How to date Watanabe publisher seals

Watanabe Shozaburo copyright seals on prints by Kawase Hasui, Ito Shinsui, Natori Shunsen, Ohara Koson among other shin-hanga artists.

Copyright seals were applied somewhat haphazardly so are not reliable for dating. Examine the quality of the impression and provenance for precise dating.

A copyright seal B copyright seal C copyright seal D copyright seal E copyright seal F copyright seal G copyright seal H copyright seal I copyright seal J1 copyright seal J2 copyright seal K copyright seal L copyright seal M copyright seal N copyright seal O copyright seal
A B C D E F G H I J1 J2 K L M N O
A1March 1909-1916.2 Round3, diameter 10mm approx. Watanabe ワタナベ in katakana.
1915-1925. Round, diameter 6mm4 approx.
B1924-1930. Reads copyright Watanabe Shozaburo (Kako). 版権所有渡邊庄三郎
C1927-1932. Reads published by Watanabe. 版元渡邊版画店
D1929-1942. Colloquially referred to as the "sausage" seal. Reads copyright Watanabe Shozaburo. 版権所有渡邊庄三郎
E1931-1941. The Watanabe family seal is followed by kanji reading copyright and not to be reproduced without permission. Note the border-line breaks.
F1932-1942. Reads published by Watanabe in Ginza.
G1934-1941. Reads designed by Watanabe in Ginza.
H1942-1945. Reads designed by Watanabe.
I1945-present.5 Round, diameter 6mm to 7mm.6
J1Before September 1923. Label adhered to prints before the Great Kanto earthquake. No. 11 Gorobei-cho, Kyobashi-ku, Tokyo.
J21925-1928. Labels adhered to prints. No. 14 Hiyoshi-cho, Kyobashi-ku, Tokyo. No. 9 Nishi 8-chome, Ginza, Tokyo.
K1928-1960. Commonly called the "gift" seal.7 Watanabe わたなべ in hiragana.
L1979. Copyright seal on commemorative edition prints.8 Reads copyright Watanabe Tadasu. 版元銀座渡邊規
M1989-2019. Red colour. Heisei era seal. Indicates a print from older woodblocks, not necessarily original woodblocks. 9
N2012-present. Indicates a reproduction, that is, a print made from newly carved woodblocks. Reads copyright Watanabe Shoichiro. 版権所有渡邊章一郞
O2019-present. Black colour. Reiwa era seal. Indicates a print from older woodblocks, not necessarily original woodblocks. 9

1 Following the nomenclature of the Hasui catalogue (Hotei), the first copyright seal is, logically, the A seal.

2 Date ranges described by Watanabe Tadasu and amended very slightly based on new data.

3 There was also a rare square version of the seal.

4 The round 6mm seal continued on prints after the Great Kanto earthquake (1923). This seal continued on Hasui prints into the mid-1920s. For example, very early impressions of Hasui's Zojoji Temple in Shiba (1925) feature the round seal and might quite easily be mistaken for post-war prints. This seal continued on Shinsui prints until the 1960s.

5 Designs that were first issued in the late-1920s or 1930s with round seals are usually identified as post-war prints.

6 Watanabe Shoichiro and leading Hasui scholar Shimizu Hisao have each stated that the round hanko seal applied on any particular day, its size and colour, was essentially random. Prints verified from the 1940s-50s typically had 6.5mm to 6.7mm diameter although there were many outliers ranging from a fraction under 6mm (without the outer circle) to a fraction over 7mm.

The mistaken belief directly correlating older prints and smaller seals has been attributed to Westerners misunderstanding how hanko seals were made and applied by Japanese. Prints with smaller seals were sold new from 1915 to 1990.

7 Watanabe in fact used a different seal for gifts (see below). Seal K may be stamped on the front or verso and usually, but not always, the round seal was applied on the same print. An earlier variant of this seal featured on a Goyo print, October 1915.

8 Accompanied by a round 6mm diameter seal. In a limited edition of 350.

9 Prints on which this seal appears have usually had many of their colour blocks recarved e.g. Hasui and sometimes all woodblocks recarved e.g. Toyonari. Watanabe describes these as atozuri, which translates to later prints (as opposed to shokizuri, early prints).

Note 1: Printer seals

P1 printer seal P2 printer seal
P1 P2
P11944-1951. Reads printer Ono Gintaro (1884-1965). Designated P1 in Hotei.
P21937-1944. Reads master printer Ono Gintaro. 摺師斧銀太郎

Gintaro was printer for Watanabe from 1917 to 1956 approx. Note that the P2 seal, master printer, antedates the P1 seal, which simply reads printer.

Note 2: Miscellaneous seals

Yoshida seal Shunsen seal Test seal Gift seal Postwar stamp 1970s sticker
M1 M2 M3 M4 M5 M6
M11921. Hiroshi Yoshida prints. The Watanabe family seal is followed by kanji reading publisher.
M21925-1928. Natori Shunsen prints. Reads published by Watanabe. 渡邊工
M31920s. Test print, tameshizuri 試摺
M4After 1928. Gift seal, shintei 進呈
M5After 1930. Blue stamp on verso.
M61970s. Label adhered to verso of prints or frames.

M3 indicates a trial or proof print. The difference between proof and final print is often very subtle. M4 indicates a gift or presentation print. The stamp may be on the front or reverse, and may be accompanied by an inscription. M5 is probably an export stamp, similar to the verso stamp "Made in Japan" that appeared on prints between 1930 and 1955 approx.

Note 3: Reproductions

Reproductions with seal N were very well carved and create high quality impressions. In many ways these are superior prints to those with seals M and O that may retain some link to original woodblocks. Those weathered and worn woodblocks, especially those first issued in the 1920s or 1930s, result in quite poor impressions.

Note 4: Fake and forged seals

Unscrupulous dealers have been known to fake seals A, B, C (a variation, hanmoto Watanabe Shozaburo), D and E. Their aim of course is to make a print appear older and increase its perceived scarcity and market value.

It is recommeded to always examine the impression as the difference between an early impression and later impression is quite apparent. Early impressions tend to have clear and sharp lines. Later impressions from worn woodblocks can be quite blurred in appearance. A later impression with early seals is not plausible.

It is recommended to be especially sceptical when two seals - double seals - appear on a print. This may be legitimate, however, it is rare and it's more likely a fake seal was added to make the print appear older. Watanabe Shoichiro and the Ukiyo-e Dealers Association of Japan warned recently that Hasui prints were sold in Japan with newly forged seals. Seals M and O had been removed from the margin and replaced with earlier copyright seals such as D and E (August 17, 2022).

It is recommended to be especially sceptical when Watanabe seals appear on a print originally made by another publisher such as Doi Teiichi.

Later impressions missing all seals often sell for significant premiums at auction. These prints are typically unauthorized prints made by the printer and sold by the printer or his estate. A printer was in fact dismissed for selling unauthorized Hasui prints for ¥5000 each. Significant premiums at auction require at least two bidders - at least two bidders possibly intending on forging seals for profit.