Vegder's Blog

June 2, 2009

Otoshidama 御年玉 New Year’s Gift

Oh, toshidama… whatever happened to you? Years ago when I started looking more intensely at Japanese prints there was one particular cartouche which seemed to appear over and over again. Generally it contained the signature of Toyokuni III – not that I could read actually read it then. Other artists used it too in one form or another, but mainly it was Toyokuni III’s identifier for me. Unable to explain its rather strange configuration I got in habit of referring to it as the melted cheese cartouche. What I didn’t know was that it was an artistic representation of  an otoshidama, a small twisted cloth* containing coins which was given to children on New Year’s day. Back then I worked for a man who only knew it as a toshidama – which it is. However, at some point in the last several decades most scholars quit calling it that, unlike their predecessors in the late 19th to middle 20th centuries. At some point they switched over in favor of otoshidama. Both are acceptable.

*It could have been paper and not cloth. What the Japanese call paper and what the average Westerner calls paper can be two totally different things – conceptually.

Below is a typical melted cheese/otoshidama cartouche found on a Toyokuni III print. It reads as “Toyokuni ga” or 豊国画. The squiggly area of the upper right is where the coins are bunched up.


While today otoshidama are still given to children at New Year’s they are now presented in paper envelopes. But they were not always a gift meant for the younger set. In fact, like so many other things in Japanese culture they once had a religious/mystical importance. W.G. Aston in his 1905 book Shinto: The Way of the Gods discusses the original meanings ascribed to ‘tama’. It could be the spirit of the a god or a jewel: “Tama contains the root of the verb tabu, to give, more often met with in its lengthened form tamafu. Tama retains its original signification in tama-mono, a gift-thing, and toshi-dama, a new year’s present. Tama next means something valuable, as a jewel. Then, as jewels are mostly globular in shape, it has come to mean anything round. At the same time, owing to a precious quality, it is used symbolically for the sacred emanation from the God which dwells in his shrine, and also for the most precious thing, the human life or soul.” This Aston traces back to the use of tama in the Kojiki (古事記) and Nihongi, the two earliest written records in Japan.

Sometime in the first decade of the 19th century members of the Utagawa school began using the toshidama as their seal. Toyokuni I was probably the first, but I can say for sure. Nor can I pin down the earliest use. As best I can tell it was probably around 1808 give or take a few years. Eventually many members of the Utagawa group used it in many different forms and disguises. But the odd thing is that I have yet to find a single Japanese print which shows a child being given the toshidama at New Year’s. There are a multitude of New Year’s related prints, but not one showing a child receiving this monetary/good luck gift.

Here is one of the most spectacular examples I have ever seen. It is a Toyokuni surimono created for a poetry club. Within the toshidama-circle printed with metallic inks is a portrait of Ichikawa Danjūrō VII. I found this on November 16, 2012 while looking for something else. I stumbled on it and don’t recall ever having seen it before.

   © Harvard University

Below is a fan print by Toyokuni I dated c. 1808 is from his The Art of Japanes Prints by Richard Illing. On the right is the signature and toshidama seal.


There is a fascinating article, entitled “Gift-Giving in a Modernized Japan”, by Harumi Befu (はるみ.べふ), an American born, Japanese raised, anthropologist. In the second paragraph Befu says that “…gift-giving is a minor institution in Japan…” However, pinpointing its origins is not always easy. Historians seem to dismiss it as beneath their pay grade so the best answers seem to come from folklorists who thrive on such studies. But the folklorist never seem to want to give exact dates either and always describe their topics as having come from the past. When? Who knows, but at least we know it was in the past. Somewhat like “Once upon a time there was gift-giving.” What Befu does make clear is that originally gifts – especially food and drink – were given to the gods. These gifts would just sit there and the givers decided that the gods were probably sharing their bounty with the community.  This sharing was called naorai during which the human population received the spiritual bequest of the gods. Human consumption of these gifts brought with it spiritual enhancement bestowed by the gods.

This is true of the concept of the otoshidama. What we now know as only New Year’s gifts to children were once “…offerings to the god of New Year, which were later eaten by men as the god’s gift.” Not only that, but, in general, the act of eating together strengthens community.  This was “…not only a device to transferring supernatural power to man, but also a means by which members of a community could partake in one another’s power and be brought into a mystical union. After all, the gulf between mortals and gods was not felt to be great…” What gods could do men could do – if only on a much smaller scale.

Katherine Rupp wrote on this topic in 2003 – added to this post on June 9, 2017:

On January 1, children and young adults receive toshidama (literally, “year” and “gem” or “spirit”). Toshidama are given by adults to children.
In some small family-owned companies, the president may give toshidama to employees. In the past, in many places, toshidama were rice
cakes and other kinds of food. Yanagita Kunio describes how in the southern regions of Kyūshū. the New  Year deity is believed to take the shape
of an old man who brings rice cakes to Year deity is believed to take the shape of an old man who brings rice cakes to good children. In some communities, a man dressed up as the New Year’s deity knocked on the doors of houses late at night, bringing New Year’s gifts to children. By
eating the rice cake brought by the deity, one’s life would be extended another year… Donations of food and alcohol to temples and shrines that
were offered to the New Year’s deities and then distributed among parishioners were also once known as toshidama. As the word tama (dama)
means “spirit,” it is widely interpreted as the spirit of the New Year’s deity received by the head of household and then passed on to the children.
Now, however, few people  think of these religious meanings. In almost all parts of Japan, money is inserted into small, colorful envelopes, and
is then given to children by parents, grandparents, other relatives, close friends, and neighbors. Older children may receive as much as 10,000
yen in each envelope, sometimes even more. If a New Year’s gift of money is given to a superior’s child, such as the child of a boss, it is not called toshidama, but nenshi (literally, “year” and “beginning,” a gift given at the beginning of the year).

So what did Toyokuni I have in mind when he chose the otoshidama as his seal? That is, if he was the first to do so? Was it picked for its spiritual significance? Probably so. Why wouldn’t it have been. No hidden meaning here. The otoshidama meant good luck, good luck bestowed by the gods. No wonder it became such a popular symbol of the Utagawa school of artists from the first to the last decade of the 19th century.

One interesting variation which Toyokuni I came up with was a merging of the Zen circle or ensō (円相 or  えんそう) and the traditional otoshidama. In Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings the ensō as described by “…the third Chinese patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan (died 592)… [as] the circle which is equivalent to the ‘Great Void’; nothing amiss, nothing superfluous…. As ‘perfect manifestation’ and as shape without either befinning or end, the circle compirses the elimination of all opposites into absolute unity and thus into the ‘true void’, zhenkong (Jap. shinku). The circle is the symbol of the shapeless, colourless essence of all beings, the ‘original countenance before birth’… of which is said… ‘Even when one piants it, it is not painted.’ ” The ensō is, it would seem, all and it is nothing and pretty much everything in between.

Haiga: Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-Painting Tradition by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko Yamamoto the ensō is described as the “…most classic Zen subject since it can symblolize the universe,  the void, the Buddha-nature, or only a rice-cake.” At times it can mean the moon or “…all that people search for outside themselves.” Below is photo of the cover of Addiss’s book The Art of Zen. The ensō and text are by Tōrei (1721-92).


Toyokuni I created a brilliant variation on the Zen circle by combing it with the toshidama. The use of waves may even add another layer of meaning. [The coloring is mine.] Even in woodblock print form the ‘flying white’ strokes of the brush are clearly intended.


Below are other creative uses and re-inventions of the otoshidama.

As early as c. 1813 Kunisada, one of Toyokuni’s greatest pupils, was using the toshidama in a busy, multi-paneled perspective view of a very active brothel. With everything else to look at one can see two men in a crowded hallway. One of them is carrying a lantern decorated with a toshidama, his schools emblem.  By ca. 1818-20  Kunisada signed a print with an otoshidama  shown within a triple lozenge. Those lozenges must mean something special to the artist but either I don’t recall what it was or never knew. In any case, sometimes he used only prominent displays of these lozenges accompanied by his signature.


By 1822-25 Kunisada’s use of the triple lozenge with toshidama was hardly subtle. He created a series of beautiful women involved in daily activities. Each print displayed a prominent cartouche with this combination of the toshidama and lozenge motives. (Note also that on many of the images posted on this web log I have isolated the details I want you to focus on. This is not how they appear on the original prints.)


A print from the series of ‘8 Popular Scenes and Contemporary Women’ not only shows the toshidama/lozenge combination, but Kunisada has also placed a more freely brushed form of the toshidama on a floor lantern. (I added the pink background to isolate the images I wanted you to focus on.)


In 1835 Kunisada again portrayed the toshidama on a lantern, but this time it was doubled.  Here a beauty precariously balanced is trying to hang it from a hook attached to a rafter. They are both lovely – that is, the woman and the lantern.


Before we leave Kunisada – that is, if we can ever really leave him – I want to post one more beauty of an image where he has used two large toshidama to dominate the print from the mid 1830s. The top one reads ‘Edo’ (江戸 or えど) which is modern day Tokyo.  Toward the very end of his extremely long and successful career Kunisada, by then known as Toyokuni III, used the large head or in an even larger otoshidama.


Toyokuni I was a giant in the field of Japanese woodblock prints. He taught -spawned – at least two other rival giants, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, who together dominated a large part of the marketplace. But there were other students too who left their mark to some degree or other. Toyoshige, who had married into Toyokuni I’s family, received the honor of becoming Toyokuni II and thus became head of the Utagawa school. Kunisada’s ego told him that he was the most deserving heir to that name and that he should have been the one who received it. However, he didn’t. In time he started referring to himself as Toyokuni II, but today we call him Toyokuni III.

Sebastian Izzard, the great Kunisada expert – and one I respect enormously – clearly takes the side of Kunisada as opposed to Toyoshige, the man who became Toyokuni II. He says that compared to Kunisada Toyoshige “…was a man of mediocre talent…” That may be, but sometimes Toyokuni II produced some absolutely lovely images. At least that is my opinion. In one of these an otoshidama cartouche dominates the upper right of the print. Within that field is a design by one of Toyokuni II’s own pupils, Toyotoshi. Below is a detail from that print. If you would like to see the whole thing then go to


As  mentioned above, Kuniyoshi was another giant of print design in the the early to mid-19th century. Personally I think he had the largest artistic range or vocabulary of any artist I have ever known. His works range from beautiful landscapes to elegant women to the most ribald absurdities. Often he side-stepped the ever-wary censors disguising his true thoughts with wit and humor. Below are three examples. In the first the toshidama is a relatively subtle decoration on one of the hanging hand towels a beautiful woman is reaching for. The focus is on the woman. In the second the large toshidama in the upper right contains a text which describes the scene – a group of oni or demons out for an evening stroll or on the way to their nightly assignments. The third is an anthropomorphized cat looking like a samurai squatting in obeisance before an unseen lord. (Maybe the viewer is the lord considering the cat’s perspective. And.. no one does anthropomorphic adaptations better than Kuniyoshi.) Behind this animal is a whole cluster of toshidama. What this means I don’t know, but it does make for an interesting element.




One account states that Kuniyoshi quit using the otoshidama when he failed to gain leadership of the Utagawa school . Supposedly that is when he switched over to the paulownia seal. I am not completely convinced and need to look into this more closely.

I own a wonderful little book called What About Kunisada? by Jan van Doesburg. I should have thought about this book right at the get-go. Not only does it provide a wealth of information about Kunisada, but it also has an extensive list of signatures, date and censor seals. In fact, I should have (re)read this volume before I started this post. But that is not what concerns me here – it is the cover of this handy reference source displays a cascade of otoshidama.


Over time we will try to make other interesting additions to this post, but for now we’re moving on. Come back occasionally anyway becasue you never know…

For anyone who is interested, I also operate a large, cumbersome, often confusing web site dealing with Japanese ukiyo-e prints and Japanese culture in general at Despite its drawbacks I think it would be well worth your time and effort. Hopefully you will bookmark both of these sites and return to them often. I don’t think you will be disappointed.


  1. Thank you so much for all this wonderful information, especially the info on the ‘What About Kunisada’ book. Your Blog is rich in details and I learned a lot just by visiting.

    Comment by Marilynn Bloom — June 25, 2009 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  2. Kunisada first used the toshidama seal on a pentaptych from the series ‘Eight views’ designed in 1809. The next datable use of a the single toshidama seal was in 1817 on a shini-e. It is also used on a very early fan painting and on an early surimono but these are not exactly datable.
    The above mentioned pentaptych showing a brothel is sealed with a square mimasu seal not with a toshidama seal and the lantern is not decorated with a toshidama (probably a hanging grape inside a circle).
    The first use of the toshidama within a triple lozenge must be before 1815 on an early surimono signed ‘Ichiyusai Kunisada ga’ (Kunisada used this go only around 1812 with the exception of two shini-e of 1817).
    From around 1820 onwards a few prints by Kunisada are sealed with a double toshidama below his signature.

    Comment by Horst Graebner — January 29, 2010 @ 2:18 am | Reply

  3. Hi Jerry! What an enjoyable little essay here, just when i am in the mood to think about Kunisada…

    Comment by Cori North — June 8, 2010 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

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