Kanban: Shop Signs of Old Japan (and Bonus Content!)

Kanban for a blade and toolmaker, late 19th century, 29-3/8” x 22”, Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) urban centers of Japan expanded and merchants, relegated to the lower rungs of society, ran their own workshops and grew wealthy. As many shops had a similar appearance in crowded marketplaces, merchants used “kanban” (sign boards) to differentiate and advertise their shops. It has been said that advertising is the world’s second oldest profession.

“Shin ukie shiba sinmeigu no zu” by Tamagawa Shucho, 1775. Library of Congress.

By the mid-18th century, Edo had a population of more than 1 million, Osaka and Kyoto each had more than 400,000 residents. Edo became the center for the supply of food and urban consumer goods, while Osaka and Kyoto were busy as handcraft production and trading centers. Construction trades, banking and merchant associations flourished. In many Edo-period woodblock prints there are scenes of large crowds at markets and festivals. In the scene above it is easy to see how difficult it would be to find a particular shop without a sign pointing the way. Look closely and you will see several kanban. One example is just right of center: a large fan under its own small roof.

Kanban were made of wood, hand-painted paper and metal and designed to make it easy for the illiterate to find the goods they needed. A green grocer’s sign would have colorfully painted vegetables, a tobacco shop sign might have a pipe or a twist of tobacco. Although not a huge number of kanban survive we can find plenty of clues in the woodblock prints of the Edo, and later, the Meiji Period.

Top: 17th-century woodblock print of a brush maker’s shop; double-brush kanban, late Meiji, 30”x 19-1/2.” Bottom: single large sign, 1804-1830, 34.65”x 4.72,” Advertising Museum of Tokyo.

Brushes used for calligraphy were an important consumer product. In the woodblock print above, the shop’s kanban has a very short, fat brush. The two extant kanban give us a better idea of how kanban evolved from a sign board to the product becoming the sign. As you can see from the dimensions provided in the caption these brushes were large and would be easy to see from distance. Also note the convention of painting a brush as though it had been dipped in ink.

Edo Period woodblock prints with various kanban.

Kanban were placed at multiple points to direct customers to your shop. Multiple kanban were used to advertise more products or services. In the print at the top left, a tea shop (also serves udon) has a hanging sign and a ground-level kanban (bottom left). The ornately carved and painted kanban at the top-right was on a post high enough to be seen from all directions. In the bottom print a kanban is placed at the second story-level. At the end of the day kanban hanging at shopfronts and ground-level were taken in overnight. Kanban on posts and on the second story had small roofs and some (see the kanban on the post) had folding doors for protection from rain and snow.

Left: A gaku-hori (sign carver) at work, 1690. Right: “Mikiri no fuji” by Katsushika Hokusai, circa 1836, shows a kanban-gaki at work, Library of Congress.

Sign carvers and artists made and decorated kanban. The gaku hori carved kanban that could be hung on hooks at the shopfront, placed in a stand at ground level or on a post. The kanban-gaki was an itinerant artist hired to paint the needed wording on the ground-level kanban made of paper or wood. His ink pot is just to the right of his foot and his work box is next to the kanban.

Tenuki kanban for a candy shop,  Meiji Period, 18”x18”.

The figure on a kanban might not appear to be tied directly to the product sold. A stylized tenuki, the mischievous racoon-dog of Japanese folklore, was often used on kanban outside a candy store.

Other kanban were visual puns – a type of advertisement that continues today. If it catches your eye and you enter the shop, then the kanban has done its job.

Toolmakers advertised in a more straightforward manner: their kanban showed exactly what they made and sold.

Edo Period, 53-1/2”x 17-3/4”, Kenichi Higasa Collection, Kobe.

A saw maker’s kanban made of wood, ink and lacquer. At the top it reads “guaranteed,” and below the saw it reads “we buy and sell.”

Left: 19th century, Collection of Matsumoto Mingeikan. Left: 19th century 50”x 7-1/2”, private collection.

Both of these kanban are for shops engaged in saw sharpening and setting (matate-ya).

This toolmaker’s kanban, like the one at the top of this post, is made of heavy hand-painted paper in a wood frame with iron fittings. As with most kanban it is double-sided with more tools on the other side (unfortunately an image of the other side isn’t available). Based on the kanban, this toolmaker (and the one at the top) made over 40 different tools including those used by woodworkers. Other metal objects made were shears, scissors, lock and flints.

A close-up of a section shows the fine detail of the hand painting and also shows writing on some of the sawblades. Some of the writing translates as “good quality” and other writing is thought to refer to well-known toolmakers. One name may be the owner of this particular shop.

Left: an Osaka shop with metalworkers crafting furniture fittings. Right: Edo Period, 60”x 13-1/2”, Japan Folk Arts Museum, Tokyo.

The kanban on the right is for a hardware shop. The calligraphy on the kanban reads “assorted metal work for furniture” and “metal work for buildings.” The samples in the drawing and on the kanban are pretty much unchanged and in use today.

Left: Bucket kanban, Meiji Period, 15”x 17”, Kenichi Higasa Collection, Kobe. Right: detail from “Ryakuga shokunin zukushi”, 1826, British Museum.

The bucket shop kanban has a visual (and somewhat twisted) pun. The characters on the two bottom buckets combine to form “taifu,” meaning “high wind” (also hurricane or gale). The symbol on the top bucket is “masu,” a standard measure, whereas the the character for masu means “increase.” Fires were a constant threat in cities and towns where the vast majority of buildings were made of wood, and “high winds” drove the spread of fire. Buckets were used to throw water on fires and with each fire the bucket merchant saw a “increase” in his prosperity.

The tradition of kanban continues in Japan. Many shops have hanging signs using traditional shapes and have the ground-level kanban welcoming customers.

The kanban on the left was used by a well-established stationary store, is made of wood and from the early-20th century (Collection of Mingei International Museum). The shape is an Edo-Period accounting book, the same kanban used in the Edo and Meiji Periods. On the right is the sign used by Itoya, a stationary store in the Ginza, Toyko. That big red paper clip lead me to eight floors of paper heaven.

The gallery includes an Edo-Period example of product placement (not a recent annoying invention).

Bonus Content

My plan was to post these images at a later date, but what the hell, enjoy them now.

Meiji Period, by Utagawa Yoshimori (1830-1884). From thebGeorge S. Bonn Collection at Keio University, Tokyo.

I came across this tool print while researching kanban and sent it to Wilbur Pan, Japanese tool maven and all-around nice guy. He posted it on his Giant Cypress blog this past Sunday night so yes, you are seeing double.

You can read about Japanese coopering and tools in a post from a few years ago here.

The next five images are from a scroll painted by Kuwagata Keisai (1764-1824) in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. The scroll measures about 37′ long and 14″ wide and is known as a “shokunin zukushi-e,” a series depicting craftsmen at work, or all the professions. Portions of the scroll can be found all over the internet and in a wide variety of resolutions and color schemes. The scroll is available in high resolution on the museum website and you can find it here.

I clipped out the sections showing woodworkers and a blade maker and you can see those five scenes below.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

An Update

Drew Langsner, elder statesman of traditional woodworking, sent along this photo of a shelter at the pond on Drew’s property. Most of the carpentry was done by Carl Swensson and, with the help of a Japanese friend, “Shoji Shack” was written on a kanban for the shack. Osamu Shoji loved seeing it when he was at Drew’s to teach a class.


— Suzanne Ellison

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32 Responses to Kanban: Shop Signs of Old Japan (and Bonus Content!)

  1. Steve P says:

    Love this post! I have always been into Japanese history and culture, tools, etc. I’m gonna have to visit the Mingel here in my hometown. I usually pass that on the way to the other museums

    • saucyindexer says:

      When all the museums reopen you will have to go and take a lot of photos and share!

  2. Maurice says:

    Merci Suzanne, vous êtes la reine des images.

  3. Bert Vanderveen says:

    Ah, this post has brought me much joy! Arigato!

  4. David Knight says:

    I really appreciate the amount of time and research that goes into a blog like this. Thanks so much for sharing, Suzanne

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thank you, David. These posts usually start going in one direction until one article or one image sends me in a totally different direction.

  5. clarke hambley says:

    Such interesting and beautiful images. Thanks so much.

  6. Rick says:

    Thank you for the scholarship, fascinating!

  7. Bruce Connally says:

    Thank you for broadening my horizons with these unique posts. I had no knowledge or interest in Jan an but absolutely enjoyed the beautiful art. Again, thank you.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I find there is always something new to discover in the old woodblock prints.

  8. James says:

    Hmmm… 2nd oldest profession? Maybe It’s like a 1A, 1B kind of thing…

  9. Pascal Teste says:

    On the tool print, do you know what the box in the lower left corner was used for? Superbes images, merci!

  10. A post worth bookmarking…Thanks as always for your efforts Suzanne!!!

  11. Lou Carreras says:

    The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has some interesting Kanban in their Morse collection. Unfortunately they are currently closed due to the current crisis. My favorite is one that is a wooden carved Samurai kabuto (helmet).

  12. Drew says:

    I’m thinking that kanaban are more like a badge than an ordinary sign. Everyone would know where each of these shops would be located.
    On the Hukusai woodblock note Mt Fuji in the distance. Fuji shows up in many Hukusai prints; almost a signature.

  13. chucknickerson says:

    Great post. I like to think I am intellectually curious and productive. People like Suzanne help me to realize how lazy I actually am.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Chuck! Now that this post is done I’m going back to eating bonbons while watching foreign-language soap operas.

  14. John says:

    I knew the term “kanban’ from the manufacturing world, didn’t know the origin of the word. Thanks for the illumination!

  15. Thank you for posting this. I am really interested in Japanese wood block prints and woodworking this post was inspiring. This was also my first introduction to the Kanban signs. I have carved many trade signs and this really related to me. Please post more on japanese woodworking, Thanks again. David.

  16. hkc94501 says:

    In Japanese to hang up your kanban is an idiom for starting a business and taking down your kanban is an idiom for going out of business.
    Contrast with noren 暖簾 the short curtain over the entrance that many shops put up each day. Hanging your noren means that the shop is open for the day and taking it down means you have closed for the day. The kanban 看板 being wood and more permanently fixed to the building is more symbolic of the business as an ongoing concern. Also when businesses do go out of business they really do take down the kanban. There are many that are kept by the family as an heirloom or keepsake long after the business has ceased to be.

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