Design of Japanese stop signs might change ahead of Olympic tourism surge

Kyodo, Staff Report

Since Japan expects an increase in tourists ahead of the 2020 Olympics, the National Police Agency is considering replacing the nation’s stop signs with versions considered more recognizable by foreign visitors.

Most of the stop signs in western countries are octagonal, but Japan’s stop signs, which have been used since 1963, are red inverted triangles imprinted with Japanese word “tomare,” which means stop, in white.

Since these might be hard to understand for non-Japanese, the police agency plans to either replace them or add “stop” in English, depending on the budget.

According to the NPA, there are 1.7 million stop signs across Japan. It would cost about ¥25.5 billion to replace them all with the octagonal signs.

“Japanese drivers are familiar with the existing signs, but now that we need to think more globally we are considering an alternative that would be easier for foreign people to understand,” said the NPA official in charge of the project.

Countries such as Britain and Italy introduced the red octagonal signs based on the United Nations Convention on Road Signs and Signals adopted in Vienna in November 1968. Although it did not adopt the 1968 treaty, the United States also introduced octagonal signs. The convention, however, also allows for the use of a variant that has a red circle with an inverted triangle inside, which has been used in Pakistan.

In Japan, stop signs similar to those endorsed by the 1968 convention had been used since 1950 but were replaced with the existing signs in 1963, just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the premise that they would be easier to understand.

The police agency said it has been consulting on the project with experts including automobile journalists and foreign professors teaching at Japanese universities.

By the end of March the police agency also plans to conduct a survey of foreigners’ views on Japanese traffic signs, which will be reflected in the new system. The agency plans to change only stop signs, because the nation’s other traffic signs already resemble those used outside Japan.

The transport ministry has recently reported that Japan, which aims to attract 20 million foreign tourists by the Olympic Games in 2020, logged a record 19.73 million tourists last year.

The government also expects foreign car rentals to increase.

In 2013, Tokyo decided to change street signs in public places written in romaji, such as Kokkai (the Diet) into English to become more tourism-oriented.

Experts also say that during earthquakes or other disasters, visitors unable to read Japanese signs may become left behind in confusion and panic.

Following criticism that Japanese map symbols might confuse non-Japanese, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan released a set of new symbols for Japanese maps written in foreign languages earlier this month.