Japanese kanji guide (by John Wocher)

I have given considerable thought and many cups of sake to the frustration in reading and translating the markings that appear on Japanese ceramics.

Here are my thoughts and findings:

  1. Ceramic artists, like physicians, have incredibly poor penmanship, and a great number of markings remain illegible.
  2. The number of ways that Kutani can be written, legibly and illegibly, will cause your calculator to go into scientific notation.
  3. Japanese writing can be left to right, right to left, horizontal, or vertical, but not diagonal.
  4. Markings can be in almost any color, with red dominating Kutani, but black on green, and gold on red are common also
  5. There are seven styles of writing, and all seven can be written illegibly if one trys hard enough. They are: Sosho style, Giosho style, Kaisho style, Reisho style, Hiragana (phonetic), Katagana (phonetic for foreign words), and Romaji (Romanized alphabet, such as "Made in Japan"). When Chinese style seals are used, all bets are off, and these remain among the most difficult to comprehend. A 1.8 liter bottle of Sake is recommend when tackling these.
  6. Marks can be centered, off center, in a circle, in a square, in a double square, in a rectangle, stand alone, and can appear on the reverse or the front of a piece, or in both places simultaneously.
  7. There are at least two readings for each Kanji (Chinese character), one being the Chinese reading, and the other being the Japanese reading and interpretation.
  8. Many artist names read Zan (or in Japanese, Yama). Presumably when they get famous, they seem to take this kind of pen name. Bizan, Shizan, Seizan, Kyozan, Kinzan, and Kyokuzan, just to name a few, come to mind. Kyokushuzan (a Sumo wrestler here, does NOT do ceramics in spite of having a Zan in his name). Trouble is that there are many Zans, and often their fame was not long lasting. Many have the same names, which further adds to the confusion. Zannen desu ne?
  9. Do not assume the Japanese themselves can read the markings. My guess = 80%+ cannot. Many of the characters used in Meiji and before are no longer in use. Getting confused? I am!
  10. Even the most common of dinner plates, cups, and saucers today are marked. Yet some National Treasures here are unmarked. Go figure...eh?
  11. The mark might be a place (Ku Tani). Or... it could be a name of a person (artist? potter?, a shop, a kiln, or none of the above.I need more Sake.
  12. Increasingly, the Chinese are good at faking, or forging Japanese ceramics, right down to the marking. I have several, but I don’t think it is widespread in Kutani...yet.
  13. The mark can be incised, impressed, underglaze, overglaze, or in magic marker (I am not kidding). So... here is the definitive guide. I welcome additions. There are good resources, however, for wading through this, and don’t get too frustrated. Sa’ke helps. Georges has a good reference library here in the database and unmarked pieces can often be identified by style. I recommend Bowes’ book - Japanese Marks and Seals, and a good Japanese dictionary for starters, along with that 1.8 liter bottle of dai ginjo sa’ke.

    Thanks John for this piece of anthology !