Looking at an address (Jūsho, 住所) and instinctively understanding the location it is representing is something that many of us take for granted, we grew up our whole lives surrounded by an addressing system that is in our mother tongue and familiar to us. However, when first arriving in Japan and being presented with an address to your hotel, accommodation, workplace etc. that is comprised of a series of numbers, symbols and scriptures in a completely different language, the brain can go into complete shutdown as it tries to make sense of what is being presented in front of you.
Luckily for you us here at Guidable are here to help, whether you’ve already been in Japan and have become completely lost when trying to work out addresses and have had to rely on google maps as a crutch, or if you haven’t even arrived yet, this guide will hopefully help you to fully come to grips with the address system of Japan.
Understanding Japanese Addresses
Let’s start with some basic knowledge and history of the address system since the first step to understanding is always more information. The current addressing system that is in use in Japan was established after World War 2 as a slight modification of the scheme that was in use since the Meiji era, making it a relatively modern system of address. However, this modernity has proven invaluable in the rise of Japan’s idiosyncratic urban sprawl and crisscrossing street and city planning, especially in the urban areas of Tokyo and Osaka for example.
Furthermore, this is emphasized by the fact that the Japanese address system is based on geographic entities and areas, rather than a building’s location on a specifically named street. Which is a convention that most western address systems base their systems off, in fact, most addresses in Japan do not even include the name of a street.
We shall begin with the first major difference between the Japanese address system and more traditional western ones; the order. This rule always needs to be remembered as it is of vital importance to the understanding of the address system. The Japanese system always starts with the largest division first, a prefecture ‘Tokyo-to’ for example and then moves to the smallest entity which will be the subarea number and house number, ‘5-2-1’ for example. Whereas in western address systems the smallest entity always goes first and then moves up accordingly, such as the house number, street name, etc. You must remember that the division order flips otherwise you won’t be able to make heads or tails of Japanese addresses. However, there is an exception, this rule only applies if the address is written in Japanese script if the address is written in romaji then the western convention of smallest entity first applies. While this change in order can be confusing, it is a simple rule that can be remembered easily as it is almost certain that you will encounter both forms of addresses while in Japan.
Parts of the Address
Now we have the order and conventions sorted out let’s take a look at the different parts of a Japanese address.
- ‘〒’ Postal Symbol:
This appears at the start of every Japanese postal address and indicates postal code.
2. Postal Code:
Following the postal symbol, you have the postal code, they are in the format of NNN-NNNN, 3 numbers dash 4 numbers totaling 7 numbers.
The next part of the address is the prefecture. There are a total of 47 different options here due to the 47 prefectures of Japan, however, thankfully there are only 5 main combinations that we have to worry about.
- Any prefecture (excluding Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or Hokkaido) followed by –県 (ken). An example of this would be 青森県 (Aomori-ken or Aomori Prefecture). Meaning that 43 of the prefectures would be written in this way.
- As the capital, Tokyo-To, 東京都, has its own special suffix, where -To, –都, translates to ‘metropolis’.
- Osaka-Fu, 大坂府, is given a special suffix of -Fu, –府, which translates to ‘urban prefecture’
- Kyoto-Fu, 京都府, is also given a special suffix of -Fu, –府, which translates to ‘urban prefecture’ as well
- Hokkaido, 北海道, While Hokkaido is a prefecture it is has a special suffix of -Dou, –道, which translates to ‘circuit’
In Japanese, Japan’s 43 prefectures (collectively known as the -Ken, –県.), Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido areas are referred to as the 都道府県, To-Dou-Fu-Ken.
When looking at a fully written address in Japanese, the part after the postal code will always start with the name of one of the Prefectures and ends with one of the To-Dou-Fu-Ken respectively.
This is the next smallest entity after the prefectures. There are 3 main options here:
- [Name] – Shi, . Shi translates to “city”. It is a designation that is given to a geographic location that has a large enough population to earn it. Examples of this would be Sapporo, Chiba, Yokohama, Kobe, and Hiroshima, all are given the -Shi suffix. Additionally, Tokyo-To has 26 -Shi within its administrative borders, such as Chōfu and Hachiōji.
- [Name] – Ku, 区. Ku translates to ‘ward’. This is a designation given to sub-sections of cities with sufficiently enough population to be named a ‘designated city’. This is done for administrative purposes, the 23 wards of Tokyo are not just called wards, 区, but in Japanese, they are named ‘special wards’, 特別区. In common day to day usage, most Japanese people still refer to them as wards, however, due to their sheer size and importance in governmental dealings, the wards are official ‘cities’.
- [Name] – Gun, 郡. Gun translates to ‘county’, which is a designation given to geographic areas that don’t have a large enough population to be designated as -Shi. Many rural areas have addresses that contain -Gun in them.
5. Towns or Villages:
Next, after Municipality comes towns or villages, machi/Cho, 町, or son 村, respectively. Not all addresses contain this sub-division and this must be remembered so as to not throw off the rest of your ordering.
6. City District Name and Block:
This is the next part of a typical Japanese address; it is split up into 3 parts separated by hyphens:
– City District (Chōme, 丁目) name and number
– City Block (Banchi, 番地) number
– House Number (Gō, 号)
Since this part of the address is more complicated than the rest let’s use an example to help explain. Here we have an address from Higashi Azabu, Minato, Tokyo, “〒106-0044東京都港区東麻布2-5-7” lets focus in on the numbers at the end of the address “2-5-7”. These are the numbers we want to look at when working out blocks and districts. The Number before the first hyphen designates the City District (Chōme, 丁目), the number inbetween the hyphens designates the City Block (Banchi, 番地) and the number after the second hyphen designates the House Number (Gō, 号).
When writing the addresses, it is not uncommon to omit Chōme, Banchi, and Gō in favor of only using hyphens as they are easier to read and write. Meaning it is vital to remember the hyphen order and which number designates which location.
I would suggest spending extra time working on this section as it is the most difficult to deal with when reading a map and trying to find corresponding addresses.
If you are still having trouble here are some general tips and guidelines that can make this part of the address much easier to understand-
- Remember that Chōme is based on their proximity to the center of the municipality they are located in and were originally assigned in the order that they were registered.
- Whilst many American city blocks are evenly shaped and similar, Banchi blocks are usually irregularly shaped. Since Banchi numbers were assigned in the order that they were registered similar to the Chōme, in the older parts of a city there is no linear order and proximate numbers will not even be spatial or geographically adjacent.
- Gō is assigned based on the date of when they were built or are most likely assigned in clockwise order around the Banchi.
7. Apartment, Building and Floor Numbers:
If an address contains an apartment number, it will just be added on to the end of the building number with a hyphen. Such as this “2-5-7-324”, meaning the apartment number would be 324.
It is also here in this section where a specific name of a building or floor would be placed to help with the accuracy of the address, such as 7F for example.
Putting it into Practice
Now that you have hopefully got the order and parts down, we can move onto understanding and trying to read a Japanese address.
〒107-0052, 東京都, 港区赤坂1-3-18, DG22ビル 7F
Using what we know let’s break this down
- ‘〒’ First, as always, we have the postal symbol, denoting this as a postal address.
- ‘107-0052’ Next we have the 7-digit postal code.
- ‘東京都’ Now we have the prefecture, this translates to Tokyo-To.
- ‘港区赤坂’ Here we have the municipality; this address here translates to Minato-Ku Akasaka.
- ‘1-3-18’ Next is our Chōme, Banchi, and Gō, the numbers we have here means the address is at 1 Chōme, 3 Banchi, and 18 Gō.
- ‘DG22ビル 7F’ Finally we have the apartment, building and floor numbers. DG22 ビル translates to building DG22 as its name, and the 7F is its location.
Now that we have all the translations of the address lets try and transcribe this address from a Japanese Address into a westernized one.
DG22 Building, 7F, 1-3-18, Akasaka, Minato-Ku, Tokyo, 107-0052
If you need more practice with the Japanese Address System I suggest finding random Japanese address on Google and attempting to transcribe them into western conventions, or you could find addresses that are already romanized and attempt to transcribe them back into Japanese. Make sure to remember your orders and suffixes though!
One More Tip
If you are still having trouble when walking around the streets of Japan trying to find an address, there is still one technique that can be helpful. In many of the larger towns and cities you will see metal town block plates known as Town Block Indicator Plates (gaiku-hyōjiban, 街区表示板), usually blue or another bright color, attached to the sides of buildings and utility poles. These Plates are incredibly helpful as they will tell you which Banchi you are in. Many even have the romanized reading of the address.
Japanese Address By Location
Location, Location, Location
We’ve finally reached the end of this guide and hopefully, by now you’ve mastered the art of reading, writing and understanding the Japanese Address System, or you are well on your way to becoming a master of the address system.
You should now hopefully be able to do anything involving an address in Japan, send post, receive post, order off Amazon or any other online retailer, find an address on maps or on the street and even order fast food if you want! The more you use the system the better your understanding will become, so even if you are having difficulties with navigating addresses and their locations try and use the Japanese versions of addresses, rather than the western order and scripture. Take it from me it will make your life a lot easier and help accelerate your understanding of the system.
Oh, what’s that? You’re living in Kyoto or Sapporo? Ah well, that is annoying. Both of those cities use completely different address systems to the rest of Japan due to their grid layout… You might want to check on Wikipedia for their thoroughly detailed article on how the address system operates in both of those cities.