The date of a Japanese print can often be ascertained from the censor seals on it - at least for prints which were sold publicly, and thus had to pass the censors. (Private, limited edition prints such as surimono, as well as outlaw prints such as shunga, were evidently condoned - or overlooked - if issued discreetly.)
From 1790 until 1876 (which roughly parallels the last half of the best of ukiyo-e, and the period from which prints are most commonly found today), when formal censorship ceased, all woodblock prints had to be examined by official censors, and marked with their seals.
The changing forms of these seals, as they government changed the censorship process, and the seals applied as part of that, allows the dating of prints to a varying degree of accuracy. The general form of the seals almost always gives a rough idea of when the print was produced. During some periods, the details of the censor seals allows dating a print to within a month.
To understand the ability to do such accurate dating, one needs to understand that the Japanese used (along with several other calendrical systems!) the Chinese zodiacal calendar, which is a twelve-year cycle, with each year having an associated animal, e.g. rat, ox, etc. (Anyone who has ever eaten in a Chinese restarant will no doubt recall this from the placemats.)
During large parts of the censor seal period, the seals included a zodiacal year indication, along with the numeral for the month. Although this only technically narrows it down to a group of years, spaced twelve years apart, other indications (e.g. the artist's working period, or the form of his signature, or the form of the censor seals, which changed often) usually allow one to ascertain the exact date.
Broadly speaking, the general form (i.e. number, contents, shape, etc) of the censor seals used in the period from 1790 to 1876 (during which woodblock prints were censored) falls into six main periods. Within each of these periods, the exact form of the seals (i.e. square, round, oval, etc) often changed; this level of detail is only useful for actually dating prints.
The sections below give a mostly-complete introduction to how the censor seals changed over time; the early period is not covered in detail, as prints from that period are rare, unlike those from the later periods coverered here. (Also not covered here are certain obscure censor seals used for special forms, e.g. fan prints.)
Hover the mouse pointer over an image to see what it reads; for all images, click on the image to see a larger version.
|In the first, lasting from 1790 until 1805, a single round seal reading kiwame ("approved") is found (see sample illustration at right).
(One uncommon type from this period, one which is easy to confuse with later seals, was used during the period 1815 to 1832, and includes a zodiacal date in the top part of an oval seal, along with an aratame ("examined") character below.)
|In 1842, the whole system was reformed, and replaced by individual censors called Nanushi. They marked prints with their individual round seals, bearing characters from their names. During the period from 1842 to 1846, these seals are found singly (see sample illustration at right). There are roughly a dozen of these seals; for a beginner to tell if a seal on a print is one of them, it is necessary to check a table of them. With time, it becomes easy to tell if a single round seal is a nanushi seal, or some other kind. They are sometimes found with a zodiacal date seal and/or an aratame seal.
|From 1847 to 1853, the Nanushi marked prints in pairs; these seals are usually directly next to each other, but on rare occasions they are separated. The fact that they are usually found next to one another makes them easy to recognize; in general, no other round seals come in pairs. An oval aratame seal is usually present during the period from 1848 to 1851. During the period 1852-1853, a zodiacal date seal is also present.
|In the initial phase, from 1853 to 1857, a circular aratame seal was used along with a separate oval zodiacal date seal; again, these seals are usually directly next to each other, but occasionally they are separated. (See sample illustrations at right.)
|In 1858, the aratame seal was dropped, and the oval date seal appears alone.
|In one early arrangement, the year sign was at the top, and the month numeral at the bottom enclosed the aratame character. (See sample illustration at right.)
|In the second arrangement (found most often from 1859 to 1863), the aratame character is at the bottom left, with the month on the top left, and the year on the right, although one also sees a variant where the year is in the middle.
|In the third arrangement (found most often from 1864 to 1871), the aratame character is on the left, with the year sign on the top right, and the month on the bottom right; again, a variant, this time with the month in the middle, is also to be seen.
|However, almost every other configuration imaginable can also be found, as the samples to the right show: the aratame on the bottom, with the year and month on the top; the month split to the sides, and (oddest of all), the aratame split to the sides.
|At the very end of the period of censorship, from 1872 until the end of censorship in 1875, a round seal contains just the zodiacal date.
James Self, Nobuko Hirose, "Japanese Art Signatures: A Handbook and Practical Guide", Tuttle, Rutland, 1987This invaluable reference work was unfortunately for a long time out of print, and unavailable on the used book market, which is why the information was made available online here.
Another recently-published, and very useful, reference book, which gives images of date seals for most months, is:
Andreas Marks, "Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium", Hotei, Leiden, 2011Since this is a more recent, and more detailed work, it has been used to update some of the information here.
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Last updated: 31/July/2012