‘Natural Symbols’ and ‘Learned Symbols’

Further to my post about kamon, and the various posts that I have done about symbolism, which underpins a lot of my research and writing, I thought I would do a post about where my interest in symbolism may have begun and also discuss issues relating to ‘natural symbols’ and ‘learned symbols’.

First, let’s begin with what I mean by ‘natural symbols’ and ‘learned symbols’.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a symbol is something that is ‘regarded by general consent as naturally typifying or representing or recalling something by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or in thought’. As Hendry (1999, Other People’s Worlds, New York: New York University Press, page 83) notes, the use of the word ‘naturally’ is significant as ‘it is often the case that people within one society remain blissfully unaware of the relativity of their symbols’.

But, in reality, there is no ‘natural symbol’ – at some point we have to learn what that symbol represents. However, there are some symbols which are, arguably, more natural than others as their meaning is normally understood through being a member of a society (and in this respect it’s important to note the role that an education system can play although this seems to be rarely mentioned in books on symbolism and semiotics). Of course this can cause issues when we cross boundaries and are confronted with a symbol (and this may not be merely a symbol as it is typically understood, but can also refer to actions and words, for example) which has a different meaning in that society. This has been one of my particular interests in relation to symbols due to me studying Japan.

My post about kamon, which noted some of the things that I have learnt about these Japanese symbols, has made me think much more about how many symbols have to be learned and may be totally divorced from their original meaning, or may not be ‘understood’ at all. In the case of kamon, for example, we can see how the symbol may be used by a family, despite there being little, or no, relationship between the kamon‘s design and the family name.

This brings me to my own interest in symbols. My interest in kamon is, in many respects, a logical development, and probably, out of all the types of symbols that I have studied, most closely related to where I think my interest in symbolism began. Although the interest may have begun when visiting art galleries as a child with my mother and having some of the symbolic elements explained to me, or possibly from something else I have no concrete memory of, in terms of something that I can point to and say that’s where it began, it would be the symbols used by Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984 (and beyond).

The first of the symbols was for the group itself – which has been done in a variety of forms, but with the release of Welcome To The PleasureDome, symbols were added for what would become the four singles in the form of an equation. I found it interesting how a single image could come to represent a song, and by extension, an emotion (later on also nostalgia). But, of course, these symbols are very much ‘learned’ – many will have no idea what the Frankie logo represents (including my own family until I explained it to them after getting a T-shirt with the design on) – and the symbols for the four singles, Relax, Two Tribes, The Power of Love, and Welcome To The PleasureDome, would have very different meaning for most people who see them. Certainly, out of context, most would have no idea that any one of these was in any way related to a pop group from the 1980s. And if you were to ask about something symbolic about Frankie Goes To Hollywood, I suspect more are likely to respond in relation to the FRANKIE SAY T-shirts.

The Frankie Goes To Hollywood equation

Not wanting to miss out on a chance at commercialism, when the album Welcome To The PleasureDome was released, it included an advert about things, using the above equation, that you could buy. Among those that I bought were badges, which I still have – see the picture below… on to which I can imagine some Frankie fans wanting to draw on the rest of the formula.

The Frankie equation still exists in other places too. The sign on the entrance for the A’DAM Lookout car park in Amsterdam, Netherlands, contains a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ and their own version of the equation (the first four elements and then the A’DAM Lookout logo replacing the Frankie logo) [For note: on the other side of the sign, as you leave the car park, it says ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ – which, as a Cincinnati Bengals fan, particularly pleases me].

I could never have guessed back in 1984 that my interest in Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the symbols they created would go on to inspire some of my research (indeed, at 13, I had no idea I would go on to university as a student, let alone become an academic) – as can be seen in my books Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, and Japan: The Basics. Symbolism will also remain a key component of an updated version of Japan: The Basics. In the meantime, I am also working on a book related to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, another thing which I could never have imagined back in 1984. Going forward, I am planning another book related to symbolism in Japan which is likely to tie many elements of my research, writing, and teaching together and allow me to think further about the relative differences between ‘natural’ and ‘learned’ symbols.

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