Navigation in Japan: Finding Home in the Land of the Rising Sun

Creating navigation systems in Japan comes with plenty of challenges, but we’ve found quite a few exciting solutions.

Whether you’re driving in North America or in the EU, driving culture can differ from country to country; but the way we navigate can have many similarities. We search for an address by typing in the name of a street, the house number, and perhaps the zip code as well, and we can then start navigating to our chosen address. Despite many inherent similarities, the differences in the way we navigate can be as varied as culture itself. We spent several years on Japanese roads and made hundreds of field tests to find out what makes for a good navigation system in Japan. What we uncovered – habits, preferences, idiosyncrasies– proved to be rather enlightening for us as a company working in navigation. We have identified over 100 unique, Japan-specific navigation features, many of which are necessary to offer a competitive localized navigation system.


Roads High and Above

It’s a common phenomenon in Japan that roads travel parallel to one another. Not just horizontally, but also vertically. Making a single GPS location and a navigation system work together becomes a real challenge. That is, amongst the cluster of roads, multi-tiered levels, and complex road systems, how can the navigation system know which level of a road a driver is on, and in which lane? To pinpoint the exact position of a driver, the navigation system will rely on information taken from the car’s sensors since, in such complex landscapes, basically the navigation system alone cannot figure out its own location.

To complicate things further, lanes in Japan are often separated by a physical barrier. This means that a pending lane change needs to be clearly indicated well in advance. Otherwise, the driver may soon realize that changing lanes becomes impossible after a certain point, and won’t be able to do so until much further down the road.

Highways are another oddity specific to Japan when compared to many European countries. In Europe, we generally use highways to drive across long distances or, more specifically, to drive between major cities and through countries. In Japan, highways – even large, complex ones – are just regular roads, used no differently than any other that go over and throughout a city. In fact, using a major highway on daily commutes to work or to run errands locally is a completely normal occurrence. Also keep in mind that almost all Japanese highways require a payment to enter, plus a certain fee for each kilometer driven, and these costs can vary depending on whether the driver is paying by cash or a special ETC card. To make matters worse, certain exits and entrances are only usable if there is ETC equipment installed in the car, and the driver has inserted his ETC card. To account for these irregularities and variances, the navigation system should allow the driver to customize their route options in such a way that they will be guided to the right on-ramps and highways, and it should also alert the driver of any pending charges that might be incurred for entering a road they don’t have direct access to without a special card.

A screenshot of confusing road signs in Japan for multiple lane highways


Interesting Points of Interest

Have you ever wished that navigation systems displayed toilet locations? Well, in Japan, this is a basic feature, no different than finding a convenience store or gas station off a highway exit. As a basic element, almost every POI in Japanese navigation has extended content. Note that in Japan, shopping malls can be located in complex buildings that have numerous floors above ground level, more floors below ground level, and specific access points. Because of this, Japanese drivers demand really detailed POI information that tells the driver from which direction they should approach the mall, how many levels are in the mall, and which stores are on which floor. Now that’s one interesting Point of Interest.

Screenshot showing pionts of interest on navigation in Japan


Navigating Like Nowhere Else

The first thing that grabs our attention regarding the look and feel of the average Japanese navigation is the tremendous detail. In fact, it feels like you’re driving in a video game. The entire interface, down to the minutiae, is rich with unique characteristics and full of advanced – even predictive – information. For the average US or EU driver, the main navigation requirements are to have a maximum of 3 buttons and to display only the map on the screen. In Japan, however, the screen is divided into two sections:  one part shows the actual 3D navigation, and the other part shows the “big picture” from a 2D perspective and, when necessary, detailed junction views.

It’s really important to note that changing lanes in Japan is not a sudden or last-minute maneuver. Because of this, they don’t want to see current lane information, and instead would prefer to see lane information further down the road. This is also true for highway exits. Drivers prefer to see as many future exits as possible and not just the next 2 or 3. There are many kinds of rest areas, each built in a different way and each offering different services, so drivers need to be aware of what exits are approaching well in advance. For the driver to make the best choice when exiting a highway, all rest area information needs to contain a separate map that includes the various facilities in the area surrounding the exit. This, of course, is rather interesting for us, but it’s even more amazing to think that these are just few of the unique features that a navigation should be able to display in the average car in Japan.

A screenshot of a signboard in Japan on a navigation system

Finding the Right Address

After we saw first-hand what kinds of features we would need to incorporate into a navigation system made for the Japanese market, we decided to test the most important aspect of a navigation system: the navigation. How to start? Well, the Japanese addressing system is a bit more difficult than in the US or in the EU. You can first search by phone number. Even if the system cannot find the specific number, it will offer you an approximate location based on the first five numbers of the phone number, so you just need to point to the specific location on the map of the area. You can also search by zip code, where the area identified by a given code can be anywhere from a single floor of a building to a small village. But perhaps the most effective way of searching for an address in Japan is to type in the name of a junction or metro station close to your desired address. This might seem confusing to most of us in Europe and the United States, but this is just another day of navigation in the Land of the Rising Sun.

If you find yourself in Japan any time soon, sitting in a car equipped with navigation, take a moment to think about how complicated it is to provide localized navigation in wildly different regions around the world – where local navigation demands are as varied as the languages we speak, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear. And if you can’t find your way, turn to us and say: NNG助けて!



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