Station Number Olympics

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If you have ridden any train in Tokyo since 2016, you have come across station number signage like the picture above. In the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japanese transit companies nationwide have been busy implementing station numbering and installing new signage everywhere.

JR East implemented the largest Japanese station numbering scheme in October 2016. All JR Tokyo train lines have 2 letter codes combined with long-established train line colors:station numbering chart 1.jpgMajor stations have three letter codes:station numbering letter chart

The entire package looks like this:fullsizeoutput_6125

Station numbering might look good on paper but the reality in a major station like Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station, is confusing.

A major weak point of station numbering is that users are presented with a bunch of different station numbers when several different line converge at a station point. The Shinjuku station number changes with each line on each platform:

Each platform has its own different numbering as well:

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One of the many Shinjuku staton platforms

The different station numbers for Shinjuku are unified by the three-letter SJK Shinjuku station code.

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The different parts of the JR icon

But if the station does not have a three-letter code, all you get are a bunch of different, separate station numbers, such as Nagano station, a small but frustrating transfer point.

Of the major digital Japan map services (Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan) only Apple goes all in with station numbering and train line codes. Google and Yahoo Japan don’t use them at all.

This is very apt, Yahoo Japan and Google focus on features Japanese users like while Apple focuses on features that appeal more to international users than Japanese users. Here is a comparison of the same transit trip on Yahoo Japan, Google and Apple:
(Note that Yahoo Japan puts in extra effort to show fare of each transfer point and which car to ride to be nearest the destination exit, nice touches)

Real communication or sowing seeds of misunderstanding?
Station numbering is 1980s era thinking, a time when most of the signage was Japanese with English an after thought, if at all. In today’s Japan we have English everywhere. We also have smartphones, Google Translate, multilingual train announcements and multilingual electronic info screens on trains and subways:

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Tokyo trains have screens that endlessly loop train information in Japanese and English.

The real problem is that station numbers and train codes lull international visitors into thinking that Japanese know and use them. They don’t.

Listen carefully on a Tokyo train and you will notice station numbers are not used in Japanese announcements, only in the English ones. Station numbers and train line codes mean nothing to the average Japanese person, they exist in a hot house bubble with no connection to real world use.

As the Japanese blog Memory is a Person points out, if a foreigner asks, “How can I get to the JA line?” a Japanese person will invariably assume they want the nearest JR line. OSK will be mistaken for Osaka, and so on.

In other words, station numbers, station codes and train codes end up creating the very problem they were designed to solve: confusion.

That Warm Fuzzy Feeling When Puppets Use Apple Pay in Japan

NTT Docomo TV ads are running in connection with the Apple Pay Japan New Life campaign. I never understood the appeal of the d CARD bird mascot puppets but the in-joke that puppets don’t have finger prints to use Touch ID and Apple Pay is clever.

The Docomo iD Apple Pay posters in Shinjuku are also appearing in Tokyo trains. That gold wrapped Docomo iD Apple Pay Yamanote train should be hitting the rails soon.

Station Codes Arrive in Yamanote Line Trains

Station codes started appearing on the in-train information screens of the Yamanote line this week. As I said before, station codes, JY 17 SJK for Shinjuku, etc., are really designed as a convenience for visitors to Japan and not for the Japanese who live here. Station announcements on the PA confirm this: English announcements uses station codes but Japanese announcements do not.

fullsizeoutput_5fb9Tokyu in-train info screens (above) have been using station codes the past few months but they have not been added to PA announcements. I don’t think they will. All in-train info screens in Japan show information in Japanese and English. Station codes just end up as unnecessary screen clutter.

The whole station code effort feels like one of those 1970’s era UNESCO projects to solve a problem that isn’t a problem. Would anybody of right mind say, ‘Hey I’ll meet you at station JY 17 SJK’?  Of course not. ‘I’ll meet you at Shinjuku station’ works best, in any language.

Apple Maps Japanese Names: The Long and Longer of It

The Apple Maps Japanese product has always suffered from poor quality local data suppliers. The situation improved a little in late 2016 with the addition of quality public transit data from Jourdan, the same Japanese supplier for Google Maps.

The bulk of the product however, map data from IPC, listings from Yelp Japan, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, etc. remains C-grade. The problem is precisely what Dr. Mike Dobson explained in 2012:

If you go back over this blog and follow my recounting of the history of Google’s attempts at developing a quality mapping service, you will notice that they initially tried to automate the entire process and failed miserably, as has Apple. Google learned that you cannot take the human out of the equation.

Has Apple learned that lesson? In Japan the answer is no. Their product still fails because they don’t have (enough? any?) Japanese humans coordinating, vetting, and editing Japanese 3rd party data.

The problem is easy to see in the unnecessarily long and verbose Japanese place-names deployed everywhere, especially in schools, hospitals, clinics, police stations, fire stations, and similar public institution names. Long place-names obscure important underlying map detail and degrade map quality. In short they get in the way of what you are looking for.

Problem Place Names
Here is a standard view of Ikegami, Tokyo from Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan. Right away you see that Apple uses much longer place names.

The Japanese name for Ikegami General Hospital have been underlined in all three. Note the different text string lengths:

  • Apple Maps: 15 kanji characters
  • Google Maps: 6 kanji characters
  • Yahoo Japan Maps: 6 kanji characters

The actual Ikegami General Hospital sign pictured below has the same six big bold kanji characters used in Google and Yahoo Japan maps. The extraneous information of the smaller kanji characters above the bold name is what Apple Maps uses in place-name.

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The proper way to display extraneous information is where it belongs, the info card, not directly on the map.

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Long form place-names belong on the info card and not on the map. It also helps to have better quality data suppliers than Yelp Japan.

The Fix
Unfortunately the fix is not so simple as reporting a map issue. Even if you do submit a map correction, in my experience there is a 50-50 chance any correction will be lost when the data supplier refreshes the data set, or when Apple switches out the data point from different supplier.

The only way to fix the problem is the old-fashioned human way: an experienced team of editors who know how to intelligently edit Japanese map names for every situation.

It comes down to two questions: is this something Apple wants to do for the Japanese product, and is the effort sustainable?