Pre- vs. post-earthquake prints

For the more popular Watanabe artists like Hasui and Shinsui, the knowledge of which prints came before the earthquake and which after, is well documented. Most of their prints are margin dated and, with very few exceptions, there were no attempts to reproduce their old prints. They went forward with new designs.

With Shôtei, it is considerably more difficult for a collector to determine whether the print that he is looking at was produced prior to or after the earthquake. Most of Shôtei's prints are not dated. Additionally, many of them were reproduced, from new blocks carved after the disaster.

My Variant Shôtei Print Designs page attempts to catalog and identify all of the variant prints as either plagiarized or post-earthquake reproductions. New images are being sent to me for inclusion on this page on what seems to be a monthly basis. I have devised some standards to use in sorting out which variants are knock-offs and which are pre- and post-earthquake sets.

As we find more and more of the pre-/post- sets, the question is raised, "How can we tell which is which?" That's the purpose of this page: to explore some methods we might use to sort them out.

I've been warned by another collector who is older, wiser, and considerably more experienced than myself that, "Identifying any particular print as before or after 1923 is fraught with problems." But I just can't help myself...

Watanabe's address labels

The label at the left, with the "No. 11 Gorobei-cho" address, is from the 1920 oban Shôtei print "Tokumochi" (O-29 in the catalog).

After the 1923 quake, Watanabe's shop was rebuilt at 9, Nishi 8-chome, Ginza.

I'm operating under the assumption that any print which has a label on the reverse side with the Gorobei-cho address is a pre-earthquake print.

Kakei prints

For various reasons, I am convinced that "Kakei" is a go or artist's name of Takahashi Shôtei. See my Kakei page for details. The only known scholarly reference to Kakei states that his prints were produced in the very early years of Watanabe's publishing business. There are no prints attributed to Kakei in Watanabe's 1936 catalog. Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that all Kakei-sealed prints are pre-earthquake prints.

1936 Watanabe catalog

There are a limited number of small black/white images of Shôtei prints in the 1936 Watanabe catalog. I have access to a second-generation photocopy which makes the images a bit distorted. If I can see clearly enough to recognize one of members of a pre-/post-earthquake set in the catalog, I feel comfortable assuming it is the post-earthquake version. On the Variant Shôtei Print Designs page, the 2 versions of "Spring Evening" (M-12) are sorted out using this method.

Numbers in cartouches on Shôtei prints

One of the things we learned from the 1910 Weeks family scrapbook was that many of the very early Shôtei prints were marked, within the image with a number inside of one of two shapes of cartouche (either a fan or a 5-petaled flower). These only seemed to be used on Shôtei prints. Even though the Weeks scrapbook contained 7 Itô Sôzan prints, none of those had a comparable marking.

The highest cartouche number that I've seen is the one at the far left, from print M-72, which reads "46". Since Shôtei designed some 500 prints for Watanabe before the quake, I'm working under the assumption that a print containing one of these cartouches can be dated as from 1910 or prior. If I see some higher numbers, I might modify this assumption.


This next approach is admittedly tenuous, but this shin hanga researcher takes what he can get. It seems reasonable to assume that pre-earthquake prints will be seen less frequently in current day sales and collections. Therefore, if we track "sightings" of the 2 variant states of a design and find a significant plurality of the sightings of one state over the other, we might be able to call the rare one the pre-earthquake state.

Besides getting the skeptics to accept it, one of the problems with this method is determining:

  • The minimum number of sightings to have a meaningful sample.
  • The ratio of plurality to draw a meaningful conclusion.

My suggestion is that there should be at least 10 sightings and that 80% of them should be of one state over the other. We have started keeping track of sightings of Shôtei prints M-3 and M-11 on the Variant Shôtei Print Designs page.

I welcome your comments about this approach.

Collector Comments:

Bruce Stewart - 2/2/02 -"As for your rarity test, I think the jury is still out. The idea is a good one but it relies on at least three basic assumptions: 1) that the earlier printing was smaller, 2) that the earlier printing has had a higher rate of attrition, and 3) that the prints were distributed in the same areas and are equally likely to surface. It is possible that these assumptions are not valid for some prints."

Watanabe's inventory number stamps

Both before and after the earthquake, Watanabe stamped some of their prints with catalog numbers in the lower right corner of the back side. After the quake, since everything had been destroyed, Watanabe started with new catalog numbers, re-using numbers which had been previously used for different prints.

This strategy dictates that if the inventory number found on a print is also found in the 1936 Watanabe catalog, but with a title and/or artist attribution describing a different print, then the print that you are looking at must be a pre-earthquake print.

Let's discuss each of the prints whose stamped inventory numbers are shown above.

No. 190 is the number stamped on the back of Shôtei print P-7. The Watanabe 1936 catalog uses number 190 to refer to another Shôtei print: C-4, "Moon-rise on Minatomachi; girls on bridge".
Verdict: P-7 is pre-earthquake.

No. 200 is the number stamped on the back of Kakei print K-2. I looked up catalog number 200 in the Watanabe post-quake catalog and found that it refers to a print titled "Kiribitake in pouring rain" by Hiroshige II.
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 212 is on the Shôtei print M-12 or Spring Evening. The Watanabe catalog lists 212 as the Shôtei print "Willow tree and lady with lantern in spring evening", and shows a thumbnail black and white picture of the same print.
Verdict: post-earthquake.

No. 262 is on the Kakei print K-1. In Watanabe's post-quake numbering system, print 262 is called "Puppet Manipulators" by Kiyohiro.
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 322 is on Kakei print K-11. Print 322, in the 1936 catalog, is Hiroshige's "Traveller's bonfire at Karuizawa".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 324 is on the backside of Kakei print K-4. Print 324, in the 1936 catalog, is Hiroshige's "Morning mist at Mishima (Tokaido)".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 352 is the number stamped on the back of Kakei print K-6. Post-quake, that number refers to a Hiroshige fan print titled "Zojoji Temple from Takeshiba Bay".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 353 is the number stamped on the back of Shôtei print M-112. Post-quake, that number refers to a Hiroshige fan print titled "Mt. Fuji from Hommoku Bay".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 357 is the on the back of Shôtei print M-123. Post-quake, that number refers to the Gogaku print "Shower at Tempôzan, Ôsaka".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 484 is on the Shôtei print M-90 or North Kasuminoura. The 1936 catalog has print number 484, but it is by Ohara Shôson and titled "Fireflies flying; some on grass".
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 547 is on the creped Shôtei print S-44. The 1936 catalog has print number 547, but it is a mitsugiri-ban print, "Peony flower and butterfly" by Ohara Shôson.
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 759 is on the Shôtei print C-33. The 1936 catalog has print number 759 as a small-format Hiroshige reproduction.
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

No. 897 is on the Shôtei print M-15. The 1936 catalog has print number 897, but it is a Hasui postcard print.
Verdict: pre-earthquake.

Size of the numbers:

The numbers 212 and 262 above, at 3 to 4mm in height, are smaller than the other numbers, which are 4 to 5mm. There was a series of smaller prints added to the Shôtei catalog as S-24 through S-43, many of which were tipped to backing paper on which were stamped the Watanabe post-quake inventory numbers, in the 3-4mm size.

I was ready to jump to the conclusion that the smaller format numbers were applied post-quake while the larger numbers were applied pre-quake. I need to partially abandon that theory, since 262, stamped in the smaller format, has been shown to be on a pre-quake print, However, it might turn out that we will see the larger size numbers stamped exclusively on pre-quake prints. Please keep your eyes open and let me know what you see.

Registration marks in the image

Another surprise from the 1910 Weeks family scrapbook was the number of prints with pigment missing from the bottom right corner and about 2/3 of the way up the side. This was a result of printing without margins to save paper. The carved registration points were concave and unable to be effectively inked and impressed.

It is unusual to see these in Watanabe's later products. His early lack of respect for "tourist" prints is revealed by this.

While the presence of these marks is not sufficient to call a print pre-earthquake, it seems that it may be used in conjunction with other evidence to build a case.

Generational Shrinkage

Ukiyo-e collector Paul Steier suggested the following theory in an October, 2002 email:

If you have an original and a recut print side by side, the image on the recut print should be slightly smaller than the original.

This is because before the original print was printed, the paper was moistened and so expands. This is done to prevent the pigments from spreading into the paper. After being printed, the print dries out and shrinks.

When a recut is made, normally an original print is traced the make the new blocks, so the recut image will be smaller. At least, that's the theory.

Looking at the Shôtei pre-/post-earthquake sets on the Shôtei variants page, one can see prints where some of the image has been slavishly copied (as if traced) and other areas have been redrawn. The only pair that I own are the 2 versions of M-14, which at first glance look to be completely different. But on closer inspection, there are some details which seem to be slavishly copied, specifically the top line of the crater and the tree directly below the peak. Using a pair of dividers, I can see that the newer print is slightly smaller when test measuring between multiple common points.

However, I'd love to get my hands on some more examples side-by-side so that I can get some more datapoints. Especially interesting would be M-72. The woman and her laundry look traced to me.

Historical Records of Exhibitions

Shin hanga researcher, Tosh Doi, uncovered some catalogs of exhibitions which included some Shôtei prints. These catalogs were documented in the book "Kawase Hasui Mokuhangashu" by Muneshige Narazaki.

Catalog prints M-15 and M-117 were listed as having been exhibited during June 16-20, 1921 at Shirokiya, Tokyo. This information allowed them to be dated as <= 1921.

In April of 1932 there was another exhibit at Shirokiya. It included prints: O-1 through O-10, along with: M-1, M-14, M-16, M-28, M-30, M-31, M-33, M-62, and M-63. Some of those prints were previously dated as <= 1936, because they were in the 1936 catalog. Their date has been changed to <= 1932.

Titles and Colors

A point that was made by the author of the Shôtei biography from the Folk Museum of Ota City was that some of the post-earthquake versions of the mitsugiri-ban prints had titles that their predecessors were missing. Also, the earlier versions tended to have more subdued colors than their post-earthquake replacements.

Round "Watanabe" Seals

Most Hasui collectors work under the assumption that there are 2 varieties of the round Watanabe seal, the 6mm and the 7mm version. According to common wisdom, the 7mm round seal indicates a posthumous edition, produced after Hasui's death in 1957.

This has been repeatedly denied by the current generation of owners of the Watanabe Color Print Company, who claim that there have been many round seals in various sizes, which have been randomly applied to prints. They caution Western collectors against reading too much into the various seal formats.

Is that going to stop me? Not likely...

It is very unusual to encounter a round Watanabe seal on a smaller format Shôtei print (mitsugiri-ban or chuban). Almost every time that has happened, the seal has been somewhat larger than 6mm and the print has been identified as being a pre-earthquake early print. The seal to the right is about 6.5mm. I've seen them as large as 9mm.

Of course, the presence of such a seal is not sufficient, on its own, to make a conclusive finding, but should be used within the context of other clues.

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