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.

Author: ambassador

Long-time Japan resident teacher, writer, consultant and traveler passionate about promoting the three pillars of sustainable tourism in Japan (People-Planet-Profits). Research focused on sustainability-focused innovation in business and how sustainable policy, management and planning strategies can positively influence tourism in Japan.

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