The Japanese Seal Dilemma

Written by Lu

Do these Japanese seals look similar? Can you tell by looking whether they are made by the same artist or by several?


So I don’t get into too much trouble with my Japanese seal carving friends I won’t mention any names, but include several examples (and could include many more) in order to make a point. Each of these seals is by a different artist. Admittedly, they are all from roughly the same postwar generation and may have studied with or been influenced by the same teachers—but these artists will also in turn be the teachers for the next generation of Japanese seal carvers.

Japan as a country honors conformity and discourages individuality. This has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that creativity can be stifled. A Japanese friend went to China to study seal carving. When she returned home she was stigmatized by her fellow Japanese artists, being told that the quality of her work had gone down while she was away—her Chinese-styled designs didn’t fit the Japanese model. The Chinese insist on copying from past masters, but also stress you must eventually create your own style. Seals should be distinctive, otherwise no one will be interested in looking at them. At the same time they must be elegant. The challenge is finding a balance between the two.

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