In Japan, a house number refers to a block, not to a street. Actually, most streets don't even have a name, so you couldn't use them to give a direction. An address in Tokyo follows a hierarchical scheme, from the block up to the ward. Here is a typical one, followed by an explanation of each component in it:

10-32, Akasaka 8 Chome, Minato-Ku, Tokyo

The whole system looks rational at first sight, but:

  • Finding a block inside a district is often very difficult. You have to wander between the blocks looking at the block number panels until you find it. Your task is easier when the map indicates the block numbers. But very often, outside central Tokyo, the map will only indicate the district name, and you'll have to find the block yourself. Or your map may be outdated...
  • Inside the block, the houses are numbered according to when they were built, not to where they are located in the block. House number #32 will probably not stand by house number #33 or #34. You may have to turn around the whole block before you find it.

On the whole, I think it's harder to find an address in Japan than in Western countries. I may be biased by my Western origins but, in European cities, you won't need to wander around blocks during fifteen minutes if you have a good map with all street names and an index, unless it's a streetless area built in the 60s or 70s. And the map will be lighter in your pocket, because a good map of Tokyo is necessarily a 30- or 50-page book.

On the other hand, a Japanese address clearly indicates in which part of the city you must go, and a Tokyo denizen can probably guess the nearest underground station from the ward and district names.


TheLady tells me that a similar system is used in Israel, although the streets have names too.

A few additional points worth noting:
  • The address can be written in a number of different ways. The style of thbz's example is mildly old-fashioned, these days the standard style would be the more concise Akasaka 8-10-32, prepending the chome. In Japanese, the dash is read (and can be written) "no", meaning "of" (8 of 10 of 32). This is vaguely analogous to DNS. An apartment number can also be suffixed, eg. I used to live at Komaba 4-6-29-508. Alternatively, you can expand the address all the way: Akasaka 8-chome 10-cho 32-ban.

  • The ordering of the address bits seems highly random at first sight, but this is an illusion caused by the incompatibility of the Japanese and Western systems. In the West, addresses go from specific to general -- name, number, street, town, country -- whereas in Japan the order is cleanly reversed. Thus, in Japanese, the address above would be Tokyo-to Minato-ku Akasaka 8-10-32, which fits quite nicely on one line when written in kanji. Alas, this gets mutated in all sorts of bizarre ways when mapped to romaji and massaged so that gaijin postmasters can deal with it.

  • While the ordering by construction date makes finding addresses in the older parts of town fiendishly difficult, newer planned suburbs will quite often be very nice and logical. Some massive apartment danchi -- the miles-long concrete wasteland near Funabashi, Chiba comes to mind -- even have the numbers stenciled on them in 5-meter-high letters.

  • The length of an address is a good indication of how urban the area is. A 4-6-29-508 is obviously an apartment in a heavily built-up suburb, whereas a mere 4-6 is almost certainly in a smaller town. By the time the area name is trailed by a single number, you can be sure that the nearest neighbors are rice paddies and mountains.

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