September 17, 2016 1:00 pm JST

The impersonal yet friendly world of pictograms

YUKI TAKASU, Nikkei staff writer

Keiichi Utsumi, a writer in Okayama, western Japan, is proposing to call pictograms "Pikutosan."

TOKYO -- Pictograms, which are commonly used for warning people of danger, directing them to emergency exits, informing them of nearby facilities and other information, have been drawing keen attention recently. With the number of types keeps growing, some pictograms could make you laugh, while some look painful.

Eriko Kimura, a 31-year-old office worker in Tokyo, wandered, seemingly aimlessly, around busy JR Ueno Station while on holiday in mid-August. She was looking for pictograms.

A pictogram conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object. In recent years, many pictograms have looked more pathetic, depicting people, for example, slipping and hitting their head as they warn of danger and tell people to be careful.

Kimura said the human-shaped pictograms may look impersonal but are approachable. She also said she got choked up thinking they were risking their lives to warn people of danger. 

"I'm glad to know that pictograms have a good time every once in a while when I see a pictogram of a person getting a massage," Kimura said.

Keiichi Utsumi, a 43-year-old writer in Okayama, western Japan, suggests that pictograms be called "Pikutosan" out of respect, since they risk their lives to warn people of danger. He said he felt sorry for one pictogram he saw in a parking lot, after it had been hit by something in the head.

In 2003, Utsumi started to post information on his website, "Japanese Society for Pictosan," in his spare time. At first Utsumi posted photos he had taken of pictograms, but later started soliciting pictures from other people. He now receives hundreds of posts a year.

Utsumi writes commentaries about the pictograms dividing them into 10 types, such as running and lurching varieties. 

There are often some posts of pictograms from Japanese overseas. Different countries have different varieties, Utsumi said. Pictograms in Mexico tend to be slender with long legs, while those in Russia have oval heads. Even familiar pictograms can be slightly different. A pictogram of an elevator, for example, might accommodate two people in one country, but three in another.

Utsumi also holds events and sell goods for pictogram fans. He is teaming up with an Okayama-based design company, cifaka, in selling masking tapes, button badges and other pictogram products online and at a few bookstores nationwide.

Some people create and sell their own pictograms. Da-Yama, a designer, makes thousands of pictograms available online for free.

"People tend to accept pictograms even if they are dirty jokes and black humor, because they fall in between pictures and language," said creator Yojiro Tani. "Bakusho Pikuto," a Line stamp that was planned and designed by Tani, has racked up more than 100,000 downloads. His pictograms have also been used in a major company's campaign.

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