Japanese people in general seem to have excellent skills in data visualization, as well as quite advanced mathematical ability and a robust approach to science. Japanese appreciation of data visualization, particularly, seems to exceed anything similar in the West (at least, that I’m familiar with). In my favourite magazine, Tokyo Graffiti, for example, ordinary people are regularly asked to describe their hairstyle or their favorite shoes in terms of spider charts, a form of data visualization also used to describe the fruit and vegetables at my local supermarket. The local guide to hot springs in Steamy Beppu contains a chart that plots key ingredients of the hot spring water on two axes, and then clusters the data into areas through different coloured data points so that you can easily judge which tourist area to visit depending on your health needs. Most pamphlets about health issues in Japan include a brief description of the epidemiological evidence, and usually a chart or two that lay out the data in a visually attractive way.

Of course it’s not the case that these representational methods are unique to Japan, but what is unique is their degree of dissemination, with ordinary shops using them to depict basic information about their products, and information that would be reserved for the fine print (or not presented at all) in the UK or Australia being given front page, graphical representation under the assumption that even the most ordinarily-educated of individuals is capable of understanding it. This is both a refreshing assumption about the mental capacity of the average consumer on the part of ordinary companies, and a huge bonus for your average statistician. People not only understand the basic idea of what I do, but they appreciate it and think it’s cool. This is, to say the least, a novelty.

Of course this has come to the fore in the last week, when the nuclear “crisis” hit. The Japanese media have been very quick to present detailed diagrams of the nuclear plants, and used all sorts of cute charts to give clear presentation of the risks of radiation, in a refreshingly straightforward and unpatronizing way that assumes the best of the audience. The channel I was watching in Beppu, NHK, even had a guy whose official job was “Explainer” (説明者)。They also presented a variety of basic charts and pictorial representations (especially the triangle describing risk) clearly and directly. But the best example I’ve seen so far of presentation of this data is this visualization, which unfortunately for most of my readers is in Japanese. Here is an explanation:

The visualization has 12 little pictures in 3 lines of 4. The top 4 show (left to right) the world average hourly exposure; the upper limit for a worker who deals with radiation; the amount required for a 0.5% increase in cancer risk; and the amount at which you should run for the hills. The next 8 boxes (left to right, top to bottom) are places in Japan. The first (left-most of the middle row) is the Western edge of the Fukushima exclusion zone. To its right are three towns heavily affected by the Tsunami. On the bottom left is my colleague, Ms. Middle-of-the-River’s hometown of Saitama. Next is my friend Miss Wisteria Village’s workplace of Chiba; then is an area near me; and lastly is a town near Yokohama to the Southwest of Tokyo. These places are all in the Greater Kanto area so some distance from the plant, but as you can see from the falling dots, they have a similar amount of “rain” to those in the area around the plant.

This is classic visualization material, giving an engaging presentation of key facts in such a way that visual comparisons are easily done without losing key basic information. It’s also done with the classic Japanese minimalist aesthetic, and somehow manages to produce an overall calming image, while giving a clear sense of panic to the danger zone image while smoothly contrasting it with the reality that surrounds it.

I don’t know why the Japanese are so good at and familiar with visualization, but I think that their writing system, being pictorial, must be connected in some way. Is this also true of China and Korea? They are also countries with world famous mathematical education, and a pictorial writing system, but I don’t know enough about them to judge. I am, however, confident that less foreigners would have run away from Tokyo if the English-speaking world were more comfortable with this sort of representational style.