Where The Streets Have No Name


Yesterday’s post about translating signs reminded me of something I have long noticed, but rarely comment about. Japanese streets have names; however, most maps don’t have street names written on them. Additionally, although there are tons of signs on streets, I rarely see street signs. Signs listing the name of a street usually appear mid-block rather than at intersections.

While driving down a street, occasionally you can see a sign that lets you know you are on the correct street; but, approaching an intersection, you probably won’t be certain if you are turning onto the correct street. This system explains why there are so many other signs. Many directional signs can be seen: hospital to the right; post office 200m ahead; castle park to the left.

Generally people give directions like halfway between the Miyako Hotel and NHK building or one block from Furukawa Park. One foreigner always referred to ‘the AM/PM street’, which always left me wondering if they meant the street running in front of the store, but they always meant the street running down the side of the store.

Japan developed from a strong feudal society that lasted for a long time and, only recently, was abandoned in phases. There is still a strong connection to the feudal system and it is reflected in regional boundaries, paths of roads and highways, and address systems.

Typically an address is a descending list of regions and sub-regions.

  • 県 Ken – Prefecture (also 都、道、府 – To, Dou, or Fu)
  • 区 Ku – Ward
  • 郡 Gun – County
  • 市 Shi – City
  • 町 Chou (or Machi) – Township (or District)
  • 丁目 Choume – Sub-district
  • 番 Ban – Block
  • 号 Gou – Building number (I think)

There are more subdivisions that I did not list here, but most of them are rarely used or mostly apply to unincorporated areas. Not all of these will appear in every address. For example: my current address uses Ken, Shi, Chou, Ban, Gou; before incorporation it used Ken, Gun, Chou, Ban, Gou; and my original address used Ken, Shi, Chou, Choume, Ban, Gou.

There are weaknesses to this system and I prefer the system used in Western Washington; however, given a map, I can find an address pretty quickly. Another complicating factor in small towns is that many houses will not have the address posted. Instead they usually have a small plaque with their name painted on or carved into it. Sometimes there is signboard in the neighborhood with every house marked on a map with the family name clearly written. In America we might complain about violation of privacy, but these signs are quite convenient.

3 Responses to “Where The Streets Have No Name”

  1. afternoonbeauty Says:

    Well, having seen your more advanced wisdom in the dealings of Japan, I believe I could make use of you once I’ve conquered all Asia. (Can’t ignore destiny.) Congratulations on your license, and good luck in your conquest–we’ll iron out the details once I’m High Chancellor. (I promise good health benefits.)

    I am from the wonderful metropolis of Chicago. I have to admit, though, as much as I love the city, it kind of puts a damper on your trick-or-treating when you have to wear a winter coat and boots.

  2. びっくり Says:

    For good health benefits I am willing to play second fiddle.

    Chicago? I thought you were living in Japan for some reason. Winter coats put a damper on trick-or-treating, but here nobody ever has candy and they always wonder why a stranger is showing up in a costume at their house; that really puts a damper on things.

  3. afternoonbeauty Says:

    No, Japan is hopefully next year for me–year-long foreign exchange. I’ll know for sure in exactly a month where my destination is, but so far all indications point to Japan. We’ll see–I’m afraid of jinxing anything, even though I’m not superstitious. Which makes little to no sense, really.

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