Frontiers of gender iconography

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Here at the Seagaia Convention Center in Miyazaki, where LREC2018 is sited, the restroom iconography looks like this:

Side-by-side it's pretty clear who is meant to go where, even though top hats and bow ties are pretty thin on the ground these days, and in fact I haven't seen any of the 1200 people at the meeting wearing any sort of hat at all. But on the way to finding that sign, I saw just the red icon, and was more than a little puzzled about what sort of thing it was supposed to represent.



  1. David Cameron Staples said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 7:54 pm

    The Ladies' icon is a woman in 1930's formal dress: a collar, a fur stole, and a cloche hat.

    Or at least, a person dressed in 1930's formal feminine style.

  2. Mark P said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    It's easy enough once you know what it is, but seen alone, it is not identifiable, at least to me. It was only after I saw the male icon that I realized what it was.

    [(myl) Ditto.]

  3. Mark Meckes said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

    I initially saw two different stylized garden spades.

  4. Anne Cutler said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 8:26 pm

    All guy comments so far…. It's the angle of the hat that makes the red one clear (albeit quite unusual) to me

  5. Alexander said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

    I got it right away, but I've been watching too much Hercule Poirot lately.

  6. Jim Breen said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

    The use of the kanji 化粧屋 looks odd. It's quite rare- far less common than more usual terms one sees on signs, and it really means "powder room". Most dictionaries only include it as part of 化粧屋根裏, which means "false ceiling".

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

    I started writing this comment over an hour ago but got distracted just when I was finished. Although slightly overlapping with what Jim said, what I've written still adds something to the thread, so I'll go ahead and post it anyway.


    And they're using a polite term for restroom: keshō-shitsu 化粧室, which is more like "powder room", cf. keshō heya 化粧部屋 ("lavatory; dressing room").

    Other words for restroom are:

    toire トイレ ("toilet; toilette")

    benjo 便所 ("latrine; restroom; comfort station")

    rabatorī ラバトリー ("lavatory")

    kawaya 厠 ("privy; john; jakes; loo")

    tearai 手洗い (lit., "[place] to wash hands; lavatory") — usually with the honorific prefix, as follows:

    otearai お手洗い ("washroom; restroom; lavatory; bathroom")

  8. Jim Breen said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 10:16 pm

    FWIW here are the frequency counts for the terms Victor mentioned, taken from the Google Japanese n-gram corpus. I've included 便所 (benjo) as well.

    化粧部屋 1288
    化粧屋 1584
    お手洗い 135479
    手洗い 1355633
    ラバトリー 1832
    トイレ 11338929
    厠 33466
    便所 476627

  9. Rebecca said,

    May 9, 2018 @ 10:43 pm

    Were those clothing styles common enough in Japan to be easily recognized as gender markers by your average person on the street? For quite awhile now, high style has been fairly international, but I wonder whether your average person on the street there (or here) would get the intention.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 12:06 am

    It is less than three months since I emerged from a WC cubicle only to find a lady in the same toilet. Each of us was convinced that he/she was in the wrong one, and we went together to look at the signage on the door, Even after so doing neither of us was sure which of us should be there and which of us not. And this was in the U.K. Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me to record the signage, nor can I remember what form it took other than than it was of a stylised androgynous person.

  11. David Morris said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    In South Korea, men's toilets are invariably coloured blue and women's red, whatever other indicators there may be. Is it the same in Japan (or any other Asian country)?

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 1:52 am

    Oddly, these icons remind me of an exchange that I found peculiar when I was in high school in the 1960s. Our church had an elderly set of missionaries visiting to drum up funds and donations for their work in India.

    Somehow we got into a discussion about the novels of Gene Stratton-Porter, which I had discovered on my grandfather's shelves. I was telling her what I liked about them, and her response was to tell me that those were exactly the sorts of books their mission would like to have donated.

    I recall being completely nonplussed by this. While I did not say it, I thought any person in India who read Gene Stratton-Porter would be hard-pressed to find the Limberlost, let alone her (early 20th century) version of the United States. It made me wonder if people educated by missionaries were coming to the U.S. about half a century or more out of date.

    Those restroom logos seem to be on that particular missionary's time scale, not on current time. My opinion is that public restrooms should to be individual facilities that cater to any sex rather than cattle chutes — for one thing, normcore fashions don't make for easy signage.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 2:11 am

    But as so-called "normcore" fashions are not affected by the vast majority of the population, why should such fashions be reflected in current signage ? Twee stylised icons may well be in vogue, but for sheer clarity and simplicity the traditional "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" in a good sans serif font can hardly be improved on, augmented by well-chosen and unambiguous icons for the benefit of overseas visitors.

  14. B.Ma said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 2:43 am

    I'm wondering why Jim Breen has typed 化粧屋 (which I would understand to mean a cosmetics store, though my Japanese knowledge is very basic) instead of 化粧室 (toilet, the term under discussion).

    Is 化粧室, more likely written as 化妝室, an original Chinese word or was it borrowed from Japanese(/Korean)? I've heard people say it in Cantonese, but perhaps this is because of Japanese influence e.g. having visited Japan where they read kanji with Cantonese pronunciation.

    @David Morris, in my recollection if there are colours, then the men's symbol will be blue and the women's symbol will be red/pink; sometimes one or the other will be black, unless the proprietor is going for something wacky.

  15. Jim Breen said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 3:19 am

    @B. Ma
    Oops. I blame old age, failing eyesight, whatever. Yes, it is indeed 化粧室, which is fine. Mauch more common too (54226 in the n-grams).

  16. Jamie said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 5:35 am

    I seem to remember keshō-shitsu 化粧室 being common in the larger (more old-fashioned) department stores in Tokyo but not many other places.

  17. Adrian said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 5:41 am

    I've seen variations on this style of toilet iconography in various places. There is, it seems, a perception among some owners/designers that normal symbols are boring, and they want to do something different. By and large, I think the response of the public is "Why are you confusing us?"

  18. Robot Therapist said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 6:27 am

    … for example, in a cinema, "Pearl" and "Dean"

  19. Ray said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    I think icons work precisely because they are out of date (think of how a telephone receiver is used for "phone", an envelope is used for "email", a bell is used for "alert", a film camera is used for "video"…) there's probably a scientific (insert test tube emoji) reason for all this, but I don't know what it's called…

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    A couple of decades ago I was in a pizzeria in London that was flaunting its Americanness, complete with a sign pointing the way "To the johns". (The Brits tend to find AmEng "john" for toilet hilarious.) When you reached the two doors, they were clearly labelled "Elton John" and "Olivia Newton-John".

  21. rcalmy said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:14 am

    I think what's bothering me most about the icons is that they look like finger puppets.

  22. Rube said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    @Ray: I have been thinking about that kind of (deliberate?) out of datedness. There's also the cocktail glass used as an icon for alcoholic drink, even though very few people actually drink their alcohol out of one.

  23. cliff arroyo said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    "To the johns". (The Brits tend to find AmEng "john" for toilet hilarious"

    What about AmEng 'john' for prostitute's customer? (The first thing I thought of when I saw 'to the Johns"

  24. languagehat said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:32 am

    I recall being completely nonplussed by this. While I did not say it, I thought any person in India who read Gene Stratton-Porter would be hard-pressed to find the Limberlost, let alone her (early 20th century) version of the United States.

    I am nonplussed by your nonplussal (or whatever the noun form might be). Do you read only novels that give up-to-date, accurate descriptions of actual places? Surely if Indians like the novels of Gene Stratton-Porter, it's because they're enjoyable reading, not because they are thought to be travel guides. Some people even like books about places that never existed!

  25. languagehat said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:33 am

    (I speak as a long-time science fiction fan.)

  26. Mitch said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    @Philip Taylor "It is less than three months since I emerged from a WC cubicle only to find a lady in the same toilet." – First sentence of PK Dick's lost novel.

  27. Marion said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    @Ray I particularly like the UK road sign warning of speed cameras – it's an antique style Hasselblad-type camera with a bellows (search " speed camera sign uk"). My guess is the vast majority of drivers have never seen a camera of this type, except perhaps in old movies.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 10:52 am

    I agree with the hypothesis that the blue/red coding is likely to be meaningful enough to the assumed audience for the actual images to get away with being non-obvious-at-first-glance. That may assume that the intended audience are locals rather than tourists – you wouldn't expect this sort of cutesy-but-potentially-confusing thing in e.g. an airport. In a US context, I would expect a convention center to be very much the sort of place that would go for confusion-minimization over cutesiness, but this is not a US context.

    (FWIW I expect that 男 and 女are among the first kanji most gaijins learn to recognize, because they will help ensure that you will enter the right public bathroom rather than the wrong one.)

  29. Ben Orsatti said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

    Japanfans: Is "風呂版" also an acceptable synonym?

  30. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

    Or in the faster changing field of computers, how a floppy disk is still used for for the "Save File" icon, even though it is approaching twenty years since floppies were in common use.

  31. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

    We still speak of dialing a phone, rewinding a video, scrolling a document, and ironing a shirt. This isn't generally taken as a sign that language is hopelessly behind the times, but rather that the meanings of words change with the times. Why shouldn't the same be true of icons?

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 3:10 pm

    The first three I understand, but what is anachronistic about "ironing a shirt" ? The electric device that one uses is called an iron, the thing that is being pressed is called a shirt, where is the anachronism ? Is it simply that an iron is no longer made of iron but of steel, which is itself made from iron (along with other elements) ?

  33. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    Philip, the fact that the electric device happens to contain iron is irrelevant; a similar device made of ceramic and titanium is still called an iron, because it's used for ironing. The verb "to iron" bears the same relation to lumps of iron heated over a fire as the Save icon does to floppy disks.

  34. Ethan said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 5:14 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick: The distinction is that an icon showing a flatiron still visually resembles an object used to carry out the operation "flatteing something". It doesn't assume the use of any particular word or language to describe that operation. In the case of an icon showing a floppy disk there is no longer a visual correspondence between the operation "save" and a physical object used to save something. A "scrolling" icon would be in the same category as the floppy disk if it showed a cartoon scroll; it would be in the same category as the iron if it showed a cartoon computer mouse. Both variants exist but I think the latter is more common.
    As to "rewind" the common convention for an icon is to use a symbol like ⏪ (U+23EA). That symbol is just as intuitive (or not) as an icon on a computer's video player as it was as the label on the button of a VCR. The word "rewind" may be an anachronism but that is distinct from whether ⏪ has an obvious meaning in context.

  35. 번하드 said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 5:55 pm

    The "powdering room/toilet" 화장실 (化粧室) is what you will usually encounter in Korea,
    in Busan I saw 해우소 (解憂所) a few times and was quite surprised to see this word described as having its origin in Buddhism.

  36. Julia Fernandez said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 6:40 pm

    @Rube The “no drinking” icon on the streetcar here in Tacoma is a silhouette of a 40 and 1970s-style pop top can (I’ve always presumed it to be a Colt 45). I think Pierce Transit is using some humor as Tacoma is rapidly gentrifying but still associated with being somewhat down and out.

  37. Brett said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    I'd just like to point out that the "floppy disk" icon used for saving files is usually an image of a 3.5" disk, the kind that was standard by the 1990s. Unlike the 5.25" (and larger) disks that came before, the 3.5"s were not actually even "floppy."

    (Yes, the actual magnetic media inside a 3.5" was still flexible, but the outer casing was of rigid plastic.)

  38. Jonathan D said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    I don't think that many of the examples of icons based on out-dated objects really lend any support to Ray's claim that icons work because they are outdated. It's more that icons that work are likely to be unchanged even when their objects that depict are gone. The save icon definitely wasn't out of date when it was first used. Things like the envelope for email are used in a way that makes the original picture outdated, but they work because the envelope itself was meaningful when it was first used.

  39. Ray said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

    @Philip @Gregory

    it's interesting that we have a web browser called "safari" (with a magnetic compass as its icon) to explore the world wide web

    I also like how the pencil icon denotes "edit", and the fountain pen icon denotes "signature" (often with a wax seal to denote "important document"), plus how the skull and crossbones icon means "poison" and the round black ball with a burning wick means "bomb"

    "semiotics" is the word I was groping for earlier… but does it apply to language?

  40. Alexander said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 8:43 pm

    @Ray Safari came after Navigator, Explorer and Konqueror. (The last was misspelled because it was part of KDE, which used to name everything with K.)

  41. Rube said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 7:14 am

    @Julia Fernandez: That's pretty hilarious. "Let's face it, our customers don't drink dry martinis. Let's get real".

  42. 번하드 said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 8:07 am

    And the '3.5"' weren't even 3.5" (but 90mm), while the 5.25" and 8" were real imperial storage.
    I also still remember the computer magazine ads trying to sell slimeline[sic] floppy disk drives:)

  43. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 9:07 am

    번하드 : And I remember, with shame bordering on mortification, advising our then Head of Geography that he should stick with 8" floppies as the technology under-pinning the 5¼" ones was not yet really proven …

  44. 번하드 said,

    May 11, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    @Philip Taylor: Why shame? We live copying our memories from one generation of media to the next one every few years. And progress isn't guaranteed. When I dug through my archives a few years ago, practically all 8" floppies were still readable, most of the 5.25", too, but the majority of 90mm ones had become unreadable. One could argue that 8 and 5.25 were an improvement over their successor, because those drives still had a head lift mechanism that could limit wear and tear a bit. The only improvement I saw with 3.5" was the added hole to indicate high density.
    In 1989/90 I worked in a hospital and saw a lot of data lost because doctors would format and use 5.25" DD disks as HD and data would then start falling off after some time.
    The medium is the messiness.

  45. Anselm said,

    May 12, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

    Rebecca said: “Were those clothing styles common enough in Japan to be easily recognized as gender markers by your average person on the street?”

    Perhaps not, but they're probably watching Hercule Poirot, too.

  46. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 1:51 am

    There's also the cocktail glass used as an icon for alcoholic drink, even though very few people actually drink their alcohol out of one.

    This is not really a question of outdatedness, is it? I doubt there ever was a time when the cocktail glass was the dominant vessel for alcohol consumption.

    But any type of straight glass would with a bit of stylization look just as much like something to drink water from, while a beer glass with a handle would resemble a coffee mug, so so the realistic alternative was probably a wine glass – which may well turn into a cocktail one with a little stylization.

    (I have, however, seen recognizable wine glasses on "no alcohol here" signage.)

  47. Tom Parmenter said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 10:48 pm

    Toilets at a hunting club were labelled Pointers and Setters (the way the two kinds of bird dogs that indicate the presence of game).

  48. rur42 said,

    May 17, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    The outhouse I used in Indiana in the 1980s had no icons. It was a one-holer, no icon. I've seen icon-less two- and four-holers in my youth, lo; those may years ago. The usual unisex icon on the outhouse was a carved waxing crescent moon.

  49. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 18, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

    @languagehat — Sorry, In my summary I omitted the long exposition from the missionary about how inappropriate and immoral contemporary fiction was. At the time I was reading a wide range of fiction, including science fiction, and I was unenthusiastic about her eagerness to censor reading material (my impression was they routinely got rid of donated books they deemed inappropriate). I thought readers would be misled with a limited selection of fiction.

  50. languagehat said,

    May 18, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    Ah, now all is clear! Thanks for elucidating.

  51. 번하드 said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

    Finally back from the countryside where even getting mail was a painful and unreliable process, I could finally search and post the one version that I had been remembering all along:
    The design is timeless, transcends fashion and needs no Poirot to decode, still, for whatever reason … It seems to be a one-off.

  52. 번하드 said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 4:51 pm

    Ouch, sorry for FAIL. The URL above just worked with referer from search, but doesn't show post aor picture when tried directly. I hope that the link to the picture will work:

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