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Tokyo rail guide signs woefully unprepared for 2020


"I often see foreign tourists with bewildered expressions while standing in front of railway network maps inside train stations. With just a little over two years until the Olympic Games, are the information services for foreigners in Tokyo, which is supposed to be an international city, sufficient? To answer, I tried putting myself in the shoes of a foreign visitor who could not understand Japanese and tried to read a railway system map at a train station."

So begins Kazuma Yamane in his "Nihon no Genki" column in the Yukan Fuji (May 27). His starting point was a sign inside Tokyo Station showing East Japan Railways' local lines (kinko rosen-zu). The sign indicates station names in Japanese with their eiji (English character) equivalents.

"Upon looking, however, I noticed many station names were not rendered in English," he wrote. "I then snapped a photograph and used imaging software to remove the Japanese from the same station names not indicated in English."

What remained on the map were all the stations on the Yamanote loop line. Beyond Shinjuku, even major stations on the Chuo Line such as Nakano and Ogikubo were missing; likewise for stations on the Keihin Tohoku Line beyond Shinagawa, such as Omori and Kamata. To the east of Akihabara, Asakusabashi, Ryogoku and Kinshicho are missing. What's even more mind-boggling is that the mapmakers did not see fit to include the English for Maihama, the closest station to Tokyo Disney Resort.

"If someone were to ask, 'I want to go to Tokyo Disneyland. How do I get to Maihama?'" sighs Yamane, "it's equivalent to telling them 'People who can't read Japanese kanji can't go there.'"

By Yamane's count, about 40% of the station names on this particular map do not appear in English. Perhaps someone has justified it by thinking they had to be dropped due to space considerations, but still....

"The other night, it was past 11 p.m., and I stood there watching a foreign couple poring over the map," wrote Yamane. "The INFORMATION service counter nearby had already closed for the night, and I had the impression that the sign was all they had to go by. If Tokyo wishes to be regarded as a world city with a well developed railway network, I think there has got to be a way to simplify the process." 

The couple, for some unexplained reason, did not bother to avail themselves of a "Route Finder" electronic terminal resembling an ATM situated close to the sign, which in addition to Japanese and English also gave information in simplified Chinese and Korean. Nor did they apparently attempt to use a free train transfer app available for smartphones.

In Yamane's view, the biggest problem with the sign in question is that it completely disregards the subways and private commuter lines. "There are lots of places that can't be reached by JR only; but I concede that adding all those stations together with JR's would make for an overly complex map, rendering the whole thing impractical," he remarked. 

What is needed is a "smart" map that would, with speech recognition input upon entry of the destination, automatically blink on and off to display the entire route, including transfers. Or else enable the data to be transmitted to a smartphone on the spot.

"I expected that soon after Tokyo was picked to host the Olympics and Paralympics, Japan should have announced it would provide visitors with revolutionary ICT (information and communications technology) services," complains a disappointed Yamane. "But I wonder if they were really serious about deploying it. A bold and innovative system cannot be utilized without sufficient testing and evaluation. And if they don't get started very soon, it won't be ready in time."

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I’ve been three times to japan and never got lost, plan before you visit and you’ll enjoy it even more

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Answer: #GoogleMaps.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

It's all fine and dandy when you read this here, but if you express this frustration to most Japanese they'll tell you KORE WA NIHON!! (this is Japan!)

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Answer: #GoogleMaps.

Not as reliable as you think and some people don't have internet access when out and about.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I totally agree, everything in Japan should be standardised to western tastes. Make the language and sings English and remove anything that might require a westerner to lean anything. Then there won't be a reason to come to Japan and thus nobody will get lost. Problem solved.

-7 ( +3 / -10 )

There’s free Wi-Fi. Welcome to the modern world.

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

Isn't getting lost the fun part of traveling in Japan?

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I’ve been three times to japan and never got lost, plan before you visit and you’ll enjoy it even more.

Why would anyone downvote a sensible bit of advice like this? I've never got lost in Japan either, at least not when using public transport. There are lots of resources for finding your way around, and a little bit of preparation does go a long way. The Tokyo metro can be a bit daunting at first, but you get used to it.

Maybe there are some gaps in station signage in romaji. Nevertheless, Japan goes further than most countries do in trying to make it easier for people who don't speak (or read) the native language.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

I didn’t find Japan’s rail maps so difficult to figure out. My advice to friends visiting is just to be patient, plan and don’t freak out. I’m much more likely to get lost on the New York subway system, which looks fairly simple on the map but is a complete disaster otherwise.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I do not think it is the maps so much as the lack of signs showing wheel chair access. Not just to get in, but to actually move forward to changing trains and getting to platforms without having the sudden stairwell with nothing else available. It is terrible.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Replace "Tokyo" with "Japan" and remove "rail guide signs" and I think it is more accurate.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I think the real problem here is that each new generation expects more and more to be handed to them with no effort on their part. They expect the answer to everything right then and there and if that doesn't happen then there's hell to pay.

Think back to when children played outdoors and used their imagination. Those children then grew into adults that were far more capable of dealing with situations that required outside the box thinking. Fast forward to today's world where everything is available at the tip of your finger and those people can't be bothered to spend a few moments trying to get to learn something to better their understanding of the world. If one has that mindset, why leave the comfort of your home and city to venture to another part of the world that will be different and yet expect it to be the same? What is the point?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

40 years ago it was easy to get printed English versions of the Tokyo railroad and subway systems. They were included in guidebooks and pamphlets or available as separate sheets and could be purchased at bookstores, or obtained free at tourist information centers, hotels, and major stations. I remember getting free English and Japanese versions which I used together to learn the reading of station name kanji. Stations had the names in roman letters on signs so that wasn’t really necessary but I wanted to. Sometimes got temporarily lost inside a big station but never on the system itself. Nowadays there is a vastly more immense amount of info and signage in foreign languages, even inside the train carriages, compared to those days. Can’t imagine this is a major problem for anyone who makes the slightest effort.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Firstly, I don't think that many people are actually going to come to the Olympics. Is there a mechanism for all of these automatically coming people to get tickets for several events, for example?

As for the maps, yeah, take it into consideration when they redo them, but I don't think the Olympics justifies ripping them all down and making new ones. The Olympics is costing enough already. If it were a problem for Tokyo Disneyland, I'm sure it would have been fixed already. Noone has to take offense on their behalf.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Countless occasions I helped stranded foreigners inside the stations seeking "Hachiko" landmark in Shibuya. Don't know if this is relevant, but I've noticed that their " i " (for information) centers are located far from any train exit gateways! And they call it "progress...!?"

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Japan is losing out on tourist money if foreigners can’t make their way around....

0 ( +1 / -1 )

When I first got here in the late '80s, part of the fun was trying to find the way after getting lost. I'm sure they don't want lost tourists all over the Tokyo area during the Olympics, though. In my area, they have been replacing perfectly understandable translations with ones like 'shutoko' for the Shuto expressway. The vast majority of tourists won't have a clue.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Not mapping connections between different rail companies used to be a problem, but in the decade or so that Google Maps has serviced Japan, it's no longer a big deal.

The larger problem IMHO is not the lack of Romanization on everything, and rather the poor design of information displays in Japanese public spaces. There is no thought given to a typical user's field of vision, or what could be obstructed when the space is crowded with other customers. Staff just slap signs up wherever there is space, without a thought to if their sign can be seen, if it's information is relevant to its location, or if it's not completely obscured by the plethora of colorful ads posted all around it.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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