The Kanban of Old Japan

Hokusai's print of the Mitsui shop on Suruga Street in Edo (Tokyo). (
First off, I'd like to wish each and every one of you out there a very happy, healthy, and properous 2013! May it be a good year for you all, and a good year for our world in general.

Now to today's blog entry:

During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), a new innovation started appearing on the fronts of the country's shops. That innovation was the shop sign, or kanban. These signs were very simple yet creative, but very different from the signs most common in today's Japan.

Kanban can be traced back to the markets of the Nara period (710-794), but it was during the Edo period that they became commonplace in front of businesses. During this time, the country was becoming increasingly urbanized, the literacy rate was growing at an astonishing rate, and the Edo economy and marketplace were booming. A wealthy merchant class - or chōnin (町人) who could establish and run their own shops had established themselves in Edo society during this time.

The chōnin were theoretically at the bottom of Edo society, but they still managed to become very successful and had a high degree of influence on Edo society. The samurai and daimyo- traditionally the nobility of ancient Japan - grew dependent on them for goods and over time, the roles began to reverse. The chōnin also set up some very large and sophisticated shops in which they did their business. In Japanese cities, streets full of shops appeared in merchant districts and these shops tended to look similar to one other.

To advertise these shops, the shop owners erected kanban in front of the stores that passer-bys would easily notice. These signs were to the store-owners what banners were to the samurai. They symbolized honesty, integrity, and pride in their business. Also, these shop signs were very eye-catching and made their store stand out from all the others next to it.

Manga by Hokusai depicting workers at an Edo-period store. Notice the shoe-shaped sign with the word "Cash", which was apparently an expression that meant "general store" at the time. (

Edo-period kanban were typically made of wood or paper and hung from wooden or bamboo frames. There were also elaborate kanban made from metal, and traditional signage such as paper lanterns and cloth curtains known as noren that were marked with calligraphy. Some kanban were made in the outline of the product(s) sold at the shop and were very similar to Chinese store signs which also used the same outlines. These outlines were of products such as shoes, eyeglasses, combs, etc. and could be understood by anyone passing by.

The information inscribed on kanban varied, but typically featured the name of the shop, services offered, products sold, and qualities of the products. Kabuki theaters displayed signs with the names of the plays being performed at the time - a forerunner to today's movie theater marquee.

Later on in the Edo period, many shop owners started erecting temple-like structures, or yakata (屋形) over their kanban. These structures can be seen in Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) ukiyo-e print at the top of this post and reflected how seriously the shop-owners took their business, especially as they prospered.

Print by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicting Mitsui Echigoya along Suruga St. (
Kanban often featured some very interesting riddles and symbolism that could be easily understood by anyone living in Edo-period Japan. For example, on the sign in the Hokusai manga above, the word "cash" (maybe "cash store, or announcing that the store accepts cash payment"?) is used for "general store". An outline of a shoe suggests footwear was also sold at this store. Anyone who happened to pass this store would know exactly what kind of store it was and what they sold. A sign for a paint shop might have different-colored dabs of paint on the sign. A sake shop might have a wine flask or sake cask kanban hanging over its entrance. A pawn shop might have a sign with the character for gold (金) on it, or even some other auspicious symbol! And so on. Kanban also featured corporate logos such as the Mitsui logo, which was featured on many kanban in Edo's (modern-day Tokyo) prestigious Mitsui Echigoya merchant district. Some of these logos remain iconic in Japan to this very day.

During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan's marketplace started opening up to foreign visitors and merchants. During this time, kanban started taking on their modern character. More durable wooden signs started appearing in front of shops and were often bilingual, with the name of the store written in Romaji and the items in English and/or French.

In modern-day Japan, modern-day kanban such as the famous signs with flashy graphics or those found in the West are the norm. However, some of the kanban of old still hang over historic buildings and sites throughout the country!

Links: (Webpage on kanban in ancient Japan. Includes info about how the signs were hung and is chock full of pictures of old kanban!) (Japanese language blog entry from the Notizen blog about symbolism in Edo-period kanban.) (Blog entry from A Night of Dostoevskian Smiles and Sadean Excess about the rise of the chōnin in Edo-period Japan.) (A webpage on the Advertising Museum Tokyo website [Japanese langauge only] about kanban in the Edo period. Features examples of kanban from the period.)


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