Folk art in Japanese signs

The Japanese folk art of signmaking is explored at the Japan House Gallery's exhibition ''Kanban: Shop Signs of Japan,'' with 106 examples from the 17th to early 20th centuries.

Calligraphy, lacquer painting, woodcarving, and fine carpentry are just some of the traditional arts incorporated into the design of these signs which advertise a range of services and establishments. Woodblock prints of the period illustrating how the signs were made are included as well.

Folk legends, mythological figures, and other signs and symbols were commonly used in advertising art at this time. Many signs attracted customers with their wry humor as well as puns. The signs also record the rise of commerce and popular culture.

The establishment in 1615 of the Tokugawa shogunate with its capital in Edo (now Tokyo) ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity. The kanban were essential to the street life of old Edo. A prosperous bourgeoisie emerged and their way of life is reflected in the signs of such colorful images as sumo wrestlers and kabuki players.

The show runs through June 12 at the Japan House Gallery, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. The exhibition will travel to the Peabody Museum of Salem in Salem, Mass., the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and other museums in the US.

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