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Kanban: Traditional Shop Signs of Japan (Review)

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Alan Scott Pate. 2017.
Kanban: Traditional Shop Signs of Japan
San Diego, Princeton and Oxford: Mingei International Museum and Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691176475

The economic vigor of 17th century Japan led to an explosion of material culture and consumerism. More things to buy required more shops, and the proliferating storefronts often used elaborate and beautifully crafted signs, or kanban, the subject of this book, to appeal to customers. What is unique about Japanese signage? Arguably nothing because typologically similar objects exist across many cultures, but advertising, like any form of material culture provides a fascinating window into the past. Kanban uses ‘straightforward yet artful visual language’ (p. 7). As textual objects (albeit at times only utilizing visual language), they tell not just of craft, retail, or advertising, or even just daily life, but also speak to the private worlds that are expressed through visual puns and advertising.

Like any form of ephemera, relatively few old examples of this once common object remain. They were destroyed by fire, corroded by weather, or tossed on the trash heap. Few documents about them exist, and few museums bothered to collect them because they were not considered fine art or within the realm of more commonly collected craft like ceramics or lacquer. In the United States, the most significant collection of kanban is held by the Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts, largely through the very catholic collecting instincts of founder and director Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925), a zoologist who spent time in Japan from 1877 to 1880 as a professor at Tokyo Imperial University.

Until this volume, an exhibition catalog for a 1982 traveling show of the Peabody Essex collection was the only English language book available on the subject (along with a few academic articles). It was published by Weatherhill as Kanban: The Art of the Japanese Shop Design, and by the Japan Society as Kanban: Shop Signs of Japan, which is the title under which it was reprinted in 1991 by Chronicle. The subject of this review was similarly published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego April to October of 2017. Although established specifically in 1978 to collect the ‘arts of daily use – by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers’,[i] the Mingei International Museum does not have the collections depth of the Peabody Essex but in order to produce a broad and stimulating exhibition, borrowed from them, the Shōwa Neon Takamura Kanban Museum in Tokyo and several private collections.

Alan Scott Pate, best known for his work on Japanese dolls, has authored a hybrid exhibition catalog and mass-market volume. In other words, the chapters expand on the parameters of the exhibition but the layout and additions such a as a list of donors are more typical of exhibition catalogs. The introduction begins with a nod to the present with a photograph of the neon signs of Shibuya and a discussion of neon, a brief discussion of signage in general, early usage in Japan and a summary of the history of Japanese signage in the early modern period. This is followed by four contextual chapters. The first, ‘Fingerprints of the Artisan’, the longest chapter except for the final catalog, examines the few artists whose names have come down to us directly through the signs and some of the resources, textual and visual, that are used to study signs. Is there a direct connection to signs of the past? No clear lines are ever drawn. The next chapter, ‘The Kanban of Nihonbashi’, presents the visual material of Nihonbashi, a section in Tokyo based on a few Western sources and one Japanese one. Pate does not discuss this district within the context of the urban built environment or explain why he might have chosen this specific district over others. ‘The Way of the Merchant’ discusses merchant culture, apparently as context for a wooden carved wall hanging inscribed with a house code. Chapter 4, ‘Kanban and Kabuki’, does not discuss the elaborate and signage used by kabuki theaters, but rather how advertising was incorporated into stage sets. The next chapter ‘Collectors and Collections’ gives a brief historiography of Japanese sources, a short description of the Sugiura collection, the source of one important work, followed by descriptions of the Peabody Essex collection mentioned above, and exhibition contributor Shōwa Neon Takamura Kanban Museum collection. The final and longest chapter, ‘Categorizing Kanban’, is an annotated exhibition catalog, organized by type of shop rather than as an analytical taxonomy. Back matter includes an extensive and potentially useful glossary.

It is clear that effort and research went into the book. It will provide a reference to some material that might otherwise only be found in inaccessible Japanese books. It is nevertheless, primarily a synthesis. Pate writes in a snappy style but seems to lack a clear conception of intended audience. There is far too much Japanese for a non-language speaker to follow. An example selected by randomly opening the book is ‘The silhouette of Chigusa, replete with its lid and splendid fifteenth-century Chinese silk brocade kuchiōi wrapping cloth at the top, presents the perfect and classic image of a cha-tsubo, and it could easily have served as a model for the innumerable yōki kanban made for ha-cha-ya the length and breadth of Japan.’ (p. 121). This problem is enhanced by the lack of a character glossary for readers of Japanese, and the failure to use italics. At the same time, the text is too theoretically and morphologically weak to satisfy academics. Important ideas are occasionally mentioned in passing but never explored in depth. Ahistorical applications like ‘corporate’ and ‘big tobacco’ (p. 80) and misapplication of historical terms (e.g. defining chōnin (townsman) as the ‘merchant class’ rather than shōnin (merchant) (p. 47)), and the muddy use of the term ‘kanban’ to cover almost any vertical communication will distract the knowledgeable reader. There is no attempt to place kanban in a developmental curve within or outside of Japan, relate the use of figural images to literacy or any of the myriad of other ways that would comprise academic study.

Any thoughtful examination of mingei (folk art) or ephemera is difficult because even fewer of the few extent examples remaining are datable. This book has commendably associated many examples with contextual visual material such as woodblock prints and book illustrations that provide some context. The excellent color photography throughout the entire volume will allow those who were unable to attend the exhibition to experience the fascination of these objects while suggesting the potential for further research.


[i] History of Mingei, https://mingei.org/about/history-of-mingei/, accessed 20 December 2018.

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