Let’s discuss new map symbols for tourists

This week’s featured article


The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) has released a set of new standard symbols for foreign-language maps after criticism that some of its current pictograms are hard to understand or are even offensive.

The most notorious of these is the swastika-like symbol for a temple. Likewise, a big X leaves some foreigners scratching their heads: It denotes a police box.

“To build a tourism-oriented nation and ensure smooth implementation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan needs to create an environment where foreign visitors can easily get transport and accommodations,” the GSI said in a report on new map guidelines released last week. “For that purpose, it is especially important to disseminate multilingual maps that are easy for foreigners to understand.”

In coming up with the set of 18 symbols, the national surveying and mapping agency convened a panel of experts and polled 1,017 people from 92 countries and regions, including embassy officials, foreign students and tourists on the streets.

The pictograms cover the places and services the GSI believes are most important to foreign visitors. They will be officially adopted by the end of March, after a period in which members of the public can comment.

Of the 18, six will replace existing symbols, including that for a temple, which will become an image of a three-story pagoda. Police boxes will be denoted by a saluting officer.

Four pictograms will remain unchanged, including the one for hot springs, despite complaints by some respondents that it looks like a soup dish.

The remaining eight are new and include symbols for convenience stores and tourist information centers. These currently are not used on Japanese maps, but the GSI determined they will be helpful to foreign users, said Takayuki Nakamura, the organization’s executive officer for national mapping.

Nakamura said the new symbols will only be used on non-Japanese maps for now. Whether to introduce them on Japanese maps will be discussed at some point in the future.

First published in The Japan Times on Jan. 13.

Warm up

One-minute chat about pictures.


Collect words related to travel, e.g., guide book, hotel, ticket.

New words

1) baffle: to confuse; e.g., “He was baffled by the technical language of the instructions.”

2) offensive: something unpleasant, causing anger, displeasure or resentment; e.g., “That is an offensive advertisement.”

3) notorious: well known for some bad quality or deed; e.g., “Beijing has become notorious for its smog.”

4) denote: to be a sign or symbol of something; e.g., “This mark denotes good quality.”

Guess the headline

Japan revamps map s_ _ _ _ _ _ that baffle tourists


1) Why did the GSI decide to change some symbols used on maps?

2) How many symbols will be changed?

3) Will the new symbols appear on maps for Japanese people?

Let’s discuss the article

1) Do you remember the symbols for a temple, police box and hot spring?

2) Do you think that controversial symbols should be replaced?

3) If you could make a new symbol, what would it be like and what would it stand for?





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