-e prints do not identify these important artisans either by inscription or seals. Occasionally, however, special editions of print designs did include their names, usually in the form of a small cartouche cut into the keyblock, but sometimes hand-stamped on the print. The example on the immediate right displays the names and functions of two little known artisans: (R) hori Sada ("cut by Sada") and (L) suri Nao ("printed by Nao"). ©1999 by John Fiorillo

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