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Early postcard history: Japan's Postal Service was first established in March 1871. Japan's first postcards, pictured above, were issued in December 1873, a few years after the first postcards were issued in Europe. Click to read more.In 1900, a revision of the postal act allowed private-sector (non-governmental) postcards to be made and used. Picture postcards then became very popular and gave rise to a new postcard culture and a new era in postal history.

The postcards featured a great variety of subjects: Scenics, women, geisha, war, disaster scenes (especially earthquakes), Japanese customs, the Emperor, buildings, animals, etc., etc.

Color printing had not been invented yet so hand-painted postcards became very popular up to around the 1910s when offset printing gradually replaced collotype printing.

In June 1902, the postal service issued its first commemorative picture postcard. It marked the 25th anniversary of Japan's membership in the International Postal Union.

The postal service later issued more commemorative postcards and stamps for other important events and imprinted commemorative postmarks on letters and postcards for the occasion. Especially popular were postcards commemorating triumphs in the Russo-Japanese War during 1904-5 and the enthronement of Emperor Taisho.

During the war with Russia, people lined up all night in front of post offices before new war-related commemorative postcards went on sale. Postcard exchange meetings were held and many collectors had tens of thousands of postcards. However, after the war ended, the postcard boom waned in Japan.

Meanwhile, foreign tourists visiting Japan continued to send souvenir photographs and postcards back home. Because of them, many of the postcards that were published were able to escape and survive the natural (earthquakes) and man-made (World War II) disasters Japan was to experience later on.
Those early postcards became highly collectible overseas and have continued to delight their owners and collectors for over a century.
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Meiji Era postmarks. When you want to know how old your postcard is, the first and obvious thing to do is check the postmark if there is one. A postage stamp or written date in the message are also a great help.Because Japan bases its years on the Emperor's reign (besides using the Western world's Gregorian calendar), the year of the postmark could refer to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Taisho Era (1912-1926), Showa Era (1926-1989), or the current Heisei Era (1989-present). So if you see "1" as the year, it could be Year 1 of any of these eras (1868, 1912, 1926, or 1989). (See the year conversion table.)

So how do you determine which era the year refers to? In normal Japanese documents, you would see an initial before the year to indicate the era. For example H.1 for Heisei Year 1 (1989). Unfortunately, none of the postmarks provide an initial for the era. But it is not so hard to determine the era.

Look at the postmark images above. The left postmark is in Japanese with the numbers "36-9-12." The first number indicates the year, followed by the month and day. Above the date are the kanji characters for "Yokohama." Below the date is the time the postcard was accepted at the post office (6:20 pm).

Fortunately, right next to this postmark is the English version. The date is September 12, 1903. This matches Year 36 for the Meiji Era in the Japanese postmark. (See the year conversion table.) In case the English postmark were not provided, we could still determine the era. If you look at the year coversion table, you will find that only the Meiji and Showa Eras have a Year 36. Showa 36 is 1961. And if you look at the card and the postage stamp, it is obvious that it is not as recent as 1961, so it must be Meiji 36 (1903).

Now look at the right postmark. This postmark is also in English with the words "Yokohama Japan" in English. The date is "25.2.08." If the postmark has the location name in English, the date's format is day-month-Gregorian year, different from the Japanese postmark. So it is February 25, 1908.

Other tidbits about Japanese postmarks:

- In the early years until 1879, postmarks were used to indicate the date of collection and the date of receipt from out of town. Stamp cancellation marks were also separate from postmarks. They could be a series of dotted lines or text like "Postage Paid" (in Japanese). Some postmarks were square in shape. Each postal district had their own postmark system and style.

- In November 1879, the Communications Office issued official recommendations for postmarks. In September 1888, the name of the local area was included in the postmark. By 1909, postmarks became standardized nationwide.

- Up to September 1912, postcards and letters had two postmarks (except for special mail). One was imprinted when the postcard was mailed (canceling the stamp), and another was imprinted when the postcard was received.

- Until 1911, postmarks were imprinted by hand (at a rate of 100 pieces per minute). Automatic postmarking machines were introduced in this year. At the end of 1919, the latest postmarking machines were imported from America and used in Tokyo.

- Stamp collecting is a major hobby in Japan. All the stamps that have ever been issued are documented in a number of comprehensive Japanese stamp catalogs issued every year. You can identify the issue date of any stamp by referring to the stamp catalog.
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Taisho Era postmark. This is a Japanese postmark with the date reading "2.7.24" and the location being Nikko (read from right to left). The time the postcard was accepted by the post office is indicated below the date.As with Meiji Era Japanese postmarks (see the preceding page), the date is in the year-month-day format. This can't be Meiji 2 (1869, before the Japan Post Office was even established), so it must be Taisho 2 (1913) or Showa 2 (1927). My postage stamp catalog tells me that the postage stamp (Chrysanthemum series) was issued in 1899-1907, so it must be Taisho 2. This is confirmed by the English postmark elsewhere on the card.
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Showa Era postmarks. The Showa Era was 1926 to 1989 (Showa 1 to 64) during the reign of Emperor Hirohito. On the left, you can see a Showa Era postmark (round). Notice how different it looks compared with the hand-stamped Meiji and Taisho Era postmarks.Showa Era postmarks. The Showa Era was 1926 to 1989 (Showa 1 to 64) during the reign of Emperor Hirohito. On the left, you can see a Showa Era postmark (round). Notice how different it looks compared with the hand-stamped Meiji and Taisho Era postmarks (see preceding images). The lines and markings are much thinner, imprinted by a postmarking machine (introduced in Japan at the end of 1919).

The location reads "Shizuoka" (from right to left), and below that is the year 15, then 8.21 (month and day), then the time period (8-12 pm) when the card was mailed. Showa 15 is 1940.

The postage stamp was canceled by a separate canceling mark. The stamp was issued in 1937, proof positive that the card is from the Showa Era.

On the right is a Showa Era postmark too light to be legible. But the stamp tells us the approximate date (around 1937). Also, the kanji characters in red says "Gunji Yubin" which means military mail.
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Heisei Era postmarks. We are currently in the Heisei Era that started in 1989 when Emperor Hirohito died and his son Akihito became the emperor.On the left is a recent postmark. It follows an ideal format. The location (Nakano Kita) is in both Japanese (read from left to right) and English. The year is in both Heisei and Gregorian. The "14" is for Heisei 14 which is 2002. In the middle, the numbers "02.1.5" is for Jan. 1, 2002. And on the right, "8-12" indicates the time period (8 am to 12 noon) when the postcard was mailed. This is nice.

But the postmark on the right is more abbreviated, showing only the location, Heisei year, month, and day.
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Undivided back. The earliest tourist postcards had a picture side and an address side. The message had to be written on the picture side which usually had a large white area to write on (like this postcard).Since the address side was only for the recipient's address, it had no dividing line for the address and message. This was called an undivided back, and this type of postcards were produced between 1900 (Meiji 33) and March 28, 1907 (Meiji 40) in Japan. After this date, the message was allowed to be written on the address side. See the next image.
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Off-center divided back. After March 28, 1907 when the message was allowed to be written on the address side, a dividing line was printed on the address side to separate the message and recipient's address. However...However, this line was not at the center of the card. Only one-third of the card could be used for message writing and the other two-thirds portion was reserved for the name and address. Such postcards with an off-center divider were made between March 28, 1907 (Meiji 40) and March 1, 1918 (Taisho 7). From March 1, 1918, the dividing line was moved to the center of the card. (See the next image.)
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Center divided back. From March 1, 1918, the dividing line moved to the center of the card to separate the message and recipient's address.In this way, if the postcard has no postmark or stamp, you can still estimate the date of the card by checking the address side and see if there is a divider or not, an off-center divider, or a center divider.
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Yubin Hag(k)aki. All postcards were required to bear the words "Yubin Hagaki (or Hakaki)" which means "Post Card." The words appeared on the address side of the card along the right edge of the horizontal card.This string of Japanese kanji characters underwent two changes during Japan's postcard history. (If you don't read Japanese, it might be a little difficult to understand the changes.)

The image above shows a closeup of three postcards. At the top, "Yubin Hakaki" is read from right to left. On February 15, 1933, the word "Hakaki" was changed to read "Hagaki" as shown by the middle card above. Then after World War II ended in 1945, the Japanese reading style from right to left changed to left to right (when written horizontally) similar to English. Japanese captions on the picture side also changed to read from left to right after 1945.

Also note that from July 22, 1905, private postcards were allowed to have a foreign-language designation (i.e. "Carte Postale" or "Post Card") in addition to the Japanese "Yubin hakaki."

On the bottom card, notice the five red boxes. They are for the postal code within Japan. From Feb. 1998, Japan's postal code system was expanded to seven digits. Postcards having seven red boxes were made after Feb 1998. (See next image.)
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New Year's postcard. New Year's postcards are by far the most popular type of postcards in Japan, akin to Christmas cards in the West. The bulk of the cards are delivered on New Year's Day.The bulk of the cards are delivered on New Year's Day, and cards which were sent late arrive during the first week of January. The custom of sending New Year's postcards began almost the same year when postcards were first made in Japan in 1873.

The card above was issued by the Japan Post Office in 2001. This is the address side of the card. The address side is considered to be the front side, and it is designed for the address to be written vertically from top to bottom, right to left. However, there's no problem with writing it horizontally which looks less formal, nor affixing an address label which looks less personal.

The seven red boxes at the top are for the postal code within Japan. Prior to Feb. 1998 when the postal code was expanded to seven digits, there were only five boxes for the postal code. The stamp is already printed on the card on the upper left corner. The price of the card includes the stamp which happens to be the same price as the card. On the bottom right corner is a lottery number for prizes.

Writing New Year's cards can be fun, but for many people it is a time-consuming chore if they do it at all. So it is common now to print out messages and addresses with an ink-jet printer at home. The Japan Post Office even offers New Year's cards made of paper suited for inkjet printing. The inkjet cards make the inkjet printout look a lot better than with cards made of regular paper. If you plan to use an inkjet printer, be sure to purchase the inkjet New Year's cards. Buy them early because they tend to sell out quickly.
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Early postcard image quality. Both images above are magnified by 650%. The top image sample is a collotype image, hand-colored. The photograph in early postcards printed by collotype had very fine grain.However, collotype was not suitable for high-volume printing and it was soon replaced by offset printing from the 1910s.

The bottom image is from a real-photo postcard. It was an actual photograph printed on paper as a postcard. These are easy to recognize with their characteristic sheen or gloss. The grain is the finest of all.
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Later postcard image quality. Offset printing replaced the collotype and color printing came to fore from the 1930s. You can see how the little dots composed the picture. (Magnified by 650%.)
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