How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist’s Signature on Woodblock Prints?

How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist's Signature on Woodblock Prints?

A Japanese woodblock print can be difficult to identify where the artist’s signature is on the print. This is because there are so many variations as to where the signature can be located on a print.

The signature on a Japanese woodblock print is the Japanese characters above or near the red artistic seal or chop. Sometimes the artist would add words behind their own name, such as “designed by.” Other times the artist would use different chops or seals during different periods of their life. Many times the actual artist’s signatures are complicated to read.

Besides the artistic signature and artist’s seal, the woodblock print may also have a title and a publisher’s seal.

Oyone Magoshichi Taheiji by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
Oyone Magoshichi Taheiji by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a woodcut diptych of the traditional Japanese play with three actors, two male with a sword, one protecting a woman, and one intimidating them. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

About The Artist Signature On A Japanese Woodblock Print

Most Japanese woodblock prints will have the artist’s signature on them. This signature would be signed by the Japanese artist and are usually vertical characters all in a vertical row or a few rows near where the artist has placed his red artistic chop or seal.

Here are a few things to understand when you are looking at the artist’s signature of a Japanese woodblock print:

  1. Carved Signature – On the Japanese woodblock prints, the artist usually hand-carved their signature to be used as their mark. This would then be printed with the rest of the print.
  2. Hard to Identify – As the chisel was responsible for making the mark in the wood, and not a brush or pen signatures, this could make it very difficult to identify the actual Japanese characters used.
  3. Used Additional Words – Sometimes, the artist would add some words after their own name, such as “designed by.” This would make the signature appear longer than it would normally be.
  4. Omitted Signatures – Some artists would omit their name or signature completely from the print. This could be because the print was something of a political or other sensitive nature for the time period, so they did not want to have their name or signature associated with the print.

The first thing that may surprise many people when looking at the Japanese woodblock print signatures is that they are similar to Chinese characters. In the 4th century, China had a more advanced writing system, so the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan in the 5th and 6th centuries.

This is why on many Japanese woodblock prints, to an untrained eye or someone who doesn’t read Japanese, especially the older forms of the Japanese language, the Japanese artist characters may look very similar to Chinese. Many of them are the same, but the pronunciation would be different.

Kawanakajima no Kassen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
Kawanakajima no Kassen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a woodcut diptych of battle at Kawanakajima, showing two armies of cavalry in a battle with swordsmen and archers on horseback. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

Locating The Signatures On The Japanese Woodblock Prints

The easiest way to find the signature on a Japanese woodblock print is to find the artist’s seal or chop. The signature is usually the Japanese characters above the artistic seal.

Here is some information about the artist’s signature:

  1. Vertical Characters – The signature on a Japanese woodblock print would be arranged in a vertical order or top to bottom. You would read it was going from top to bottom and from right to left.
  2. Two to Three Characters – The name generally consist of two Japanese characters, maybe sometimes three, and they would sometimes be followed by a suffix such as “designed by.”
  3. Above the Artist Seal – The artist’s signature is usually above or right next to the red artist’s seal. Looking for the red seal is another easy way to help you to identify the artist’s signature.
Hyogo Chikuto Hitobashira no zu by Utagawa Yoshikazu, published in 1852,
Hyogo Chikuto Hitobashira no Zu by Utagawa Yoshikazu, published in 1852, a triptych of a man presenting a city plan to the emperor in the royal court along with ministers. Original from the Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

The Japanese Artist Red Seal or Chop

One of the easiest ways to identify the Japanese woodblock artist’s signature is to look for the artist’s chop or seal. The artist’s chop or seal is usually red in color, and the signature is usually written vertically above the chop or seal. Find the artist chop or seal on a woodblock print, and you can find their signature.

Mimasu Gennosuke no Namiwa no Jirosaku by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806)
Mimasu Gennosuke no Namiwa no Jirosaku by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806), a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of an actor Mimasu Gennosuke in the role of Namiwa Jirosaku. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

On the print above by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the bottom right-hand corner shows the artist chop or seal. Above the artist’s chop or seal to the slight left is the artist’s signature. There are two black seals or chops between his feet that are the publisher’s seals. At the very top on the right-hand side of the print is the title of the print.

In Japan and many Asian countries, having a seal or what is known in British English as a “chop” could be used in place or together with a signature for a legal document. This was also very true for many of the Japanese artists with their woodblock prints. They would sign the prints and then also acknowledge that it was their print by including their chop or seal.

Some people may call this seal a “stamp.” In many parts of Asia, it is known as a seal or a chop. When the seal or chop is placed on something, it helps to verify whatever it is placed on. This is similar to how you notarize a document; the notary would sign it and then seal it with a special kind of seal.

Some chops and seals are legally registered and could also be used as part of legal documents. For the artist to put the chop or their artistic seal on the Japanese woodblock print was really a way for them to take ownership of the print and let everyone know that they produced the print.

Each seal would be created by the artist and reflect some aspect of his life or artistic design. He could include a family crest, a studio crest, a family name, other emblems that are important to him, even the name of a master that he admires. Sometimes the seal or chop may be the Japanese characters of his own name. There was no set rule for what an artistic seal should have or not have on it.

Here are a few things about Artist seals or chops:

  1. Red Color – The artist seal is usually always red.
  2. Secondary Artistic Mark – The seal is considered a secondary mark for the artist.
  3. Shape – The most common shapes of the seal or chop are square, round, or rectangular. Some artists got creative and did other less common shapes.
  4. Several Artist Seals – One artist may decide to use one seal for one piece of art and another seal. Or they might use different seals for different parts of their life. There is no set rule that an artist must use the same seal or chop throughout their artistic career.
Doguya Jinza Hokaibo Bokon Shimobe Gunsuke by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
Doguya Jinza Hokaibo Bokon Shimobe Gunsuke by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a woodcut triptych of the traditional Japanese play with three actors, two male with a sword ready to strike the bloody woman, the evil spirit. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition. The example above shows a very creative artistic seal.

Different Parts of a Japanese Woodblock Print

Many Japanese woodblock prints have four different components: 1) woodblock title, 2) the artist’s signature, 3) the seal, and 4) the publisher’s mark. Not every print will have all these marks on it, so it can be confusing when looking for an artist’s signature on some of the Japanese woodblock prints. But when you are looking at some of the Japanese woodblock prints, it is good to know a bit about each of these sections.

Here are each of the basic sections of the Japanese woodblock prints:

  1. Woodblock Title – Many Japanese woodblock prints will have a title on them. This title would be about the print itself. Sometimes this title may have a block around it to show that it is a title. This block may even be in a different color.
  2. Artist Signature – The artist’s signature is usually 2 or more Japanese characters arranged vertically and will read from top to bottom and right to left.
  3. Artist Chop or Seal – Most woodblock prints will have an artist chop or seal under the artist’s name, usually a red color. Looking for the red artist chop or seal is one of the easiest ways to identify the artist’s signature.
  4. Publisher’s Mark – Some prints will also have a publisher’s mark. This mark can be similar to the artist’s chop or seal. It is usually outlined, and the publisher’s information is inside the lines. Some publishers would get very creative with their marks, such as having an outline of symbols such as a fish, book, or other animals. Even if the artist has omitted his signature, the publisher may still mark the print.

Like many aspects of Asian art and, particularly Japanese art, what may first seem to be very simple and basic, has more detail than what it first seems. This is because there is no rule as to where and how the artist signs the print. Many artists would also use different chops or seals for different prints or periods of their life; these differences can add to the confusion as to what part of the woodblock print is the artist’s seal.

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Anita Louise Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Louise Hummel. I am an artist and a blogger. I paint mainly oil paints. I love to paint women, animals (mainly dogs and cats), and abstracts. I use a lot of gold and silver leaf in my paintings. I also love to blog about anything to do with art, business, Procreate, and all the wonderful artists that inspire me.

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How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist's Signature on Woodblock Prints?