Japanese Shopsigns (Kamban)

Daruma Magazine #13, Winter 1997

Text by Takeguchi Momoko
Photos courtesy of the Naitô Museum of Pharmaceutical Science and Industry

fig. 1 Shop signs placed side by side on the roof of larger pharmacies; Jitsubosan was a medicine for female disorders (menstrual pain and menopause problems, etc.), manufactured by the Kitani family, Tokyo, Taishô era, 85 x 48 cm. 

fig. 2 Shop sign of similar type placed side by side on the roof of larger pharmacies; Ryûkakusanwas a cough medicine made by Fujii Tokusaburô, Tokyo, Taishô era, 85 x 47cm.


fig. 3 Hanging shop sign for Sojintô made by the Iinuma family, Gifu Prefecture, medicine for female disorders (chills, irregular periods, menopause problems, etc.), Meiji era, 111 x 73 cm.

The shop sign was elaborately designed; the kanji for "Sojintô" were engraved in the sôsho (running) style. It is suggestive of a beauty's standing pose. The spectacular scene of firefly-catching depicted in the famous novel Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters) written by the novelist Tanizaki Jun'ichirô was modeled after a summerhouse called "Rantô-tei" situated in the garden of the Iinumas' residence, according to Mrs. Tanizaki.

fig. 4 Hanging shop sign, Hotan manufactured by the Moritas in Ikenohata,
Tokyo, panacea, Meiji era, 44 x 91 cm

Hôtan was originally a binding medicine which is said to have been prescribed in 1862 by Antonius F. Bauduin, a Dutch doctor who visited Japan. In the Edo period, no license was needed for the manufacture and sale of medicine. But in 1870, the Meiji government promulgated "Regulations for the Control of Patent Medicines" for the first time. The sale of Hôtan was first licensed according to these Regulations. Morita Jihei, the ninth master in descent of the manufacturing family, was a master-hand at the so-called "Hôtan" style of calligraphy and wrote many signboards at the request of other makers.

fig. 5 Hanging shop sign, Ume no Yukimanufactured by Ishida Katsulude in Kyoto, restorative,
Meiji era, 74 x 34 cm.
fig. 6 Hanging shop sign, Ume no Yukimanufactured by Ishida Katsuhide and sold at Torii Chôsui-do, restorative,
Meiji era, 99 x 49 cm.

fig. 7 Hanging shop sign, Ribyogan (binding medicine), Tangaisan (cough medicine)
Kenhien (tonic) manufactured by Takimoto Yakkan and sold at Ikeno Yakkan,
Meiji to Taisho era, 30 x 176 cm.

On the occasion of the reconstruction of the storehouse of the Ikeno family in 1982, over 30 shop signs were newly discovered. From the latter Meiji era through the Taishô era, the Ikeno family flourished at Ohno port (modem Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture) by running the lkeno Pharmacy (the owner is Ikeno Chôjirô). By observing these shop signs, you can conjecture on what a large scale lkeno Pharmacy would have dealt in nationally known patent medicines.

fig. 8 Hanging shop sign, Chûjôtô manufactured by Tsumuru Junten-dô and sold at Miyamae
Yakkyoku, female disorders (chills, menstrual pain and menopause problems, etc.),
Meiji - Taishô, 46 x 151 cm.

fig. 9 Hanging shop Sign, Ryukotan sold at Tomiya Yakubô in Himeji, Hyogo, medicine for children, Meiji era, 45 x 40 cm. fig. 10 Hanging shop sign, Hinode Megusurimanufactured by Inoue Jihei in Osaka, medicine for eye disease, Meiji - Taishô, 84 x 84 cm.

fig. 11 Hanging shop sign, Fujisawa Shônô insecticide, Meiji - Taishô, 46 x 24 cm.
fig. 12 Hanging shop sign, Rokushingan manufactured by Kameda Risaburô in Kyoto, Taishô era, 43 x 58 cm.

Rokushingan originated in China and was reputed to be a panacea. "Rokushin" (literally "six gods") means the six kinds of god of the internal organs: the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, spleen and gallbladder. Kameda Risaburô in Kyoto tried to import Rokushingan from China and sell it in the 1890s. When he fell ill in Shanghai, he recovered by taking this medicine.

As sulfurated arsenic, a component of Rokushingan, was poisonous, the Japanese government prohibited him from importing it. So he changed its prescription slightly and begian to manufacture "Kameda Rokushingan" in this country. Later many pharmacies followed suit. Rokushingan was made of musk, a gallstone of cattle, a secretion of toads and ginseng, etc. and was a medicine for abdominal pain, diarrhoea and giddiness. A tablet is less than 1 mm. in diam.

fig. 13 Hanging shop sign, Dokusôgan manufactured by Yamazaki Teikoku-dô and sold at Ikeya Yakuhin Shôkai, Meiji - Taisho, 60 x 87 cm.


fig. 14 (right) Double-sided shop sign, Chûjotô manufactured by Tsumura Junten-dô and sold at Ikeno Yakuhin Shôkai, Aichi Prefecture, female disorders (chills, menstrual pain and menopause problems, etc.), Meiji - Taishô, 137 x 46 cm.


Kamban, are the "very soul of

fig. 15 Reconstruction of inside of a pharmacy


THE USA, Russia and China ...... At the Atlanta Olympic Games each athlete advertised his/her country by participating and making the best possible showing. When athletes from poorer countries like Ethiopia won medals, it was especially impressive and reminded us of the many nations not daily in the papers. The logotypes on the athletes' uniforms of sports equipment makers like Adidas and Nike seemed to participate in the events as actively as the athletes themselves. The Olympics are a big advertising medium for international corporations.

In the apparel business, rich Japanese girls contribute a lot to the prosperity and even the publicity of famous Western fashion houses as they are kind enough to buy T-shirts and even expensive bags with the logotypes of Coco Chanel, Hermes or Gucci; they are willing to become "travelling" advertisements for famous brand names.

In Edo and Meiji Japan there were no televisions or dressed-up office girls. Thinking of the ways people advertised at that time, kamban (shop signs) are the first idea which came to me as these form the "very heart and soul of merchants".

In fact there are many expressions in which businessmen's sentiment is shown by the noun "kamban." For example, kamban ni itsuwari nashi (literally "no lies acceptable on shop signs") means 'being true to one's name' and the opposite phrase, kamban-daore (literally "shop sign has fallen down") means 'gorgeous in appearance but poor in substance'. Kamban o orosu (literally "pull down the shop signs") is to close a store or give up one's business. Kamban musume (literally "shop sign girl") is a draw or come-on girl. From this you will understand how vital the kamban has always been for merchants.

Perhaps this is a good place to explain that the word is written with two characters: kan implies looking at something while ban has the meaning of board. So together they mean a board to be looked at.

I was lucky enough to obtain the cooperation of the Naitô Museum of Pharmaceutical Science and Industry (Naitô Kinen Kusuri Hakubutsukan) in Gifu Hashima, not far from Nagoya, to introduce to Daruma readers the museum's collection of pharmacy signs. Since many of you are medical doctors, pharmaceutical company employees or are already interested in the unique designs of kamban, I hope this article will have special appeal for you.

fig. 16 Standing shop sign for Hotana panel made by the Moritas in lkenohata, Tokyo sold at Takana Pharmacy in Yonez, Yamagata Prefecture, Meiji era, 151 x 61 cm

The origin of Kamban

In Japan the history of kamban or shop signs dates back to the 8th century. People gathered in Heijô--kyô, Nara (the capital from 710 to 784) and markets were opened. Since the first coins were minted only in 708, barter must have been the main form of trade. As trading became more active, it became difficult to make out where individual articles were sold without some form of sign to distinguish one store from another.

The oldest record about signs, Ryô no Gige, vol. 9 of 833 says: "In markets each shop put up a sign on which were written the names of the articles that the shop handled." It is thought that the sign mentioned here does not mean a kamban; the shop owners may have written the names of articles on a cloth and fastened that to a pole.

According to Engi-shiki, vol. 42 compiled in 927, at markets in Heian-kyo, Kyoto (the capital from 794 on) each shop put up 'boards'. You will notice that signs have changed from cloth to boards. For the next 500 years the articles handled by a store were displayed in the shop window to make the shop known.

In Engi Emako (1478) owned by Seikô-ji Temple, Kyoto you can see the oldest kamban extant in a painting: one advertises a store selling calligraphy brushes and another a tea stall.

In the former, the picture of a writing brush with a thick grip was just painted in an ema-shaped frame (one used for votive pictures of horses-see Daruma 2) and it was set up among the eaves. No letters were appended. In the early stages kamban often adopted the ema style.

Kamban in the Muromachi and Momoyama eras 

When stores were set up and with the development of commerce, those in the same line of business tended to gather in one place and each shop came to need its sign. Kagamiwari Okina no Ekotoba which is said to have been painted in the late Muromachi era by Tosa Mitsunobu (died c. 1522), portrayed shops along Shijô Street, Kyoto: each shop put up noren (shop curtains) at the entrance.

One shop painted a picture of a prawn on a wooden siding wall over the noren. It would have been a golden sign for the shop: "the shop with the picture of a prawn at the entrance." But at this point of time it seems that articles similar to the kamban we know had not yet become common.

The Warring States period (1477-]573) ended and people began to enjoy a life of peace again in the Momoyama era (1574-99). When you see stores in Rakuchu Rakugai-zu Byôbu (screens portraying scenery in and around the City of Kyoto) of the period, the names of stores or articles were put on shop curtains and their designs tended to become trademarks. In addition, for example, barber shops put up framed pictures of hairdressing implements and pharmacies hung out imitation medicine bags on the eaves to publicize their profession.

fig. 17 Double-sided shop sign for Uruyusu, a medicine for stomach and bowels, manufactured at Kenju-do in Osaka and sold by Ike no Chôjirô in Aichi, Meiji era, 137 x 47 cm.
fig. 18 Double-sided shop sign, Uruyusu manufactured at Kenju-dô in Nagasaki, medicine for stomach and bowels, Edo period, 121 x 41 cm.
fig. 19 & 20 Double-sided shop sign, Goryûen (medicine for convulsive fits or kan-no-mushi) and Katsujugan (panacea) manufactured by Tomimatsu Busuke, Edo period, 106 x 36 cm.

Uruyusu was put on sale in 1812 as a patent medicine with a Western-style name. It belonged to the earlier period when such products written with European letters began to appear. The composition of Uruyusu was mainly rhubarb of good quality. The Dutch letters read VLOYM VAN MITTR; these were erroneously spelt and should have read VLUIM VAN MIDDEL. The Tokugawa government prohibited the use of European letters for shop signs in 1840 and again in 1853; both orders, however, proved hard to enforce.

Introduction of Western medicine in the Meiji era

While the new Meiji government set about adopting foreign culture, it stressed Western medicine with its scientific background and shunned patent medicines based only on experience.

In 1870 regulations for the control of patent medicines were promulgated and in 1882 a stamp duty was levied on them, in order to abolish the unscientific patent medicines which derived from Sino-Oriental culture and to catch up with Western culture. In addition, an examination system was adopted for men who wished to become doctors while physicians of the Chinese school were no longer recognised. 

Merchants like Tanabe Gohei (modern Tanabe Seiyaku), Takeda Chôbei (modern Takeda Chemical) and Shiono Gisaburô (modern Shionogi & Co.) in Doshô-machi turned their back upon the platform that their predecessors. had built up in the heyday of Japanese and Chinese medicines. The three were quick to import Western medicines and go into pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Mr. Tanabe was recognised as a dealer in Western medicines by importing salicylic acid and selling it to sake brewers as an antiseptic for sake. Then he and his brother set up a small place for manufacturing medicines for the first time in Doshô-machi and at an early stage tried to produce ether and ammonia.

Takeda Chôbei the fourth established trade with foreign firms in Kobe in 1870. In the following year he launched a joint enterprise and opened a store called Maruhon in Yokohama. Maruhon bought Western medicines directly from foreign firms.

In 1895 he entrusted Uchibayashi Naokichi with manufacturing medicines and put Uchibayashi Seiyakujo (meaning 'pharmaceutical manufacturer') under his umbrella. Many chemicals like potassium acetate, calomel and corrosive sublimate were manufactured there. In 1918 Uchibayashi Seiyakujo changed its name to Takeda Seiyaku Kaisha and laid the foundation of the modern Takeda Chemical, Japan's largest pharmaceutical maker.

Shiono Gisaburô stopped dealing in Japanese and Chinese medicines in 1886 and began to specialise in Western medicines. From 1897 on he imported them directly from abroad and in the later Meiji era he even dealt in gelatin capsules from Eli Lilly and hormone drugs from Germany. In 1908 he started the fully-fledged manufacture of medicines and succeeded in producing his first home-made medicine called "Antacidin" (ammonium magnesium phosphate) in the following year.

Thus those pharmacists, including these three, who possessed the gift of foresight led the van in modernizing the pharmaceutical industry, while time-honoured merchants tried to keep up steady supplies of medicines prepared from family recipes.

In Tokyo during the 1890s pharmacies like Kitani Jitsubosan (for female disorders), Morita Hôtan (a panacea), Ohta Isan (for the stomach) and Takagi Seishintan (an anodyne) enjoyed popularity. The ordinary people still relied on traditional medicines and helped form the pharmacy culture peculiar to Japan.

History of pharmacy shop signs

According to a catalogue in English and Japanese entitled Kusuri Kamban published by Naito Kinen Kusuri Hakubutsukan in 1986, it is hard to specify when shop signs were first used for pharmacies. However, with the brisk sale of patent medicines in the Edo period, pharmacies often used various shop signs as a means of sales-promotion.

As big stores competed with each other in the gorgeousness of their shop signs, in 1682 the Tokugawa government prohibited stores from using gold and silver leaf for economy's sake and ordered sign-writers to use India ink on plain boards.

However, it seems that merchants tended to disregard the official order. In 1842 rôjû (members of the Shogun's Council of Elders) re-ordered pharmacists not to use gold leaf on shop signs. As a result, you sometimes see gilded letters painted out with Indian ink.

From the Bunsei era (1818-30) on, patent medicines which claimed to be Western prescriptions, were marketed and some pharmacies carried European words on their shop signs. In 1840 the government prohibited the use of Western letters on the shop signs for patent medicines and reissued the official notice in 1853.

In spite of these successive regulations, the commercial policy for patent medicines of the pharmacists was so aggressive that they did not accept rules willingly. So you see many gorgeous lacquered or gilded shop signs remaining today.

In 1870 regulations for the control of patent medicines forbade the use of words like Chokkyo(Imperial Sanction), Gomen (Official License), Shinbutsu Musô (Divine Revelation), Kaden Hihô(Proprietary Medicine). Accordingly shop signs carrying the above-mentioned words are thought to have been made earlier than 1870.

In addition, after 1870 pharmacies sold patent medicines under government license, so shop signs carrying the word Kankyo (Government Permission or License) were produced in the Meiji period.

Tôroku Shôhyô (registered trademarks) were designed to meet the trademark regulations which were enacted in 1884, so a all shop signs with trademarks were produced in or after that year.

Increasing variety

As the number and quality of shop signs showed a store's credibility, merchants handled them with particular care. Some roofed shop signs were so contrived as to be sheltered against wind and rain by boarding them up on both sides. Apprentice boys carried in and out double-sided sandwich signboards in the morning and evening.

There were so many varieties of pharmacy shop signs: simple home-made ones written in Indian ink on boards or planks, calligraphic specimens by men of distinction and gorgeously engraved ones, etc. They are so much fun!

In addition, there was a wealth of different shapes too: screen shop signs (oki-kamban), standing shop signs (tate-kamban) and hanging shop signs (kake-kamban), etc. Especially bag-model shop signs (fukuro kamban) were peculiar to pharmacies, though sugar stores which derived originally from pharmacies, also habitually used the same sign. By noting the bag-modelled shop signs from a distance, you could easily make out where a pharmacy was.

In the Edo period the production of shop signs was fairly expensive, so the gorgeousness of a shop sign showed the store's prosperity.

fig. 26 Papier-Mâché bag, Yakushu (pharmacopeia)-Yamatoya, Edo period, 60 x 60 x 25 cm., photo used by permission of Matsuura Shin.

Catalogue of pharmacy shop signs

Papier-Mâché bags
(fukuro kamban) 

As mentioned before, papier mâché bags (see fig. 26) were used only by pharmacies and sugar stores. They were modelled after bags enclosing crude drugs. As each pharmacy put up similar ones in Nihonbashi Honchô, it was called Fukuro-mâki (literally "bag town"). The bags were 1 to 1.5 m. high and mostly made of paper pulp. But you find some made of tin plate. On rainy or windy days they were sheltered under the roof.

Standing shop signs

Standing shop signs (fig. 16) were gorgeous outdoor shop signs peculiar to Edo. There were few in Osaka and Kyoto becanse of the narrow streets there. Pharmacies erected one or two pillars in front of the stores to hang the standing shop signs up high, where they competed in gorgeousness with one another to attract the public's attention.
As their production was quite expensive, only big stores like pharmacies and drapers could afford to use them. Some standing shop signs were faced with gold or with engraved decoration. Especially many standing shop signs were seen around Honchô 4-chome.

Screen shop signs

Screen shop signs or tsuitate kamban, figs 21, 22 & 24) were placed symbolically in front of large-scale pharmacies and stood upon their dignity, they were made luxuriously. At the main offices of medicine manufacturers along highways, they put trays in front of the screen shop signs, piling up patent medicines on them to sell to customers. Letters and pictures were drawn only on the front of the shop signs.

Hanging shop signs

Kake-kamban were made of flat boards and put up parallel to wooden side walls or pillars. Shop signs remaining now are mainly of this type. Like the screen shop signs, the names of articles or stores were written only on the front of the shop signs.

Double-sided shop signs
(ryômen kamban)

Double-sided shop signs (figs. 17-20 & 25) were put up perpendicular to the eaves of pharmacies. Their top had a hanger and both sides had handles. Apprentice boys hung them out in the morning and carried them in under the roof again at night. Larger pharmacies displayed a large number of shop signs and presented a spectacular sight. Both sides bore the same patterns or sometimes the names of different medicines.

Shop signs of similar type placed side by side on the roofs of larger pharmacies

Shop signs were occasionally seen in local pharmacies in pre-World War II days as well as the symbols of larger pharmacies. At pharmacies located on street corners, the shop signs were displayed in a row to take advantage of their gorgeousness (figs 1 & 2). As they were exposed to wind and rain, the owners paid careful attention to the quality of materials and lacquering, so as to keep them in good condition longer.


You often see pharmacy shop signs at antique fairs and galleries. By tracing the history of shop signs and pharmacies you will be able to sense the prosperity of pharmacies in far-off days more deeply than ever. The names of medicines including Ryûkaku-sanDokusô-gan are well-known to Japanese even today through commercial messages on television. Like Rome, pharmacies were not built in a day!


Naitô Museum of Pharmaceutical Science & Industry
(Naitô Kinen Kusuri Hakubutsukan)

Naitô Toyoji (1889-1978) founded Eisei Zairyô during the war making bandages and then Eisai Co., Ltd., one of the largest pharmaceutical firms in Japan. It had sales in 1995 of some ¥250 billion or $2.3 billion. He was afraid that, unlike the West, there were no pharmaceutical museums in this country. He thought that if the Japanese kept on like that, precious materials which recount the development of pharmacy would be lost.

He opened The Naitô Museum of Pharmaceutical Science & Industry in Gif Prefecture in 1971 as the first pharmaceutical museum in Japan.

At first the Museum emphasised the collection of historical materials about medicines and the industry. Since then the number of materials provided by contributors at home and abroad has reached about 50,000; all information about them is input and classified by computer. The library attached to the Museum stores about 28,000 books about medicine and pharmacy.

In 1986 the Museum opened a new wing which exhibits store signs and articles concerning pharmacy including a medicine chest used by Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), the German scholar and medical doctor who did so much to spread knowledge of Western medicine in Japan. There you will notice just how earnestly people have sought good health, eternal youth and longevity.

At the herb garden in front of the Museum about 600 kinds of herbs are planted. April to September is the best season to visit, because many of them are in bloom. If you reserve in advance, you can take a tour through a pharmaceutical factory and Japanese garden attached to the Museum.

The Museum publishes catalogues of the articles stored there and put out an attractive book with many wonderful pictures in colour and black and white called Kusuri Kamban (Pharmacy shop signs) in Japanese and English (¥2,OOO, plus postage in Japan). There is also a work which is more historical and less photographic called The Pharmaceutical History of Japan by Okazaki Kanzô Ph. D., Naitô Foundation, 1979, ¥1,000, plus postage.


Edo Kamban Zufu, by Hayashi Yoshikazu; published by Miki Shobô, 1977
Jidai Fûzoku Koshô Jiten, by Hayashi Yoshikazu; published by Kawade Shabô Shinsha, 1977
Kusuri Bunka Ohmi, by Amano Hiroshi; published by Seiabô, 1992
Kusuri Kamban, by Naitô Kusuri Hakubutsukan, 1986 
Nihon no Meiyaku written by Sôda Hajime; published by Yasaka Shobô, 1993