Little information remains about the personal life of the artisan Kojiro Shimizu. His personality and interests, his passions and motivations — all are shrouded in mystery. What we know is that he worked in Kyoto in the late 19th and early 20th century and that he appeared to be on good terms with members of the business community. He also happened to be a master carver of kanban, the traditional shop signs of Japan, and on rare occasions, when he produced a particularly elaborate piece, he marked it with his seal, perhaps succumbing to a brief moment of pride. Had he not done so, he would likely be completely unknown to us.

Though some forms of kanban can be traced all the way back to the Nara Period (710-794), it was from the 17th century that they acquired their peculiar importance, during the long Pax Tokugawa, when the merchant class gained its power and pelf. After consolidating their position as rulers of Japan in the early 1600s, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors enacted new rules. For example, they confined samurai to castle towns and required that daimyo spend alternate years in the capital, which fostered rapid urbanization along with the development of a wide network of roads, the most famous of which was the Tokaido and its 53 relay stations. These measures in turn helped stimulate domestic commerce and eventually brought about the emergence of powerful trading houses such as Mitsui and Sumitomo.

Ironically, perhaps, the Tokugawa Shogunate had little respect for merchants. In theory at least, businessmen were confined to the lowest rung of the social order, behind samurai, farmers and artisans. This state of affairs is colorfully illustrated by a popular aphorism of the times which stated that: “The offspring of a toad is a toad; the offspring of a merchant is a merchant.” None of this, however, prevented traders from becoming rich, but with all paths to political power closed, they had to find creative ways to display their influence. Shop signs, the most lavish of which could cost a small fortune, were one such vehicle.

Kanban could be sumptuous objects indeed. The most remarkable were carved in keyaki (Japanese zelkova) wood, valued for its rich grain and durability, and covered in lacquer. Many were enlivened with flowing calligraphy and decorated with gold leaves. Mother-of-pearl was also sometimes used to make details sparkle.

These shop signs had a clear purpose: “To convey prestige, solidity, and reliability to … customers,” writes Alan Scott Pate, the author of “Kanban: Traditional Shop Signs of Japan,” a thorough monograph recently published to accompany a ground-breaking exhibition of kanban at San Diego’s Mingei International Museum (showing until Oct. 8). This was beauty made to inspire.

In Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), patronage for artists and craftspeople grew to unprecedented levels, but strict sumptuary laws limited conspicuous display of opulence. Though these rules were unevenly enforced, they nevertheless imposed limits on the extravagance and glitter that merchants could use to advertise their wares. Partly as a result, savvy entrepreneurs came to rely on codes, puns and double-entendres adroitly presented on kanban in order to appeal to the sophisticated consumer classes of Japan’s largest cities.

For instance, shops purveying cards, a game disliked by the bakufu (shogunal government) because it was a gamblers’ favorite, often displayed a long-nosed tengu (goblin) on their kanban. This is because in Japanese, the name for cards, hanafuda, literally “flower cards,” can also be read as “nose cards.” Other cases, equally playful, simply tried to elicit a smile from customers: stores selling sweets often advertised their goods using a wild horse, or ara-uma, which was a play on the term “Ara, umai!,” literally meaning, “Whoa, how sweet!”

In spite of their intricate beauty, kanban were utilitarian objects, and so comparatively little effort was expended to protect them. When they deteriorated past a certain point, most were simply discarded. This partly explains why very few specimens from the Edo Period or Meiji Era (1868-1912) remain. Fortunately, scrolls and woodblock prints, by far the best source of information on kanban, are plentiful.

As Pate wrote, such documents “permit us to virtually ‘walk’ the commercial streets of Edo Japan” and see how shop signs were displayed, what symbols they relied on and what goods they marketed. Another source of fascinating details is the Jinrinkinmozui, an occupational dictionary first published in 1690, a sort of phonebook of artisans, where information on sculptors, kanban makers and many others can be found.

It took a long time before scholars and art connoisseurs began treating the best kanban for the stunning works of art and craftsmanship they were. In fact, it was only in 1887, almost 20 years after the Meiji Restoration, when Japan was rushing full-throttle toward Western-style modernization and when much of its traditions seemed under threat, that the first in-depth and truly systemic study was published.

This was probably too little too late: Kojiro Shimizu notwithstanding, history has forgotten the names and lives of most kanban carvers. Fortunately, some of their best works are nowadays preserved in museums and private collections. This, after all, is no small legacy.

For more information on “Kanban Traditional Shop Signs of Japan, visit: press.princeton.edu/titles/10959.html.

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