Japanese Military Cups
|Welcome to the rich and varied world of sake cup collecting! Of course, sake
(the drink) has been a part of Japanese culture for hundreds (thousands?) of
years, and therefore so have sake cups. Originally considered a holy drink, it
still retains vestiges of that: purifying, pure in itself, somehow an essential part
of Japanese culture.
A brief survey of the military cups:
Military sake cups first appear during the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the
Japanese opened up the country and built a modern Army and Navy. However,
the sake cups you see most often will date from 1904 and later. Very few will be
earlier, although there are a considerable number from the first Sino-Japan
Why is this? What prompted the huge increase in military sake cups (and other
related commemorative items like tokkuri, trays, saucers, etc.)? Well, no doubt
it was the Japanese euphoria over defeating a European country in full war.
After the defeat of Russia in 1905, a large number of military items were made.
The general populace was quite proud of its military, so often plates and other
household goods were decorated with military images, most often the national
During the post-war years there was a tremendous number of military cups
made. Most of these were labeled 'Conquer Russia Commemorative.' Some do
have the 'Discharge Commemorative' phrase, but this was less common in this
era, probably because cups at this time were made at the stores and bought
In the following years there were cups made to commemorate other military
occasions, like large training exercises and voyages at sea. Japan also got
involved in WW1 (although it didn't play a large part), and cups with 'Conquer
Germany' and 'Siberia Dispatch' can be found, too, though these are a bit rare.
It seems to have been sometime in the 1920s when the awarding of cups
became official. The government wanted to give some sort of commemorative
item to the soldiers who were discharged or who had served in certain
conflicts, so the sake cup was chosen, most likely because it was small and
In the 1930s another sake cup boom happened. Actually, not just cups but all
kinds of military memorabilia. Spurred on by the military successes in China
and Manchuria (especially the latter), cups were made not only for discharged
soldiers but also for private sale. It is difficult to say for certain which cups
were officially made and which were sold in stores because these were often
the same items. An officer of a certain regiment would probably just contact the
nearest shop that sold these cups and order a certain amount. The stock
phrases were all available on stamps, while the individual unit numbers were
stamped or hand-painted on individually. The personal names of the soldiers
were most often hand-written in the base.
Some cups are obviously better made than others. For example, some had
hand-painted scenes and words. These were obviously more expensive to
make, so it is not clear if these were privately commissioned or given by
especially generous officers.
As the war got worse in the 1940s, the output of cups decreased. There were
some still made, though, but these never have personal names on them. The
variety of stock phrases disappeared, replaced with the official DAI TOA SENSO
(Great East Asia War) phrase. These later cups were almost always stamped
patterns, clumsily (hurredly?) colored.
What kinds of cups were made? The better quality cups almost always date
from the 1920s or earlier. Metal cups were popular in the 1900-15 period. These
often had a cheap, pliable metal gilted with a gold color. Of course, quality
depended upon how much the buyer was willing to pay. Pure silver cups were
also available. Lacquered wood cups were also very popular during the
Russo-Japan War aftermath, but these were made in decreasingly small
numbers during the second Sino-Japan War (1931-45).
Although military cups first gained widespread popularity in 1905 or so, cups
were also made before this. Once in a while you can find cups from the 1894-5
Sino-Japan War, and I have even seen a cup dated Meiji 15 (1882) which was a
naval discharge cup.
So the bulk of cups you see are from the period 1904-1910 and 1931-40. Large
numbers of commemorative cups for Emperor Hirohito's enthronement in 1928
were also made, and these resemble the military cups.
Modern-day cups also are being made for the SDF (Self-Defense Forces). The
ones I have seen are all 24K gold-plated cups. No porcelain ones so far. The
patterns are embossed but, though appealing to some extent, lack the beauty
of those colorful, hand-painted cups of Imperial Japan. The craftsmanship is
gone, or at least just channeled into non-military directions.