Today a customer asked me about telling items apart when there's no explicit attribution to a unit. Specifically, the question was about items with horses on them with no unit name - how do you know if this was an item for a transport unit or a cavalry unit? They both use horses as a theme in their decoration. What to do?
This got me to think about what I've learned about the process of production for these cups after having looked at and handled thousands of these. As I mentioned in my last post, porcelain items were actually the most common type, and could be mass produced. What shops seemed to do would be to make a whole batch at the same time. What they then do is to decorate them - decorations were painted on top of the cups (which is why they fade) and so they were applied after the initial firing that made the base. It would be then fired again. For example, this cup I'm currently selling has both over and underglaze decorations in what the Chinese call doucai (competing colors).
To save time though, shops aren't going to make to order - who knows when the next guy will come in wanting his bottle or cup decorated with this or that? So what they do instead is to decorate them all first and probably fire them to cement the colors. Usually these cups or bottles will have standard phrases on them - discharge commemoration, China Incident Commemoration, etc. They often have no names attached.
What the shop then has is a bunch of cups all with virtually identical decorations. They will then personalize it when it's sold - put a name on it, usually. In some cases they also leave the unit name unfilled if it's not clear what unit the person would belong to. I'd imagine this was the case in cities where multiple units were stationed, whereas if the city in which the shop was located only has one unit, they can safely paint in the unit knowing that almost all their sales will be for that unit. You can sometimes tell they left the space blank because if a unit has a longer number, they try to squeeze a number like 43 into the space of one character.
So sometimes I encounter cups that are dead stock from these shops that never sold. This soldier cup is one such example. I bought a bunch of these that looked like unused stock from a shop. It has a unit name, China Incident Commemoration, and a beautiful decoration. It's actually not a common cup to see and is made from the Kutani kiln, which is a famous producer of well decorated porcelain. Somehow there was a group of these for sale and I snapped them up. They make for beautiful items to have, and because they are unused, they are all in great condition with a few exceptions.
Having said that, not all cups that have no names or units are dead stock. I've actually seen cases where it's obvious someone tried to remove names or unit references from items before selling them - sometimes they do a poor job and leave a bit of the name behind, or there are scratch marks (more obvious on lacquer cups) where the name used to be. This is a way for the initial seller, who sometimes are the sons or daughters of deceased soldiers, to protect the identity of those who owned these items. Or sometimes perhaps the items were just gifted with standard phrases without personalization. Perhaps it was cheaper without adding a name? It's possible there's a cost differential because adding something would require an extra step of work for the shop, whereas just buying it off the rack without customization would mean they can sell it right away. If you need to buy a gift in a hurry, you may not have time to wait around for them to get to your cups and add that name to it. I'm not sure about this process and nobody seems to have written on this in either English or Japanese.
Also, it is useful to remember that these cups were sometimes given in what we might consider large quantities. Sets of 5 are common - and not always 5 different cups. Often you have sets of 5 of the same cup that were given. The sakazuki (wide cups) often come in stacks of 3 with varying sizes, while choko tend to be in sets of 5. Of course individual cups were also given out, as evidenced by single cup boxes that we find. However, the point is that it is not rare at all to find people giving others sets of 5 cups or even more (2 sets of 5 for example) so sometimes you encounter identical cups with 10 together, all decorated the same with the same name and phrase.
I guess the answer to the initial question is - there's no way to know for sure if the unit name is not there. A horse could be a transport or a cavalry unit, and it is possible that these were items that were never given a unit name because it was never applied onto the item. Since the Japanese had cavalry units even into WW2, periodization isn't going to help either. If unit type or number is a consideration for your collection, then it's better to wait for the item that has the right info on it to show up. If you just like the design though, it doesn't really matter.