Pictograms in Japan

Japan has an interesting history with making simple picture-related signage aimed at helping bridge the gap for inbound visitors who don’t know Japanese. Most famously, in February of 1964, a group of artists and designers created a ‘design office’ in order to create a set of pictograms for use around the capital city during the 1964 Olympics. As the next Tokyo Olympics is just around the corner, this is a good opportunity to revisit the story of pictograms in Japan, then and now.

Under the direction of designer, Masaru Katsumi to create signage that would help overcome visitors’ language barriers in Japan. The project was inspired by the first Tokyo Olympics as it would be the first Olympic games to be hosted by a non-English speaking country. Even the sports themes designed Pictograms were significantly better than at previous Olympic games. Credit often goes to the direction of lead graphic designer Yoshiro Yamashita. A look at the various infographics of the Olympics over the years here clearly shows how distinctive the Tokyo graphics were compared to previous versions as well as how influential they were on later versions.

To go beyond the typical sports-related infographics of the previous Berlin or London Olympics to communicate how to find essential facilities and services, Yusaku Kamekura was passionate about creating useful communicative pictograms. Before the age of Google-translate, Kamekura knew the team would have to overcome the communicative barriers international visitors would face in Japan following signs written only in Kanji. It wasn’t easy and the many of the hardworking team didn’t personally benefit from their iconic creations. Noji Tsuneyoshi states in his book, Tales of the Tokyo Olympics, that designer Shigeo Fukuda worked on the design team’s sub-committee for 3 months and the only received ‘payment’ of free tickets to the Olympic games. Although this experience certainly helped bolster many of the design team’s careers, it is interesting to note that they were not paid for the value of their hard work and quality designs.

Now more than fifty years after these first pictograms were designed in Tokyo, a wander around any city in Japan will leave most first-time visitors with the impression that almost every sign has a picture. Is however the use of pictures on modern signs an enhancement of meaning to bridge the gap to the non-Japanese reader, or is it a distraction and even perhaps an inhibitor of intended meaning?

A British traveler recently told me, “every sign is so interesting and cute, but I am often confused as to what it actually means,” which inspired me to create a research study on how effective modern pictograms are at communicating the intended meaning to inbound visitors. Of course, one might argue that many of these images and pictograms are not intended for the inbound traveler, or to be viewed in isolation from the written message; however, that is the reality as these signs are more frequently being seen by inbound visitors and new residents. Although the research has only just started, there are some interesting indications that pictures are more of an inhibitor of communication than aide.

Have a look at the images on the signs below and (without reading the Japanese text) try to guess the meaning of the sign based only on these images. It creates an interesting discussion of whether or not the pictures enhance or impede understanding. It also brings up the issue I hope to explore further of the need to place more value on the expert designers and illustrators who are capable of more effectively communicating across the gap.

Exceptional Craft Breweries Rise & Win + Stone Wall Hill

Craft beer is always enhanced by a great backstory.

Big changes in the popularity of craft brew in Japan have mirrored the enthusiasm for hand-crafted, locally-sourced, high-quality beers around the world. In the mountains of Tokushima, the zero-waste town of Kamikatsu has two outstanding breweries: Rise & Win and Stone Wall Hill. Both of these breweries produce delicious Portland-style beers while practicing the highest levels of sustainable business operations in stylish fashion. In fact, in every aspect of design, planning, and operations, R&W/SEH breweries are great examples of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation in Japan.
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Digital Marketing as a Key Aspect of Destination Appeal

In terms of destination marketing, online access to information has arguably become more important than any other advertising investments. The following is a summary and discussion of the Tourism Expo Japan symposium on the importance of Digital Marketing to the Inbound Market, from the particular view of rural tourist destinations in Japan.
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High Caliber Service Requires Flexibility

TokyoBigSightThe tourism industry in Japan has developed a variety of high-quality tourism products, but there are problems in relaying the right message to potential users and providing access. The luxury travel market is an area that is just starting to gain traction, but like a newly opened restaurant in Japan, requires a training period to refine the quality of the product.
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Better than Business As Usual – Ethical Innovation at Curry House CoCoIchibanya

Inbound visitors to Japan are continuing to increase and some food chains are innovating the way they have always done business to better accommodate the needs of international customers. A stand-out example is CocoIchibanya, the international curry-rice chain that has spread from Japan throughout Asia. Coco’s started in 1978 and has expanded upon their domination across Japan to 155 stores overseas as of May 2018. The first overseas shop opened in Hawaii in 1994 and then in China in 2004.
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Disaster Volunteer Tourism

On July 6th, 2018 an unusual and devastating storm hit West Japan that brought the heaviest rainstorms, flooding, and landslides to towns that had never before been devastated by natural disasters. Many towns in Hiroshima and Okayama were particularly hard hit. Weeks after the disaster, some areas are still without running water, electricity or public transportation.
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Tourism During Disasters

July floods and landslides have seriously affected many areas in Japan from Kyoto to Kyushu. Climate change has created the worst storms in history, locals report they have never experienced anything as bad. The extreme weather began around the 4th of July. Even now, almost a week later, and major cities are still in emergency evacuation and recovery mode. I’ve been asked by visitors if they should change their travel plans to come to the area, or leave sooner than planned, and I would have to say YES. This is not a good time to travel to this area seeking out great experiences and sightseeing.
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Japan’s First Zero-Waste Accreditation Launches in Kamikatsu

The smallest town on Shikoku island, Kamikatsu, is once again forging to the front. While cities and countries around the world struggle to create stricter policies to reduce and manage waste, Kamikatsu now reaps the benefits of over fifteen years of experience in sustainable development and management. Most recently, at the end in 2017, the Zero Waste Academy launched a new accreditation scheme which has great potential to set a new transparency standard for sustainable business operations in Japan.

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Reusable Containers Improve Branding

I’ve never been to a quality sake or beer festival that doesn’t use traditional ceramic sake cups or beer “joki” to provide the best experience of their product.
Enjoying a quality drink in a quality reusable cup can significantly improve the quality (taste) of the product as well as the appeal of a place, service or event. Any company or destination looking to elevate overall appeal should at least pilot a reusable container scheme in place of current single-use versions. The trial cost-benefit ratio alongside feedback from staff and customers can more effectively inform sustainable business decisions. Reusable containers are used to promote high-quality products and experiences in Japan. If this practice is applied across wider consumer experiences, it could elevate destination branding and appeal.
日本語は英語の下にある。
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