When Map Cultures Collide

The Yomiuri news organization ran an interesting story recently. The number of tourists visiting Japan has grown tremendously the past few years and local governments have been busy creating multi-lingual sightseeing maps for them. Trouble is, standard Japanese map icon visuals doesn’t always translate well.

Traditional Japanese map icons on the left, new multi-cultural map icons on the right. Top to bottom icons are post office, police station, Buddhist temple, Christian church, hospital, hotel

In particular, map icons for post office, buddhist temple, police station, hospital and hotel don’t make sense to foreigners, so new multi-cultural friendly icons have been created for sightseeing maps. It’s a good idea but as a Buddhist I feel a learning opportunity is lost in the process.

Most westerns don’t know, or probably care, that the swastika symbol has a history of over 1,500 years and is a important religious symbol used in the Hindi, Jain and Buddhist traditions. All they see is the Nazi swastika, which is actually a slightly different design.

The new icon choices are understandable and good, but I hope the cultural flow to accommodate multi-cultural points of view remains two way and does not become yet another excuse to jettison local culture and living history.