March 10, 2011

Thank the new for the old

Maps like this one are ubiquitous in Japan. The site I copied it from specializes in making them (go here for more examples). Like the plastic food that adorns restaurant windows, necessity combined with Japanese ingenuity turned the map into a showcase for utilitarian yet eye-catching industrial design.

Though the main roads in and between Japan's cities have street names, the traditional addressing system is block-based, not street-based. Think of a city as a big block divided into smaller blocks. At the street level of granularity, the buildings are numbered sequentially around the block.

This is quite logical and works fine--in theory--until the block is (inevitably) physically altered, at which point the numbering system goes haywire. And since only out in the sticks in Japan do you find towns that haven't been profoundly altered in the past fifty years, the whole system is haywire from top to bottom.

Hence the proliferation of WYSIWYG feature-based maps. Why don't they "fix" it? I suppose for the same reason we Americans talk a lot about it but never get around to normalizing English spelling or adopting the metric system.

Anyway, who cares about the addressing system when you've got GPS and Google Maps (and ubiquitous police boxes staffed by beat cops)? One irony of modern technology is not that it eradicates the old, but that it preserves it so well.

Chinese orthography was radically simplified under Mao (and not for the first time). In Japan, some hesitant steps were taken in that direction, but first the fax machine and then the IME (input method engine) made it so easy to convert phonetic characters to kanji that it's become a non-issue.

In fact, characters that were once abandoned in favor of kana are appearing again in wide circulation. A semi-literate gaijin like me can type the kanji for "rose" (薔薇) as easily as any native-born and educated Japanese. Cutting-edge technology keeps these antiquated systems chugging along.

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Off the map

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