Interpreting Japan Through Signs

There are many pathways to understanding or misunderstanding a country. Japan offers opportunities to do both. 

Years ago, I was in Singapore visiting a friend in a fairly nice apartment building. There were two signs in the elevator. One saiid “No durians.” If you have ever smelled one, you would know why. The second said, “Do not urinate here.” Not such an obvious prohibition in an orderly country like Singapore. When I mentioned it to my friend, he just said, ” There are reasons that that sign is there, trust me.” Ever since then I have paid attention to signs for what they may tell me about local mores. 

As I would walk to my guest house in Shinjuku each day, I would study this sign carefully. It took my a day or two to realize it was a catfish, not a whale. I thought a whale would be a better message carrier in a tsunami, but was told by friends that catfish can supposedly react to earthquakes before they happen. So this fellow is a much better guide in that particular emergency. 

You know there’s trouble when penguins are smoking cigarettes and have a yellow Mohawk–yup we are talking about delinquency big time. Fortunately, our friendly whale (maybe they sense trouble from afar) gives our penguin some advice and more importantly his first yelllow bow tie. With a bow tie, you can already sense that redemption is in our penguin’s future. Sure enough the job training sea lion gives him his first award signifying his rehabilitation. Our penguin looks forward to a bright future. 


Yes, our friend and it looks like he has a girlfriend now is a spokespenguin for the Council on Justice Rehabiliation program. He’s come a long way, but wait there is more. 


He gets the job of a lifetime for the transit system selling transit cards. You can’t do better than that!

Speaking of trains, there are a lot of strange things to be worried about. This poster talks about head butting and, egads, tie-pulling of train station personnel. It must happen but definitely creepy. 


There’s a lot to be worried about in train stations. Death by cell phone. 

Death by electrocution

Death by luggage.

Death by aliens and their luggage that talks. 

It’s the live humans you have to worry most about. Although the excesses of the salarymen era in the 80s when you had to carefully step around “salarymen pancakes” after 10pm are finished, it is still easy to witness this in the cities. What I learned from this poster is that the bad salaryman pukes on the tracks, while the good salaryman pukes in a plastic bag. The cultural nuances are always important. 

I now know there are lots of issues with photography in modern Japan. 

It is easy to come to the conclusion that rude kids are everywhere.,  However, if they exist, I never saw them. 

Not all is bad in train stations though. The very nice train conductor is fetching Madeline’s hat that fell to the tracks with a nifty hat plucking device which perhaps he took from a pachinko machine. 

This sign found on Teshima Island has been a mystery to me and many Japanese speakers. It talks of danger and what will happen if one is not aware. It was near a canal but Japan does not have piranhas. 

This only makes sense if you have been on Naoshima Island. See my previous post. 

A nice sweet one encouraging people to smile. 

 Yes, Charlie Chaplin is still alive and is nice to the ladies

My favorite and the only one that could end this post so filled with dangers. At a road construction site, bowing in apology for the inconvenience. Our world would be a kinder place of this was used more often. 

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