If you're a foreigner trying to navigate cities in Japan, you won't find street signs and map icons particularly helpful. Take hospitals. Instead of the traditional H surrounded by a circle that would be pretty universally recognizable in an emergency in the West, the Japanese icon looks more like a subway car. The post office is denoted with what looks like an upper case T wrapped in a circle. Looking for a Buddist temple? Try a backwards swastika.
To the Japanese, these nationally used pictograms make perfect sense (the left-facing swastika is, in fact, a sanskrit symbol for Buddhism). But to tourists, the icons are baffling. And since Tokyo is preparing for surge in tourism leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority (GSI) decided to revamp the system with 18 new symbols that aim to be universally understood.
To come up with the new set of pictograms, the GSI polled 1,017 people from 92 countries on the icons they thought would be most helpful to tourists. Those include the hospital symbol, which is now a building with a cross on it, and a new post office symbol that depicts an envelope. The new icon for a temple is a pagoda, while a sheriff's badge replaces an opaque "X" symbol for a police station.
In many ways, it's fitting that Japan is simplifying and standardizing its pictograms in time for the Olympics. The instantly recognizable Olympic pictogram design—the icons of swimmers and sprinters—are a classic example signage that transcends language barriers. They were first used in 1948 at the London Olympics, but it wasn't until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that pictogram design truly took form. The Japanese created a complete system of typography, colors, and symbols that could be applied across all Olympic communications platforms. As New School professor Jilly Traganou writes in a paper on the subject, "A major task of the Japanese design team of the 1960s was to de-traditionalize Japanese visual languages by subscribing to the abstract, non-iconic principles of the modern movement."
Now, the GSI is applying that philosophy on a larger scale with easy-to-decipher city signage. For good reason: a solid wayfinding system is is key to making any city easy to navigate. Changing a visual language that has been around for ages takes time, however; as the Japan Times reports, new symbols will only be used on tourist maps for now. Japanese maps, for the time being, will keep using the traditional system.