Where the Streets Have No Name

Have you ever heard the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Name”? I’ve always wondered if this was some sort of deep metaphor with a hidden meaning, but on second thoughts, I think Bono was just talking about getting lost in Japan!

If you’ve ever come across a Japanese address before, you’ll know that they’re about as long as an essay, and even more complicated. If you’ve never run into the concept of a Japanese address, it’s about as opposite as you can get from the western addresses we are familiar with.

With the exception of major roads, Japanese streets are not named. Streets are simply an empty space between blocks, they don’t have an identity. Instead, cities and towns are subdivided into areas, subareas and blocks, similar to the insulae system of the Roman empire. It is a completely different, but perfectly valid, system of structuring and organising cities. But to complicate the matter even more, houses within each subarea are not formerly numbered in geographical sequence but in the order in which they were built. It must be a nightmare for their postal workers!

Nippon the subway

For this reason trying to get directions to a location can be a bit of an ordeal! Most people will offer visual landmarks like stadiums, parks, and subway stations such as “at Chūō-dori and Matsuya-dori across the street from Matsuya and Ginza station”, for a shop in Tokyo. In fact, most businesses will include maps on their literature and business cards. But this is by no means unique to Japan, reference points are used in lieu of addresses in other places all around the world, including Costa Rica, Albania and even India.

In Japanese, addresses are written using the complete opposite convention from the addresses we are used to, starting with the biggest geographical entities down to the more specific ones. They start with the postal code (a 7 digit format), followed by the region, city and subarea, and end with the name of the addressee. If addresses are written in English, they start with the recipient’s name and end with the prefecture and postal code.

Tackling Tokyo

Still confused? Derek Sivers covers the topic well in this insightful yet highly entertaining video.

As interesting or as humorous as these addressing differences may seem, they can have some serious consequences for international data management. So unless you have a wealth of knowledge on the variations in global data at your disposal, you will find yourself forever fighting data fires, and never achieving any level of data quality.

If you do have any questions please direct them to me at Postcode Anywhere opposite the big tree, 2 miles north-west from the train station.

  • This reminds me of the addresses in some parts of India where the residential (commercial too) address are written using plot, block, sector, location name etc.
    An example would be: Plot Y-14, Block-EP, Sector-V, Salt Lake. In these cases, streets may or may not have names and the same may or may not be used in the addresses.

  • Merry Law

    And the buildings are numbered in the order in which they were built, so they are not sequential.

    To make it more interesting, there is also a very formal and rarely used Japanese-character address format where the lines are written top to bottom, with the “first” line on the left and the postal code above the address lines.

    One caution: Japanese addresses are written “starting with the biggest geographical entities down to the more specific ones” in Japanese characters. If they are transliterated, the lines are written in the same order as Western addresses. No matter which language they are in, if the item is mailed internationally, the country name must be written at the bottom of the address block.

  • Dylan Jones

    This reminds me of when I visited my father in New Zealand. In parts of the country they just use the nearest town name and then the number of kilometres the property lies on the main road from the main town!

  • Gwen Thomas

    Good post. When I was a kid, my mom got a letter from my aunt that was addressed to Donna Thomas, on the big lake in the middle of town, Sebring, Florida. Our small-town mail carriers all had deep knowledge of their domains. Seems to me that many organizations rely on this type of data knowledge for many data-driven processes.

  • Lisa Simpson

    Great post, I have a bit of an affinity with the Japanese (no – i’m not that lisa Simpson!!!)

    Where can we have a play with your Japanese data? It would be incredibly useful but I can’t find it anywhere on the site, thanks so much

    • Guy Mucklow

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your feedback. Judging by the comments, the quirks of international addressing formats is a topic that is not only interesting, but personal too.

      With regards to your question, I’m afraid that we don’t currently have good enough data to support a proper Japanese addressing solution. Our existing supplier has recently changed and we haven’t had the time to find a suitable replacement. We will, however, note your details and get back in touch for you to try it when we have something in place.