About the Watanabe 6 mm Round Seal & Tribute to Hisao Shimizu (1953-2020)

Shedding Light on the 6mm vs 7mm Round Watanabe Seal Misunderstanding

By Hisao Shimizu (1953-2020), Former curator of the Folk Museum of Ota City and world-renowned expert on Shin Hanga * 


The meaning of Watanabe’s round seal

The founder of the present S. Watanabe Color Print Co., Watanabe Shozaburo, started the company in 1909 (Meiji 42), and from the outset, impressed his round seal on the works offered for sale.  Watanabe Shozaburo himself explained the round seal, stating, “I felt that when an ideal aesthetic print is created due to the collaborative efforts of the artist, carver and printer, then in my role as manager as well as formulator of the style, I should impress my seal on the print,” and; ”Because this represents the responsibility of the publisher, I examined each print individually and impressed my seal with confidence.”  Furthermore, regarding the seals’ design, Watanabe Shozaburo said, “The prints that have been created by my company up to now have been greatly appreciated even overseas, and as inheritors of the venerable woodblock print tradition, our main intent is to offer the high-quality prints that we create for the appreciation of connoisseurs.  In the sense that we are ceaselessly striving through day and night for the sake of creating world-class woodblock prints, my seal has the name Wa-ta-na-be written in white and black kana phonetics---indicating both day and night.”  In other words, the round shape represents the Earth’s globe, with white as day and black as night, signifying that Watanabe’s woodblock prints are progressing without a break both night and day, and from this meaning represented by the design, it is also referred to as the “day and night seal”.

The transition from large-sized to small-sized Watanabe round seal

The first Watanabe round seal was a large format about 1 cm in diameter, of which about 4 types have been noted to date, all black in color.  This large-format Watanabe round seal was used from 1909 until 1916 (Taisho 5).  As an example of a print that can be used in dating the seal, Natori Shunsen’s print “Nakamura Ganjiro I as Kamiya Jibei” of 1916 is considered to be the large seal’s last appearance.  Against this, in 1915, a smaller format of the Watanabe round seal, 6 to 7 mm in diameter, started to be used for the works of the Austrian artist Fritz Capelari (1884-1950).  Therefore, during the years 1915-1916, both large- and small-format Watanabe round seals were in use.  However, once Watanabe Shozaburo’s ideal aesthetic form of woodblock prints for the new age (Shin Hanga = new woodblock prints) came into its own, the large-format round seal---perhaps because it was disagreeably large and distracting---ceased to be used.  Therefore, any works imprinted with the large-format Watanabe round seal can be identified as having been produced between 1909 and 1916.  In contrast, use of the small-format Watanabe round seal has continued to be affixed to prints even until today on productions from the S. Watanabe Color Print Company.  The small-format seal is imprinted in black color and in red color.  Also, as in the case of the 1915 Capelari work “Swan in Pomegranate Tree (Night)”, there are cases where the seal is not separately impressed, but actually carved into the woodblock.

The small-format Watanabe round seal occurs not only in a number of differing diameters, but also with the kana characters for “Wa-ta-na-be” and the round shape showing variation.  This fact agrees with the statement written by Watanabe Shoichiro that, “when the seal started to wear out, we’d have the same seal carved again,” but when it was freshly carved, “probably no detailed instructions given regarding size and so none were given.”  Therefore, it is not possible to judge the date of a print on the basis of which small-format Watanabe round seal was used.

The copyright seal and the Watanabe round seal

From 1925 (Taisho 14) until during World War II, the copyright seal [various long, narrow oblong seals with copyright information written within] was impressed in the margin of the print, but in such prints, it is unusual to find examples where the Watanabe round seal is also imprinted, so the understanding is that the copyright seal was used to express the responsibility of the publisher in place of using the Watanabe round seal.

After the war, the [oblong] copyright seal is no longer employed, and once again, the Watanabe round seal is found imprinted on the prints.  From this fact, even if the print was originally created before the war, if it does not feature the [oblong] copyright seal, but instead the Watanabe round seal is imprinted on it, then it is clearly a post-war reprint.

Positioning of the Watanabe round seal on the print

The Watanabe round seal’s impression is found within the printed area of the picture in most cases, at one spot at the bottom edge on either left or right sides, but depending on the pictorial content of the print, it is sometimes not positioned at the bottom of the print.  For example, when a piece was printed and submitted to Watanabe Shozaburo for inspection, he would press his seal on the work to show his recognition of the quality as acceptable to be offered for sale, but at that time, even if he started by pressing the seal on the bottom right of the print, part way through inspecting the resulting prints, he may take a break, and afterwards continue printing on the bottom left of the prints.  Therefore, it is not possible to distinguish between first printings and later printings just by the position of the seal.

Shimizu at Ota City Folk Museum 2016

 *I requested Mr. Shimizu to write a brief essay for the western collecting public, as his expertise in Shin Hanga is so deep and the English translations of his scholarship are so few. I’ve noticed a mistaken canon exists in the west when it comes to “6mm vs 7mm” Watanabe seals. I am not sure when westerners gave weighted importance to the difference of 1mm in the round Watanabe seal that is found on so many Hasui and Shin Hanga prints. This is due to a misunderstanding of how hanko (seals) were made and employed by the Japanese. The seals were carved by hand by a specialist hanko-maker, and would wear out following a certain number of impressions. Watanabe would then order more, and a 1mm difference was not anywhere in anyone’s mind to pay attention to. Watanabe Shozaburo most probably had more than one round seal by his side when he was approving individual prints for sale, so there will naturally be variations in these seals. This essay was written specifically for Egenolf Gallery, and was translated by Edgar Cooke.

---Veronica Miller

TRIBUTE TO MR. SHIMIZU PUBLISHED IN IMPRESSIONS (2021), the annual journal of the Japanese Art Society of America.

Visit www.japaneseartsoc.org to order a copy of this award-winning journal. This dealer also recommends joining JASA for its amazing slate of programming that is focused on Japanese art.