Masaaki Hiromura

Autonomy for Automatons? How Masaaki Hiromura’s Sign Design Frees the Japanese

Communication Arts, January/February 2004

The Grinch would hate modern Japan. Noise even assaults the eyes. Everywhere there is an incessant cacophony of visual noise: thousands of characters (the kanji) and almost 100 syllabic symbols (the kana) run amok, careening wildly--top to bottom, left to right, right to left--punctuated often by letters from our alphabet expressing English, French, German and more. Even the narrowest street’s signs lay siege, directing, entreating, exhorting, insisting: They hover before doorways as abbreviated curtains or hang carved on wood above them; beside pharmacies they flap on gaudy plastic banners; eternally stranded outside restaurants, bars and bookstores they stand patiently, stocky and illuminated, on their short legs. Some startle, then beckon, with rotating police lights of yellow or blue. Others, narrow and adorned with competing logos, typefaces and color schemes, tenaciously climb slender buildings twelve stories high. Tough swinging steel signs like double-headed Hydras, belligerently guard strips of construction work, joined sometimes by live sign bearers, uniformed men waving little flags of orange, cheerfully entreating all day long, “Watch your step!”

What of the long tradition, more familiar to Westerners, of minimal, even silent, communication among Japanese? It endures, of course, within the classic arts and the more sophisticated strata of society, but in the streets, where most of us live, it is very much overshadowed by the other. Fortunately, there is a designer--one among a new generation dismayed by the noise, noise, noise, noise--who is successfully defining a new elegance, tranquility and validity in signage throughout Japan.

Since he won his first Japan Sign Design Association (JSDA) Award in 1983, Masaaki Hiromura has completed an average of eight major signage projects a year, and has garnered seven more awards. One of them (2002) was for the new National Museum of Emerging Science and Technology, nicknamed “Miraikan” or “Future Hall.”  Hiromura’s system for the Museum, a series of black-and-white, backlit signs embedded in the floor, recalls the pleasure of subtle communication.