Hanging Out With a Noren

By Susan Spann

If you’ve eaten sushi anywhere, or visited Japan, you’ve probably seen a noren–though you might not have realized it at the time. 


Noren are traditional Japanese doorway hangings. Most noren are constructed from fabric panels, with a slit up the center. They hang in the doorway in place of a door (or, more commonly, when the door is open) and act as a kind of screen, allowing passage through the door.

Sometimes people use noren on interior doors, but traditionally, the noren was used on the outside of a business, as a kind of dual-purpose sign. During the medieval era, Japanese businesses hung a noren in the entrance during business hours. The presence of the noren indicated the shop was open for business, while no noren in the doorway meant the shop was closed. In many parts of Japan, that tradition continues to this day.

Many businesses use noren for decorative purposes too, similar to the way a Western shop might use a colorful flag or banner. The noren retains its traditional meaning and purpose, but — like so many aspects of traditional Japanese culture — it has adapted to meet the needs of modern culture.

During the medieval period, many noren were made from indigo-colored cloth, with white characters announcing the name and, sometimes, the nature of the business. The names of commercial businesses often ended in -ya (meaning “house of”), and the use of the name on the noren represented an early form of advertising.

Modern Japanese businesses continue to use the noren, as the image above* demonstrates. The photograph shows a fabric shop in Nara, Japan, with a noren displayed at the entrance. Customers walk between the hanging panels to enter the shop, and at closing time the owners put the noren away for the night, keeping it clean and letting customers know the shop has closed.

In modern businesses, the noren serves as a combination of sign and decoration. Japanese bathhouses often use color as a form of identification also: men’s bathhouses use blue noren, while those catering to women often use red ones. In both cases, the noren are usually emblazoned with the character (or hiragana) meaning “hot water” to indicate the establishment is a bathhouse.

So…now that you know…had you seen a noren before? I bet you had!

*(image credit: Amagase; image obtained through Wikipedia Commons, and licensed for re-publication under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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