The Japanese address system is based on geographic entities and areas, rather than on a building’s location on a specific street, which is the case in many western countries. In fact, except for Kyoto and Sapporo, an address in Japan will not even include the name of a street.
When written in Japanese characters, addresses are written out in a funnel going from largest geographic entity to the most specific. This rule is reversed when writing the address in the roman alphabet.
For example, Real Estate Japan Co. Ltd.’s address in Japanese is written:
Written in romanized form it is:
Higashi Azabu IS Bldg 4F, Higashi Azabu 1-8-1, Minato-ku Tokyo 106-0044
Let’s break this down into the different parts!
Part 1: Postal Code
The first part is the postal code. The symbol 〒 stands for “postal code”. Postal codes in Japan are in this format: NNN-NNNN (three digits hyphen four digits).
Part 2: Prefecture
The next part of any address is the municipality. There are 47 different possibilities here because there are 47 so-called prefectures in the country, but more simply, there are only five main combinations:
- Any prefecture (other than Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or Hokkaido) followed by -県 (ken). For example, 青森県 (Aomori-ken or Aomori Prefecture). So, forty-three of the prefectures would be written this way in an address.
- Tokyo-To (東京都) As the capital, Tokyo is given its own special suffix of -To (都), which means “metropolis”.
- Osaka-Fu (大坂府) Osaka is given the special suffix of -Fu (府), which means “urban prefecture”.
- Kyoto-Fu (京都府) Kyoto is also given the special suffix of -Fu (府), which means “urban prefecture”.
- Hokkaido (北海道) Hokkaido is a prefecture but is designated as a -Dou (道), which means “circuit”.
In Japanese, Japan’s 43 prefectures (which are actually called -ken), the Tokyo metropolis, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido are collectively referred to as 都道府県 (To-Dou-Fu-Ken).
When you are looking at a fully written out address in Japanese, the first section after the postal code always starts with the name of one of the prefectures, Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto and ends with one of these kanji: 都, 道, 府, 県 (To-Dou-Fu-Ken).
Real Estate Japan is located in Tokyo. In our address: 〒106-0044東京都港区東麻布1-8-1 東麻布ISビル4F, the prefecture would be 東京都 (Tokyo-to).
Part 3: Municipality
This is the next division after prefecture. Generally speaking, there are three main possibilities here:
- [Name] -Shi (市). Shi means “city”. It is a designation that is given to a geographic entity that has sufficient population to earn it. For example, Sapporo, Chiba, Yokohama, Kobe, and Hiroshima are given the -shi suffix. Tokyo-to has 26 -shi within its administrative borders, for example, Chōfu and Hachiōji.
- [Name] -Ku (区). Ku means “ward”. This is a designation given to sub-sections of cities with sufficiently large populations to be named “designated cities”. For administrative purposes, the 23 Wards of Tokyo are not just called “wards” (区) in Japanese but are named “special wards” (特別区). In common usage, we refer to them as wards, but they are so large in population and so important in administrative terms that the wards are officially “cities”. If you visit your ward office’s website, you’ll see that its official title is “city”.
- [Name] – Gun (郡). Gun means “county”. This is a designation given to geographic areas that don’t have a sufficiently large population to be designated a -shi. Many rural areas have addresses that contain -gun in the address.
In Real Estate Japan’s address: 〒106-0044東京都港区東麻布1-8-1 東麻布ISビル4F, the municipality would be 港区 (Minato Ward).
Part 4: Machi or Cho (町) or Son (村)
After municipality, some addresses are then broken into “towns” (machi or cho, 町) or “villages” (son, 村), but not all addresses contain this designation.
Real Estate Japan’s address does not contain this sub-division.
Here’s an address that does: 〒160-0017東京都新宿区左門町21-2. 左門町 is read “Samon-Cho”
Part 5: City District Name (Chōme, 丁目) and Block (Banchi, 番地)
The next part of a typical Japanese address contains
- City district (Chōme,丁目) name and number
- City block (Banchi, 番地) number and
- House number (Gō, 号)
These three designations are usually separated by hyphens.
In Real Estate Japan’s address 〒106-0044東京都港区東麻布1-8-1 東麻布ISビル4F, this would be: 東麻布1-8-1, which is read Higashi Azabu ichi-no-hachi-no-ichi.
This means we are located in the first district of Higashi Azabu, block 8, house (building) number 1. Hyphens are read “no“. Ichi means “one” and hachi means “eight”.
This part of the address could also be written 東麻布１丁目８番地１号, but the hyphens are understood to mean that the first part refers to the district name and number, the second to the block, and the third to the house or building number.
It’s also much easier to read and write hyphens than all the kanji, and it is not uncommon to omit, chōme, banchi, and gō when writing addresses or addressing mail.
This part of a Japanese address is often the most difficult to deal with when reading a map and trying to find the corresponding points to a written address.
Start by finding the name of the district, then find the district number (chōme), then the block number (banchi).
Here are some general guidelines for finding these designations on a map:
- Chōme are usually assigned based on the proximity to the center of the municipality and were originally assigned in the order they were registered.
- Banchi blocks are often irregularly shaped. Since banchi numbers were assigned in the order they were registered, in older parts of a city, they will not be in linear order and proximate numbers may not even be geographically adjacent.
- Gō (house numbers) were assigned based on when they were built or were assigned in clockwise order around the block.
Part 6: Apartment Numbers
If the address contains an apartment number, it may be added with a hyphen immediately after the building number.
For example, in this made-up address: 〒106-0044東京都港区東麻布1-8-1-801, the apartment number would be 801.
Town Block Indicator Plates (街区表示板 gaiku-hyōjiban)
In larger cities and towns, you’ll see metal town block indicator plates attached to buildings and utility poles. These tell you the block (banchi) you are in. Some even have the romanized reading of the address.
Here’s an example:
Exceptions: Kyoto and Sapporo
The address system used in Kyoto and Sapporo differ from the official national address system we outlined above.
Please refer to Wikipedia’s very thorough explanation of the address systems used in these two cities.
Top Photo: Taken at Dogenzaka 2 Chome, Tokyo