Getting Lost, and Finding the Way, in Tokyo

Just looking at the complex maze of lines in the Tokyo urban transit system map can be intimidating.

Getting around the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, home to some 20 million, requires a superb sense of direction. Those without this ability are said to have hōkō onchi, or “directional tone deafness.” It’s a phenomenon that anthropology professor Joshua Roth and 14 students studied this past summer in the Japanese capitol.

Roth regularly offers a course on modern Japan, in which he covers a range of issues including gender, minorities, kinship and the family, aesthetics and architecture, and mental health.

This year, he supplemented this by taking a group of students to Tokyo for an additional 2-credit course. It focused on his current research project, investigating the cultural phenomenon of having a bad sense of direction.

Roth has written articles on the history and culture of driving in Japan, during which “directional tone deafness” emerged as a category demanding explanation. What does it say about Japanese culture and society that this concept exists, and what does it signify when people are called hōkō onchi?

The course in Tokyo gave students the opportunity to travel, participate in a faculty research project, and become friends with students at Mount Holyoke’s sister institution, Japan Women’s University.

See presentations, including student projects from the course