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North Isn’t Always Up

By Asian American in Tokyo | June 10, 2008

Here’s something interesting that you won’t notice unless you spend enough time in Japan getting lost (inevitable, particularly in Tokyo). As an American, I’m used to all maps being oriented with North being up. If you check the maps on walls in Japan, such as those at subway stations or shopping centers, you’ll notice that the layout isn’t always oriented with North pointing up.

At first this is really frustrating because you assume North is up without checking and spend a lot of time trying to understand why your mental image doesn’t match what you see around you and on the map itself. After a few episodes of this, you finally realize what the problem is and notice that the N arrow seems to be facing an arbitrarily-chosen position each time. But, believe it or not, there is method to the madness and it turns out to make perfect sense. In many ways, it’s better than having North always oriented upwards.

Simply put, when you are looking at a wall-mounted map in Japan, the “up” direction is the direction you are facing as you look at the map on the wall. So, you don’t even need to think about North, or any of the other cardinal directions. Looking at the map, “up” is forward (in front of you) and “left” is left, “right” is right, and “down” is behind you. Simply locate the “you are here” arrow on the map and everything just makes sense without a compass. The arrow always points up since that is the direction you’re facing while looking at the map, and a horizontal red line usually is present to represent the wall on which the map is mounted. I’ve included some examples below.

Now if they would just tell tourists this upon arrival at Narita, hours of frustrated tourist time would be saved. Leave your compass at home. You won’t need it in Japan.

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Topics: Culture, Gaijin Tip | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “North Isn’t Always Up”

  1. jingo Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    This is common everywhere except America, it seems.

  2. lordoden Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    this is really an ingenius system. its a shame americans are generally so resistant to change, would make things a lot easier.

  3. freedomwv Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 2:42 am

    I always wondered why I can never understand the maps in Tokyo. This explains so much.

  4. David Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Great post!

    One of my geography professors, before he became a professor, came to Japan for a job interview. He ended up going the opposite direction leaving the station because he assumed north was up. Needless to say he arrived way too late for the interview and didn’t get the job.

    As a geographer and map lover myself Japanese maps are easy to use, once you get the hang of them. The north up system makes sense if you live in America with its straight, mostly grid pattern streets with buildings addressed linearly (that is with ascending numbers as they go along the street) on named streets that commonly include a direction (e.g. N. 5th Street).

    In Japan you cannot think linearly, but spatially. Buildings aren’t on a 1D line, but in a 2D area the orientation of the area is based more on what is in the area, than whichever way is north. This explains why street names are uncommon in Japan.

    As a hint, make sure to use the shop markers (7/11, Lawson, Toyota) on most maps. They will help you orientate yourself much quicker.

  5. Jason Says:
    October 10th, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Maps in Japan are the biggest advertisements for getting an iPhone or other GPS map enabled phone. I always have a sense of dread when I had to a new area and have to depend on maps.

    However, I find the maps outside stations to be pretty useful. As a cyclist, they are also handy for getting un-lost.

    The maps that really suck are ones on restaurant websites, and other such places. They are never even remotely to scale, leave off landmarks and even streets sometimes.

    GPS FTW!

  6. Angel Says:
    October 10th, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I must agree with the first comment, this is how maps are all over the world i think, i guess the US is the exception. Its a much easier way, it makes sense.

  7. Asian American in Tokyo Says:
    October 27th, 2008 at 8:24 am

    I’m in Shanghai right now and it seems like the situation is mixed here. Sometimes maps are oriented with North pointing up, sometimes not.

  8. Shaun Says:
    December 28th, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Ughh. More “I think I know all Americans speak” As an american I can say that we are not resistant to change as a whole, we do not look downj on the rest of the world, many people here are fascinated with the rest of the world and it’s advances. What you all see is media related. What we see is what our media trys cramming down our throats. America isn’t resistant, we’re just being manipulated, as is your thoughts of all Americans in general. If most of you would actually think with a global mind, instead of praising your own country and assuming you know about others, we might actually get something accomplished. But for now…for the most part….alot of you are just as pig headed as you claim other countries to be.


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