Monday, 13 December 2010

Toshidama Seals in Japanese Prints

Most people who look at Japanese woodblock prints will have come across a curious round seal next to the signature. The seal which takes a variety of forms is called the Toshidama Seal and was habitually used by the artists of the Utagawa School of printmakers in the nineteenth century. These artists so dominated the woodblock scene that the seal in one form or another has become pretty ubiquitous for prints of the period.

So what is it and what does it mean? Initially celebrating religious ceremonies to the god of the year, it is a good luck symbol and in its original circular form it depicts a screw of cloth containing small gifts of money to be given to children on the occasion of the new year, hence the four lumps in the circular ring.

The symbol was first used by the artist Toyokuni I in perhaps 1809. There’s no evidence as to why he used it nor why it became associated informally with the school. However it is only shortly afterwards that Kunisada (later Toyokuni III) adapted the symbol and made it more or less his own. In the bulk of Kunisada’s work, the conventional round symbol has been elongated and is normally printed in yellow with a red infill. Kunisada signs his name and often a phrase such as, “from the brush of...” or “drawn by...”. From 1850 onwards almost all of his prints have the signature enclosed by a Toshidama cartouche.

Toyohara Kunichika who was a pupil of Kuniyoshi used the conventional round cartouche in pretty well every print until his death in 1898.

At some point the Toshidama became an embedded and popular New Year gift for children, a tradition that continues to this day in Japan. These days instead of rice cakes or coins in a cloth, parents make gifts of mint bank notes, folded and placed in specially designed envelopes that are printed with cartoon characters or emblems of Daruma, the pine tree or the plum which are all emblems of good luck like the ones illustrated below.


  1. Interesting stuff. There's really so much to prints, once you start getting into details like these. I love it!