Is This a Japanese Product or Just Some Westerner’s Idea of One? A Review of Apple Maps Nearby Search in Japan

Every summer a friend sends me a box of onions from his farm in Sado. They are delicious but it took me years to learn not to leave them in the box. Fresh onions retain a lot of water and need to be hung carefully to dry. Otherwise they rot.

Digital maps are like an onion. At the center sits the map framework and engine surrounded by layer upon layer of different databases. Apple builds and controls the center, the various outer layers of data content are bought from 3rd parties. Building a database that makes it all work, is a lot of work. It requires constant input, review, inspection and confirmation. Otherwise it rots.

Nearby has been reviewed extensively since the release of iOS 9 so this review will ignore the core technology and focus on the unique aspects of Nearby in Japan: the quantity and quality of the Japanese data layers that surround that core. As I did previously, I’ll use the traditional Japanese three rank rating:

O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair
X (peke) = NG

Data Quality
Let’s compare the categories of the newly launched Nearby search in Tokyo with a seasoned set. Nearby in Manhattan offers 8 default categories: Food, Drinks, Shopping, Travel, Services, Fun, Health, Transportation. The Food subcategory offers Popular, Restaurants, Groceries, Fast Food, Coffee Shops, Bakeries, Desserts. Drinks offers Popular, Coffee Shops, Stores, Tea & Juice, Bars, Beer, Wine.

new york nearby
Default Nearby search offerings in Manhattan

Tokyo offers just four defaults: Eating/Drinking, Shopping, Entertainment, Travel. The Eating/Drinking subcategory offers three: Restaurants, Ramen, Cafe. Final score: thirteen food & drink subcategories for Manhattan, three for Tokyo.

Tokyo nearby side by side
Nearby offers far fewer categories in Tokyo

Even with this simple comparison it’s clear that Tokyo Nearby has much less content and fewer categories than New York City. Compared with the local competition Apple Maps has far fewer Japanese listings than Google Maps but both are dwarfed by Yahoo Japan Maps, the content king of Japan.

side x side lisitngs
L-R Apple, Google, Yahoo Japan listings for the same area in Asagaya Tokyo. Not only is Apple’s map data outdated, listings are almost zero compared to Yahoo Japan

Apple uses a number of 3rd party data suppliers for Japan: Increment P supplies basic Japanese map data while Yelp JapanBooking.comTripAdvisor, and Yahoo Japan’s restaurant guide subsidiary Tabelog supply most of the Nearby search data.

As you might suspect a big problem is duplicate listings. Apple is simply not doing a basic job of vetting and coordinating multiple 3rd party supplied information. For example Yelp lists the Starbucks in Gotanda, so does Tabelog, both appear in the local Nearby cafe listing. This kind of duplication is everywhere.

Duplicate SB
Yelp and Tabelog duplicate listings for the same Starbucks


Apple has to do a better job of coordinating and vetting their 3rd party information if they want to deliver a viable map service in Japan. If you use Nearby search in Japan stick with the Tabelog listings as they are the most accurate and Tabelog does a good job keeping them up to date. Yelp, Booking.com, TripAdvisor Japanese listings are hit or miss so be careful.
Data Quality Rating: ∆

Curation
Getting information is the first step, curating it is next. Curated information, intelligently categorized, tagged and edited by real and knowledgeable humans makes all the difference between useless and great information. Unfortunately this is where Apple utterly fails. Place categories used in Apple Maps are a mess beyond comprehension. Shinto Shrines are “Landmarks”, Japanese sweets (wagashi) are “Desserts”, Tax Offices are “Event Spaces”, Yakitori is “Chiken Shop” and so on.

chiken shop
30 years in Japan and I never knew yakitori is chicken shop
sento
Extreme cultural deafness: the old standard Japanese sentō (public bath) is called “day-spa” by Apple

Why is this important? Simply put, you can’t find anything. Looking for a wonderful wagashi place in Kyoto? You’re out of luck because Nearby only offers Restaurants, Ramen or Cafe subcategories, no place for wagashi. A search only lists stores that have wagashi in the store name. Surprisingly few. You are forced to switch to Google Maps or Yahoo Japan Maps and search there.

The same problem applies to Izakaya. None of the Nearby subcategories contain Izakaya and like the wagashi example a search only lists place names that contain it or places that were intelligently tagged by Tabelog. In this case however, Nearby offers some related on the fly subcategories: Bars, Pubs, Irish Pubs and Wine Bars.

izakaya
Izakaya search: Nearby only lists faraway places with that name or correctly categorized by Tabelog, the only 3rd party supplier who know how to do it

Notice the trend. Only western style categories are listed. We have arrived at the central problem, the black hole: Nearby only offers listings that match an extremely narrow set of western style category names. Japanese categories are missing so Japanese information is completely ignored. Forget looking for such basics as Soba, Unagi, Yakitori, Yoshoku or even Kissaten. You can find these easily with Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

The likely explanation for this putrid rotten onion mess is that Apple outsources data curation to some company with little or no Japanese ability except Google Translate to categorize all that 3rd party Japanese data. Certainly there is no Japanese editorial oversight because Nearby has no idea who the Japanese customer is or what they are looking for. It seems like Nearby wants to cater to Lonely Planet travelers who know a little Japanese. It forgot that those people already use Google Maps.
Curation Rating: X

Summary
The launch of Nearby search is a token step forward for Apple Maps in Japan but a lot is still missing. Apple’s core map technology works fine but the surrounding data layers are rotten. Data quantity and quality is far behind what Google Maps or Yahoo Japan Maps offer.

Apple Maps is almost four years old. In Japan, even with the addition of Nearby, it remains the broken product released in September 2012.

My next post will compare Nearby with the local competition.

Updated: Added a screen shot for Sentō search, added a web link, and edited for clarity.