Japan’s Toilet Signage Goes Global
Japan’s Unique Toilet Signs
One of the first things many people do when they come to a new place is to check for the toilet locations. Rather than looking for signs with the word “Toilet,” however, most Japanese search for a pictogram of two red and blue figures.
The toilet signs at the Haneda International Airport use the JIS, or Japanese Industrial Standard, symbols shown above. Like similar toilet pictograms recommended by the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the International Organization for Standardization, the male figure is blue and wearing pants while the female figure is red and wearing a skirt. Though the Japanese pictograms seem to conform to de facto international standards, however, this does not necessarily mean they are universally understood. Even in other countries where similar images are used, the pictograms are often presented in black and white, and the meaning of the colors is not immediately apparent to all foreign visitors to Japan.
Pictograms began to be used for public facilities in Japan around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to accommodate the onslaught of foreign visitors who could not be expected to understand signs written in Japanese. Much thought was put into designing the pictograms so that they would be universally understood. Using colors to distinguish male and female was one important design element at the time.
Toilet signs using pictograms were also employed at the 1970 Osaka Expo. By this time the symbols had permeated much of Japanese society and were well-recognized in other countries as well. Today, toilet signs using pictograms are the norm in Japan, and a number of commercial establishments and restaurants have their own creative versions.
In fact, color-coded pictograms may have become too much the norm in Japan, where public toilet signs can be excessively small and discreet. It can be hard to find public toilets these days marked “Toilet,” “Men,” and “Women,” or the equivalents in Japanese. For many Japanese, the colors, rather than the pictograms, are the deciding factor, and not a few establishments have no signs at all, just doors and entranceways colored blue or red. Visitors who are uncertain what the pictograms and color codes mean may be in for a hard time when they need to find a restroom.
Tokyo will soon be hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and recently Osaka was selected to host the 2025 World Exposition. After more than 50 years of use, Japan’s toilet signage needs to be changed to accommodate users who may not grasp the significance of the conventional color codes or who may be colorblind. Some places are already taking the lead by introducing monochrome pictograms and words.
There is also a movement to introduce gender-neutral toilets that can be used by anyone. In Tokyo’s Shibuya, one of the first municipalities to issue same-sex partnership certificates providing some of the same rights as a marriage certificate, the municipal office annex toilets have rainbow colored signage reminiscent of the LGBT movement’s multicolored flag. New gender-free toilet signage depicting a figure wearing pants on one side and a skirt on the other can be found at places like the Mega Don Quijote discount shop in Shibuya, as well as in hotels in Kyoto catering to ever-increasing numbers of foreign tourists.
So-called multipurpose toilets designed to be used by the a wide range of people, from the disabled to parents with small children, are another common sight in Japan. As their numbers have increased, though, the toilet control panels in them have become increasingly complex. I have seen many different kinds of toilets in Japan, but even I have trouble sometimes figuring out which is the “flush” button! Fortunately, all toilets manufactured since 2017 use the same control panel symbols. Hopefully, as our international guests come to recognize these symbols, they will have a more comfortable experience using Japan’s high-tech toilets.
Uniform toilet signage and control panel symbols are symbolic of a kinder toilet culture open to everyone. That is indeed a wonderful thing. But for a “toilet hunter” like myself, who delights in finding unique toilet signage, it is a little disappointing.
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(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Awa odori dancers provide the pictograms marking the toilets at Kōenji Station in Tokyo. All photos © Maritomo.)