A U.S. Student’s Year in Japan and the Metric System

[My daughter spent her junior year in Japan during college. I asked her write to about her metric system experiences. She kindly did so.]

A zen pond

Photo credit, Laura Anderman

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.

Japan converted to the metric system in 1957

Japan converted to the metric system in 1957

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.

Metric Conversion and “Rational” Sizing

I’m learning lots of new things as a result of this project and a concept I became aware of early on was “rational sizing.” I’m writing about this subject now because there’s been a lot of traffic on this idea on the U.S. Metric Association’s listserve under the name “oddball measurement.”

What it basically means is that when moving from U.S. customary units to metric ones, things might not end up with what some people call “rational” (or rounded) numbers. I was also told by a reliable source (thought I have to admit that I have not yet confirmed this) that rational sizing was one of the points of resistance by the food industry back during our last metric push in the mid 1970s.

I’ll try to explain:

If you have a traditional U.S. eight-ounce container and you want to move to the metric system, you have two options 1) retain the same packaging and “re-label” (though metric units are on most American packaging) the container as 236.588 milliliters (not sure how precise labels need to be), or 2) you resize the package to something that seems more “rational” like up to 250 mL or down to something like 230 mL. Apparently, in some people’s minds numbers that end in zeros or represent commonly used numerical breakdowns such as 25, 75 are more “rational.” I don’t personally have that bias but different minds work in different ways. (I supposed a third option would be to keep the packaging size the same and round down the milliliters it contains to a rounded amount but that doesn’t seem to be the direction most companies take.)

GlueFor example: within my reach (I’ve confessed to my laziness before) is a bottle of Elmer’s Craft Glue. Its label states that it holds “4 FL OZ (118 mL).”

My understanding (and I’ll confess to being overly dramatic here) is that 30 years ago the food industry in this country had two objections to going metric and one related to rational sizing. “Oh my God,” said the food industry, “if we go metric we’re going to have to move to rational sizing, which means we’ll have to change all of our packaging, and that will be expensive, and then nothing will fit correctly on the shelves in the stores, and we’ll have to change the size of the shelves as well. That’s an impossible thing to ask us to do.”

I consider this argument poppycock and not the popcorn kind.

When the time comes (though I don’t expect to have any actual say in the matter), just take the customary units off and let the metric units stand on their own until a redesign dictates new packaging and then make a minor adjustment in the volume if having a “rational number” is all that important (and I’m not convinced it is). Heck, I could see manufacturers use their traditional “sleight of hand” and make the packaging slightly smaller and keep the prices right where they are. This has historically been done many, many times and Consumers Reports magazine highlights these sorts of tricks on a regular basis.

Sutter_labelActually, after a quick look around, I now have in front of me a bottle of Sutter Home Champagne Vinegar and its label reads “12.7 FL. OZ. (375ml).” In this case, it’s the milliliters that are “rational” and yet I bought it even before I started my metric quest. I’m sure at the time, having a less rounded number for ounces didn’t phase me in the slightest.

So, if you hear the “rational sizing” argument thrown around in future in a move to the metric system, at least you’ll have some background on what it’s all about.

As far as I’m concerned, rational sizing is not a rational argument.


Note: The phrase “rational number” in the above context does not represent its true arithmetic meaning. For more information on that use see http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/492011/rational-number. Be prepared that most definitions I found required an understanding of the words “integer” and “quotient.”