Tokyo’s baffling signboards to get revamp for foreign visitors


Staff Writer

Are you lost? Good luck. That information panel may only make your head spin.

Visitors to Tokyo often complain about sparse or misleading directions — such as maps oriented with north anywhere but up — and the capital is now trying to fix a major problem: language.

Signs across the metropolitan area will undergo improvements, officials said, beginning with Shinjuku Station.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will set up a commission in May to consider how to make multilingual signs across the city more comprehensible.

Officials acknowledge the problem. “Visitors who come to Japan often complain information boards . . . are difficult to understand,” said Takayoshi Shimode, the metropolitan government’s point-man for organizing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Some information signs are written with Latin letters but are spelled with Japanese pronunciation, so people unfamiliar with the language cannot fathom their meaning.

Other signs are unclear because they were never proof-read by a native speaker.

Some signs describe the same thing differently. For example, some information signs at Shinjuku Station indicate “Keio Shinsen,” while others give “Keio New Line.”

And one sign gives JR Shinjuku’s “New South Exit” as “J.R.Shin South Gate,” but visitors will also find it described as “JR Lines Shinjuku Stn. Shin-Minami Entrance.”

“Some visitors complain that it is difficult for them to find where they want to go in stations,” because the wording of some signs does not tally with that used in guidebooks, said Toshiyuki Shimoda, a metropolitan official working on the commission project.

Tokyo has guidelines for drafting multilingual support on signs at tourist spots. However, they are often not followed closely, Shimode said.

  • Harry Hirsch

    They really don’t need to bother with Chinese, since these signs are in Kanji, so the Chinese can read them just fine.

    • korikisulda(コリキ)

      Not necessarily… Place names are a major source of potential of confusion, and word meanings sometimes differ in general. There of course, are also the differences in character frequency, as well as the differing character simplifications.

      • Harry Hirsch

        Place names are almost always in Kanji. Every Chinese worth his salt can read any variant of simplification of the characters.

      • korikisulda(コリキ)

        Place names are usually written in kanji, sure. They also aren’t pronounced even vaguely like Chinese.

      • Harry Hirsch

        Sure, depending on whether it’s kun or on reading, but why would I need to know how to pronounce it?

        I read it, know what it means, and I move on.

        上野 is 上野, and mean the same thing, whether mentally I’m thinking ‘Ueno’ or ‘Shangye’.

  • AZ-Zakwanul Faiz bin Zakaria

    They could make better apps for both android & not only iphones. Also KISS, too many details will only confuse people.

  • GBR48

    Everybody gets lost in Shinjuku station, even Japanese people (which is quite comforting when you’ve gone round in circles a couple of times). It’s best to consider it as part of your holiday.

    Getting to the Hachikō crossing from Shibuya station is something of a mystery the first time you try it. You can see it through the window, but whilst half the exits take you into a department store, the other half take you somewhere else entirely. A simple ‘Hachikō Exit >’ sign would be a bonus there, eh chaps?

    Unlike most of the busy Tokyo stations, some Shibuya exits become deserted off-peak, so you can have the full ‘American Werewolf in London’ experience in one of Tokyo’s busiest stations, alone in one of its airport-sized walkways. It also has an insane 3D wall map that Escher would have been proud of. No matter how long you stare at it, it makes no sense at all and you just have to follow the signs for the exit number that you need.

    With the notable exception of the Electric City exit at Akiba, in general, go with exit numbers and use GoogleMaps with GPS on your smartphone or tablet. This is great for determining how lost you are (especially at Asakusa Station, as you may very well be at the wrong Asakusa Station).

    Ikebukuro has recreated a Shibuya-like crossing and the Akihabara-like Otome Road. It even has the only Tokyo observation deck from which I’ve actually seen Fuji (Sunshine City-it has a great little cafe up there too). Finally, it added the Shinjuku factor by making it almost impossible to ever leave the damn station on the side that you want to, defying the laws of probability. In the end I stopped trying. I just make for the nearest exit, and then use the little subway under the tracks.

    If you can’t take it any more, head to Shin-Ōkubo and chill out to the Kpop. It has just one exit.

    Always wondered why English text is so often used publicly or commercially in Japan without being checked by a native speaker. It’s not like there aren’t loads of us gaijin milling about. Just stop one of us and ask. Most of us are friendly, amenable people.

  • Hanten

    This is the best news I’ve seen all day! (It’s early)

    • Foreigner Friendly

      The maps without North or worse a tiny North marker facing down and to the right used to get me, too! It took me months to figure that the maps were generally designed to be vertical representations of what what’s in front of it. So if you pushed the sign over everything would be in the right direction. I often wanted to push those maps over.

      There are ten times more signs in English than there were even ten years ago, but standardizing them would be helpful. Let’s hope that it happens quickly. Japan now earns lots of money for foreign visitors and hosts lots of foreign residents. The easier it is for them to get around the more money Japan makes.

  • Starviking

    This is not only a problem in Tokyo, signs all over Japan have very odd translations on them. Let’s also not forget the Transport Ministry’s odd version of Romaji, without any long vowels, and the penchant for running Romaji together – no matter how long and unwieldy that becomes.

    • korikisulda(コリキ)

      That being Romaji, roumaji, rōmaji, or romanji, depending on who you ask

  • primalxconvoy

    Japanese signage, like software/game menus, magazine and book layout, etc, is simply not up to the same standards as the West or other countries’.

    I’ve seen motorways in Gunma with multiple lanes simply labelled “Route (inset number here)”, and with no other additional information. I’ve seen maps in Shinjuku station with exit numbers that even the station staff didn’t know or couldn’t find themselves. I’ve also seen numerous foreign tourists ask JR staff where the “bullet train” was, due to the incorrectly labelled sign of the Japanese term “Shinkansen” being used for the English signage. The same is true for Japanese cable cars, which the Japanese stubbornly still refer to as “Ropeway” on English signs (much to the confusion of foreign visitors).

    This is nothing new; Japan still refuses to change such awful signs, even after being told by native speakers that they’re wrong.