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Punchy posters encourage Tokyo subway etiquette

Bunpei Yorifuji in Ginza
Bunpei Yorifuji in Ginza

TOKYO (TR) – It doesn’t take a genius to realize that public spaces in Japan are filled with numerous audible and visual reminders about the importance of maintaining personal decorum. Over the past year, some of the catchiest have been the “manner posters,” by graphic artist Bunpei Yorifuji, that appear in the stations and carriages that serve the nine lines of the Tokyo Metro subway system.

Since April of last year, the 35-year-old designer has produced a simple yellow-and-black image each month urging subway travelers to refrain from such generally discomfiting activities as applying makeup, falling down drunk, talking on mobile phones, occupying priority seats for the elderly, infirm or pregnant women or rushing to board as the doors are closing.

“People move at a fast pace through the subway system,” explains Yorifuji as he puffs on a cigarette and reclines on a sofa at Bunpei Ginza, a nine-person operation occupying a fifth-floor office near the Kabuki-za theater in Chuo Ward. “So for the poster to be effective, it needs to have a catchy title, one that can be understood in a second, and contain an illustration that is easy to recognize.”

July 2008

Yorifuji and his copywriter start the process with a perusal of common complaints received by the subway operator’s Customer Relations Center. “There is no one problem that we are focusing on,” says Yuri Hitotsuyanagi, a representative of Tokyo Metro. “We would like to cover all cases by changing the design each month. Nothing is considered too big or too small.”

The posters — 700 of which are displayed in the stations and 3,300 in the cars — typically feature two recurring characters; a man with large glasses and a female (referred to by Yorifuji as the man’s wife), each of whom is being inconvenienced by the activity of an oblivious passenger, perhaps through an excessively large backpack or music blaring through headphones. The concept will often depend on the season — i.e. with Tokyo in the midst of the rainy season, June’s edition features a man carelessly shaking an umbrella.

Yorifuji, who likes to think of his work as falling somewhere between art and manga, wants the catch phrase appearing at the top, usually some variation of “Please do it at home,” to convey the repressed frustration of the typical commuter. “The glasses obfuscate the emotion and better reflect the discomfort,” he says of his male character. “People don’t explicitly express their feelings. So I am having people guess what is going on in his mind.”

Born in 1973 in Nagano Prefecture, Yorifuji studied at Musashino Art University. His company was formed in 2000 following a stint at an advertising firm. Much of his illustration and advertising output, which appears in books and magazines and on packages, has been inspired by American artist Edward Hopper and the ukiyo-e woodblock print work of Katsushika Hokusai.

Prior to the subway project, Yorifuji was probably most recognized for his stickers and bills for Japan Tobacco advising on smoking etiquette — a topic he is well versed considering that amid his office’s collection of magazines, mock-up pages and computer screens are quite a few ashtrays.

Nagatacho Station
Commuters in Nagatacho Station

The fact that Yorifuji is into his second year with Tokyo Metro, which started its manner poster campaign in 1974, can be considered an accomplishment since most terms extend for only one year.

Tokyo Metro says that assessing the effectiveness of its poster campaigns is difficult. But given the many knock-offs appearing on the Internet, the popularity of Yorifuji’s work is not in doubt. (One variation shows the designer’s bespectacled male vomiting below the catch phrase “Please do it at the pub.”)

The parodies do not bother Yorifuji, who instead believes they show that his work has reached the mainstream, a contrast to most public messages that he views as having a top-down or condescending feel. “Typical posters say ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that,’” says the designer. “I am saying, ‘Let’s do this,’ which I think is more positive.”

Despite international perception, developments over the last year have conveyed the idea that the behavior of the average Japanese has gone to the dogs. Poll results released by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed that ninety percent of 3,000 respondents surveyed found manners in Japan to have deteriorated considerably, and, within Yokohama’s subway system, green-suited minders now cruise through the cars to ask that seats be cleared for elderly and pregnant passengers.

“There is an increasing belief among the older generations that common sense is fading,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. “The generation gap, with regards to values, is becoming wider — as is the case around the world, but especially in Japan — and these posters are fun way to remind people about behavior without being overly intrusive.”

Inside a Tokyo Metro subway car
Inside a Tokyo Metro subway car

Yorifuji is not prepared to pass judgment on the state of Japan. He argues that defining “manners” is difficult, with the meaning largely being in the eye of the beholder. He does, however, feel that people are increasingly pushing the bounds of what has been considered acceptable.

Unlike restrictions placed upon tobacco, for which some areas of Tokyo have banned smoking in the street, Yorifuji finds it preferable that people act on their own conscience and not as a result of a law.

“Japan is a country of gray zones,” he says. “Recently there has been a move to draw a line to delineate black and white, and as a result there has been some resistance. Instead of classifying something as good or bad, my ideal ad displays to people what lies in between.”

Note: This report originally appeared in the Japan Times on June 21, 2009.