Military sake cups as art

After seeing hundreds of crossed flags patterns, a soldier cup or even a delicately painted cherry blossom of tree is refreshing. And then there are the exceptional cups that appear out of nowhere. Today let’s look at one of these. First, the pictures.
Kutani kiln cup

Kutani kiln cup

Here is the reverse.

Kutani kiln mark

Reverse: Kutani kiln mark

Initially, the deep red color suggests a lacquered wood cup, and this is purposeful. The red lacquered cups have always been held in higher regard by the Japanese. They are used at traditional ceremonies such as weddings and are most often given as commemorative gifts. People who drink sake regularly will never use the large shallow cups preferring instead the deeper, yet smaller porcelain.

But this is porcelain, too. The complexity of the design shows the hand of an accomplished artist and this cup, though porcelain, was never meant to be used. The size (12 cm diameter) confirms that this was an item meant for display.

The Kutani mark is in the base, followed by ‘Seika.’ Kutani lovers should know that Suda Seika was one of the famous artists of Kutani. Even today, the fourth generation Seika continues to paint cups from this kiln. Suda Seika (died in 1927) was the first generation and he established a fine tradition of creating exceptional cups. It is said (unsubstantiated…) that he trained the famous Kitaoji Rosanjin (wikipedia article here:

Let’s look at Suda Seika’s artwork. An overall glance shows the traditional crossed flags pattern. One is the Asahi flag and the other with three zigzag marks is allegedly the 3rd Battalion flag. (Allegedly because even though I have heard this from different sources, I have never seen this documented. And I have seen this flag on cups marked ‘2nd Battalion’ so I am not sure.)

Above is an Army star and there is a dark branch ring around the rim. Behind the flags is a circle of swirls, a masterful touch that may be the key to the success of this design. Here is a close-up of the swirls:



How confident is the hand that painted these! Remember that these artists had very little margin for error, and oftentimes if an error happened, it remained on the cup since the process of revision was a bit expensive.

Another close-up:

This picture shows the delicate fringe on the flag, the thick branch strokes, and the Imperial mum finial. (Note that the latter appears to have been done by first painting a gold circle and then etching in the mum design. Effective but not particularly beautiful…)

I have left the inscription to the end. Dominating the left side of the cup is a banner or outline with the phrase chokugo (勅語). This is most often translated as ‘Imperial Rescript’ but usually refers to the Meiji Emperor’s admonitions that were issued before 1889, this date being the year when the Meiji Constitution became official. Coached in formal phrases, these Imperial rescripts are often hard to read for laymen like myself. I can pick out some words: ‘Loyal, Sincere’, ‘Brave Warrior’, ‘Emperor’s Work’, etc. This is probably part of the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers (gunjin chokuyu 軍人勅諭)that was issued in 1882.

On the reverse is another inscription: ‘Meiji 37-8 [1904-5] War Service Commemorative.’

Finally, for those who can make it to Ishikawa Prefecture, Suda Seika’s shop is still around and in operation. Here is a modern photo.


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