Japan, Long-Distance Walking
Comments 14

Warning! Deadly! But Cute!

Walking through Hokkaido, and then Shikoku, Japan, in 2008, I would often pause for a quick snap of the hilarious warning signs so common along roadsides, on creek banks and electrical facilities, and at trailheads. For me, with my feeble Japanese-language skills, the seemingly infantile imagery was a useful aid in comprehending the supposed danger looming ahead.

Sometimes the signs were welcome distraction from the endless psychological loop-the-loops that can plague the solo traveller pounding the pavements or pathways of a foreign land. Or, depending on my mood, they could ignite a fuming rage: their patronising tone, the stupid sentimentality of their cutesy animals and their wide-eyed angel-on-LSD children. Signs nailed to trees reminding walkers to RESPECT NATURE and NOT TO LITTER — more numerous, and more visually polluting by far, than the odd cigarette butts or discarded tissues.

Manga (comic-book) imagery is omnipresent in modern Japanese culture. It’s quite normal to see grown men in business attire absorbed in some brutally violent and/or quasi-pornographic comic in full view of his fellow passengers. Advertising and countless products feature big-eyed critters; stuffed toys dangle from even middle-aged women’s backpacks.

In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr observes that:

“The effects of infantilization on Japan’s modern culture are far-reaching… Manga comics now account for nearly half of Japan’s publishing business. The old words that defined Japanese culture — such as wabi (rough natural materials) or shibui (subdued elegance) — have been replaced by a new concept: kawaii (cute). Japan is awash in a sea of cute comic froggies, kitties, doggies, and bunnies with big, round, babyish eyes.”

You needn’t go to a communist country to see the nanny state at work. Come stroll with me through the terribly hazardous Japanese countryside as I present a selection of manga-esque signs, in the order in which I encountered them on my trek:

SPRING, 2008

On one of my preparation hikes near Tokyo, I scurry along the trail in terror of blazing tanuki (the indigenous “raccoon dog”), praying that a good-samaritan bunny will assist if worst comes to worst…

Just when I think I’m out of danger, it seems I’ve stepped into the viper’s nest! The dreaded mamushi has been seen in the area. They’re rarely lethal — Australia has earthworms more dangerous — but this venomous pit-viper looms large in the urban-Japanese fear of nature. You hear about them all the time, though I’ve never met anyone who’s seen one:

I spy one on the last day of my 30-day Shikoku walk, and count myself very fortunate indeed to see it:

In backwoods Hokkaido, a far more sensible image. Brown bears, or higuma, are an occasional hazard, though in this freezing weather, bears and sensible humans are resting somewhere warm and cozy:

This farm produces only the cutest leeks and melons, carefully harvested with cute tractors:

Cut to warm, humid Shikoku, many hundreds of kilometres south-west. It’s hard to believe, given the merciless taming of the island’s rivers, that any fauna survives at all. But at least it can rest safe from the Japanese version of Dennis the Menace:

Urban perils abound as well. Some road safety advice:

All over Shikoku, evil earth-movers are attacking innocent telephone lines…

..but I’m more worried about faceless children:

By God, I’d hate to be a phone cable around here:

This one reminds construction workers to put out their fires. Can you imagine western construction sites with this kind of pre-school imagery?

Fire is a common fear in the mountains. But if there’s anything I hate, it’s a moralising squirrel:

Proper care with forestry tools is important:

A stern rebuke from a disgruntled fish:

kappa, a mythical creature with bald spot, turtle shell and tail, warns that the river is dangerous in this Ministry of Land, Transport and Infrastructure sign. I’m amazed that the kappa have survived all the damming and concreting:

I come to despise the whiny little know-it-all in this Shikoku Power Corp sign. See’s all over Shikoku, telling me to KEEP OUT:

“NO SWIMMING” — but who’d want to with this thing in the water? Crab Boy still haunts my sleep:

Here’s that killjoy brat again, warning the kid to stay out of the concrete channel — I mean, “river” — if he hears the sirens. What a world, when rivers are equipped with sirens:

Japanese scientists have accomplished wondrous things with traffic signs:

Near Mt Tsurugi, the harmless black bear has been successfully demonised…

..and Keystone Construction Workers wreak havoc on a brutalised riverscape in the Iya Valley

..where another sign warns against illegal dumping. WHAT? You mean I can’t just chuck my used appliances in the gully? Talk about a police state:

“HELP! They’re making me wear a 19th-century Prussian army uniform!”

Japanese beaches can be sorry affairs, thanks to the ugly concrete tetrapods, like these in southern Kochi:

Kerr again:

Tetrapods, which are supposed to retard beach erosion, are big business. So profitable are they that three different ministeries…annually spend ¥500 billion each, sprinkling tetrapods along the coast, like three giants throwing jacks…

Turns out they’re not just ugly, they’re dangerous:

Uh-oh, here she is again. Is there any outdoor activity the nosy little nazi approves of? Here she admonishes against Extreme Fishing:

Many a peaceful stroll in the woods has been ruined by a falling rock:

Just in case you’ve forgotten what a toilet is, the comic-book authorities are here to help:

And finally, for welcome proof that some folk, at least, treat Nanny with the contempt she deserves, scroll down:

Thanks to Andrew Smallacombe for help translating some of the signs.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Next post: The fabulous Matterhorn


  1. Andrew says

    Your first sign is also a reference to a childrens story Kachi Kachi Yama, in which a revenge-seeking rabbit tricks the racoon dog into carrying some firewood on his back and setting it alight.

  2. Ha! That’s great… I’ve always harboured a bit of a soft spot for Japanese culture (probably ever since being a bit of a manga geek as a kid and reading James Clavell’s Shogun novels at uni). In particular I’ve always been impressed by the Japanese sense of style that pervades their entire culture. Nice to see they have their own embarassing vernacular artforms though!

    • Yeah, CR, I shared the Japanese thing as a teen. Living there three years, I saw the magnificent, the beautiful and the downright tacky on a daily basis.

  3. There’s some classics there for sure! I love that one that’s telling me not to throw my Vespa into the creek… Good post…

  4. Andrew says

    The main reason people dump motor scooters and electrical goodies is the tax on disposing of them legally. You either personally take it to a disposal site and pay a slightly lower fee, or pay a company a larger fee to take it away from your home.
    Or you stick it in your car, drive out somewhere quiet, and dump it.

    Since we’re only on digial broadcasts now, there’s been a huge increase in the illegal dumping of analogue TVs.

    • Yeah, another reason why the German model, in which companies are partly responsible for recycling their own products, is a great idea.

  5. Excellent!

    The long-distance hiker does become rather an expert on what’s dumped where, finding trash where it shouldn’t be, rubbish by the roadside etc. One part of the Viking Way I’ve just been walking – in the heart of sleepy mid-Shires middle-class rural England – was littered with modernist cairns of old freezers, kitchen sinks, cracked toilet bowls and the like.

    Did a post once on all the different discarded objects I saw by the kerbside during a tedious 10 km bit of road walking in southern Spain. Believe me, there were piles of stuff – almost without a break.

    And once I decided to pick up all the litter I found on my approach to a well-known Welsh beauty spot. My rucksack and several plastic carrier bags were full to bursting in little over a minute.

    Oh, what a messy, thoughtless species we are.

    • Yeah, we spend hours fixated on the ground in front of us, and see up close what passes in a blur for most motorists. I’ve seen hillsides in Japan where locals throw their old junk…and island beaches covered in plastic flotsam in Australia… I’m always interested what constitutes the favourite local trash: Bud Lite cans in southern America, Boss Coffee cans in northern Japan…

  6. Andrew says

    Yep, if I had buweiser cans, I’d be dumping ’em too… without bothering to open them first!

  7. Pingback: Union of the Snake « Wild in Japan

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