Most Streets in Japan Don’t Have Names

Today I found out most streets in Japan don’t have names.

In Japan, they use a very different addressing system than is used in most Western countries.  Rather than streets having names (the space in between blocks), they give blocks numbers and leave the space in between the blocks, streets, nameless. (There are some exceptions to this where certain streets do have names, like main thoroughfares, though these names are generally largely ignored by locals, postal workers, etc.)

To illustrate how this system works from a practical standpoint, look at the map on the right.  The city area is divided up into blocks, with each one being given a number. If you want to find some location, rather than asking what street something’s on, you’d rather ask what block it is in.

When you are on a particular street and wonder how to get to a specific block; you can’t intuitively know that if you continue along the street, you’ll get to a specific block that exists adjacent to that street.  Rather, you’d either need to be familiar with the area, or need a map/GPS/etc.  Luckily, you’ll notice if you walk around Japanese cities, you’ll see maps posted in key locations like train stations and bus stops, so locating a block, relative to your current location, usually isn’t that difficult.

One of the other interesting things about this type of system is how you actually find something within a block.  For instance, houses or buildings within a block are assigned a number.  However, this number typically is not in any obvious order when just looking at it.  House 1 might be right next to House 11, and right next to that might be House 7.  What’s going on here is usually buildings are assigned numbers based on when they were built within the block.  So when the block was first formed, if there were three buildings in it, these would be assigned the numbers 1, 2, and 3.  If another building is built later, regardless of where in the block it is built related to building 1, 2, and 3, it would be assigned the number 4, and so on.

As you might expect, this can make it a tad confusing to find a specific place within a block.  However, given that blocks aren’t typically overly large, specific addresses within a block can usually be located fairly quickly, even on foot, so it’s not as much of a problem as one might initially expect.

While overall this type of addressing system seems inefficient, at least from this Westerner’s perspective, this type of system is fairly nice in terms of being able to locate something on a map very quickly.  It also gets rid of certain slight ambiguities that can pop up in Western conventions.  For instance, if two roads intersect one another multiple times, simply saying “I’m at 4th and Main” doesn’t necessarily tell anyone much about your location; the person looking for you also might not know this happens with those two roads, so thinks they know where you are, but ultimately can’t find you.

Further, if Main runs through the entire town, you’d want to tell them roughly which side of town that address is at, which is particularly important for people walking or riding a bike.  With the block system, you just say “I’m at block 62.”  There’s no ambiguity there.  While you’ll still need to consult a map if you don’t know where block 62 is at, you’ll usually be able to locate that block extremely quickly because of the way the blocks are laid out.  Locating a particular street on a Western map is often not nearly as easy in large cities.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another difference in the Japanese address system from typical Western systems is that addresses are written from large area to small, rather than small to large, as in Western addressing systems.  For instance, in the United States, you’d write something like 510 Fairview Pl, Seaside, FL 32459.  You start with the smallest geographic unit, the building, and go to the largest, the state, with the zip code tacked onto the end (note: the zip code system is not actually necessary.  Read more about what ZIP stands for and why we use this system, despite it not being necessary, here: What the “ZIP” in “Zip Code” Stands For).  In the Japanese system, it’s the other way around.  You start with the largest division, the prefecture, and work on down to the specific address within a block.  So, for instance, the Japanese address:
    • 〒100-8994
      Tōkyō-to Chūō-ku Yaesu 1-Chōme 5-ban 3-gō
      Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku’

    Would translate to the Western system as:

    • Tokyo Central Post Office
      5-3, Yaesu 1-Chome
      Chuo-ku, Tokyo 100-8994
  • As another example of a difference in thinking between cultures, in China, there are some doctors who are paid not when you need help from them (when you’re sick), but rather when you are well.  So if you are healthy, you pay the doctor a certain amount per month, because they’ve managed to keep you healthy that month.  When you are sick, they get paid nothing until you are once again healthy.  In some respects, this isn’t that different than paying for really good health insurance where they pay 100% of the bill when you receive health care.
  • South and North Korea also use a similar addressing system to the Japanese.  However, this has been changing recently in South Korea where they now use more of a two address system, beginning to use the Western style addressing system, with street names, along with the old block system.
  • The current addressing system in Japan is a slight modification of the addressing system used during the Meiji era.  This system was modified just after WWII to the present system we see today.
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  • In Colombia the streets have names. At least, there are street signs with names just as there are here. However, that’s not the official address. All the cities are built on a grid structure, with streets going one are called “calles” or streets, and those going the other way, “carreras” of avenues/highways. Thus, address “Kr 72 no. 14-28”, means house no. 28 of Carrera 72, between Calle 14 and Calle 15.