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The Many Faces of Mt. Fuji

Look closely: your 'dupes' may actually be collectible varieties

by Bob Ingraham
6th of July 2009

A collector I know says that if he needs a magnifying glass to see a detail on a stamp, then it’s not worth seeing in the first place. I think that he denies himself of a great deal of the pleasure that can be derived from close examination of stamps. Often, in fact, he may miss the fact that “duplicates” in his collection are entirely different stamps.
I have recently taken a close look at the easy-to-find pictorial definitive stamps that Japan issued from 1937 through 1947. I have never considered myself a specialist, but these issues, featuring seemingly endless varieties of paper, shades, and perforations (or lack of perforations) seem to me to be a specialist’s dream come true.
Among the most common of these stamps is the one-yen issue portraying an image of the perpetually snow-capped Mt. Fuji in Central Honshu.

The imperforate stamp was issued in 1946. The design is based on a Hokusai painting titled “Thunderstorm below Fuji”. It was one of a set of nine designs, and was in use from 1946 through 1947.
In 1946, Japan had barely begun the process of reconstruction following the Second World War. American B-29 bombers had destroyed almost all of its industrial cities in incendiary raids that killed and maimed more people than the infamous atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The war shattered Japan’s economy, a fact clearly evident in the poor-quality stamps issued throughout the wartime period. Despite a high degree of artistry in their designs, the stamps were often printed on cheap paper of widely varying thickness and color, and the inks that were used seem to have been substandard and highly variable. The 1946-1947 set was issued imperforate and mostly ungummed, presumably because perforating machines had been lost and gum was unavailable. There are also watermark varitieties.
The Mt. Fuji stamp serves as an excellent example of these low production standards. Look carefully at these six examples:

Proving Scott wrong: this scanned image clearly shows that this
Japanese definitive stamp comes in more than three shades.

The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue lists three varieties of this stamp, based only on shade differences. The most common stamp, Scott #364, is described as deep ultramarine; #364a is ultramarine, and #364b is light blue. The illustration above shows clearly that more than three shades can be found in this set! (All stamps were scanned at the same time; the resulting image was sharpened and its contrast raised, but no stamps were manipulated individually.)
In addition, the paper ranges from bright white through light grey to almost a manila tone. One stamp, the second from the left, seems to have been privately rouletted; private rouletting and perforation was a common and understandable practice.
Under high magnification, what appear to be significant printing differences become visible. I scanned the stamps to enlarge them 800%. Although they appear almost identical to the naked eye, they exhibit significant differences under magnification. Here are two examples:

I assume that these stamps are copies of what Scott calls #364b, the light blue stamps, although the stamp on the right has a distinct greenish hue. That stamp also shows less snow on the volcano’s peak than the other one, and the writing is less bold. The jagged, lightning-like white streaks showing valleys and shoulders on the mountainside are strikingly less conspicuous on the right-hand stamp. What could cause these differences?
Over-inking of the printing plate might explain the appearance of the stamp on the right, but if that were the case, I wouldn’t think that the blank areas of the mountain would appear so thin: a lot of white paper shows through as white specks, not something you would expect if too much ink had been used. Scuffing of stamps may cause underlying paper to show, but this stamp does not appear to be damaged. I think that these stamps were printed at different times from different printing plates.
A close look at the clouds to the right of Mt. Fuji’s peak also shows that these six stamps are not so much siblings as first cousins. These cropped images clearly show differences among the lines representing the clouds, not to mention the edge of the mountain itself:

I decided to see whether manipulating the contrast and colors of the stamp images would bring out more detail. I first inverted the images so they would appear in their “negative” form. Then I increased contrast by 200% and altered the hue and saturation of the colors. This image shows the six stamps before color manipulation...

and this one shows the stamps after color manipulation:

This digital magic did what the human eye could not: it emphasized minor differences, making them strikingly visible.
When I first started sorting my small accumulation of Japanese stamps, I assumed that the naked-eye differences among the six Mt. Fuji pictorials represented little more than shade varieties. As a result of scanning them and manipulating the images, it seems clear that not one of those six stamps is a duplicate of the others. My conclusion is that each one, in fact, is a separate, unique stamp.
The fact that the Scott catalogue lists only three different versions of the Mt. Fuji stamp is immaterial. Most definitive stamp issues exhibit various printing differences throughout the period they are issued, and only a specialized catalogue would attempt to list all of them, even if particular shades could be identified precisely. The Scott catalogue is published for the general collector who is usually quite pleased to be able to have help in identifying the major varieties he or she is apt to come across.
Econonomically secure nations find it relatively easy, over time, to produce definitive stamps with little variation in quality, simply because the necessary materials and machinery are available. Japan’s 1946 Mt. Fuji issue, because it was printed by a country whose infrastructure had largely been destroyed by American bombs, has left present-day philatelists with a bonanza of different stamps to examine for years to come.
The war in Japan did not destroy everything, however. The human spirit survived. In 1947, in connection with “Stamp Hobby Week,” November 1-7, Japan issued a lovely souvenir sheet featuring a strip of five of the Mt. Fuji stamps, Scott #395b, the light blue version:

It’s interesting to note that Scott says the souvenir sheet can be found on both white or grayish paper. Only white or grayish? I kinda doubt that...

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