Japanese Maps: Getting Lost in Rotation

Following a map in a different country can be a huge challenge. Unless you’ve brought your own with you, you may be stuck using those cartoony tourist maps that highlight their sponsors, or perhaps you can’t get your hands on a paper map at all, and you’re stuck using the ones posted on the wall at train stations or bus stops.

These can be tricky to figure out under the best of situations, even if they include an English segment, because it’s never easy to translate a map. Ideally, to translate a map, you should visit the area and look at the signage. For example, you need to know if the 金閣寺 temple in northwest Kyoto is called Kinkakuji on its own signage or if it’s translated as the Golden Pavilion (or if there’s a more “creative” translation, for that matter). The map translator also needs to know what the local public transportation stops are called. The temple might call itself the Golden Pavilion, but the closest bus stop could still be called Kinkakuji-mae.

In many cases, the person that translated your map has never been to that area, or has never paid attention to the English signs. (I admit that I often ignore English signage when I travel around Japan, because the translations tend to be more confusing than helpful and I can read the Japanese ones without a problem. During a recent trip to Hawaii, I found that I was still reading the Japanese signs out of habit.) But, as the person depending on the map, especially in a foreign country, you need to know a lot more about the places on the map than even a local might. You need to know:

  • What is it called in English – in case you made a checklist of places to visit, before leaving home and you need to compare the actual location with your guidebook.
  • What do its English signs call it – so when you get close to the right area, you can make it the rest of the way.
  • How is it pronounced in the local language – So you can tell your cab driver where you’re going.
  • How is the name written in the local language – You may come across a sign with no English labeling, or with English labeling that does not correspond to any of the names above.

Maps don’t often have space for all of that information, so my preference is usually just to get close, and use local signage to navigate my way in. And that worked fine before I came to Japan, but since I’ve been living here, the maps have confused me on a regular basis, and I only just figured out why.

Japanese Maps and the Mystery of North

Japan has maps around most of its cities at the exits to subway stations and at bus stops. Usually, these maps are two dimensional, scale maps that show sufficient details about the buildings and geography to find whatever I need, but there’s a catch:

North is Not Up

North might be right, or left, or down. It might, like the campus maps where I work, be somewhere near 8 o’ clock. Then again, when you’ve given up on the possibility of it ever being up again, it might just be there, after all. This seemingly random orientation had me scratching my head for four years. There had to be a logic behind it, but I could not figure it out until earlier this week, when a coworker complained about the campus maps. To my shock, however, her complaint was that “forward” was not up. The rest of my coworkers agreed with her on the spot, but my hand went to my forehead. Culture facepalm. So that’s how it works here.

The Secret of Japanese Maps Revealed, At Last

Japanese maps are arranged with “forward” up. So, when you’re looking at a map at the subway exit, it’s laid out so the streets lie on the map the same way they will look as you step outside. I can see how that makes sense. . . if you’ve never seen a map of that area before. Or if you’re one of those people who rotates their tourist map as they walk. (I can’t do that- the names of buildings and streets go sideways, and that drives me crazy.)

Unfortunately, if you’ve dutifully checked Google Maps before leaving your house, or if you have it open on your smartphone, then the “forward-up” image on the wall is only going to confuse and disorient you. Dozens of times, I’ve arrived at a subway station, looked at the map, and panicked. When I’d done my research of the area, the subway station was on the east side of the river, but the map seems to show it on the west. Nope, it’s the east, but south is up. This has happened to me on the way to job interviews, and it was not the kind of shock I needed at that point.

As an aside, I can’t help thinking that this must be big business for cartographers, as companies have to order a custom map to match the orientation of each wall. If any of those Japanese map companies are looking for a translation company to partner with in order to produce bilingual maps, give us a call! We’d be willing to travel around to make sure we get the names right, as I mentioned in the paragraph above.

Next Time You’re Lost at a Japanese Train Station

Or, if you see a foreigner standing there, tilting their head to see the map with north up, you’ll know how to orient yourself and get where you’re going. Better yet, you’ll know why, and it may even seem logical. Figuring out that last question took me two years of confusion and frustration, even though the solution seems clear in retrospect. I still prefer my north to be up, but preferences are more or less irrelevant when you’re an ex-pat. The important thing is to know how things are done in your new home. And that’s my Culture Facepalm for the day.

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