‘The medium is the message” — with that famous 1964 phrase, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan emphasized that societies are influenced just as much by a medium as the content it carries. Three years later, McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore teamed up to create the book “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.” The book soon developed a cult following with its experimental superimposition of visual elements and text, which gives graphic expression to McLuhan’s difficult theories. The word “massage” in the title — a play on his famous phrase — was used to denote the so-called massaging of media on the human sensorium.

Tokyo’s new guide to disaster survival, “Tokyo Bosai” (“Disaster Preparedness Tokyo”), may not be tackling something as inaccessible as McLuhan’s media theories, yet here, too, the medium is the message. Issued on Sept. 1, the B6-size, 340-page manual produced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), and sent to 7.5 million households in Tokyo free of charge, has assumed cult status according to a Yomiuri Shimbun report. To the anger of the TMG, some copies were even auctioned online.

The bright yellow, richly illustrated handbook resulted from a collaboration between TMG’s Disaster Prevention Department, advertising agency Dentsu Inc. and young design firm Nosigner. As though the alarming coloring of the guide wasn’t enough, it opens up with this disquieting statement: “It is predicted that there is a 70 percent possibility of an earthquake directly hitting Tokyo within the next 30 years.” And then directly addresses readers: “Are you prepared?”

“Tokyo Bosai” consists of three components: The actual book, a foldable disaster prevention map showing important emergency facilities nearby and a digital resource, with quizzes that raise disaster preparedness and provide additional up-to-date information. Every Tokyo ward has its own corresponding map, and on the back of the guide there is a checklist of important items needed in the aftermath of a disaster, an evacuation flow-chart, as well as contact information and Twitter handles for major relief organizations.

The most popular part of “Tokyo Bosai” is a section with tips about what to do in the event of an earthquake, flood, snow storm and even a terrorist attack. In the DIY spirit of “MacGyver,” it shows how to turn a toilet into a makeshift water supply, change the size of batteries to fit different devices, transform a pair of trousers into a knapsack or how to make baby diapers from plastic bags.

“Tokyo Bosai” designer Nosigner is no run-of-the-mill design agency. Headed by Eisuke Tachikawa, it is the rising star in Japan’s burgeoning open source and social innovation design scene. Nosigner and Tachikawa also play an prominent role in Japan’s recently recalibrated “Cool Japan” campaign. No longer narrowly focusing on the exhausted theme of manga and anime, the campaign now also showcases smart social innovations and cutting-edge design thinking from Japan.

Nosigner has a proven track record in providing design solutions to disasters: Less than 40 hours after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake it created an open source, Wikipedia-style resource named Olive, which gathered useful crowd-sourced design solutions to assist survivors. These included how to make a temporary toilet, create a water purifier or make rubber bands from old bicycle tubes. In 2014, Nosigner designed a disaster preparedness kit that is compact enough to fit on a bookshelf and that looks so good you’ll actually want to keep it there. “Tokyo Bosai” is the logical fusion of these earlier projects.

As McLuhan suggested, the effects of a medium have much to tell about the society it affects. The makers of “Tokyo Bosai,” like many local brands, deemed it necessary to use a yure-kyara (mascot) to massage their disaster preparedness message into the minds of a public saturated with anime and manga. Accordingly, a cute helmet-wearing rhino named Bosai — with a pensive, cautious face and carrying a backpack with a disaster preparedness kit — guides readers through the book. As is so often the case with characters in Japan, the name is a pun: the second syllable of bōsai sounds like the Japanese word for rhinoceros. It’s also no surprise that the book closes with manga artist Kaiji Kawaguchi’s comic “Tokyo ‘X’ Day,” which drastically visualizes the shattered metropolis immediately after the next major earthquake — one that may be only minutes away, as the book constantly reminds us.

Lastly, the guide was not launched in an ordinary news conference, but at a public event at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku, where Governor Yoichi Masuzoe appeared as youthful and colloquial talk show host, sporting a yellow “Tokyo Bosai” T-shirt as he interviewed the teen idols of pop group Momoiro Clover Z.

But the guide itself has more meaningful things to say than this concession to Japan’s overpowering pop-culture zeitgeist would suggest. “Tokyo Bosai” is part of a larger trend in which design thinking is used to address the public — in this case raising the disaster preparedness of Tokyo residents. Another recent example are the jazzy placards that attracted public attention at this year’s mass peace demonstrations. In order to catch the eyes of hitherto politically uninterested citizens, the student activist group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) employed a 26-person design team to craft kakkoii (cool) protest slogans and posters.

While most government documents are boring, or perhaps deliberately incomprehensible to deter overly inquisitive citizens from interfering with policy making, the success of “Tokyo Bosai” indicates how design can mobilize citizens for important public matters. Design is now being employed by many socially engaged advocacy groups in Japan, from curator Fram Kitagawa’s sprawling regional art events to small-scale local revitalization projects where designers and craftsmen pair to raise interest in dwindling traditions and novel products.

There is great potential if progressive (local) governments broadly embrace social design. Attractive and well-worded policy documents could render complex governance issues comprehensible and invite the public into much needed dialogue about creating sustainable, inclusive, resilient, livable and lovable future communities.

“Tokyo Bosai” and SEALDs demonstrated that Japan is not lacking talented socially minded designers. Now the ball is in the court of governments. Will they take citizens seriously and employ social design to its full potential?

Click here to view the guide online. Christian Dimmer is an assistant professor for urbanism and urban studies at the University of Tokyo. He is co-founder of the Tohoku Planning Forum and Tokyo’s Architecture For Humanity chapter.

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