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Japan’s URL alternative (not QR codes)

2015 April 17

I feel like I had already learned quite a bit about Japan before visiting for the first time, recently. There were, nonetheless, surprises. (Probably either a reminder of how distant Japan is from north Atlantic culture despite surface familiarity, and/or a sign that my knowledge was much more shallow than I thought; Japan disclaimer.)

Two discoveries stand out, from lots of other interesting experiences. In both cases I was mildly shocked, honestly, not only because I had never learned of these seemingly basic cultural practices before, but also because it still took about three days walking around Tokyo before the penny really dropped.

For days, I was surrounded by advertising, signs and other messages that were largely familiar in style and some times in content, even if most of the specific text was lost on me. Throughout those days I grew more and more puzzled by the rarity of URLs; here and there I saw what was obviously an internet address, but the great majority of advertisements, brochures etc., seemed to lack any discernable internet reference.

Then, at last, I figured out (I think) what I had been missing. While relatively few layouts included a URL, nearly all included something like the following:

Web resource… thing… from ad on the back of a Roppongi map

I think this would direct you to… perhaps.

In context, this will probably seem obvious, much as it did when I finally picked up on the pattern and thought “ohhhhhh…!” Unless I’m way off, this is a text-and-graphic suggestion to search for the characters in the left-hand box as a route to the web site of the advertiser.

Again, I could be wrong, but the idea certainly seems to make sense once considered. Something like this construction appears over and over in Japan, not always with the hyperlink pointing finger (or else I would have felt really stupid) but always with the same characters in the right-hand box; presumably these loosely translate as “search.”

Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to imagine why this curious URL alternative might take hold in Japan. So far as I know, domain name characters are still restricted to the Latin alphabet, Arabic numerals and a handful of Western punctuation marks. I vaguely recall one or more proposals to expand this, but all the URLS that I did see in Japan used the familiar old western European character set so I suppose that formal alternatives are still limited. World Wide Web content, however, certainly does accommodate other character sets… so, if you want to provide e.g. a Japanese text pointer to your web site, suggesting a particular sequence of Japanese characters to search seems like it must be the preferred workaround.

I’m fairly confident that this is what’s going on, here, if only because no other explanation seems more convincing. Questions remain, nonetheless. Are all of these organizations just relying on their site being the top result for their search term? And does that work? Meanwhile, why not just use Western-character URLs, given that the same character set seems to be in mainstream use?* Latin-alphabet renderings of Japanese, and even English words, appear all the time in Tokyo and I don’t think it can all be explained as accommodating tourists. Would the treasury really include English text on currency simply for tourists…?

At this point I’m well into the realm of poorly informed speculation, really. I know that English fluency is actually quite low in Japan (if probably still greater than Japanese fluency in America) and I’m pretty sure that the Japanese nonetheless use a lot of English loan-words, and make frequent use of Latin characters as a “loan alphabet” to render them, if only because when you already have two native alphabets and a pictographic writing system, why not?

It’s also worth noting that some of the same incentives to develop this search-box design might also support the adoption of QR codes. Which, I have read previously, Japan did adopt well ahead of e.g. America. If so, however, they seem to have lost enthusiasm for them since because I don’t recall seeing QR codes in wide use at all, in Japan. Maybe this has to do with the fact that they aren’t well suited to subway ads, e.g., or to a market where flip phone sales are actually rising. (Though I saw plenty of smartphones in use, on the whole.) Maybe they just came to the same conclusion as this author that QR codes are just kind of goofy.

But this is a lot of guessing; if anyone can enlighten me, please go ahead. In the meantime, I may further guess that even if Western characters are recognizable, Japanese characters are more familiar and comfortable and that’s why the kludge of search-suggestions instead of URLs has developed into a visual convention.

Which I’m fairly sure that it has.

Meanwhile, my own durable ignorance of this convention is all the more remarkable because I made another similarly dumbfounding discovery, in this case much more easily verified. You know the character for Yen, right? Just about everyone knows that it’s ¥. Except that what I didn’t know is that (again, probably obvious in retrospect) this is a Western symbol, and the Japanese themselves usually use this:

That one on the right, i.e.

That one on the right, i.e.

Again, it took me days to be sure about this. How the ### was it possible that I didn’t know this? Then, once I was certain, I was even more aggravated with wondering why we don’t just use the same character?*

What’s the utility of using ¥ instead? It’s still a special character that we don’t use for anything else. Yes, it resembles the first letter of “yen,” though it doesn’t seem like this is something we insist on consistently; “dollar” does not start with “S” nor “pound” with “L.” I presume that being a variant letter “Y” is nonetheless at the back of this practice, and that it has simply stuck around out of habit, a bit like identifying as “Japan” a nation whose inhabitants don’t call it that, or even really use a “J” sound at all.

Still, remarkable, the things I don’t know. Finding the preceding link just now, I read that “One yen corresponds to 100 sen. However, sen are usually not used in everyday life anymore, except in stock market prices.” I see that Japanese for Dummies exists; if someone could work on a general Japan for Dummies I promise I will buy a copy without delay.

* Of course, why don’t anglophones just spell words phonetically? …yeah, pretty much.

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