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Reading Japanese Dates

Most shin hanga prints have the original publishing date written in Japanese characters somewhere on the print. It is useful to know when a print was first published. By comparing the original date with the publisher's seal, you can usually identify whether a print is an early or later edition. For example, a Kawase Hasui print with an original date of 1931 and a 6 mm round Watanabe seal is a later edition print published between 1945 and 1957. A Hasui print with an original date of 1953 and the 6 mm round seal would be an early edition print.

The Japanese date is typically written in the left or right margin, and is read from top to bottom. (ex. 1) The Japanese date is usually longer than the title, also written in Japanese in the margin. Occasionally the date is written horizontally in the bottom margin. In this case, it is read from right to left. (ex. 2)

The date usually consists of around five to seven Japanese characters. The first two characters refer to the Japanese era (Meiji, Taisho, Showa). The reign of each Japanese emperor corresponds to a different era. The current era began in 1989 with the accession of emperor Akihito and is referred to as the Heisei era. The previous era, called the Showa period, was the reign of emperor Hirohito (1926-1989).

The next group of characters in the date give the number of the year within that era. For example, the year 1928 translates to Showa era, 3rd year, or Showa 3. New eras do not begin on January 1st; they begin whenever a new emperor is crowned. Therefore, prints made in a transitional year like 1926 may be marked with either Taisho 15 or Showa 1, depending on when they were made. Sometimes the Japanese date includes characters for the month (1-12) after the year. For example, the western date of August 1938 would be written Showa 13, 8th month. Below is a step-by-step guide to translating Japanese dates. For more information and examples, check out Shin Hanga Date Translation by Marc Kahn.

Step 1: Identifying the era

Almost all shin hanga prints were originally made during the Taisho or Showa era. The two characters for these eras are given below, written vertically. There are slight variations in the way these characters are written.

Taisho era


Showa era



Step 2: Identifying the year

The character(s) for the year will immediately follow the two characters for the era. Use this number conversion chart to translate the number of the year. If the Japanese date includes the month, it will be written as a number (1-12) after the year. The month can also be translated using this chart.

Step 3: Converting the year

Once you have figured out the Japanese era and year, use this date conversion chart to convert the date (ie. Taisho 12, Showa 24) to the appropriate Western year (1923, 1949).

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