Beginner’s Guide to Researching Japanese Ceramics Marks

I’m a beginner, and here’s my guide!  How to research those marks on the bottom of plates and bowls.

First, know kanji, the Chinese characters. LOL. OK, I don’t know them, and it takes a long time to learn them, but there are some online tools that help.

(I’m barely able to read hiragana and katakana.  I’m starting to get the hang of remembering some kanji.  So I’m in the same boat as most of the readers.)

My main tool: Jisho.org.

How to use Jisho.org

Jisho means dictionary, and it’s a dictionary to look up kanji. The data entry is based on radicals, or root symbols.  The radical list is ordered by the number of strokes.

Kanji is made up of combinations of radicals. The dictionary works by clicking on radicals.  You click on a radical, and see a (partial) list of possible matches. For example:

昇 is made up of 日 and 廾 with an additional stroke. So, clicking on either 日 or  廾 will bring up a list with 昇.  Click on both, and you see a short list of possible kanji that contain those two radicals.  (There are five in the list.)

Click on the kanji, and it’ll get entered into the search box. Perform a search, and it’ll bring up the hiragana version (which tells you the pronunciation), and a definition.

Once you have found some of the ideograms, you can search for them on the web.  You can also try Ebay, but, usually, nothing turns up.

Often, items will show up on auctions.yahoo.co.jp, which is like the Ebay of Japan.

They also turn up on Rakuten.  Searching within Rakuten can sometimes bring up items.  Rakuten seems to be the Amazon of Japan, where they have a big marketplace.

Pinterest sometimes has search results as well, but you may need to go to the site to execute a search.

Mercari may also turn up results. Mercari prices are higher, and also display sold items.

The exchange rate between countries fluctuates, but a quick conversion is to just chop off two zeros.  1,200 yen (1,200 円 or ¥1,200) becomes USD$12. The actual rate is a little higher, but it’s close enough.

Please note: reading many of the marks is difficult, because the symbols are stylized with curves not seen in typeset kanji.  You just won’t be able to find the radical that looks like the stylized writing.

Which Side Up?

I notice that, in a Facebook group where people can have marks identified, people often display the mark upside-down.  I have a theory about this.

Kanji is based on brush strokes, stroked by a right-handed person, so you need to think about what’s easy to write with a brush.  Mainly, you stroke from top to bottom, left to right, and sometimes you stroke right to left.

For each ideogram, you start at the upper left, and work downward.

Imagine writing the number “7” a few times:

7
 7
  7

That’s not “kanji”, but has some qualities of kanji – the rightward stroke that goes down, so you have “tails” pointing downward.

This is contrasted with the Roman alphabet, which is based on two kinds of inscription: a chisel into stone for capital letters, and the cursive variation, which is written with a quill pen. Cursive is written with a quill cut at an angle, and held with the right hand. The shapes start at the top, and are drawn downward, to the baseline, and to the right. Sometimes, you draw from right to left.

The general direction of the writing is left to right, so you have tails on the right side.  The letters look like points and humps rising from a baseline:

illmatic

That’s not cursive, but I think you get the point.  The lines go upward, and have a ragged top.

My theory is that people are looking at the strokes, and expecting the ragged lines to point upward.

Common Kanji

This will be a list of ideograms that show up frequently.

窯 – kama, meaning pot, but also meaning kiln.  So that suffix helps identify the kiln.

 

Author: John

I can be reached at johnk@riceball.com.

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