A map that doesn’t point north

Found in Toyota City near the train station: a map where the north is at the bottom of the map. I think it was my first time ever to see a map where north wasn’t at the top of the map. It was very confusing trying to orient myself with this map, since I was used to seeing maps of Toyota City oriented the usual way (i.e. north facing up).

Is this random map orientation a common Japanese thing, or was this map just a one time thing? I wonder who made it and why they decided on this orientation. Any thoughts, anyone?

a map that doesn't point north
A map of Toyota City that doesn’t point north, at the train station

I’ve just had an epiphany, shortly after writing this post: what if the map orientation is chosen to correspond with the direction you are facing when you are standing in front of this map? This would also explain why maps outside stations seem to be oriented in different directions in a seemingly random fashion, as someone mentioned in the comments section.

Maybe some person in charge of maps thought it would be more convenient if the person using the map wouldn’t have to perform a mental rotation of the map in order to see where they needed to go. It is certainly possible. The Japanese are all about convenience.

So here’s another question: is this actually more convenient or less convenient than having maps always oriented with the north above?


17 thoughts on “A map that doesn’t point north

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  1. i never knew this about japan. but it kinda makes sense how the map would be turned with the ‘north’ direction facing a different direction other than ‘up’. i guess it is an indication to help people to know ‘which’ way is north, so when you are looking at a map board that is facing south, it means you just have to turn back to walk to the opposite side for north. i think this is something that i personally would have liked to see more, as i’m not good at comprehending maps and directions.

    1. It does make sense from a certain point of view but if you are used to all maps having North on top, it is very confusing. So I guess it all depends on what you are used to.

  2. Yes. Same experience living in Japan. Infuriating!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! almost all public maps are from perspective of person standing in front of map and North and south are random depending on where the map is placed. Ridiculous! One afternoon, I went out for a bike ride from Tokiwadaira, Chiba and got so lost and turned around b/c of these maps that it took me until 2am to get home…I actually walked into a station, and asked 2 different workers, in Japanese, which way was north..neither man knew which way was north and could not point me in the right direction to get home. So here is the problem. Most people in tokyo do not know which way north is. All the building are tall. they don;t see the sun rise, or set. they just see buildings. and ALL japanese people use their smart phone this same way, ALWAYS with the orientation from their perspective and not north south. SO, these maps are simply an extension of that smart phone addiction, and being far enough removed from the real natural world that north and south are being forgotten. I actually ended up doing a few small experiments in the following weeks after getting lost. In my elementary classes that I was teaching, like grade 4 and five. I asked all the kids AND the teacher, which way was West. Which way was North. Out of 4 full classes. Only one teacher and a small handful of students could tell me. About 1 percent of that sample population. I was totally shocked. How could the land of the rising sun not know where the rising sun is?

  3. I found an interesting paper here: http://iatss.or.jp/review/25-4/pdf/25-4-05.pdf

    I always thought our public maps followed the “alignment principle” described in the paper.

    I had trouble driving on American highways because they indicate North and South or East and West but I was never sure if where I was was north or south of my destination and often went in the wrong direction.

    1. I’ve read the English abstract of the paper, but since I don’t read Japanese, I couldn’t read the rest.

      In any case I remain a bit puzzled: I though orienting maps towards the north was an international convention, but maybe it’s just a Western thing?

      The main problem for me trying to orient on a map that doesn’t have north on the top, is that I can’t seem to locate my destination on such maps.

      But I read that you were also confused when you were in the USA. So maybe it all depends on what you are used to? In the abstract of the paper, they do mention area familiarity as a variable that affects ideal map orientation. I wonder what their conclusion on that is.

      1. I believe the general rule is that you print maps with the north being at the top but that may not work the best in practice with maps provided in public areas. It is so much easier as the paper confirms (and I would say the same) that the map agrees with how you are positioned when looking at the map.

          1. I have only used Googlemaps on my computer, and there north is always at the top. Is it different on smartphones? I guess when walking around with a smartphone, it might be convenient to have the map correspond to your orientation. In some car navi systems, I think you can choose if the map always points north, or rotates as you change direction.

            1. You have a choice with Googlemap on smartphones. The regular position is north at the top but when you make it appear three-dimensional it rotates in accordance with the direction you’re facing.

  4. Every station I go to the north is in a wayward direction – very irritating and of course different from Googlemaps. I generally try to find the ‘main building’ and work from there. Why can’t they look up ie north?!

    1. So it isn’t this one map then. Maybe it is something particular to station maps?

      I do wonder how they decide on the orientation. Do they just pick something that looks nice? Who is in charge of these things? Does the city have an employee that goes over map orientations? I am really intrigued!

      I do agree that it is irritating and confusing. What’s the point of having a convention (i.e. on maps, the top of the map is north) if some people decide not to follow it.

      For Toyota City, of course the river is a good orientation point. But I imagine it must be so much more difficult if the map consists of only city blocks, as I imagine might easily be the case in Tokyo.

      1. Yes – it’s really silly. And sometimes I imagine the Japanese do it on purpose!!! So bubonic!! Naturally all maps should point north. All maps from Tokyo Metro are generated this way. The Tobu Tojo line broke down yesterday afternoon and I had to take the Fukutoshin Line to Hikawadai to get vaguely near my home. I looked at the map for at least 20 mins but later found out that the convience stores always have maps and are rigorous about putting lost people in the right direction.

        1. Long live convenience store employees and their maps! I have been saved by them on more than one occoasion. I’ve also had good experiences with just asking a random stranger on the street. Most of them were really diligent about helping me find the way and sometimes even walked me to my destination.

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