The construction site outside the train station in one of Tokyo’s central night life and shopping districts had the typical workers in hard hats and fluorescent vests. And, not so typical, two pink-and-white Hello Kitty figures hanging off the barriers that keep pedestrians from stumbling into a hole in the road.
Such figures, along with more than 30 varieties including elephants, giraffes, deer and dolphins, crop up on road barriers all over Japan, an effort to entertain passers-by who might otherwise regard construction sites as nuisances. They are part of a culture of “kawaii,” the Japanese word for cute, an adjective not generally associated with construction sites elsewhere.
Sendai Meiban, which makes road signs, traffic cones and other construction-related materials, said it introduced its first kawaii traffic barricade, a monkey, 10 years ago on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.
Tetsuya Hatakeyama, an official at the Tokyo National Road Office that authorizes road work in the city, said the Hello Kitty figures spotted at the train station in the shopping district, Shinjuku, were introduced in December and have become something of a tourist attraction. Foreigners stop for selfies with the figures, he said, and “children spot and enjoy them.”
And it goes beyond commercial cartoon characters.
Fusao Hasegawa, 27, a contemporary artist in Tokyo, is trying to transform the humble traffic cone into an art form. He has designed cones imprinted with a mold of the face of Jizo Bosatsu, a Buddhist deity known as the guardian of the road. Several were placed around temples in Kita-Kamakura, about 30 miles southwest of Tokyo.
Mr. Hasegawa said he was also drawing on the tradition of Do-So-Jin, a category of Shinto gods believed to watch over travelers and often memorialized in stone figures set by the side of roads.
“Once people see my art,” he said, “if they see an ordinary traffic cone, it will remind them of this work.”