An Academic Disclaimer

This blog is a class project for my Visual Anthropology class; as such it is for educational purposes only. All photos (videos) posted here are taken by the blog author unless otherwise noted. If any problem with the posting of a particular photo (video) is brought to my attention, I will earnestly review the problem and review the photo if necessary.

A Sign That Tells You To Clean up After your Dog

What: A sign that tells you to clean up after your dog in order to maintain a beautiful environment and manners.

Where: A Street in Takadanobaba

After going through a gamut of social issues on this blog, I thought it’d be a cute to end it with a sign that has a really cute dog. Even so, the sign itself does manage to give some sort of insight into Japanese culture and society, believe it or not. For example, the dog in the sign is drawn much like an animated character rather than the silhouette of a generic dog that we see in the same kind of signs back in the states. Of course, this serves as another version of creating a mascot for a law. I assume the idea is that dog owners are more likely to pick up after their dog if dog on the sign is cute. However, unlike the signs back int the states, the sign urges that the dog owners pick up after their dog not under the threat of a 200 dollar fine (which is the standard in Philadelphia) but in order to keep the environment clean and to have manners. In a sense, rather than be motivated by a fine, the sign assumes that the people reading it will clean up after themselves because of basic decency; however, how much faith in decency do you have if you have to make a sign reminding people to be decent?

A Sign for Women’s Health Clinic on the Metro

What: A sign for a women’s health clinic

Where: On the Subway

The reason this image is included in this blog is primarily because it comes to me as sort of shocking. Coming from the United States, I’ve seen several advertisements that broadcast their services for women with unwanted pregnancies, or issues with conception, but they were all targeted to women from poorer areas (you’d hardly see anything like that on a bus that goes into the more affluent parts of Philadelphia, or on the Regional Rail train which travels from the suburbs and is much more expensive than the subway system). Furthermore, it came as a bit of a culture shock to me that they would discuss unwanted pregnancy in such candid terms in a culture that I’ve been taught is generally pretty ambiguous. This points me into another hypocrisy within Japanese culture. There appears to be a tension between what kind of rights a woman is allowed to have in this society, both legalistically and socially. On one hand, Japan has a serious groping problem, and women must take their husband’s last name if they get married. However, at the same time, Japan was one of the first countries in the world to legalize abortion. Thus, we must ask ourselves whether or not abortion is legal in Japan for the sake of the rights of a woman, or to protect the inheritance of a man.

An Anti-smoking Sign in Shibuya


What: A sign that ambiguously tells smokers to not litter their used cigarette butts.

Where: A street in Ebisu, and increasingly similar advertisements on the subway.

The striking thing about this sign is the wording that is so ambiguous that contrasts heavily with the kind of over-simplified diagram on the bottom. However, the reason I’m focusing so much on smoking is because it’s one of the most prevalent types of signs, either signs that say you cannot walk and smoke on the street, or smoke at the street at all if you’re in Minato-ku, for example. The arguments presented by these series of green and white anti-smoking signs  are generally as follows: smoking leads to littering, and it’s bad for the health of the people around you, and a lit cigarette can burn people or their clothes if they’re near you. There is a hypocrisy in the Japanese attitude toward smoking: for all the media campaigns and signs, the Japanese government has not yet decided to raise the price of cigarettes to be comparable to say, the United States to fiscally punish smokers. For a city that’s trying to go completely smoke free by 2020, Tokyo has a lot of making up to do as, unlike most other countries, smoking is still allowed in bars, clubs, and izakaya. Where does this relationship with smoking come from?

Signs in Regards to Smoking in Japan


What: Manga (?) style signs reminding people in a smoking area that smoking on the streets is prohibited.

Where: In the smoking section of Ebisu station

Hardly anywhere else is smoking more heavily regulated that in Japan, especially with the prevalence of smoking areas, smoking seats, fines for littering cigarette butts. However, that isn’t the interesting part about these two posters. From a semiotic perspective, we must evaluate exactly who they’re targeting and what they’re trying to communicate. On a very basic level, they’re targeting natives as well as three different kinds of foreigners as the languages used on the sign are Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. They are also targeting commuters; the signs are posted outside of a train station. Furthermore, they’re targeting smokers in particular because these posters were inside of a smoking area. However, what are they (Nippon Design Welfare College) trying to communicate by using what I can only assume are original characters presumably designed just for this purpose. Who are they targeting? If they were trying to appeal to the manga/anime/otaku culture fans, wouldn’t it make more sense to use well known characters, or even local mascots? Are they aiming for some sort of kawaii aspect? Maybe, just like the Kabuki Eyes (which I maintain are the epitome of visual communication), signs are just more effective if you can put a face to them.


A Sticker on the Tokyo Metro Designating a Women Only Car


What: A Sticker that says, “On weekdays, this car is “Only for Women” until 9:30 a.m., from Chuo-rinken to Hanzamon Line, when located at the last car of the trains.

Where: Tokyo Metro, Tozai line


In continuing with yesterdays theme of looking at harassment in Japan, I managed to get a shot of a sticker that detailed the car ought to be a women only car during certain times of day. This, apparently is a response to an insane amount of groping that women have had to deal with on trains in Japan. According to a survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, 2/3rds of women in their 20’s-30’s have reported being groped on the train. No legislation has been passed to punish gropers, but rather they opted to segregate women. From my perspective, Tokyo Metropolitan Police and those who run the Tokyo subway lines are really missing a great opportunity to create another Kabuki Eyes campaign with anthropomorphized gropers getting sent to jail.  Why the inconsistency? Was there no scare tactic they could implement to prevent groping? Furthermore, I think it’d be important to know who exactly these gropers are demographically, to see if this is left-over sexism that will die with the older generation, or it’s something fathers teach their sons (probably not).

A Sign in a Night Club in Shinjuku


What: A Sign Condemning Sexual Harassment

Where: A Nightclub in Shinjuku

Disclaimer: Buzz-marketing a nightclub is not my intention, I just haven’t quite figured out how to blur the name of the establishment out of the picture.

The first thing I thought of when I saw this sign was, “How serious was the sexual harassment problem in your establishment that you had to get a large poster in two languages detailing how your establishment is against sexual harassment?” I operate under the assumption that the owners of the aforementioned nightclub did not create this poster proactively because why would they spend money when they don’t have to. The very usefulness of this poster ought to be put under question as well because it doesn’t offer any hint of what the repercussions of harassing someone would be; merely that some sort of “proper actions” will be taken. Realistically speaking what are the chances that this poster has stopped any sexual harassment? But I digress.

The point of this blog was to try and explore Japanese culture by looking at signs, and while we did not get a chance to cover sexual harassment (sekuhara) in class, this sign kind of motivated a bit of independent research into the subject. As reported by the Guardian in 2016, one-in-three women have been sexually harassed at work, even more report harassment when they become pregnant (maternity harassment, or matahara). It seems like there might be a tension between Shinzo Abe’s plan to include more women in the work place and reality.

A Tree Planted by G. H. W. Bush at Zojoji Temple

What: A Sign next to a tree that was planted by George H W. Bush
Where: Zojoji Temple
 This blog post is going to be a little different from the others because this sign has an English translation to go along with the Japanese. This by itself isn’t the significant aspect, however. This is a ​the​ ​tree​ ​at​ ​the entrance​ ​to​ ​Zojoji​ ​which,​ ​in​ ​1982,​ ​was​ ​planted​ ​by​ ​the​ ​forty​ ​first​ ​president​ ​George​ ​H. W.​ ​Bush​ ​when​ ​he​ ​was​ ​still​ ​a​ ​Vice​ ​President​.​ ​The​ ​reason​ ​I found​ ​it​ ​interesting​ ​was​ ​not​ ​only​ ​because​ ​it’s​ ​a​ ​neat​ ​little​ ​piece​ ​of​ ​American​ ​history​ ​in Tokyo,​ ​but​ ​also​ ​because​ ​large​ ​chunks​ ​of​ ​Zojoji,​ ​including​ ​the​ ​Tokugawa​ ​mausoleum, burned​ ​down​ ​during​ ​the​ ​air​ ​raids​ ​on​ ​Tokyo​ ​carried​ ​out​ ​by​ ​the​ ​American​ ​armed​ ​forces. The​ ​tree​ ​itself​ ​is​ ​nothing​ ​special,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​symbolizes​ ​the​ ​Vice​ ​President​ ​of​ ​the​ ​United States​ ​helping​ ​rebuild​ ​the​ ​grounds​ ​that​ ​his​ ​country​ ​bombed not​ ​even​ ​40​ ​years​ ​prior. It​ ​symbolizes​ ​not​ ​just​ ​a​ ​change​ ​in​ ​the​ ​political​ ​climate, or a resilience in Japanese culture,​ ​but​ ​a​ ​more​ ​basic,​ ​human instinct​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​out​ ​and​ ​set​ ​grudges​ ​aside. For me, the Second World War seems to be the elephant in the room whenever I’m speaking to a Japanese person and I mention that I’m from the States. I feel like there is a lot to unpack in exactly how the war affected Japanese culture (especially with the government’s penchant for revisionist history).

A Sign Outside of an Elementary School in Takadanobaba

What: A Sign from the Shinjuku Ward PTA, Yotsuya police department

Where: Outside of an Elementary School

Translation: (not verbatim, not the entire sign) Go home before it gets dark.


Yet another recurring theme of anthropomorphize signage, this poster from the Shinjuku-ku PTA is by far the strangest thing I have yet to see in Japan. On the other hand, as we discussed in during the early childhood and socialization part of the class, it seems to be systematic of the new and bubbling anxiety among Japanese parents that their kids (regardless of how much emphasis is placed on teaching independence in schools) live in a terrible and dangerous world where there are literally shadowy figures hiding behind corners, waiting to snatch them. I wonder, though, exactly why the PTA chose to anthropomorphize a real, although minimal, danger? Certainly, this is an indication of the infiltration of a Western-style of fear-guided parenting proliferating the culture, but taken to a whole other level. The fact that PTA’s still have any shape or form of power in the world is amazing to me as back in the States PTA’s (alternatively called Home&School Associations) are glorified fund-raising organizations. Furthermore, there appears to be a bit of tension between the traditional approach to socialization (let’s reductively call it ‘independence’) and having to remind your kids through a type of proxy-parent in the form of a sign to go home before it gets dark.


Seat Cover on the Tokyo Metro

What: A Plastic Cover on a Dirty Seat

Where: Tozai line, Metro car

Translation: This seat is dirty so please other seats.

This was the first picture I took in Japan, and the more I learn about the culture the more I see this image as the anchor for all of my Japanese experiences. What does it say about a culture when they invest money into plastic covers that inform others that the seats are dirty? The more I think about it the more I understand that the purpose of the plastic seat cover was never to let the passengers know that the seat is dirty – passengers can see that it’s dirty. The purpose of the seat cover is to show the passengers that the Metro authority is aware that the seat is dirty. It’s not a promise that the seat will soon be clean, but merely that the Metro authority is not ignorant of the fact that sometimes seats on trains get dirty. I’m still not sure how much further I can explicate this phenomenon, and to the credit of the Metro authority this was the first and only time I saw the plastic seat cover, but it’s an image that comes to haunt me in my dreams because in a sense it plays up the stereotypical, polite Japan. If I was to stretch the metaphor: the plastic seat cover is a literal tatemae, while the (presumably) dirty seat underneath is the honne. I guess this really isn’t a scientific way of approaching anthropology, but I’ll take it.


Kabuki Eyes


Location: Outside a Lexus service garage in Minato-Ku

Description: Kabuki Eyes, appeared to be sponsored and distributed at least in part by the Tokyo Police.

Hardly anyone can walk through Tokyo without catching sight of peculiar stickers plastered around shops, schools, and various other establishments such as the Temple University Japan dormitory in Takadanobaba. They’re rectangular with red and menacing kabuki eyes on a yellow background. To me, they were the impetus for trying to focus my visual anthropology blog on signs and symbols because those menacing eyes are the epitome of a successful non-verbal communication campaign. They are significant in a couple of ways from an anthropological perspective. One, they manage to marry together a traditional (some would say quintessential) Japanese art with the contemporary prevalence of surveillance. Two, to me, they betray a certain anxiety in Japanese society that has become a global anxiety: surveillance. It must go without saying that a country as safe as Japan must have implemented a form of mass surveillance, but they’re unique in having anthropomorphized that surveillance, not unlike the posters of Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. In many ways the Kabuki eyes and the anthropomorphization of concepts sets a theme for the signs (specially in regards to laws) posted around Tokyo in particular.