Japan map symbols
Some of the new map symbols proposed by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.Geospatial Information Authority of Japan

The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan is proposing to revamp the symbols used in its foreign-language maps after criticism that some of its pictograms are hard to understand or are offensive. GSI has come up with a set of 18 symbols with the help of a panel of experts and polling 1,017 people from 92 countries and regions, including embassy officials, foreign students and tourists on the streets.

Some current pictograms that have not gone down well with foreign tourists include the swastika-like symbol for temples. A big X symbol for a mini police station or Koban has left tourists perplexed.

"To build a tourism-oriented nation and ensure smooth implementation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan needs to create an environment where foreign visitors can easily get transport and accommodation," the GSI said in a report on the new map guidelines last week. "For that purpose, it is especially important to disseminate multi-lingual maps that are easy for foreigners to understand."

The pictograms cover the places and services the GSI believes are the most important to foreign visitors. They will be officially adopted by the end of March following a comment period when members of the public can have their say.

Of the 18 new symbols, six will replace existing symbols. A temple will be denoted by an image of a three-storey pagoda and police boxes will be symbolised by a saluting officer. The Japan Times noted that four pictograms will remain unchanged. This includes the one for hot springs, despite complaints that it looks like a soup dish.

The remaining eight pictograms are new and will include symbols for convenience stores and tourist information centres. These symbols are currently not even used on Japanese maps but have been deemed as being helpful to foreigners, Takayuki Nakamura, GSI's executive officer for national mapping said.

Nakamura said that the new symbols will only be used on non-Japanese maps for now. "Japanese users are divided in their opinions on the new symbols. Some say we should change symbols or Japanese-language maps, while others say the traditional symbols should stay. Either way, it will take a while before any changes are made, as we need to coordinate with related government agencies," Nakamura explained.