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'Japanese Philately': the cultural side of stamps

One of the great pleasures I get from working at Linn's Stamp News is reading the many hundreds of stamp publications that come to Linn's offices every week, and I get to see scores of them.

I won't say we see everything that's published in English, but I would hope that we see most of the important titles.

Of all the stamp publications I see regularly, if I had to pick just one (other than Linn's) to accompany me on the proverbial desert island, I would probably choose Japanese Philately, the journal of the International Society for Japanese Philately.

I don't collect Japanese stamps and have only a narrow interest in Japanese postal history. But I find Japanese Philately irresistibly compelling. The publication has been ably edited; forever it seems, by Robert Spaulding, a retired professor of Asiatic languages who lives in Oklahoma.

I think it's fair to call Spaulding the dean of U.S. stamp editors. He's been at it as long as I can remember, and my affection for his publication now goes back more than 35 years.

To me, what separates Japanese Philately from most other specialized stamp publications is its focus on the cultural aspects of stamps.

We read a lot about stamps being national icons and miniature cultural ambassadors, but not much of the vast literature of our hobby actually discusses stamp matters from a cultural perspective.

Japanese Philately does this with gusto. It embraces the full spectrum of collectible objects both ancient and modern (with well-distributed emphasis on stamps, covers, postmarks and postal history), and then ties them all to Japanese culture, ranging very widely in the process.

Essays on Japanese geography, history, literature, art, music, ideography and spelling appear in every issue, all appropriately related to stamps and covers.

The issue that just reached my desk, cover dated August 2000…contains brief notes on a wide variety of subjects, all extensively illustrated.

Here's just a sampling: covers censored by military police during a few weeks during the Depression when Tokyo was under martial law; the evolution of the design of the flag of the Japanese postal service; handstamped markings on Japanese bulk mail; plate varieties on a Manchoukuo 1 ½-fen stamp; and the world's largest revenue stamp, which Japan issued in the 1870s. (This beast measured 6 ½ inches by 19 inches and was used to wrap bundles of silk. A helpful sketch shows just how this worked.

A more extensive article, by John D. Fluck, a regular contributor who specialized in musical themes, provides background for just one of the stamps in Japan's extensive 20th Century series.

Like the United States, England and many other nations, Japan has issued a series of small sheets bearing large stamps in odd configurations, celebrating cultural and historical events of the century now concluding.

The stamp in question pictures actress Matsui Sumako, in a stage play based on Tolstoy's 1899 novel Resurrection. The play, a great hit in Japan, launched a craze for Russian peasant fashion that lasted for years. A song from this play, "Katyusha's Song," became the first Japanese popular single hit. It's now regarded as marking the beginning of modern Japanese pop music.

By way of explaining the images on the stamp, Fluck's article provides the actual sheet music for the song, along with three versions of the lyrics (in Japanese characters, in romanized Japanese, and in an English translation) and a precis of the now-for-gotten Tolstoy novel on which the play was based. Such thoroughness is characteristic of Japanese Philately.

Another two-page article, under the heading "Japanese Malaya," not bylined but clearly the work of editor Spaulding, clinically dissects a fake cover (recently sold on eBay) purporting to be a scarce 1943 use from Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia.

Another longer article examines picture postcards and postal markings commemorating the visit to Japan of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Another looks at cacheted covers anticipating the 1940 Tokyo summer Olympics (which Japan was forced to relinquish after it invaded China).

A special favorite for me is a two-page article concerning the gravestone of legendary cachetmaker Karl Lewis. A Kentucky-born American who spent his last 45 years in Yokohama, Lewis was briefly interned as an enemy alien after Pearl Harbor, then released because of ill health. He died at his home in Yokohama in 1942.

The JP article contains a photo of the Lewis gravestone, illustrations of actual rubbings of the ideograph inscriptions and translations of the ideographs in romanized Japanese and English.

In conclusion, the write-up helpfully corrects two mistakes in the tombstone inscription.

In addition to all this and much more, the current issue contains eight well-illustrated pages of information relating to Japanese new-issue stamps and related postmarks.

Back in April, Japanese Philately provided the unforgettable facts that Japanese movie fans develop condensed nicknames for American stars. Burapi=Buraddo Pitto=Brad Pitt. Jontora=Jon Toraboruta=John Travolta.

How can you not love a stamp publication that regularly presents this story of information? Japanese Philately is published by the International Society for Japanese Philately. Society membership of $12 per year includes a subscription to the publication.

Copyrighted 2000 by Linn's Stamp News of Sidney, Ohio,
and reprinted with their permission


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