So, where do all these cups come from, and why?
This is probably going to be a multi-part article. So let me start by saying this: I am still discovering new things as I encounter new items that revise older ideas I've had. It's been more than ten years since I started this hobby (I came from the angle of ceramics, not militaria, by the way). So it's actually rather interesting to see there are still new things to discover after all these years.
First of all, these were all commemorative items. For those of you who collect all types of militaria, you probably know about the going to war flags and the senninbari - items given to soldiers going off to war. These are basically the opposite - you get sake cups for having finished something, usually. I guess this makes a lot of sense - you drink to celebrate.
There is also a religious aspect to this too - sake is closely tied to rice, and also to Shinto. Many Shinto ceremonies involve drinking or using sake in various forms, and the breaking open of a new sake barrel is considered good luck and done for things like weddings. Drinking sake from a ceremonial cup is important to mark the completion of a ceremony - I witnessed one last year when newly anointed sake-samurais were inducted (these are basically ambassadors of sake around the world). They held it at a Shinto shrine with a full religious ceremony, and everyone drinks a cup from a nice lacquer sakazuki at the end of it to signify the completion of the ceremony. Then, of course many bottles followed.
So sake cups are usually given to someone who has a reason to celebrate. The most common and obvious reasons are finishing one's military service, coming back from war, or getting discharged. There are other reasons too, but those are the majority of the cups. We know this because this is what's written on the cups themselves.
Collectors often don't want more than one cup - after all, there are enough varieties out there that collecting just one of everything within a niche is plenty of stuff. However, when these cups were originally gifted, they were often not given one by one. This is especially true for the cheaper ceramics cups, which were usually given in multiples of fives. You sometimes encounter original boxes like this set:
I recently unbounded a bundle of cups that were still in very old newspaper wrappings. There are twenty in total - all the same cup with the same name on the cup for a Korean infantry machine gun unit. The cups are in fantastic condition, because they've been so well wrapped.
The outer layer was wrapped in 1960s newspapers, but once you unwrap it the bundle looks like this
And between the cups the newspapers are much older - from 1931, in fact. You could date them because they mention events that are datable to 1931. This one is about Prince Gong offering imperial sacrifices to the Manchu ancestors in an imperial ceremony in Japan's newly conquered territory in Manchuria. This was Kwantung army's ploy to get Puyi back to Manchuria to take the throne.
Now, it's not everyday that you get bundles like this. In fact, I've only ever encountered two - I still have the other one intact (mostly), from the Russo Japanese war period.
Because of this practice of giving cups in multiples of fives, it is quite usual to see multiples of a cup, although oftentimes they are in different conditions. Sakazukis, the flat, wider faced cups, are more likely to break and so whole sets rarely survive. The smaller chokos tend to do a bit better.
Other numbers seem to be given too - pairs are most common it seems when it comes with a pair of bottles. Threes are common for the stacking sets of varying sizes. Otherwise, it's often sets of fives, when they survive.
Next article we will talk a little more about reasons for these gifts, who gives them, etc.