Readers ask about degrading Occupied Japan salt/pepper shakers
Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.
This week’s question is about a pair of Black Americana salt and pepper shakers made in Occupied Japan.
I have a salt and pepper shaker – the bottoms are stamped Japan and the salt shaker is a black man’s head and the pepper shaker is a slice of watermelon. Do you have any idea how much these are worth?
This reader sent me an email after coming across a blog post I wrote two years ago about salt and pepper shakers. An auction house was selling shakers – 24 trays with 10 pairs per tray – that had obviously been someone’s collection. They were more kitschy than classy – and included some Black Americana – and I suspect that some were stamped “Made in Occupied Japan.” They were snapped up by bidders pretty quickly because Black Americana sells, and so does Occupied Japan.
I don’t buy any items with these types of images because I deplore them. My auction pal Rebecca, who’s more familiar with Black Americana than me, wondered if the reader’s shakers were an original pairing.
They seem to be. The reader didn’t send photos, but I found a pair on eBay that were similar to hers. The top bid was at $49.99 with two days to go on the auction. There were plenty of other derogatory shakers of black boys and girls in pairs or singly with watermelons. Some were marked “Made in Japan” or “Japan,” and others seemed to be unmarked.
After getting the email, I got to wondering about Japan’s place in the marketing of these products. The country was a major producer of salt and pepper shakers by the 1940s, and many of them were made in the stereotypical images of African Americans that was omnipresent in this country.
I know that Japan was not the only foreign country that made money off these items (I found some on the web that were said to be marked Germany). So I Googled, which turned up thousands of results of “Made in Occupied Japan” Black Americana stuff that folks were selling – many caricatures and decidedly crude.
The African American writer of the 2011 Antique Trader Black Americana Price Guide wondered where the Japanese got these images. He said they were based on “verbal descriptions and cartoon characters.” Most of the functional kitchen items featured images of African Americans, he said.
Japanese manufacturers were making products for U.S. consumers, so they created images that would sell and was selling here in the 1940s. Their product lines, though, went beyond just African American figures.
Here’s what the Chicago Tribune noted in a 1997 article: “Instead of embodying Asian cultural traditions, Occupied Japan merchandise mimics American and European models. Imitation Hummel, Royal Doulton, Meissen and Victorian ceramic figures of sentimentally depicted dogs, dolls and babies make up the bulk of Japan’s output during this period.”
Japan began exporting these products after its surrender to Allied forces at the end of World War II in 1945. The country was devastated and its industries lay fallow. Japan was under U.S. occupation, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur was dispatched to help rebuild the industries – from which flowed a torrent of items aimed at the U.S. market starting in 1947.
These were mostly dime-store products that could be gotten cheaply, although some major companies were producing better-quality products. All were required to be stamped “Occupied Japan” or “Made in Occupied Japan,” and collectors of these items today insist on those two markings for authenticity. An eBay guide noted that they were stamped this way for an American public that had strong anti-Japanese feelings and was disinclined to buy the country’s products.
Many of the items were made of ceramics (clay was said to be pretty accessible). They included ashtrays, lamps, salt and pepper shakers, toys, vases, figurines, planters, toys, wall plaques and metal pieces.
The “Occupied Japan” mark was discontinued with the signing of a peace treaty in 1952.
Apparently, not many of the items survived in Japan itself. Many were said to have been destroyed after the war because manufacturers felt that marking them “occupied” was “humiliating.” One manufacturer said a large group of items were buried in a factory’s backyard; they were later recovered.
Last year, an exhibit held in Seto, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, featured 170 items that were said to be considered rare. They included ceramic figurines, plates and toys that had come from collectors in the United States (whom I assumed were Japanese who had brought them out of the country).
As for the reader’s salt and pepper shakers, I would suggest more research on the web and on eBay. She should first make sure the shakers are authentic and beware of fakes and reproductions. She might also take a look at the Facebook page of Occupied Japan Collectors.