Cherry Blossoms on Japanese Military Sake Cups

There are so many aspects that give Japanese military sake cup collectors pleasure, such as finding rare designs, specific unit inscriptions, specific battle inscriptions, etc. One less-discussed quality of these cups is the artwork. Today I’d like to take a closer look at two cups that have cherry blossoms on them. By examining the artwork, we can understand a bit more about how precious some of these cups are.

First a word or two about cherry blossoms. This flower, called sakura (桜)in Japanese, is almost certainly the most well-worn image of Japan. It has many uses, but the traditional meaning is related to its short life-span (about a week). Since at least the Heian era, and perhaps earlier, the Japanese have equated the short life of the blossom with the short life of humans. It was used over and over again in poems and other literature, so much so that the blossom has gone far beyond mere cliche; it is now entrenched as one of the very essences of Japanese culture.

The news programs follow the cherry blossom as it bursts in bloom throughout the country. People flock to the parks to eat and drink under the blossoms. And when the flowers fall, the whitish-pink fluttering blossoms cause nostalgia and a sense of the transience of life to nag at the hearts of all sensitive people in Japan.

The cherry blossom has a dual role on military cups. It is meant to evoke the feeling of being home in Japan, realxing with friends and family under the blossoming trees. However, it has also gathered the heavy symbolism of a warrior dying at the height of his youth, just as the cherry blossom does. Many of the kamikaze (神風)pilots used this symbol in their farewell letters home, referring to themselves as blossoms fluttering to the ground. This idea is echoed when the image of falling petals is one of death (often premature death).

So the cherry blossom is on a good percentage of the cups. Here is one:

Transport Infantry

Transport Infantry

The design is simple. A cherry tree trunk to the right, branch with blossoms above. In the white space is a poem (somewhat difficult to read) and there is a banner hanging from the branch that reads ‘Transport Infantry.’ I think the poem or saying is the famous one by Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長):

‘If one should inquire of you concerning the spirit of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry blossom shining in the sun.’

The details on this cup are nice, too. The flowers are delicately painted and the trunk has some depth, albeit fairly simple.

blossom & trunk

Detail: blossom & trunk

The above is a nice example, probably originally a medium-priced cup, the stamped pattern being cheaper. However, some more affluent customers wanted something more. Here is another cup with the same basic layout, but the artistic quality is quite high.
29th Infantry

29th Infantry

What a beautiful cup this is! Here are some close-ups. Note the finely detailed blossoms, the leaves underneath the flowers, and the tree truck with different shades of brown and green in addition to some light stippling.
The Japanese have always been known for having attention to detail and pride in their work. This kind of cup certainly proves that this is true at times. (Although there are also cups with inferior artwork…) This cup, while not having any deep historical importance, is worthwhile to add to any collection because of the aesthetic beauty. And the juxtaposition of a rough soldier drinking from this delicate cup (or at least displaying it) is pleasant to contemplate. (I hope I haven’t offended any soldier by that comment.)
Finally, cups like these are inexpensive, often less than 20 USD.
Published in: on September 8, 2008 at 2:18 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you. I enjoyed the information. I have just started collecting vintage sake cups and have been trying to collect cups with flowers and poems. Your blog has given me some real insight.
    I’ll be in Kyoto next spring for 3 months, and hope to find cups at the various temple markets.

  2. Thanks for the infos.

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