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May 7, 2012

[everythingismisc] Scaling Japan

MetaFilter popped up a three-year-old post from Derek Sivers about how streeet addresses work in Japan. The system does a background-foreground duck-rabbit Gestalt flip on Western addressing schemes. I’d already heard about it — book-larnin’ because I’ve never been to Japan — but the post got me thinking about how things scale up.

What we would identify by street address, the Japanese identify by house number within a block name. Within a block, the addresses are non-sequential, reflecting instead the order of construction.

I can’t remember where I first read about this (I’m pretty sure I wrote about it in Everything Is Miscellaneous), but it pointed out some of the assumptions and advantages of this systems: it assumes local knowledge, confuses invaders, etc. But my reaction then was the same as when I read Derek’s post this morning: Yeah, but it doesn’t scale. Confusing invaders is a positive outcome of a failure to scale, but getting tourists lost is not. The math just doesn’t work: 4 streets intersected by 4 avenues creates 9 blocks, but add just 2 more streets and 2 more avenues and you’ve enclosed another 16 blocks. So, to navigate a large western city you have to know many many fewer streets and avenues than the number of existing blocks.

But of course I’m wrong. Tokyo hasn’t fallen apart because there are too many blocks to memorize. Clearly the Japanese system does scale.

In part that’s because according to the Wikipedia article on it, blocks are themselves located within a nested set of named regions. So you can pop up the geographic hierarchy to a level where there are fewer entities in order to get a more general location, just as we do with towns, counties, states, countries, solar system, galaxy, the universe.

But even without that, the Japanese system scales in ways that peculiarly mirror how the Net scales. Computers have scaled information in the Western city way: bits are tucked into chunks of memory that have sequential addresses. (At least they did the last time I looked in 1987.) But the Internet moves packets to their destinations much the way a Japanese city’s inhabitants might move inquiring visitors along: You ask someone (who we will call Ms. Router) how to get to a particular place, and Ms. Router sends you in a general direction. After a while you ask another person. Bit by bit you get closer, without anyone having a map of the whole.

At the other end of the stack of abstraction, computers have access to such absurdly large amounts of information either locally or in the cloud — and here namespaces are helpful — that storing the block names and house numbers for all of Tokyo isn’t such a big deal. Point your mobile phone to Google Maps’ Tokyo map if you need proof. With enough memory,we do not need to scale physical addresses by using schemes that reduce it to streeets and avenues. We can keep the arrangement random and just look stuff up. In the same way, we can stock our warehouses in a seemingly random order and rely on our computers to tell us where each item is; this has the advantage of letting us put the most requested items up front, or on the shelves that require humans to do the least bending or stretching.

So, I’m obviously wrong. The Japanese system does scale. It just doesn’t scale in the ways we used when memory spaces were relatively small.

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