Photo/Illutration“Tatekan” signboards around a Kyoto University campus in November (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

“Tate kanban” (literally, a “standing signboard”), or “tatekan” for short, is a type of outdoor signage common in Japan.

When I was at university, I made one by myself to recruit members of a music lovers' club. My signboard showed a picture of a man playing the guitar.

I put a chair in front of the signboard, sat there and waited, hoping someone would join the club which actually had only one member.

After many days of waiting, a male student finally approached me and asked, "How many members have you got?" I replied, "Um, it's just me at present. But say, who's your favorite singer?"

From then on, my club started picking up members, all thanks to the tatekan.

I recalled this long-ago episode when I recently came across a news report about the disappearance of once-ubiquitous signboards from university campuses.

This is due to stricter regulations being enforced by faculties, as well as to the predominance of social media as a vehicle of communication today, according to the report.

When I learned that even Kyoto University, famed for its traditional "tatekan culture," was moving toward the regulation of those signboards, I had to go and check it out.

The signboards there are used to advertise campus events and study groups, as well as to protest against the university's policies, among other purposes.

I contacted some of the students who put them up and asked why they are resorting to this old custom rather than rely on social media.

"We use social media, too, but our message reaches only those who are interested in what we are doing," explained one student. "Tatekan are noticed by everyone walking by. Their very existence serves as a message."

Another said, "Means of communication that convey your message to everyone are surprisingly limited, I believe. That makes tatekan all the more valuable."

Now that anyone can post their message online in this digital era, it is as if all "fences" have ceased to exist in cyberspace. But in reality, it appears that users' personal philosophies and preferences are keeping them sharply divided.

In this sense, the simple act of writing one's message in large letters on a signboard evokes an odd sense of nostalgia.

To be sure, some signboards bear messages that are obnoxiously pushy, but they represent the sponsors’ wish to reach out to someone. I just find it unfortunate that this type of handmade signage is being phased out.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 21

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.