As the country prepares to host the 2002 Soccer World Cup, a growing number of local authorities and transportation operators are employing visually oriented communication means called pictograms on streets and at public facilities.
While conventional methods to “internationalize” informational signs have been to use roman letters or simply add English translations, city planners today are tasked with addressing the needs of non-English speaking foreigners.
The World Cup, to be cohosted by Japan and South Korea, will be Asia’s first ever, and a large number of non-English speaking visitors are expected.
According to the transportation ministry’s office of transport coordination for the World Cup finals, some 365,000 people are expected to visit Japan during the monthlong event in June 2002.
Yokohama, host of the final, announced in May it would spend 510 million yen to install 270 signboards featuring pictograms early next year.
The city hopes that these graphic designs will smoothly guide foreign visitors to public facilities and transportation.
“As the host of the World Cup games, we had to design signboards understandable to non-English speaking foreign visitors. Furthermore, the city has a high proportion of Asian tourists to begin with,” said Takayuki Ogishima, an official with the city’s road and highway bureau.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s transportation bureau, which manages the metropolitan subway system, adopted pictograms earlier this month to indicate evacuation areas at 23 stations of the new Oedo Line, along with translations in English, Chinese and Korean.
Bureau officials explained that such nonlinguistic directories are necessary since the capital city, though not hosting games, is expected to draw a large number of foreign visitors during the international soccer event.
Tokyo and Yokohama officials said the intuitive nature of the pictograms bridges language and cultural gaps.
These graphic designs are also gaining attention amid the recent barrier-free trend because such user-friendly signs also benefit the elderly, children and those with disabilities — people considered to be at a disadvantage in this increasingly complex society.
“Until now, street signs have been designed to serve a certain group of people who have knowledge of the ground rules,” Ogishima of Yokohama said. “Now there are demands that they be understandable to every member of society.”
Despite the recent attention, however, pictograms are not new. They have long permeated many aspects of daily life. For instance, icons on computer software enable people with no knowledge of computer language to execute desired functions.
On the other hand, the uncoordinated use of pictograms by public facilities and transportation operators has spawned a haphazard array of designs, which defeats the very purpose of pictograms — to be universal.
For instance, while most facilities use the figures of a man and a woman to indicate bathrooms, some places use stylistically drawn toilet bowls for the same purpose.
In many cases, signs are too artistically rendered or too symbolized to make sense to unaccustomed eyes.
According to Yukio Ota, a professor at Tama Art University, the spread of pictograms has been occasioned by international events like the World Cup finals, when authorities face a pressing need for effective international communication.
He said the first such occasion was the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, in which a team of Japanese designers developed a set of graphic symbols for games and event-related facilities. That program was successful because the symbols embodied one of the important elements of pictograms: anonymity.
“Different from commercial signs, pictograms have to have anonymity in order to have universal appeal,” Ota said. “Anonymity means that designers have to eliminate uniqueness from their art works and take an objective approach.”
Ota, who has been pushing for the standardization of pictograms for nearly 30 years, had to wait until the preparation for the World Cup finals to see the national government take steps to compile standard guidelines for pictograms.
In 1999, a foundation affiliated with the transportation ministry set up a committee and spent two years to establish a standard set of pictograms to be used for public places.
“As we prepared to host the World Cup games, there was a discussion about the necessity to standardize pictograms used for signs,” said Hidehiko Sugai, an official with the foundation.
In March, the foundation issued guidelines with 125 pictograms in eight categories such as transport facilities, safety and prohibition. Both the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the city of Yokohama have used these pictograms.
Sugai said the foundation has received many inquiries from municipal governments and expects the number of pictograms to increase once the 125 designs are approved as the Japanese Industrial Standard sometime early next year.
The foundation has also submitted these pictograms to the International Organization for Standardization for possible adoption as a global standard.
Ota of Tama Art University argued that the importance of this nonverbal communication media grows as information technology advances.
“The pictograms, which are not bound by any particular culture or language, can play an important role as international communication media,” he said.