Typographic Tokyo


Korean snack stand in Tokyo. Photo by Yohei Morita

My wife and I lived in Tokyo from 1992 till 1998. We spent a week here in 2000 and I am now back here for a week in 2007. It is a tantalising experience—it seems familiar in so many ways and yet subtly different, like a Star Trek teleportation that did not quite fully work!

Before, as a foreigner in Tokyo, I rarely drew as much attention as I did when I travelled outside Tokyo. This time, though, I am really struck by how many people here have grown up used to seeing foreigners. We no longer seem to be an issue. People no longer express surprise at a white person speaking Japanese—it is simply seen as the common language of communication, much as French is in Montreal.

I have been particularly struck as to how I now see signs in both Chinese and Korean. Over and over, I have been told that co-hosting the soccer world cup with Korea broke the ice between the two historic rivals. Noticeable Chinese and Korean investment in and around Tokyo may also be part of it.

I first noticed Chinese and Korean on public signs in the Roppongi subway system, Roppongi being a nightlife area which attracts many foreigners.

As I walked fom the station back to my hotel, I noticed a large spanking new skyscraper topped by the name of a Korean company.


More and more, as I travelled through Tokyo, I kept noticing the signs. In a taxi earlier today, I saw a sign for a Korean bank in a mixture of hangul (the Korean phonetic system) and Chinese kanji characters.


The above photograph gives an idea of just how cosmopolitan this world city has become since my wife and I left it nine years ago. The number of writing systems visible in the photograph is staggering:

  1. Building entrance in background – Japanese katakana syllabary (for foreign words), Chinese kanji characters.
  2. Subway entrance – (top) Chinese kanji characters and Roman alphabet, (middle) Chinese characters), (bottom) Chinese kanji numerals, Chinese kanji characters, Japanese hiragana syllabry (for native words), Arabic numerals
  3. Blue bank sign – Korean hangul syllabry, Chinese kanji characters.

Many sophisticated Tokyo urbanites can now, I hear, read hangul. Given their mastery of all the other systems listed, it probably is no big deal to add yet another one!

This entry was written by Donal Hanley , posted on Tuesday January 30 2007at 09:01 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Demographics, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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