Translating dates is an essential skill for serious shin hanga collectors. The purpose of this article is to familiarize the reader with how to read dates in the standard format, and also to show examples of variant presentations.
The period during which shin hanga prints flourished was a time of cultural transition, with increasing Western influence on the Japanese lifestyle. While most text was presented from right to left, some margin inscriptions read from the left, in the Occidental manner. Sometimes, compound numbers were represented in the Western base-10 number system, as opposed to the traditional method of building compound numbers (explained below). Both of these changes have since become the norm in modern Japanese written and printed text. However, the ambiguous set of rules, at the time, led to a virtual free-for-all in how dates were constructed. To be successful in translating these dates, one must remain flexible.
Traditional Japanese dates are based on eras, each representing the reign of an emperor. Shin hanga prints were produced primarily during the Taisho and Showa eras. This table gives information about each of the four modern Japanese eras:
Years are usually identified by the name of the era followed by a number (i.e. Showa 24 is the 24th year of Showa, or 1949). An exception is the first year of an era where the Japanese word gan is used instead of ichi (1).
Months are identified by the number 1 through 12, and coincide with the months of the Western calendar. January 1 is the first day of a new year for us in the West, and also for the Japanese.
To illustrate how this works, let's look at the days around the transition from the Taisho era to the Showa era:
One of our more observant members has pointed out that there are no known prints by Kawase Hasui dated as Showa Gan-nen. That "year" was only 7 days long -- Hasui probably had the week off!
A helpful shortcut to converting Taisho years to Western years is to add the Taisho year number to 1911. For Showa, add the year number to 1925.
The chart below shows the Japanese digits used in printing dates. Formal, printed characters, both short and long form, are in the second and third columns. The fifth column shows how these characters actually appear in dates. The great majority of dates use the short form (as shown in the second column), but it is important to be familiar with both.
Because of the stylized, calligraphic nature of the margin writing, it is often difficult to interpret the characters. Even though these characters have been meticulously carved into wood, they are purposely made to look like hand-writing. Separate strokes often run together, connected by lines which "shouldn't" be there. Many times, you will find squiggles which merely suggest the well-formed characters.
The chart below shows the most commonly used kanji characters used in a date. It seems that the more complicated a well-formed character, the more liberties are taken in the calligraphic form.
Generally, a digit placed before a ju (10) should be multiplied by 10 while a digit coming after should be added.
Therefore, the number to the left is hachi-ju-ichi, or 8 X 10 + 1, or 81. The number to the right is ju-shi, or 10 + 4, or 14.
Occasionally, compound numbers are presented Western-style with digits following one another.
When this method is used, there is no room for the ju character, but a zero is sometimes necessary. To the left are the traditional and Western-style representations of the number 20.
A variant form of 20 is sometimes used, called niju (Nelson's Dictionary #1550).
It is typically written with one horizontal stroke and two crossing vertical strokes, sometimes with a short horizontal stroke connecting the bottoms of the verticals. A similar character for 30 is called sanju (Nelson's #78), with 3 vertical strokes.
Dates are almost always carved into the key block, usually in the right or left margin of a print, reading from top to bottom. Occasionally, a date will appear in the lower margin, usually reading from right to left, but sometimes from left to right.
The date to the left reads, in Japanese: "Sho Wa Shichi Nen Ni Gatsu Saku". Literally, in English: "Showa 7 Years 2 Months Made In". Or, simply put: "Made in February, 1932".
It's easy to get confused. Notice the extra strokes in the northeast corner of the shichi and between the bottom of the shichi and the top of the nen. One might want to call it a ju, instead of a shichi. But, the horizontal stroke at the bottom of the character is decisive -- it's a shichi.
A common variation is for the year to appear, with no month, as in the 2 dates to the left.
On the left is "Showa Yo Nen Saku", or "Made In 1929". Although the most common pronunciation for the digit 4 is shi, it's pronounced yo when followed by the word nen.
On the right is "Showa Niju Kyu Nen Saku" or "Made in 1954". Note the use of the niju character (20).
This date reads "Showa Ju-Ichi Nen Shi Gatsu Ju Shichi Nichi Sha".
Nichi (Nelson #2097) means "day" and Sha (Nelson #626) means "sketched". Note: the last character can also be pronounced Utsuchi.
So our translation here is "Sketched on Showa 11.4.17", or April 17, 1936.
This date reads "Showa Ju Yo Nen Ban Shun". (As noted above, the digit 4 is here pronounced yo, not shi.)
Shun (Nelson #2122) means Spring, and in this context Ban (Nelson #2145) means "late". So, this image was done in the late Spring of 1939.
Another variation, sometimes encountered, includes a year and a holiday.
This date reads "Showa Roku Nen Gantan Saku", or "Made on New Years Day, 6th year of Showa". For this print , the January 1, 1931 date is confirmed by Merritt & Yamada, the Toledo 1936 catalog (#33), and the Shogun translation of Narazaki.
The literal translation of this date is "Ichi Kyu San Ni - Shichi Gatsu" or July, 1932. A Japanese person might read the year as "Sen Kyu-hyako San-ju Ni", or [one] thousand nine hundred and thirty-two.
While uncommon on shin hanga prints in general, this style of date was used in all of the Ito Takashi prints that I have seen. Toshi Yoshida frequently used this style as well.
Long Form Digit
This date reads "Taisho Ju-Go Nen Saku" or 1926.
The ju is a long form digit. The go is an old style digit. The translation is apparently correct because this date is from Hiroshi Yoshida's "Sailing Boats - Mist" from the Inland Sea series which was produced in 1926.
This date reads, right to left, "Showa Hachi Nen Shi Gatsu Saku" or April, 1933.
The Toledo Stories
Many of the listings in the catalogs of the two Toledo Museum of Art exhibitions (1930 and 1936) include date translations. It is instructive to look at them to see some of the types of variations that were used. Here are a couple of examples, both from the 1936 catalog:
Item #100 lists the Japanese date "Showa Ku Nen Ni Gatsu Ju-hachi Nichi Sha" or "Sketched on the 18th day of the 2nd month of the 9th year of Showa" or February 18, 1934.
Item #107 lists the Japanese date "Showa Ku Nen Ni Gatsu Ju-ni Nichi Sha, Do Nen Ju-ichi Gatsu Saku" or "Sketched on the 11th day of the 2nd month of the 9th year of Showa (February 11, 1934); Made in the 11th month of the same year (November, 1934)"
If anyone has an image of either of these 2 dates, send them in and we'll post them here.
Try to translate these on your own. Float the mouse pointer over the image to see pop-up text of the author's interpretation (this works in the Internet Explorer browser). If you have any alternate interpretations, please send an email. Let's talk about it.
Original text as written and submitted by Marc Kahn for this article is his property, copyright © 2000, all rights reserved.
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