National

Japan revamps map symbols that baffle tourists

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

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 non-Japanese 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.

“Japanese users are divided in their opinions on the new symbols,” Nakamura said. “Some say we should change symbols for Japanese-language maps at this opportunity, while others say the traditional symbols should stay. Either way, it will take a while before any changes are made, as we need to coordinate with related government agencies.”