Japan To Redesign Its Pictograms to Be More Foreigner Friendly

Japan New Pictograms

image courtesy the Asahi. Translated by Spoon & Tamago

When we moved to Japan in the early 80s my dad, a Jewish New Yorker from the Bronx, quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake. “We’re surrounded by Nazi’s,” he proclaimed, wide-eyed, as we all stared at a map of our local neighborhood in Koenji. He was, of course, looking at the manji symbol (卍), a reverse swastika that could understandably be mistaken for the symbol of Nazi Germany, instead of its intended representation of Buddhist temples.

Now, over 30 years later, Japan is taking steps to update and redesign some of its more esoteric pictograms in a move intended to make the country more foreigner-friendly.

The initiative was undertaken by the GSI (Geospatial Information Authority of Japan) in an effort to improve some of the country’s pictograms that are only recognizable to the Japanese. The country is in the midst of a tourism boom, which is expected to continue as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympics.

The biggest changes are as follows:

  • Hotels, previously represented by the letter H with a circle around it, will be changed to a pictogram of a person lying in bed. According to a survey, the H was often mistaken for a hospital or a heliport.
  • Buddhist temples will have their 卍 replaced with a pictogram of a 3-tiered pagoda.
  • I’m not sure why police stations were ever represented by the letter X, but they will get a new pictogram of a saluting officer.
  • Convenience stores, which previously had no pictogram, will be represented by a sandwich and beverage bottle.
  • Post offices, previously represented by the symbol for zip codes (〒) will be replaced by a pictogram of a letter.

The full list of changes, as well as an analysis of the conducted survey, can be found here (PDF – English begins on page 77).


  1. According to the survey document, the cross for the koban means “Two police batons crossing each other”. As should be obvious. Hm.

  2. Dunno, the symbol for “prohibited” seems pretty clear to me. For example, we used a very similar cross to denote railroads and trains, as well as things related to them. I can see how a simple X can also mutate into something related to cops and peacekeeping.

  3. One Halloween, when I was a kid, my mom (from Japan) dressed me up as a ninja. In order to add some authenticity, I guess, she used white out to paint the temple/swastika symbol on my forehead. I took one look at the mirror and screamed. My mom didn’t understand the fuss, but my dad (Nikkeijin) shouted, “You can’t do that! He’s going to get beaten up by the other kids.”

  4. I just hope that Taiwan does not take such ridiculous action. The swastika pre-dates Christanity by about 3000 years! And the green swastika is where I know I can get a magnificent vegetarian meal almost anywhere in Taiwan. Instead of the West ‘educating’ the East, it would be nice if the East could educate the West for a change. We have all these idiots running around with character tattoos on their bodies. It would be nice if they actually learned the meanings!

  5. I find it a shame to replace the pictogram for post offices because I find it to be such a Japanese icon.

  6. As Japanese, I have mixed feelings towards this change…the old versions have been a part of our lives in Japan…It’s like ditching some of them…I know the temple mark shocks many people…but well…it has just a different meaning in Japan. That’s it.
    It’s like taking chances to learn different cultures away from foreigners…

  7. Too many dumb americans I guess

  8. And dumb Germans. And dumb Russians. And dumn South Africans. And…

  9. Hahaha, this is so absurd and doesn’t have any logic!
    If you’ll travel to another country you need to know its culture first instead demanding they change their culture for you.

    It’s like if Japanese people travels to a western country and they demand that country uses the Japanese symbols to be more “Japanese-friendly”.

    What’s next? Demand to China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and Japan to use romans letters to be more “foreigner friendly”?

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