Japan’s Dwindling “Signboard” Buildings

Kanban kenchiku (signboard architecture) marks an important record of shifting early-20th-century Japanese tastes. Though increasingly rare due to urban planning, in recent years, some of the surviving structures are being reimagined.

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Within Japan’s megacities, there remain a dwindling number of early-20th-century buildings from a time when Western influences contributed to shifting tastes away from traditionalism and toward something a little…kitschier. Known as kanban kenchiku (signboard architecture), these three-story buildings employ decorative facades inspired by Art Deco and neoclassical styles. In most cases, the first floor serves as a shop space, with the upper floors as living quarters for the proprietor. Though kanban kenchiku buildings have become increasingly rare as aggressive urban planning has often meant replacing them with bland, low-rise residential and mixed-use structures, some surviving examples have been preserved and reimagined by people and brands that see them as an important record of local craftsmanship—and an evolving Japan.

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From the Ashes. After Japan’s devastating 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, which triggered fires that destroyed thousands of buildings in and around Tokyo and caused an estimated death toll of 140,000, the government rebuilt the capital with a heavy emphasis on preventing future tragedies. New regulations required shops to use fire-resistant materials in their facades. Many proprietors chose mortar, which they would carve like marble into ornate decorative patterns and shapes. Another popular option was copper plating, which patinaed into a deep green. The term kanban kenchiku derived from the fact that the iconography on the facade acted as a signboard advertisement for the store.

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Art Deco Inspo. As Junya Miyashita, author of Japanese Signboard Architecture Illustrated, points out, kanban kenchiku was not the invention of formally trained architects, but arose from local builders’ meeting the needs of small-scale merchants. Western Art Deco styles were fashionable at the time, but with limited direct exposure to overseas architecture, neighborhood craftspeople created their own varieties, giving kanban kenchiku its unique, hybridized aesthetic. Facades would deploy a mix of tiles, brick, copper, and mortar elements to create color contrasts, with the name of the business prominently depicted in Japanese kanji characters or English. Some would even have elaborate crests and Roman columns carved into the mortar for adornment or be capped with arches and parapets.

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Second Life. With their history based in kitsch design, kanban kenchiku buildings have faced difficulty achieving serious respect and attention, and even now many are torn down rather than preserved. A recent example of a successful signboard architecture renovation is the gallery/artist residence Almost Perfect in Tokyo’s Kuramae district, situated in a 1924 rice shop. The ground level now houses a public art gallery, while the upstairs living quarters have been converted into a small studio and two bedrooms for visiting artists. In Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the old kanban kenchiku stores lining the downtown have been restored to create a vibrant shopping district for tourists, with the apparel and lifestyle brand Minä Perhonen taking over an old pharmacy to house its Nagano shop.

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Frozen Future. Signboard architecture is unlikely to see a revival, especially as contemporary craftspeople no longer possess the requisite skills to make such facades. "Almost no one can do decorative work such as creating mortar reliefs," Miyashita notes via email, adding that even among metal craftspeople, "a limited number can undertake detailed decorative work." Many well-preserved signboard architecture buildings have already been moved to the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, so at least a few examples will be preserved into the future.

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Top photo by Hideo Kurihara / Alamy Stock Photo

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W. David Marx
W. David Marx is the author of two books: Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, and Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.


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