One of the most frustrating things many foreigners in Tokyo find are the addresses.
In America at least, it is second nature that addresses are based on roads. Each road has a name and the buildings are numbered according to the road. Why would you name specific blocks of buildings? People travel down roads, so they must be named! Even Google Maps makes this assumption so clear:
Take this street block in Seattle, for example. All the streets are clearly marked, and even some streets have numbers to make the addressing system easier.
But what about Japan? When I first came here, I asked all my friends what streets they lived on or what the name of a specific street was, and they couldn’t tell me.
My friend’s couldn’t tell me what the name of the street they lived on was.
Something seemed fishy. Then I looked really hard at a map, like Google Maps:
No, really, where are the street names? There were none. It was at that moment that I learned that the foundational unit of addresses in Tokyo is not streets, but blocks.
Organization of Addresses in Tokyo
Using the foundation of the block as a point of reference, addresses in Tokyo became a lot simpler. Addresses of individual houses, like their American counterparts, have specific numbers for each house called “go” (号). Each house is organized in a housing black, or “ban” (番), which is then organized into a larger group, called a “cho” (丁), which are normally numbered according to order, so you will normally hear the word “cho-me” (丁目) when referring to this. Cho are organized according to “shi” (市) or “ku” (区), which both more or less mean “city.” Then comes the prefecture (which in this case is Tokyo-to/東京都), then the zip code, then the whole country.
building number < ban < cho < shi/ku < Tokyo-to < zip code < country
Addresses in Tokyo are organized from from largest area to smallest area
In America, we tend to start with house number and progressively move on to larger blocks of area:
555 N. 25th St. Sometown, Somestate, 12345, USA
There are two ways to write Addresses in Tokyo (in English or Japanese)
If you are writing the address in English, you use the same convention as in America, writing from smallest area to largest area. According to the JP Post Office Website, you write address in English in the following order:
- 1st Row ： From: First name Last name
- 2nd Row ： Name of the building, like an apartment bldg. and room number (if applicable)
- 3rd Row ： House number, street, town/village
- 4th Row ： City, Prefecture/State/Province
- 5th Row ： Postal Code, Country
If you are writing in Japanese (using Kanji), just as the word order of Japanese is opposite from English, the address order is opposite as well. The typical organization of an address in Japanese is
Name, 日本、Zip code、東京都、区／市、丁目、番、号、 House name、room number (号室)
Here is an example of an address in both Japanese and in English:
Useful Tips Smith
Yamada Heights, #949
Minato ku, Tokyo,
〒123-4567 東京都港区２７丁目３２−５ ヤマダハイツ ９４９号室
Finding Addresses in Tokyo
In the West, it was second nature to look up and see the street signs, oriented in the direction of the street. But other than at large intersections, they are relatively non-existent in Japan.
In Tokyo, there are many signs located on buildings or blocks in order to help you know where you are. Walking on the street, you will find signs like this on telephone poles, etc:
The sign above clearly shows which city you are in, along with the cho and the ban of the block you are standing on right now. Please note that cho and ban are not always organized in a clear order and may be placed rather haphazardly.
When looking for a specific building, you will normally find a very small sign, similar to this on a building:
This number shows you which number building it is in the specific ban. Not all buildings have these, and I’ve had a real headache sometimes trying to find them.
In conclusion: Japanese Addresses are Confusing!
Even with all this information, it is still difficult to find addresses in Tokyo, and I still find myself walking around sometimes for 20 minutes to find an address. This is one of the reasons why Japanese people rely so much on directions from trains stations, not addresses outright.
What I and most Japanese people end up doing is use google maps, include a lot of visual cues when giving directions, and hope for the best.