Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Japan 1st to adopt U.N. product hazard symbols"

Respiratory risks: image source

Ultraman: image source

In a worldwide first, household chemical products labeled with universal hazard symbols indicating risk or harmful effects are scheduled to be on the domestic market as early as within the week, according to sources.

This is the first time that these marks, formulated by the United Nations, have been shown on household products, the sources said.

Classification methods and indications of product danger differ from country to country and these differences are believed to often cause misunderstandings. It is expected the adoption of the universal marks will improve household safety.

The universal hazard symbols include a skull mark that indicates strong toxicity and a threat to life if the product is swallowed. 

An exclamation mark indicates a skin irritation while an illustration of a human torso with damage to the chest shows respiratory risks such as cancer or asthma if the product is inhaled.

Industry groups such as the Japan Soap and Detergent Association and the Japan Paint Manufacturers Association decided to adopt the hazard warning labels for some of their products shipped in January.

Concerning detergent products, skull and exclamation mark warnings informing users about the danger of mixing chlorine-based detergent with oxygen-based detergent will be added to the conventional indications and marks already printed on containers.

Kao Corp. has labeled a chlorine bleach for kitchen utensils, Kitchen Hiter, with the appropriate hazard symbol and has begun shipping of the product. 

Other manufacturers plan to adopt the universal hazard symbols sequentially within this year.

A U.N. expert panel formulated universally common rules, including these symbols, in 2003 and has urged each country to adopt them.

Regarding industrial goods, universal hazard symbols are commonplace throughout the world. In Japan, the Industrial Safety and Health Law has stipulated proper product labeling since 2006.

However, the labeling of household items, such as detergent, has been delayed because of difficulties in determining the products' toxicity.

Cross-cultural symbolism is tricky. I have written about this before - people from different cultures see the same image differently. So this story about Japanese chemical manufacturers deciding to use universal hazard symbols is quite interesting. But I wonder, as the news story states, what kinds of misunderstandings Japanese people have had about domestic poisonous substances because of a lack of universal symbols? And are these universal symbols really understandable by Japanese people? The first symbol indicating respiratory risks seems like a picture of a manga super-hero. And the symbol for strong toxicity, the classic skull and crossbones, seems to be smiling in this image. Is this image really so scary? And I wonder if the chemical companies have been paying attention to Japanese fashion as of late. The skull and crossbones seems to be a fad, perhaps cool and/or cute. Is there a pirate boom going on (perhaps due to the Disney movies series, Pirates of the Caribbean and Johnny Depp) in Japan or elsewhere (I can choose "Pirate English" as my primary language on Facebook)?

Strong toxicity: image source

J-Fashion: image source

Practical question: Are the hazardous products meant to be shipped abroad? Theoretical question: Can globalization make symbols universal? Symbols are powerful and evoke strong emotions. My international students sometimes do not understand why some Japanese people are so offended by the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) and Kimgayo (Japanese national anthem). This continues to be an issue as the Japanese Supreme Court recently ruled that municipal school boards ordering teachers to stand for the flag and sing the national anthem "does not cause serious damage and does not violate their freedom of thought and conscience." Obviously many teachers and others disagree with this idea, as illustrated in the film, Against Coercion: Refusing to Stand for "Kimigayo" (Matsubara and Sasaki, 2006). The debate will continue, I'm sure. Symbols are powerful and tricky.

Link to news story, Making teachers stand, sing 'Kimigayo' constitutional: court, at Japan Today:

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