[My daughter spent her junior year in Japan during college. I asked her write to about her metric system experiences. She kindly did so.]
When I moved to Japan for a year in 2008, I knew I was going to have to change languages, diet, currency, and assumptions. The metric system was just one facet of that experience, and admittedly it was one area I hadn’t really thought about before I set foot in Japan. I figured it would be easy. I considered myself fairly internationally-minded; I had used the metric system in chemistry class at school and tried to cross-check my driving speed in kilometers per hour just to make myself feel well-rounded.
Measurement in Japan ended up being more of an adventure than I had expected.
Some of the changes were good. A typical Japanese vending machine carried soft drinks in 500 milliliter sizes for around ¥100 (around $1 USD at the time), larger than American 12 ounce cans but smaller than American 20 ounce bottles. Cooking was a bit simpler too, since it’s easier to double or halve quantities written in milliliters and grams.
Some were changes were bad though, at least in my mind. I could never quite wrap my head around hearing the weather in Celsius, especially since Fahrenheit seemed a lot more descriptive. Walking outside and remarking, “Wow, what a hot day, it must be 35 degrees out here!” never seemed to really emphasize the heat in the same way 95 degrees Fahrenheit did. Plus there was the inconvenience of relearning distance measurements; when you grow up with miles, it’s harder to instinctively understand how far you need to go when the directions say to turn in one kilometer.
With a little bit of time and practice with metric units, things started to get easier. After muddling through for a few months, I finally started to feel I understood it. That was when my measurement adventures got much more complicated.
It turns out Japan has a sneaky series of customary units which sometimes pop up in daily life with no warning. It began when a friend casually mentioned her 6-tatami apartment in Shinjuku, I simply nodded and made a noncommittal comment because I had no earthly clue how big that was. Should I comment sympathetically about her glorified broom closet or marvel at her spacious abode? In my attempt to seem savvy, I was too proud to ask for an approximation. [See note]
Nor was tatami the only Japanese customary measurement I encountered. Tsubo and jou also relate to the size of rooms/houses. Japanese liquor (especially sake) is sometimes measured in units called shaku, gou, and shou. TV screens are measured on the diagonal in gata. And heaven forbid you start talking about jewelry, or you might be asked to describe your pearls in monme.
I developed a new appreciation for people who come to America without a firm grounding in our bizarre system of measurement. Language and etiquette changes are difficult enough to cope with, but then trying to relearn basic concepts – size, shape, distance, temperature – is frustrating, humiliating, and isolating.
Like Japan, America wields its measurements as a kind of cultural shorthand that differentiates natives from tourists. Those distinctions are faring poorly in the information age, though, and ultimately they stand as an obstacle between international communication and cooperation. As physical boundaries become less meaningful, we’ve spend time and energy reinforcing intangible dividing lines between “us” and “them.” Isn’t it time to reverse the trend and start doing whatever we can to bridge the gap?
[Note] In Tokyo, each tatami mat measures roughly 5.9 feet by 2.9 feet (1.8 meters by 0.9 meters), making a typical 6-tatami apartment around 9 feet by 12 feet (2.7 meters by 3.6 meters). Tatami size also varies by area, making this more of an art than a science. Either way, in a trendy, high rent area like Shinjuku, a 6-tatami apartment is considered respectably roomy.