[From November Issue 2011]
If you walk around the streets of Japan, you will encounter numerous eye-catching advertisements, containing a variety of different scripts including hiragana, katakana, kanji, the alphabet, and various symbols and illustrations. These commercials are a poignant reminder to foreigners that they’re actually in Japan.
A closer look reveals that a large portion use Chinese characters. This is because each kanji character stands for a concept and thus, it takes fewer characters to convey meaning. For example, in katakana it takes five letters to describe「レストラン」(restaurant) but in kanji,「食堂」(shokudou) only uses two letters.
However, in recent years, more companies use katakana to spell out English words, and with the wave of globalization, English words spelt with the roman alphabet are used more and more frequently. Katakana and the alphabet both convey a Western cultural impression as well as a modern image. There are not many signs written in hiragana.
Pictures are also used. An especially notable visual image is the “manekineko (beckoning cat),” which is a sitting cat holding up one of its forelegs. In Japan this cat is traditionally considered a good omen for business because its raised paw resembles a welcoming gesture. A raised right foreleg is said to bring in money and the left foreleg is used to invite customers. Many businesses use this figurine in place of signage.
Since signs need to stand out, the appearance of neon signs that use luminescent glass tubes was a breakthrough. After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, neon signs become a fundamental part of modern Japan and soon brightly lit districts with restaurants and pachinko parlors were referred to as “neon-gai (neon streets).” In the past few years, light-emitting diodes (LED) have become a common tool for illuminating signs. However, the unique colorful glow and flexibility of neon tubes mean they’re still a popular choice when creating illuminated signs.
A new and attractive type of display is digital signage, which is an electronic display that connects to the internet. Many ads can be posted on one screen and the display time and duration can be adjusted for each ad. The technology reduces the time and effort involved in changing a display and also keeps down costs.
For example, one kind of digital signage is a liquid crystal display used by the JR rail company inside trains. As there’s no audio, subtitles and visuals advertise companies and products. Also displayed is up-to-date information on the name of the next train stop, how to transfer lines, service status updates and, news and weather forecasts.
Furthermore, there are even digital signs that can emit sounds. At a certain supermarket, a screen is mounted above the vegetable section on which the farmers who grew the vegetables displayed testify to the taste and freshness of their produce. The ad aims to give shoppers piece of mind.
In addition to this, digital advertising holds huge promise in developments such as a device that emits the smell and scent of a shampoo in order to pique the customer’s interest. With the development of the internet, signage has moved into a new era.
In contrast, classic and rare “enamel signs” (made from metal with an enamel coating) with their retro feel make people pine for the old days and even now are attracting attention. Each metal sign has its own unique charm. Older people even appreciate them as works of art.
In recent years, Ome City in Tokyo restored signs that advertised films released in the Showa era as a part of a campaign to promote the area. Japanese and foreign film posters were placed over plywood boards in wooden frames and mounted all around the area, transforming the streets into a tourist destination.
In this way, there is a variety of signage on the streets in both old and new styles. These signs give us the feeling that we’re in a foreign country and as a result contribute to the sense that we’re off sightseeing somewhere.