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Dating Japanese Vintage Postcards

Vintage Japanese postcards give a wonderful view of what Japan and the Japanese used to look like about a hundred years ago. But dating them is still more an art than a science.

Postcards became unbelievably popular in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905. The issue of commemorative postcards was a great event. People would line up in front of post offices and wait through the night to be among the first to get these cards. There are even reports of people who died in fights. Collectors had tens of thousands of postcards.

After the war ended, postcards became less popular among Japanese, but the boom was kept alive by the increasing number of foreign tourists. Because the souvenir postcards that they bought were sent back home, they were able to survive the fires, earthquakes and war that destroyed so much of Japan during the 20th century. They now delight us with their beauty.

There are several ways to date a vintage card: through its postmark, the stamp used, the use of a dividing line and the type of printing used.

Postmarks, Date Stamps and Stamps

If the postmark has the location name in English, the date format is day-month-Gregorian year.

If the postmark is in Japanese, the date format is Japanese year-month-day. The Japanese year depends on the period (Meiji, Taisho, Showa). Check them here: Japanese dates.

The Japan Stamp Dealers’ Association (JSDA) publishes the Japanese Postage Stamp Catalogue (Nihon Kitte Katarogu). The catalogue is published annually and contains color images of all the stamps that Japan’s postal service has issued since its inauguration with the stamp’s issue date as well as other information. The catalogue is only JPY 1,000, including postage (inside Japan).

Even without a date stamp, it is often still fairly easy to roughly date a card:

Dividing Lines

No dividing line – In 1900 (Meiji 33) the postal act allowed the private-sector to print postcards. Postcards had a picture side and an address side. It was not permitted to write a message on the address side, and therefore there was no dividing line on the address side.

Dividing line on left third – From March 28, 1907 (Meiji 40), a line was added to the back of postcards to divide the address side into a third for the message on the left and two-thirds for the recipient’s address on the right

Dividing line in middle – From March 1, 1918 (Taisho 7), the dividing line to separate the message and recipient’s address moved to the center of the card.

Divided backs appeared in England in 1902, in France in 1904, in Germany in 1905, and in the US in 1907.

Types of cards

Hand-tinted collotype postcards had very fine grain. They were replaced by offset printed cards during the 1910s because they did not lend themselves to high-volume printing.

Real-photo postcards were actual photographs printed on paper as a postcard. They have an easy to notice sheen or gloss and a very fine grain. Because the negatives were large (often postcard size), these images are extremely clear. They were printed as late as the 1930’s.

Photochrome postcards (or “Chrome”) appeared in the US around 1939 and in Japan after the end of WWII. They were easily produced, in color and of high quality, so they soon replaced all other cards.


If the Japanese kanji on the card are read from left to right (Western style), the card is in most cases post-WWII.

Examples for city names (pre-war | post-war):

Kobe: 戸神 | 神戸
Osaka: 阪大 | 大阪
Nagasaki: 崎長 | 長崎
Tokyo: 京東 | 東京
Yokohama: 浜横 | 横浜



  1. I have 4 Japanese postcards. They each have reproductions of famous works. One is of Hokusai’s Wave. They have no line, but in the middle where a line would go is small printing: “ …(With the compliments of the N.Y.K. Line)… “, which makes me think they are a cruise ship’s stationary. One edge has,“By Nipponmokuhan Co. L. Tokio”. Each have a short note written and singed and dated March 19, 1929. They were never sent and so have no postmark. Any info about them, including worth would be appreciated.

    # Kerry White · 2011-03-31
  2. Hi Kerry,

    The N.Y.K. line still exists and used to print postcards to give out or sell to its passengers on lines connecting Japan with the rest of the world. Without seeing them it is difficult to tell you what they’re worth, but on eBay, postcards like this usually start around USD 10.00 each.

    # Kjeld Duits · 2011-03-31
  3. Thank you very much! I had seen some older Japanese postcards there in that price range, but, had not seen any with the reproductions.

    # Kerry White · 2011-04-05

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