When I traveled in Japan for the first time, 25 years ago, I was impressed – and annoyed – by the many, many signs I didn’t understand. I kept on wondering what it would take to learn this obviously very complex language, and realized how intensely I dislike to be dependent.
What a completely wrong attitude this was! On my recent trip to Nippon, instead of focusing on my lacks, I noticed and truly enjoyed the ubiquitous graphic signs. In train stations, in temples, in transit. In restaurants, rest rooms, Ryokans. Official or commercial, these colorful, joyful, very cleverly done signs can be found every where, any where. Some are bold and loud, some simple and slick, some elegant and artsy.
The signs come with different purposes – to warn, to inform, to sell, to be beautiful, to prohibit, to lure in, for instance. This very visual – and playful – way to communicate rules, dangers or options goes back to the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), when there was a big effort taken to make people follow official rules.
No matter what the message is, the graphics bear it in an unmistakable way. And in a most entertaining one, at the same time. I mean, isn’t a picture in pastels with some gorgeously painted letters much, much nicer than a black and white rectangle filled with lines of words?
And how much more interesting is a manga style ad than a just written one, please? Lots more, I dare to say.
Even the signs that communicate nothing but the name of, let’s say, a restaurant or a store, for some reason appear to be more stylish in Japan than elsewhere. There’s more art involved, more color, more possibilities. More space, more imagination, and, therefore, more life. The same is true for simple advertisements.
Japan sure is a paradise for the ones who appreciate all things visual. Looking around and paying attention to posters, menu offerings, direction boards, norens and such often makes one smile and immediately feel at peace. Life seems easy, the world open and wonderful. – I, at least, am signed up. For good.