The Japanese word for postcard, hagaki はがき, was derived from hashigaki はしがき (or 端書き), or “forward,” referencing the writing at the beginning of a document. Hagaki came to denote a short piece of writing or a note that was sent through the mail. The first postal card in Japan was issued in December 1873, but until the start of the twentieth century all cards were government-issued (kansei 官製). These are readily identifiable through pre-paid franking printed on the address side of the card. Changes in postal codes on October 1, 1900 afforded private companies the opportunity to publish picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) where an illustration or design could be included on the obverse. These changes altered the landscape of the postcard market and starting a new cultural phenomenon.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

  • Title/Caption: DAIBUTSU, KAMAKURA
  • Year: 1897 (postally used)
  • Publisher: Printing Bureau, Ministry of Finance
  • Medium: woodblock print on paper
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: 大日本郵便, JAPANESE POST, 郵便はがき

The government-issued postal card here, postally canceled in 1897 (Meiji 30[1]), bears a four-color woodblock print of the Kamakura Daibutsu on the obverse [Fig. 1].[2] More commonly, this side was left blank so a message could be written; the reverse was saved for the name and address of the recipient. Illustrated picture postcards (sashie ehagaki 挿絵絵はがき) from this period, however, are far less common and show that the government was playing with designs before the postal code changes in 1900. The image of the Daibutsu is reminiscent of similar period photographs taken of the bronze statue head-on. Furthermore, the print is cropped where the card was cut from its sheet.

The unknown artist depicted a realistic scene with two Japanese travelers gazing upward, in awe, of the colossal image. It casts a gentle sign of reverence towards the Buddhist image without overt signs of deep religious piety. The overall scene is calm and peaceful, reflecting the beneficent gaze of the Daibutsu. With the exception of the steeply banking hillside and tall flight of steps leading to the top landing, the illustration depicts the location faithfully circa the 1880s, inclusive of the step ladder to sit atop the statue for photographs. The only curious element in the depiction of the statue is the inclusion of earrings, a detail often reserved for other Buddhist deities, but not for buddhas. In contrast, the original bronze work has long, pierced ear-lobes which one might easily confuse for earrings, especially from frontal photographs.[3]

Figure 2

Figure 2 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

The reverse bears a simple filigree border and 1 sen oval-shaped frank printed in light blue [Fig. 2]. The pre-paid 1 sen rate covered domestic postage until 1899 when the rate was increased. The franking design incorporated the three-leafed paulownia seal (kirimon 桐紋), the official insignia of the Japanese government, in its center. Examining the border design we can also find the government agency responsible for printing the card, namely the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance.[4] Instructions in Japanese explain this side is reserved for the name and address of the recipient only. The paper is thinner than the card stock used by private publishers a few years later.

Notes:

*This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in America. All items (except otherwise noted) are part of my personal collection of Buddhist-themed ephemera. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] The cancellation stamp is not clear, but Meiji 30 seems appropriate. The bisected cancellation date stamp (maruichi-gata hiduke in 丸一型日付印) was adopted in 1888 and the date reads year-month-day from right to left. Sanjū nen 三十年 (“year 30”) is barely legible and is equivalent to 1897. This dating also aligns with other evidence placing the cancellation between 1888 (signaling by the inclusion of the Printing Bureau 印刷局 instead of the Bureau of Paper Currency 紙幣寮 on the border inscription) and 1899, when the 1 sen oval frank was replaced by the 1½ sen chrysanthemum frank. These details are noted below.

[2] The colors are black, grey, green, and a brownish-yellow.

[3] According to Buddhist lore, as a sign of his renunciation of princely life, the Buddha removed his earrings, thus leaving his pierced earlobes empty.

[4] The full inscription reads, “issued by the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance of the Empire of Japan” (Dainipponteikoku seifu Ōkurashō insatsu-kyoku seizō 大日本帝国政府大蔵省印刷局製造). The Ministry of Finance was also responsible for printing paper currency.

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