Lonely Planet Writer

Confusing swastika to be removed from maps in Japan

Japan will no longer use the swastika or several other symbols on its tourist maps in the wake of complaints they are offensive and confusing.

Swastika removed from Japanese tourism maps.
Swastika removed from Japanese tourism maps. Image by Forgemind ArchiMedia / CC BY 2.0

An ancient Sanskrit symbol, the swastika has been used on tourist maps in Japan to denote Buddhist temples. However, to many foreign travellers visiting Japan, the symbol is more closely associated with Nazi Germany than temples, causing confusion and, in some cases, outright distress.

Known as manji in Japanese, the swastika used on tourist maps is not actually the Nazi swastika at all: the legs on the manji run anti-clockwise, while the swastika used by the Nazis run clockwise.

Other pictograms commonly used on Japanese tourist maps that provoke confusion include the puzzling X for a police box (the X is meant to represent two truncheons…), a cross that suggests a cemetery but actually represents a church, and a capital H in a circle representing not a helipad, but a hotel.

With Japan set to host both the rugby World Cup and the summer Olympics in the next four years, Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) has unveiled an updated set of symbols for use on tourist maps. “Japan needs to create an environment where foreign visitors can easily use transport and find accommodation,” a report from the GSI said. “For that purpose, it is especially important to disseminate multilingual maps that are easy for foreigners to understand.”

Six of the 18 symbols used on tourist maps will be replaced, though the original symbols will be retained on local maps. Replacing the manji will be a three-storey pagoda, a move that angered some Japanese who were reluctant to drop the symbol representing centuries of Buddhist culture in Japan.

The new pictograms will come into effect in March, to the relief of many a puzzled tourist.