Like China, Japan has traditionally used seals in place of signatures, and while the latter has become acceptable for most foreign residents, the average Japanese person authorizes all documents, letters and forms with a personal inkan, or seal. Just as we are ready to grab up a pen and dash off a signature, the Japanese will just as quickly pull out a personal seal and apply it to the paper in question. In most cases, the impressions left by common seals made for daily use are not unusual or eye-catching characters or ideograms. But go to an art gallery featuring the work of Japanese (or Chinese) artists and you will see a wonderful assortment of very different and unusual seals, many of them extremely difficult to read correctly.
Japanese seals have always been something that fascinated me, and along with the brush writing, played some small part at least in attracting me to the country. I wanted to learn how to write these beautiful characters, wanted to understand their mystery. I had not been here very long before I searched out a place to have my own seal carved. Of course, it required some time of looking for characters that would produce a phonetic reading of my un-Japanese name, and long talks with Japanese friends about the ideograms that would add a nuance of meaning to the sound. In time, I had my own ‘Japanese’ seal, and was very happy with it.
Over the years, the characters I originally selected for my seal never changed, but I began to want more elaborate, more artistic seals, wanted to be able to apply not one but two seals to letters and cards. What you see above is about two-thirds of my collection, several of them unusual and (I like to think) rare. My two favorites are in the top row — the center one an impression of my fingerprint with the characters for my name inside, and the Japanese magnolia on the right, which has a stem tapering off in the hiragana, or cursive characters for my name. The left hand seal in the top row, which has ‘WILLIAM’ on the left is the only ivory seal I have.
I expect that at the end of next month one or two of my seals will be called upon to ‘sign’ my 2010 New Year card, something I make every year. The ‘Four Roosters’ shown here is my 2005 card design. In it you can see two seals at the bottom left and bottom right. The left is my name, while the two characters on the right mean ‘January 1st.’