Navigating Japan: Can Using Trains in Japan Make You Smarter?

  • If you’ve been frequenting Japan’s well-established railway network, you’ll come to notice that a lot of the exit signs use cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) rather than relative directions (left, right, forward, backward).

    Cardinal directions are difficult to remember for many of us. It would take time to pick up hints and signals to direct yourself towards the correct cardinal directions, but those who grew up using them will instinctively be able to reach the right direction.

    So how does the use of cardinal versus relative directions influence our minds and how we think?

    Cardinal vs. Relative Directions

    Cardinal Directions
    English Japanese
    west 西
    northeast 北東 (direction), 東北 (region)
    northwest 北西 (direction), 西北 (region)
    southeast 南東 (direction), 東南 (region)
    southwest 南西 (direction), 西南 (region)
    north-northeast 北北東
    east-northeast 東北東

    Relative Directions
    English Japanese
    upper left 左上
    lower left 左下
    upper right 右上
    lower right 右下
    backward 後ろ
    straight 真っ直ぐ
    diagonal 斜め

    Guy Deutscher, a linguist and author of “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” wrote in his book that perhaps all our minds function differently depending on one’s mother tongue. He pointed out an Australian aboriginal tribe that uses a language called Guugu Yimithirr. Their use of directions revolves around the cardinal directions rather than relative directions. And so when they come to explain a story, it sounds a lot different than it would when told in the English language. If a person of Guugu Yimithirr heritage were to come sit beside you, he or she could say, “Could you move a little bit to the east, please,” and you would have to figure out which direction east entails.

    Benjamin Lee Whorf was the man who triggered all these thoughts and ideas for how much of an impact language could actually have on a society at large. In a book titled, “Science and Linguistics,” he claimed that our mother tongue helps acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways. And it’s true. There are many examples that fall under that description.

    However, let’s not get sidetracked, and let’s take our story back to Japan.

    What do they use in Japan?

    Japan uses both cardinal and relative directions. If you ask any Japanese person where their hometown is, they’ll be able to approximately describe where it is on the map relative to one of the bigger cities or prefectures. In some occasions, you might even find that people will guide you via cardinal directions, and if you haven’t held a compass since middle school science class, it might be a little difficult to grasp at first.

    Cardinal directions are taught to children as young as three – and theory has it that age range is the most susceptible to improving cognitive functions – and so by six, you can find a child directing you with confidence. With that said, one could hypothesize that it’s a matter of parenting more than it is educational institutions that shape children to grow into sharp-minded adults – which is how it is done in Japan.

    Should you learn cardinal directions?

    So should you or should you not learn Japanese cardinal directions? Studies have found that when you use cardinal directions, your cognitive abilities improve, and in turn, your sense of directions. You will begin to understand the general direction which you are heading towards, rather than fixating directions around your physical presence, aka the relative sense of directions. After some practice, it becomes almost instinctual to know which way lies east and which way lies north.

    So perhaps it’s worth your time to pick up a compass and practice your cardinal directions from time to time. Improving your cognitive abilities could take you a long way, and could make your brain as sharp as the Japanese minds are, as well as provide exercise for your neurons and pick up abilities more quickly.