Streets without name

Imagine you are walking around downtown Los Angeles and a Japanese girl approaches you and asks: “I am trying to find the Staples Center but I am completely lost, could you tell me what is the name of this block?” A little bit confused you answer that she is right now in South Main Street and West 8th Street. And the girls says “No, I don’t want to know the name of the streets, I want to know the name of the block”. In that moment, you start getting desperate and thinking what the hell is going on with this lost Japanese girl. A possible answer would be: “In what world are you living? Blocks have no name!”

Now imagine that after some months you are walking around Tokyo and you are lost trying to find a Shintoist temple near Akihabara. You approach a Japanese man and ask him: “What is the name of this street?”. The Japanese man looks at you puzzled and tells you: “Street have no name, but in that corner you can read the name of the block”. In that moment you realize the culture shock, you remember the poor Japanese girl that was lost in downtown Los Angeles and you understand how she felt back then”.

In Japan, street are simply an empty space in between blocks, they don’t have an identity. However you can identify buildings following a 3 digit system: the first one indicates the district, the second one the block and the third one the building or house inside the block. It is a completely different, but perfectly valid, system of structuring and organizing cities. You have to change your whole mindset.

Which one is easier, our system or the Japanese system? For humans it depends on what are you used to but for machines and computers it’s better to use the Japanese notations. Not having street names makes writing directions much shorter; for example the directions to find a restaurant could be “Sushi Tanaka, Tokio, Yoyogi 4-3-1”. If you are in Tokyo it could even be shortened more, like “Yoyogi 4-3-1 (If you click the link you can see how Google Maps finds the exact desired spot)”, and still contains the precise information to find the exact location of the restaurant. Using directions in a cellphone or a car navigating system using the Japanese street name system is much easier than introducing the whole street name.

In the direction “Yoyogi, 4-3-1”, the first word is the name of the neighborhood, the first number is the
chome (丁目), the second number is the block ban (番) and the last number is the building number inside the block go (号). Depending on the city and the region the system varies slightly but the fundamental concept of not using streets names is commonplace (only some important avenues and highways have names). The organization of maps follows a top down perspective, first the more general area is named and then smaller areas are named: chome (丁目) is the unit in which neighborhoods are divided, then every chome is divided into several ban and finally each ban is divided into numbered buildings.

In this Google Maps capture you can see the neighborhood name, the chomes and the different bans, but the different go are not specified. If you are very interested in this topic, you can find a very good explanation on Wikipedia about the addressing systems used in different Japanese cities.

Map with no street names

This easiness to write directions and to use them in computers helped a lot to the number of geolocalized places by Internet users, even before cellphones were equipped with GPS systems. If at the same time we take into account that cellphones with GPS arrived to the Japanese market in 2003, the geolocalized information in Japan has been growing exponentially in the last years. Nowadays, Japan is the country in the world with the most geolocalized information available; the second one is South Korea, but it doesn’t even have half of the information that Japan has.

To have a lot of geolocalized information available on the net helps to easily create new services without having to introduce the information manually. For example, one of the most innovative start-ups in Tokyo is Sekai Camera, one of the first commercial applications that uses augmented reality. The more geolocalized information available on the area you live, the more useful Sekai Camera is. Since the beginning of the year, an American service that bases its business model on geolocalization called Foursquare, is having more success in Tokyo than in any other city in United States because its usefulness is much higher if users have geolocalized a lot of information beforehand.

Thanks in part to how easy it is to type Japanese directions and most of all thanks to the huge amount of mobile devices with GPS in hands of Japanese people has made the expansion of applications and businesses based in geolocalization much faster in Japan than anywhere else in the world; however with or without street names, during the next few years the boom of applications using geolocalized information is going to be huge everywhere in the world.

It’s been a while that I wanted to write about this topic, but I have been procrastinating it for a while. But finally, thanks to this talk by Derek Shivers I decided to write this article. In fact, at the beginning of my post, I write exactly the same as what Derek says in his talk.