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.

Shortchanging American Children with Our Measurement System

While over the past year I’ve looked at metric adoption from a number of angles, the thing I keep coming back to again and again is how we’re shortchanging our children. Granted, my own daughter is almost 25 years old now so my own progeny concerns me less than our children as a whole and the generations that will follow them.

Students in the Lab with metric beaker

Metric units are used internationally for science

We are doing them a huge disservice every year that we continue to use U.S. customary units (for those new to this blog, we imported imperial units and then futzed with them so they no longer align with any other country in the world) in our education system. Metric units were designed to work together in very logical ways rather than the hodgepodge of units that make up our current measures.

Right now we teach our children both U.S. customary and metric units and under the new Common Core Standards (talked about this in a previous blog) measurement standards are dropped from the curriculum once students hit sixth grade. Still, every minute our customary units are taught in school is a minute wasted and that time would be better spent on other subjects. And every minute that metric units get second billing to U.S. customary units means that we’re ill preparing our children for careers in science, medicine and any activity that will take them out of the country or deal with others internationally.

Increasingly our children will study abroad—but they won’t know the measures used almost everywhere else in the world.

In fact, our children are less likely to stay within our borders during their education than at any point in our history and, according to the U.S. Department of Education,

Over 80,000 Americans study abroad at the college or university level each academic year. The number of U.S. students going abroad has increased by about two percent annually over recent years, and this type of study opportunity is now an established part of American academic life.

Of course, the minute most of our students hit the ground in another country they face an additional hurdle beyond language and culture: lack of familiarity with the metric system that almost everyone else uses. Luckily, the metric system is easy to learn but why make our children have to learn one more thing on the fly when they shouldn’t have to.

In fact, within the first month on this project I was flying to Washington, D.C. to visit friends and begin my research when I happened to sit next to a middle-school math teacher (one of many coincidences I’ve encountered on this project but that’s another blog).

She basically said that her students didn’t think it was a good use of their time to learn the metric system because they’d never use it again. She also said her counterargument was that it was like learning a second language and it might come in handy since other people use it.

Even as early as I was in this project, I offered her the following counterargument to use instead…

Sure, you don’t need to learn the metric system if you:

  • Never plan to leave the country;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in science or technology;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in medicine;
  • Don’t plan on doing anything associated with international trade (including manufacturing and distribution).

Students arriving here will have difficulty learning our illogical measurement system

Not only does our metric adoption hang up our students leaving the country, it also hangs up students coming to our country to study here and they mean big economic business:

(July 13, 2013) Association of International Educators released new economic data today showing that the 764,495 international students studying across the United States supported nearly 300,000 jobs and contributed $21.8 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2011-2012 academic year. Further analysis shows that for every 7 enrolled international students, 3 U.S. jobs are created or supported by spending in the following sectors: higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications, and health insurance. 

International students must start scratching their heads almost the minute they arrive here because they’ve never encountered a system as messed up as ours. “Wait,” I imagine them saying to themselves, “I thought this country was advanced.”

While I’m not suggesting that students wouldn’t come here to study because we don’t use the metric system, it just makes it more difficult for them than it needs to be. International tourism is also one of the reasons Hawaii has considered adoption of the metric system to make it easier for travelers to get around once they arrive. To me, that just adds one more reason to change over to the metric system.

Those with our children’s interests at the forefront will assist with metric adoption

As this movement progresses, it will very important to let parents, grandparents, guardians, etc. know the disservice we’re doing to our current and future generations by clinging to our outmoded ways. Riled parents would probably be one of the most effective ways to give this movement some momentum—but they need to understand the issue first—something I’m hoping to help with.

Let’s give our kids a break and provide them with the best system available and help prepare them for today’s world—it’s the least they deserve from us even if the switchover will take a bit of effort on our part.