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Japanese addressing system (wikipedia.org)
80 points by jakestein on Aug 10, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 64 comments

I think lots of places don't have the numbering system that Americans take for granted.

In Vietnam my address is something like 422/35/11 Dien Bien Phu, Ward 17, Binh Thanh district, Ho Chi Minh City.

The number means "go to the building #422 on the main road and turn down the unnamed road you see there; drive until you see the house numbered 35 and turn down the unnamed road THERE; then proceed to number 11."

Make sure you're looking for #422 in Ward 17 and not some other stretch of the same road that might reuse those numbers.

Oh, and if you're still using the old address system then I'm actually at 107/11b. ("B" because a single lot was subdivided once upon a time.)

Notice there are no zip codes.

99% of web forms outside of Vietnam can't handle my actual address. They require a zip code or disallow the "/" character or don't have room anywhere to write the Ward and District. Last time I checked, Open Street Maps didn't know how to parse my address and find my house.

And this is for a country with 100 million people -- more than France, the Netherlands, and Belgium combined. I'm sure other developing countries, also with tens of millions of people, have their own idiosyncrasies that get papered over by Western developers.

> don't have the numbering system that Americans take for granted

I’ll take a second to point out that American addresses are bizarre to many Europeans, for the same reason that your dates are; the room number or suite number is written _after_ the street number.

Random addendum: in the UK, a postcode plus a small number will accurately identify most addresses, and when entering an address online you’ll be asked for a postcode and then prompted to choose from about 20 residences or businesses that that could be

I wouldn't call them 'bizarre', just different. You already mentioned the ordering thing. What's also quite different is that in Europe street numbers are usually consecutive while in the US you usually use the top digits for the block number and the bottom digit for the number in the block. That's why you barely see street numbers over 2 digits in Europe while they're usually 4 digits even for small streets in the US.

I guess the American system has its advantages when you split up properties. In Europe you sometimes end up with numbers like 12A, 12B etc. that way.

> What's also quite different is that in Europe street numbers are usually consecutive while in the US you usually use the top digits for the block number and the bottom digit for the number in the block

Years ago I rented a newly constructed house in an outer suburb of Sydney, Australia. The suburb had (at the time) only been recently developed. The real estate agent told me the address I was renting was "Lot 8 Whatever Rd". I move in and get all the utilities transferred into my name. A couple of months later, I get a notice under my door warning that my electricity is going to be disconnected because I hadn't paid my bill. I found that odd since I had paid it. The next day, come home to find the power is off. Call the real estate agent, who sends out an electrician who discovers someone (presumably the electricity company) has removed the service fuse. He puts it back in. I call up the electricity company to complain.

Soon I discover the answer: "Whatever Rd" actually had three separate houses on it all called "Lot 8". I'd actually been paying the electricity bill of the "Lot 8" up the road. I give the electricity company the meter number from my electricity meter and they sent me a bill adjustment, no more problems with them. But, I keep on having problems with mail going missing, and getting other people's mail, because with three "Lot 8"s on one street, the post office doesn't know which one should get the mail, they seem to distribute it randomly between them.

I complain to the real estate agent about the street address situation. He says to me: "Nothing the landlord can do about it, street addressing is responsibility of the local council." I sent the local council an email to complain. Their response – "We can't assign new house numbers to that street yet, because development plans have not yet been approved for all the former rural blocks, so we don't know how many street numbers will be needed." I say – "Can't you just work out the maximum number of houses each of those blocks could possibly have, given planning regulations, and reserve that many for them, maybe even a few more for a margin of error?". Their response – "No, we can't do that. Then there might be gaps in the street numbers. Gaps in street numbers are not allowed."

They did tell me I could disambiguate my address by adding the development plan (DP) number to it (the DP is the legal plan approved by the government for subdivision of the original rural block of land). So my house was "Lot 8 DP 12345678" and the other "Lot 8"'s were "Lot 8 DP 4567890" etc. I asked how the post office would know what DP number my "Lot 8" was. The council said I should stick a sign out the front, next to the mailbox, with the DP number on it.

I didn't stay in that house for long, as soon as the fixed term of the lease was up, moved out.

But it did convince me that the American approach is actually superior.

What you're describing as "American" is official standard in Sweden, ie:

> Kungsgatan 10 A LGH 1301

King's street 10, staircase A, apartment 1302 which means third floor (10 being ground, 01 being basement), then second apartment counting clockwise, meaning it could be on your right if there are just two per floor.

That's not "American". The house number comes first in the US, e.g.

> 10 Main Street Apt# 150

Which frankly just looks weird. At least the Scandinavian standard has them in a sensible order.

In Denmark it could be:

> Bredgade 10, 3. th

On Wide Street 10, 3rd floor, on the right (th being short for 'til højre'; others being mf (midt for; middle) and tv (til venstre; on the left) -- if more than three on the same floor, just a hyphen followed by a number).

Plus our post numbers come before the city name, which is also more useful.

I guess it is similar to date ordering. Sweden has been using yyyy-mm-dd partly because it's easier to sort on dates. Even before the computers, on official documents for archives. Having Street addresses with the house number last also makes sense, first I want to find the right street, then I can start searching for the house number and last the apartment.

Generally with written addresses in America it goes on a second line, which makes sense to my American brain. Different lines do different things, locate the building, then the specific area of the building.

> 10 Main Street

> Apt. 150

>... in the UK ...

Which I wouldn't use as an example, set aside postal codes (that do work nicely for the postman) actual addresses (meaning actually driving/walking to a given address) are not as straightforward/easy as in continental Europe.

See the classic "How to be an Alien" by George Mikes, the seven points in Chapter 21 "How to plan a town" remain IMHO a masterpiece.

What really makes me perplex sometimes about our US friends is their way of numbering floors:


Not entirely unlike when a program (or OS) starts numbering items from 0 when another program (or OS) starts numbering them from 1.

A small but possibly interesting addendum to this European/American split on suite/apartment number placement... Here in Australia, they both work fine and seem to be widely interchangeable. Many systems I’ve used don’t force either choice and simply let me put it in as “address line one” and “address line two”. Australia Post, DHL, and basically everyone I’ve ever sent/received mail or parcels using, seem to be totally fine handling both of these formats in Australia.

OpenStreetMap/Nominatim routinely fails to work with simple bog-standard addresses around here, a major metropolitan area in the US.

The reason, I believe, is that the city portion of addresses in this area often doesn't match the actual boundaries: locations well outside of the named city or town still have that in their address.

Addresses are hard. And they don't necessarily line up as nicely with the data needed to make a map as you might think. And this is just for the "easy" stuff, really.

Nicaragua's is amazing in as much as they have neither street names nor numbers in a lot of places

An example address:

> Donde fue Lacmiel, 2 cuadras arriba, 1/2 cuadra al sur (translated: where previously was located Lacmiel 2 blocks east, 1/2 block south).


> go to the building #422 on the main road and turn down the unnamed road you see there; drive until you see the house numbered 35 and turn down the unnamed road THERE; then proceed to number 11."

There are 2 options for after 422 depending on which direction you are facing How is that resolved and understood

No there aren't two directions. There is only one road next to #422. On the other side of the street there might also be a road at #411 but that is (clearly) a different road.

These aren't 4 way intersections. Instead it is a main road with what an American would call an alley branching off of it. And the same distinction applies in Vietnamese, I live on a hẻm ("alley") not on a đường ("road" or "street"). These side alleys are almost never big enough for two cars to pass. Sometimes they aren't even big enough for two scooters or bicycles to pass.

I see an address handling startup in the future!

I know "what3words", proprietary algorithm with patents, and "plus.codes", from Google with a free license IIRC.

That's so interesting, thanks for sharing.

I used to manage address data in a insurance company in Tokyo. We had about 20% of all Japanese addresses in the database.

It was a challenging job.

Parsing the new addresses, normalising them and matching them to existing addresses was a major effort.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism publishes electronic data about historical addresses as huge address changes have been done over time with the creation of new cities and metropolitan areas. That all has to be factored in when trying to normalise a pre change address.

Rural addresses get weird. Sometimes we had to try and find anomalies on a map to check that they were possible addresses.

In the end, the biggest help to find mistakes in the data is to send a postcard to that address. If it gets returned then investigate the reason.

As an engineer who did this for US addresses for about 6 years, my hat goes off to you. salute

There is something deeply satisfying to me when a non-technical solution (sending a postcard) is used to solve what could be seen as a purely technical problem.

But I suppose it depends on which department is in charge of the project. In the places I've worked, if the project is deemed to be IT-related in any way, a "meatspace" solution like this would never see the light of day.

How is this a purely technical problem? I'd argue it's a purely non-technical problem, especially in the many cases where e.g. the postal worker needs some implicit knowledge to make the right decisions.

Hello from Osaka :)

I love the way Japanese cities are laid out, and accept this system as a consequence of that. The haphazard layout is very aesthetically pleasing and walking from A to B, while requiring a winding and inefficient route, is a very pleasant experience. I live in Philadelphia, where the grid is convenient but feels suffocating and artificial. The more organic layout is much warmer.

Or, you can go to Europe that have an organic layout like in Japan but street names and numbers like in US.

So you can have a pleasant experience following an inefficient route but still reach your destination.

That organic tree-like structure is often more efficient than always taking only 90 degree turns

I've traveled a lot and Osaka holds a special place in my heart. I felt so peaceful and relaxed, despite being a major city.

When written in Japanese characters, addresses start with the largest geographical entity and proceed to the most specific one. When written in Latin characters, addresses follow the convention used by most Western addresses and start with the smallest geographic entity (typically a house number) and proceed to the largest.

Big and little-endian, in other words.

I don't quite get why the latter became widespread in the west, though - we read text from top to bottom, we pinpoint addresses by drilling going from the largest geographical entries down to the smallest, why make them go reverse against each other?

One benefit I can think of is that the volume of addresses that the average person reads tends to decrease with distance from the person's home. This means that in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom language, you can start reading from the beginning of the address, and as it gets more general, eventually you hit a point where it becomes identical to your address for the rest of it, so you can stop reading. For example, when reading an address in the city I live in, I can read the number and the street, and then once I see the city name, I can stop, since I know everything I need to. This would be a bit more difficult if you had to start from the bottom right and work your way backwards, so I'm guessing that the ordering was chosen to maximize efficiency for those common, local cases.

Exactly, it's the same reason most date formats don't start with the year, even though it is the most significant of the numbers. If I write 12-8-2019, the 12 is the most important number for me, in speech I will usually refer to the date as "the 12th". In the same way, if I'm telling my address to someone, I'll just say the street address, since we can assume I live in the country we're in right now (which of course doesn't work on the internet, hence we specify additional information at the end).

Yes, and at least historically, you can also write only the short part of the addresses that differs from yours. Just put the street address if sending it in the same town, and let the postal service take care of the rest. Today sorting centres are more centralised and that's not a good idea. But you don't include a line for the country if you're sending a letter domestically.

I moved to the UK more than five years ago and cannot get enough of this algorithmic postcode system here. It narrows down almost to the house on some occasions, while postcodes in my home country are basically "within 100 miles".

Also if a address get more than 20 items of mail per day. The Post Office will give you your own post code.

Canada's postal codes are also like this.

I don’t know, before i moved here the system was kind of confusing but having lived here for a year, i think it is pretty neat system! I really have had no need for street names after i learned to understand it.

(And you know, writing the address to google maps gives you pretty precise location)

When I was living in Japan, the most confusing thing was that most roads, except large ones, didn't have names. People would either draw me a map to show me how to get somewhere or literally take me there.

And half the time, if there is a street name marker, it isn't actually the street name. It's the chome that the street is butting up against.


City district. Its mentioned in the article.

Roads don't have names, but many crossings do.

The stories in this discussion make it easier for me to understand my grandmother’s refusal to adopt a house number when South Australia assigned them (50s? 60s?). Up into the 90s when she moved into a unit she insisted on using just name of her house, and it appeared to work just fine.

And it’s not like she lived in some grand house; just an ordinary single family house. I walked by it last year and the current owners have a number on the gate (up I had never known what it was); my cousin kept the house name plate that unused to hang there.

I've travelled to Japan a number of times over the past 10+ years. So, pre-smartphone to full mobile/data/maps/e-guidebook with Google Maps links/etc. Also Google Translate (although in practice I find that less useful).

What a difference it's made to getting around! I recall going back a number of years finding many specific things could be a real challenge. I remember wandering around for an hour once trying to find our office.

Without smartphone was tough in Japan. But streetview was great. I’d put an address in, then look at each corner to ensure I knew what each turn looked like after arriving at the local station to get to the specific address.

We have two countrywide address encoding systems that encode the address as a strict hierarchy, but both fail to encode the legal address of one of our customers, which is something like "1500m down the dirt road starting at the 27th km of the TownFoo-TownBar road". No house number, no street name, no town name.

What about P.O. BOX 52, Nearest_town_name.

Korea used a similar system but is transitioning to a newer system that is more like what is used in the West.


My UK-centric view of addresses caused me an unnecessary and unpleasant 3kms walk, backpack-laden, in high summer Sydney heat back in 2003.

Turns out “100 Some Road” can exist in multiple contiguous suburbs here in Australia. The numbering for the road re-starts at a suburb boundary! Who knew?

This means that, upon exiting a train station and seeing number 2, 4, 6... to your left, you can’t walk left and find the 100 you’re looking for. You might be in the wrong suburb, and your number 100 might in fact be to your right.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. 2nd December 2003. I’m an Australian now, but I had the good sense to move to Melbourne. ;-)

Many parts of the US are the same. Even worse: there are areas in the Chicago suburbs (I presume other cities' suburbs too) where since a town boundary runs down the middle of the street, the numbering on opposite sides of the street are actually going in different directions, because they are relative to two different town numbering systems. O.o

This and problems like this are rampant in New England which is mostly covered by a lot of smaller towns (with a few large cities of course). Basically everything usually resets at a town boundary. Sometimes the name changes. Sometimes it doesn't. But numbers almost always reset.

And, even within a town, it's not unusual for streets to change name a couple times in the course of a few miles. And towns reuse street names all the time--especially for things like Main Street.

> And, even within a town, it's not unusual for streets to change name a couple times in the course of a few miles.

You say that as if it was a bad thing. This idea that a "street" is a line on the map, and whether there is actually asphalt at that spot is yet to be defined -- this is a very strange idea to me. If I get to the right street, I expect to be able to follow it until I get to the correct address. Streets with gaps in them don't work so well for this.

Yes, if the city is laid out in a rectangular grid, that has its advantags, too. But I just want to point out a different way to look at things.

(European perspective.)

>If I get to the right street, I expect to be able to follow it until I get to the correct address.

Assuming you're on the street in the correct town, sure.

Continuity is actually one of the things that was fixed as part of the whole E911 system in the US. Before that, you would sometimes have streets that, for example, would have two segments that weren't actually connected in the middle. Or you'd have a single named road with a T shape or some other layout that meant you couldn't just follow it from one end to the other.

You also, as someone else mentioned, used to have houses with rural route numbers (I grew up on one) that didn't have a street address at all. In our case, our town address didn't even correspond to where we were located because it was the adjacent town that did the RR deliveries.

This is still pretty common in the US. Midtown Palo Alto is full of streets with discontinuities and small side streets all bearing he same name.

This is true and the boundary of Palo Alto, Mountain Virw, and Los Altos right at San Antonio and El Camino

Seemed strange to me that Rambus could be in Los Altos (a largely residential town) until I drove past it one day and thought it was in Mountain View.

I well remember my confusion and frustration years ago trying to find an address on Kifer Rd between Sunnyvale and Santa Clara in California. I think I must have turned around four times before I realized what was happening...

One of my friends wrote an article about geocoding a few years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jan/13/google-ma...

In short, addressing and geocoding is a hard problem and there are lots of weird edge cases. The web is full of broken assumptions about addresses, post codes, etc.

On a trip to Tokyo we had challenges locating a restaurant based on the address. Despite handing the address to the taxi driver, we got to the block, but the driver couldn't locate the restaurant. He had to call the restaurant to have someone come outside and wave us in.

Left us wondering how that addressing system works.

From the article i'm guessing this would have been a "banchi" block, where numbers were assigned in order of registration.

Yeah, you got it. Building numbers—banchi blocks—label the age of the building, not its position in space. The only people for whom many addresses are physically findable seems to be people from the neighborhood who have memorized the arbitrary number of each building. Google maps is a blessed thing generally, but an absolute godsend when visiting Japan.

Only thirty years ago (I'm having trouble finding the exact date of switchover) rural addresses in Iowa were of the form

Box #123 RR 456 (RR for Rural Route)

City, IA 50000 (city of nearest post office)

The replacement started in the 1990s was called something like 911 address because nobody but the postman could easily navigate to your home unless they already knew. Country roads didn't have names.

That's what they were called in Texas, too, "911 address." Before that, people who got mail delivery to their houses usually used some form of [lot number] [locally-known street or platted subdivision]. If you owned multiple lots, you used multiple numbers. My grandparents' address was something like "10-11-12 Rocking Ranch, Middleofnowhere TX 75333." After 911 addressing, it became the usual format but the street names were assigned by the county if you weren't in a city.

Then there were the people who didn't get mail delivery so all they had was a PO box. To this day, there are people who still only have a PO box as their "real address" and they have to go get a 911 address assigned from the Postmaster or their county when they renew their voter registration or state ID because the state decided a few years ago that PO boxes weren't real addresses for voting or having on a license. The address still doesn't work for mail delivery, it's just to fulfill a location rule.

I wonder if it wouldn't make sense to use GPS coordinates.

Too precise I think - you can have multiple GPS coordinates for one address e.g. 2.00000000001 and 2.00000000002 could both be on the same building. Even a bounding box is too error prone.

Also, verticality would be an issue.

That's what they do for car navigation, but they use a proprietary system called Mapcodes instead of just GPS. Some sat-navs there won't even let you input GPS coordinates and you have to convert them to this first.

If I had the time and knowledge, I’d add a whole bunch more examples and graphics to this page

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