How does the Japanese addressing system work?

How the address is composed

The Japanese addressing system is based on areas, subdivided from big to small. The largest division is called a "Prefecture" in English. There are 47 prefectures in Japan. A prefecture can be one of four things in Japanese, To (都), capital, for Tokyo only, (道), territory, for Hokkaido only, Fu (府), metropolis, for Osaka and Kyoto, and 43 Ken (県), which cover the rest of the country.

The Ken are divided into counties, Gun (郡), or cities, Shi (市). Small cities are generally divided into Chō (町). This is translated as "town" or "village" in the dictionary, but corresponds to "areas" or "neighbourhoods". Big cities are divided into Ku (区), "wards".

Wards are divided into Chō (町), though sometimes the name doesn't include the word Chō. Sometimes the Chō are divided into Chōme (丁目), which are numbered divisions of a Chō. Then the blocks are numbered and, at the lowest level, the building has a number. Finally comes the room or apartment number. For an apartment, the name of the apartment building is often included. However, it is not necessary for mail. It is, however, a convenience for visitors who ask for directions.

The buildings within a block are either numbered in the order that they were built, so they jump all around, or numbered in clockwise order around the block. In this clockwise numbering there is sometimes skipping of several numbers for later assignment, where future construction between existing buildings is possible.

Diagram of the composition of the Japanese address system

               YUUBINBANGOU (Zip/Postal Code)
                    / \
   ,---------------'   `-----------,
  /      |                         |
 TO    FU (Metropolis)     KEN or DO (Prefecture)
   \              \          /     \
    \              \        /       \
     \              \      /         \
      \----------------------------, |
       \              \  /          \|
        \              \/            V
         \          SHI (City)    GUN (Rural area)
          \             /|           |
           \           / |           |
            \         /  |          /|
             \       /   |_________/ |
              \     /    /           |
           KU (Ward)    /            |
                \      /             |
                 \    /              |
                  \  /               |
                   \/                |
            CHOU=MACHI (Town)     MURA (Village)
                     \               /
                      \             /
               *CHOUME (District)  /
                               \  /
                               /  \
                              /    \
                 *BANCHI (Block)  *BAN (Block)
                             |      |
                             |      |
                              \   *GO (Building)
                               \   /
                                \ /
                           Building name
                       *GO (Room/Apt #, etc.)

Writing the address in Japanese

Written in Japanese, an address reads like this:
〒150-2345 東京都渋谷区本町2丁目4-7サニーマンション203
150-2345 Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Hommachi 2 choume, 4-7, Sunny Mansion 203.
The first number is the postal code, "2" is the subdivision of the "chō", "4" is the block number and "7" is the building number.

Writing the address in English

Written in English, it would look like this (if you follow the Japan P.O. guidelines):

Sunny Mansion #203
4-7 Hommachi 2-choume
Shibuya-ku, TOKYO 150-2345
However, most folks abbreviate it like this:
2-4-7-203 Hommachi
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-2345

For addresses in large cities (Yokohama, for example) many people omit the larger division (Kanagawa-ken, in the case of Yokohama).

The ken, to, etc., can always be omitted if the postal code is correct. The city name should be capable of omission then too, but that isn't ordinarily done.

There can't be a ku name directly below a fu (since Kyoto and Osaka are both shi), but this is a technicality which the Post Office is sure to overlook. In addition to gun, there are Shichō (市町) below Tokyo which contain Chō and son (which would normally be under gun). (There are also Shichō below Hokkaido, but they contain shi and gun as would be expected.)

As far as the address after shi, ku, machi/Chō or mura/son is concerned, trying to reach a consensus on what is what may well be an exercise in hair-splitting.

There's a problem with duplicate terminology where the part about Chō (under shi, ku, machi/Chō or mura/son) is concerned. There doesn't seem to be a consistent term for these smaller divisions (they seem to be called shigaichi (市外地) in heavily populated areas, and in the country they are often called aza (字), and sometimes an aza is divided into several division names.)

The chōme part is not present in many addresses, and in this case the address may either end in banchi (番地) or contain ban and gou. Banchi/ban may be single blocks, parts of blocks, or split into several blocks. Gou may be single buildings, complexes of several buildings, or parts of compound buildings. Some addresses contain the specification mubanchi (無番地) ("no banchi").


Extremely detailed maps are published for all urban areas. Anyone who can read Japanese may be able to identify any address within a 2 or 3 minute walk. The most detailed bilingual ones are not as good. Of course even a bilingual map as detailed as the Japanese ones would still be very hard for foreigners to use, because the signs are in Japanese only.

Postal codes

All postal codes conform to a 7 digit format XXX-XXXX. This was introduced by Japan Post on February 2, 1998. It is theoretically possible to put the postal code followed by the address from chōme "downwards", although in some areas the postal code may go over chōme boundaries. Before the introduction of the 3-4 system country areas and large city areas had sub-codes, eg. 316-0002 or 150-0001, but now all codes comply. The large area encompassed by 100 (central Tokyo) is now split into up to 9999 sub-areas. A book was put out so people could look up the new code from the old address.


Edited from posts by JimmieJenkins, Norman Diamond, Peter Dunning and Miller to the newsgroup. The correction concerning the new postal codes was contributed by Mike Lyford.

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