I like rules.

Let me clarify: I like rules when they are sensible and communicated in a sensible way. My hometown, Toronto, is thick with pleas and qualifications and attempts at irony when it comes to keeping the social fabric from fraying. “Pick up your garbage” or “don’t jaywalk” are viewed by civil servants as too brusque. Much of the time, this city sounds like one of those modern parents trying to get their toddler to eat an avocado.

My friend Ryan Bigge’s recent Medium article “Tone It Down” hones in on this point with regards to a recent Metrolinx etiquette campaign:

But having had a chance to think it over, I think public sector institutions should convey a certain amount of gravitas. They don’t need to be boring, but they serve a diverse audience with varying levels of literacy.

Suffice to say, I was thrilled with Japan on my recent visit. It takes some rules to keep a country of 127 million people running smoothly. And running smoothly is a big part of Japan’s brand.

Japanese etiquette signs are loaded with great design and cute critters, but they also clearly state cause and effect. The message is: “If this, then this”.

For my first example, look at this jaywalker in Tokyo. He is going to get run down by that car. In Japanese cities, the traffic light cycles seem incredibly long by North American standards. But those long cycles allow each user group enough time to complete their crossing during their designated period. There are no right turning cars cutting into the crosswalks, and no pedestrians darting out into traffic.


These signs adjacent to the Imperial Palace show the extent of rules in some crowded parts of Tokyo. “Be considerate.”



imperial palace be considerate

Not that cars aren’t criticized. This idling bro-pony is no one’s role model.


Rail is king in Japan. Trains are fast, electric, and travel through crowded platforms. It is no surprise then that many of the sharpest warning signs I saw were around train stations. Mobile phones show up repeatedly in etiquette signs.





Not all the subway and railway signs are as serious. These banners inside the cars on JR’s Yamamote line were pretty sharp:



On the subject of smoking, many Japanese cities have no smoking while walking rules (but also designated smoking paddocks). This walking, smoking sign is a great bit of wordless communication:


Signs sometimes deal with localized problems: Geisha touching in Kyoto, low ceilings in Matsumoto castle, and unpredictable sacred deer in Nara.




On the topic of animals, these signs from the Ueno Zoo and a Tokyo temple show the consequences of feeding. I doubt many pigeons would agree with that sign.



When it comes to terrorist threats, the Japanese approach is mixed. Lockers at Hiroshima station were off limits during the G-7 meeting, much like in a 1970s espionage movie. The woman reporting a mad bomber is more to the point, but I prefer the calming message of the third sign: We are currently taking the special precautions.




Warning signs weren’t limited to the cities. This “look before you dig” sign in the countryside features a tearful rotary phone.


I just like the simplicity of this one:


I will finish this tour of rule signs with something most people can relate to: poop ‘n’ scoop. In these two examples we see a bad owner and a spectacularly good dog!