Japanese Military Sake Cups and Bottles


            Sake, a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, plays a central role in traditional culture and even religion. Not surprisingly, the Imperial Japanese military harnassed this tradition to validate ceremonies ranging from the celebration of victory to a final toast for kamikaze pilots about to embark on suicide missions. According to Dan King, author of  Japanese Military Sake Cups 1894-1945 (see below for details on this book), some sake cups (sakazuki) were officially commissioned by the miltary for various purposes, but most often they were commissioned by the men or officers themselves to commemorate various milestones from enlistment to return from overseas assignment to completion of military service. I only have a few of these Japanese military sake cups and so far two sake bottles. Most military sake cups date from the 1920s and 1930s when Japan was fighting in China, but some go back as far as the Russo-Japanese war in 1894-95.


            Sake cups seem to come in two main sizes, small ones 6-7cm (about 2.5”) and large ones, 9-10cm (about 4”). This first one is large and fairly basic in design. It is 98mm in diameter. The shaded star at the top is the symbol of the Imperial Japanese Army (the Navy used a fullered anchor). The two flags are the normal, hinomaru or “meatball” national flag on the left and the military flag with rayed sun on the right. The characters on the right and left are read from right to left and say hohei, or infantry. At the bottom the upper row of four characters is read from right to left and says dai-yon-ren-tai, or number four regiment. The Fourth Inantry Regiment came from Sendai in northern Japan. The bottom two characters begin with the character taka, or high, on the right, but I can’t figure out the left one. My guess is that it is a personal or place name.


            This next one is also large, about 94mm, and has the same crossed flag motif, but in colour this time. The four characters in a vertical column at the top centre read ya-sen-ho-hei, or “field artillery”. The five characters in the centre at the bottom between the staffs of the flags read from right to left: dai-ju-ni-ren-tai, or Regiment Number 12. The Twelfth Field Artillery Regiment came from Sendai in northern Japan. In the far right corner under the fringed, rayed flag is the character minami, also read nan, which means south. The character on the far left under the left flag is the character sato, also pronounced ri. These two probably go together and indicate the surname Minasato. 


This is a smaller cup, 74mm in diameter, with the common “shaded star above crossed flags” motif. The five characters across the top are read from right to left. The first three are sei-haku-ri, which makes no sense to me. The last two on the left are easy: ki-nen, or commemorative. The four across the bottom read from right to left: ho-no-nana-ichi, or “infantry 71”, probably an indication of the 71st Infantry Regiment.


                        This cup has a maker’s signature on the bottom. The two characters are read from top to bottom and represent the surname Sueda.


            I think this one is especially beautiful with its lavish use of gold leaf. It is 99mm in diameter, or almost four inches. The symbol at the top looks like a rising sun, while the leaves at the bottom are paulownia, a symbol of the Japanese imperial family. The two characters in the little oval capsule at the far left say ki-nen, meaning “commemorative”. The seller told me it was a kempeitai (military police) cup, but most of the calligraphy in the seven columns is illegible to me, so I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask my Japanese friend and see if she can figure it out. The only line I can read is the middle one. It seems to indicate ho-no-kyu, or Ninth Infantry (Regiment, presumably). The Ninth Infantry Regiment came from Kyoto. The bottom has a maker’s signature, which seems to be Tsuka-something, but I forgot to take a photo, so I’ll have to add one later.


            Here’s a cup I bet a lot of guys were glad to get. The four characters across the top read tai-ei-ki-nen, or “Commemorating concluding one’s military service”. It is a small cup, 67mm (2 5/8 inches) in diameter. I think this is the size known as guinomi, or “quick gulp”. My guess is that anyone who made it through their service would probably want to knock back quite a few of these tiny cups!


This one seems a little odd at first. The very cursive calligraphy on the right and left is a mystery to me, but the writing on the banner is quite legible. It says: roku-shu-kan-gen-eki-hei, or “soldier who has completed six weeks’ active service”. I think this is probably for completing a secondary call-up period of six weeks, rather than six weeks of one’s main military service. The cup is 98mm in diameter and has the ubiquitous pink cherry blossoms.


The bottom has the maker’s signature, Hiramatsu.


            This next one is an example of what is called a “helmet cup” (kabuto sakazuki in Japanese) because it is shaped like a helmet, as you will see a little further down. This style of cup is covered on pages 86-91 of the Dan King book referenced at the bottom of this page. This one is quite small, about 56mm (2 3/16”) in diameter. It was made to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War, which Japan won. Since that conflict took place in 1904-05, the cup can be dated to 1935. The gold leaf writing at the top reads Nichi-ro sen-eki (Russo-Japanese War). The gold leaf writing at the bottom, which doesn’t show up that well in this photo, says san-ju-shu-nen-ki-nen (commemorating the 30th anniversary). Beside the rather sleepy looking soldier is a Chinese-style wall and gate with a Japanese flag flying over it. The black writing reads right to left in columns: mamore man-shu oriro-yo koku-min, which means “defend Manchuria; awaken, people of Japan!” The order of these phrases may be reversed; Japanese can be written in either direction (right to left, which was more common in the pre-war period, or left to right, which has now become the norm but was also known before the war).



This close-up shows the “Russo-Japanese War” caption a little more clearly.


Here you can clearly see the reason why these are called “helmet cups”. Note that it even has the Army star moulded in.


            There is a faint trace of what may be the character hara (field) in gold, as well as four very faint characters pressed into the cup itself. The first one on the right looks like oto (sound) and the second one from the left looks like ari (is). I suspect this might be the maker’s name but I can’t make it out. The yellow thing in the lower left corner is a pencil, which gives you some idea of scale.


            Here is the bottom. These cups usually had some kind of design moulded into the base. Here it’s an airplane. The gold leaf characters at the bottom read left to right and say Mura-ta Futoshi, the soldier’s name.




       This is another helmet cup, but a very scarce one: it refers to the Greater East Asian War, which was how the Japanese referred to the period from Pearl Harbour in December, 1941 to their defeat in August/September, 1945. The writing in red says Dai-to-a Sen-so Ki-nen, “commemorating the Greater East Asian war. There is one identical to this in the lower right corner of page 85 of the Dan King book referred to above.


The bottom shows a propeller design.


         The soldier’s family name is in gold: Kaminaga. There is also something molded into the cup between the propeller and the gold writing. I haven’t been able to figure it out yet. The bottom part looks like 166.


Although there is a lot of glare and reflection in this photo, you can make out the star in the lower central part of the photo.



       Here is another item with a Manchurian connection. This sake bottle is about 147mm (5.75 inches) high. It is covered in a raised cherry blossom motif.


            This close-up of the decoration on the front of the bottle shows the Japanese military flag on the right and the flagof Manchukuo, the puppet state Japan set up in Manchuria, on the left. At the top is the shaded star, the symbol of the Imperial Japanese Army. The gold leaf characters on the helmet  read from right to left and say Suga-wara, the soldier’s family name.


Here is the back of the bottle.


            The inscription on the back is clearer in this close-up. The right column says gai-sen-tai-ei-ki-nen, “commemorating completion of service and triumphant return”. The left column says ho-san-kyu, which is short for 39th Infantry Regiment. This regiment was based in Himeji, a famous castle town west of Kobe.


            Quite a while after I got that bottle I had a chance to pick up a bottle and a cup from the same regiment, both named to a Mr. Morikawa. This bottle is 145mm (5 ½”) high.


            Here’s a close-up of the painted part. The caption at the top says, from right to left: man-chu-ji-hen, [second line] gai-sen-ki-nen. This means Manchurian Incident, In Commemoration of a Triumphant Return. The Japanese referred to the long series of conflicts in China as “incidents” (jihen) rather than wars.


The back says “Infantry 39 [regiment] Morikawa”.


The bottom has something stamped into the bottom. I think it is toku-sei, “custom-made”, but it’s pretty hard to be sure.


A close-up of the sakura (cherry blossom) design.


            This is the cup that is named to Mr. Morikawa of the 39th Infantry Regiment. It is 56mm (2 1/8 “) in diameter and has the crossed flags of the Japanese military on the right and the puppet state of Manchukuo on the left.


The gold painted letters at the top read from right to left: gai-sen-ki-nen, “commemorating a triumphant return”.


The bottom say ho-san-kyu (Infantry 39 [Regiment]), man-shu-ji-hen (Manchurian Incident).


The bottom has the name Morikawa in gold characters.


            This one is very pretty from the side. The design is, from left to right, the Army star, the hinomaru (“meatball”) flag, the military flag and a sakura (cherry) blossom.



            Another neat thing about this cup, besides the name matching the bottle, is that is has the original box. The box is 65mm (2 ½”) square by 35mm (1 3/8 “) high and made of light cardboard with a paper covering glued on to rather unconvincingly simulate wood.


Here is the cup in the box.


            This cup is really old. It commemorates the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, when Japan became the first non-white country to defeat a major European power in modern times. The cup is 83mm (3 ¼”) in diameter.


            Here’s a close-up of the characters. They read upper right, lower right, upper left, lower left: sei-ro-gai-sen, “triumphant return from service against Russia”.


The bottom is very plain. The industry was just getting started at that point.


            This one commemorates the group flag of the youth association that was formed around 1915 to help instil martial and nationalist views in Japan’s youth. It is 62mm (2 ½”) in diameter. The big black character in the middle is sei, the first character in sei-nen, or youth.


The top characters say, from right to left, dan-ki-ki-nen: commemorating the group flag.


The bottom says (L-R): sei-kaku-sei-nen-dan, or spiritual reform youth group.


The bottom is fairly plain although there is a neat swirl in the centre.


            If you would like to find out more about Japanese military sake cups and bottles, check out the new (2004) book by Dan King referred to above. The title is Japanese Military Sake Cups 1894-1945, and it is published by Schiffer Publishing. I would have liked a little more text in this book, but the illustrations are great and it’s the only thing I know of on the topic, at least in English. There is apparently another book by Richard Fuller, but I haven’t seen it. Here is a link to Schiffer’s site where you can buy the Dan King book:


            Schiffer has been coming out with some great books on Japanese military topics, including uniforms and pistols. They are all beautiful as well as well done.


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Last updated: November 15, 2004. All contents are copyright Teri unless otherwise specified and may not be used elsewhere in any form without prior permission.