Zodiacal Calendar Date Seals


As described here, from 1790 until 1876 (when formal censorship ceased), all woodblock prints had to be examined by official censors, and marked with their seals.

From about 1805 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), many (and in some periods almost all) woodblock prints contained a date seal, using the oriental cyclical calendar system. Reading these date seals allows the dating of prints, usually to within a month.

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.) The date seals usually included both a cyclical year indication, in the form of the (often stylized) character for the year's animal, 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.

Reading the Date Seal

Depending on the period, the form and location of the date information varies; in some periods the date appears in a separate seal, whereas in others it appears along with other material in a single seal.

The Month Indication

The following table gives:

The Year Indication

The following table gives:

Intercalary Months

One additional complexity is that the Japanese lunar-solar calendar was not well aligned to the solar year, and tended to quickly drift out of synchronization with it. To fix this, they periodically (approximately every four years or so) inserted an intercalary month (with its own special character in date seals), which was interpolated to bring it back into phase. The exact month thus referred to has to be ascertained from examination of a table, as it falls at changing locations within the year.

The following characters (given in archaic and standard form) are used to denote an intercalary month:

Cyclical Year Table

The following table gives the sequence of years (in the Western numbering) associated with each animal in the twelve-year cycle, for the period during which zodiacal date seals were used on Japanese woodblock prints.

Years which contain an intercalary month (as noted above) are given in brackets; the number given is the number of the month preceding the intercalary month.

Zodiac Year Years For That Animal
Rat 1804 1816   (8) 1828 1840 1852   (2) 1864 1876
Ox 1805   (8) 1817 1829 1841   (1) 1853 1865   (5) 1877
Tiger 1806 1818 1830   (3) 1842 1854   (7) 1866 1878
Hare 1807 1819   (4) 1831 1843   (9) 1855 1867
Dragon 1808 1820 1832   (11) 1844 1856 1868   (4)
Snake 1809 1821 1833 1845 1857   (5) 1869
Horse 1810 1822   (1) 1834 1846   (5) 1858 1870   (10)
Goat 1811   (2) 1823 1835   (7) 1847 1859 1871
Monkey 1812 1824   (8) 1836 1848 1860   (3) 1872
Cock 1813   (11) 1825 1837 1849   (4) 1861 1873   (6)
Dog 1814 1826 1838   (4) 1850 1862   (8) 1874
Boar 1815 1827   (6) 1839 1851 1863 1875

As mentioned above, to find out which particular year is meant (out
of the group named by a particular animal), one has to use other indications,
in particular the form of the
censor seals
to ascertain the exact date.

Miscellaneous Characters

The following miscellaneous characters (given in archaic and standard form) can be found in date seals:

The first is the first character in the name of the fourth month (Uzuki - April), and is sometimes used instead of the numeral '4', to prevent confusion with the archaic form of the numeral '6'. The next two are the aratame ("examined") and kiwame ("approved") chacters, often found in a single seal together with the date characters.

Larger Character Images

To see the various character tables in a slightly larger image, with a little more resolution, click for months (41KB), years (47KB), intercalary (12KB), and miscellaneous (18KB).


Although information about dating prints from censor seals is given in many reference books, much of the material in this page is drawn from the best single reference I know of on date seals:
 	James Self, Nobuko Hirose, "Japanese Art Signatures:
		A Handbook and Practical Guide",
		Tuttle, Rutland, 1987
This invaluable reference work is now unfortunately out of print, and completely unavailable on the used book market, which is why the information is being made available online here.

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