Designs That Defined Modern Japan: The Emergency Exit Sign

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and the audience were set the challenge of coming with their own list of 8 Designs That Defined Modern Japan. I have already done six posts (these are not in any particular order or ranking) on the shinkansen, Hello Kitty, the washlet (‘Japanese toilet’), emoji, the personal stereo/Walkman, and the rice cooker. This time I am covering the emergency exit sign.

I suspect that many people seeing the title of this post are surprised by this entry on the list, not least because they may not be aware that the emergency exit sign was designed in Japan. But, for me, it was a relatively obvious one as I will explain in this post.

First, let’s begin with the history. I had had no idea that the sign was a Japanese design or that it was universal until I was doing my PhD at the University of Sheffield (which ultimately became my book Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy). To check on aspects of the coverage of the education reforms and also Prime Minister Nakasone, I spent some time in Stack 2, hidden away in the depths of the university library. As musty and dark as the place was, it felt like doing actual research. The next best thing compared to doing a fieldwork trip to Japan. Not comfortable or easy. But it was physical. There was a degree satisfaction about doing research this way that being able to get everything on your computer in the comfort of an office or at home that cannot be matched. (It’s also probably worth noting that if you spend a whole day looking at newspapers from 1985, you do tend to forget what year you are in and what news is current and what news is from the year you have been reading about.)

Anyway, as I searched through the newspapers, I came across an article that caught my eye, largely as it had a picture that went with it. The article noted that the Japanese design for the emergency exit sign had been adopted as the design to be used throughout the world. Here is an explanation that I found from the website about it.

While the bright red EXIT signs were being implemented all over America, the little green lit Running Man exit sign was being developed by a Japanese pictogram designer named Yukio Oto in the late 1970’s. He states that his goal in creating the sign was to communicate to people to “run slowly.” The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was ready to adopt a Soviet Union pictogram, but after hearing about the extensive testing Ota put this sign through, ISO decided to take it into consideration. Ota’s sign eventually won out and was adopted for international use in 1985. Ota’s design of the Running Man exit sign is argued to have a couple key advantages over the red EXIT signs: It’s green. Red is often the international color meaning danger or don’t touch. Green, on the other hand, is a color of safety and means go all over the world. It’s a pictogram. It’s a universal language with no barriers. Visitors speaking any language are able to understand what a person running through a door in a specific direction means.


The above explanation points to key aspects of the sign; it’s understandable and universal. The universal aspect ties in with another of the designs on Kashiwagi’s list, “barrier free”. While the focus of that design is on ensuring that the modern world is accessible to all (something I have also admired about Japan since my first trips – particularly seeing all of the yellow paving stones for those who are visually impaired… that I rarely see people using them points to other issues in Japanese society about how those with disabilities are treated or behave, I suspect), the emergency exit sign is for everyone, but most of us hope that we will never need to use it.

The pictographic nature of the emergency exit sign in many respects ties with the emoji entry on my list of eight designs that defined Japan (ironically, there is currently no ’emergency exit’ emoji). Arguably, alongside the emergency exit sign, you could add the QR code, for while it is not attractive and carries no inherent meaning itself, it has certainly become more and more universal since its beginnings in Japan.

QR codes for my various social media sites

One aspect that is important about the emergency exit sign is its understandability. This contrasts with many other pictograms that are used in Japan and that have become an issue when there were more foreign tourists visiting Japan before the Covid pandemic. The signs for a Buddhist temple and an onsen are two which seemed to have caused particular confusion. The discussions around these are something that are likely to be in the update to Japan: The Basics as well as a further book that I am working on.

The emergency exit sign’s simplicity and understandability does point to a key aspect of what happens in an emergency situation. This is an area that I have looked at in relation to my research on disasters (see, for example, Dealing with Disaster in Japan). It is also an area that I have been thinking about again in relation to experiences of the safety drills on a cruise ship and listening to some of the discussion on the excellent Take To The Sky podcast. More and more I am finding evidence that the drills and videos we get at the start of flights have little or no impact. What is most important is that when something goes wrong, there is a clear instruction from the experts (i.e. the crew) telling people what to do. Too many passengers will not follow the limited training they have had until they are told what to do. In that moment what is then needed, following the clear instruction, is a clear indication of where to go. That is when a universal emergency sign is critical. I may discuss this all in another post sometime.

Therefore, on top of my interest in symbolism, and although I acknowledge that my list of eight designs that defined Japan are biased due to my own personal interests, I think the emergency exit sign deserves its place on the list.

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