Saturday, May 14, 2016

No Street Names in Japan - How it works, for All !

Most streets in Japan have no name. Even when streets do have names they aren't used in addresses. This can be a little confusing for visitors. It's also a little confusing for locals. Instead of naming streets Japanese addresses use a system of numbered blocks.

Imagine you are walking around downtown Los Angeles and a Japanese girl approaches you and asks: “I am trying to find the Staples Center but I am completely lost, could you tell me what is the name of this block?” A little bit confused you answer that she is right now in South Main Street and West 8th Street. And the girls says “No, I don’t want to know the name of the streets, I want to know the name of the block”. In that moment, you start getting desperate and thinking what the hell is going on with this lost Japanese girl. A possible answer would be: “In what world are you living? Blocks have no name!”

Now imagine that after some months you are walking around Tokyo and you are lost trying to find a Shintoist temple near Akihabara. You approach a Japanese man and ask him: “What is the name of this street?”. The Japanese man looks at you puzzled and tells you: “Street have no name, but in that corner you can read the name of the block”. In that moment you realize the culture shock, you remember the poor Japanese girl that was lost in downtown Los Angeles and you understand how she felt back then”.

Yes, you read that was right. Many streets in Japan don’t have names. So how do the Japanese locate certain areas if their streets are nameless? Well, they use a peculiar kind of addressing system that uses block numbers instead of street names. Blocks in Japan are given unique numbers, and these numbers serve as the address. The spaces between these blocks, the streets, are left unnamed. So typically, people in Japan say, “I live in Block 2” or “I work in Block 13” instead of saying “I’m on Crocodile St.” or “My house is at Banana Ave.”

The Japanese system of addresses is fundamentally more complex. Locals need a map to find anything. Virtually every business in the country from restaurants to office buildings have detailed maps and directions on their website.

In Japan, street are simply an empty space in between blocks, they don’t have an identity. However you can identify buildings following a 3 digit system:

1) first one indicates the district, 

2) second one the block and 
3) third one the building or house inside the block.

It is a completely different, but perfectly valid, system of structuring and organizing cities. You have to change your whole mindset.

Which one is easier, our system or the Japanese system? For humans it depends on what are you used to but for machines and computers it’s better to use the Japanese notations.

Many people from Western countries might find this addressing system quite inefficient and confusing but actually it’s not. In fact, it’s very easy to use and helps people locate certain areas very quickly. For instance, if the restaurant you’re looking for in Tokyo City is located at Block 20, then all you need to do is get a map and look for the area that has the number 20 on it and voila, you just found your destination. Also, block numbers are easier to remember and spot on a map compared to street 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. 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.

As if the total strangeness of Tokyo was not enough to confuse and disorient the Western visitor, it turns out that the streets have no names and the buildings are numbered in a random fashion that was possibly invented by a 13th century Buddhist monk. The secret of deciphering the addressing scheme appears to have died with him.

Or maybe not.

While it is almost hopeless, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful in times of lost distress. This is roughly how it works:

The fact that only the most major streets have names is not really so much of a problem when you realize that the addressing scheme is totally different from anything you’ve ever encountered before. Street names wouldn’t help much.
Here’s a sample address:

1-22-14 Jinan, Shibuya-Ku

Shibuya-Ku is the Ward (a large section of the City, Tokyo is comprised of 23 Wards). This will give you a general idea of where a given address is. If this destination is a well known attraction you can probably just take the subway to the heart of any given Ward and ask around once you get there (be prepared to do some serious walking).

In the above example, Jinan is the District within the Ward. This will give you an even more refined sense of where a given address is. The whole process is something like zeroing in on a target.

The District is further subdivided into subsections called Chome. The first number of the address is the Chome, or subsection of the District within the Ward. Surprisingly clear cut, really.

Now this is where it gets a bit complicated. The next digit represents the subsection of the Chome (usually a specific city block). The final digit is the actual building number within the Chome subsection. The problem is that the buildings are not numbered sequentially. Actually, they’re numbered in the order in which they were constructed. Given the amount of destruction and aggressive development that Tokyo has witnessed over the past 75 years, it’s extremely unlikely that any adjoining buildings in the City were built consecutively.

If this weren’t difficult enough, the first two digits (Chome and subsection) are usually written in Japanese.

Careful consideration of this addressing scheme makes it apparent that even if you know the system like a native, there is still no way to find an address on the first try. Usually you’ll spend a lot of time wandering around an area, looking at maps and wondering which direction is North.

It’s all a process of trial and error, and if it’s any consolation, the natives don’t seem to understand the system either. Ask strangers on the street for help finding an address and there’s a good chance that no two people will agree.
A couple of hints that might make things easier during your trip:

1) Maps are commonly printed on advertisements and matchbooks. Remember this important motto, “while in Japan maps are your friends”.

2) The Chome often have maps with detailed information posted randomly throughout the neighborhoods. Unfortunately many of these maps are out of date. More commonly the frame that holds these maps is empty, the Chome map having been removed by some unseen force (not stolen remember this is Tokyo). Should you encounter one of these maps they may provide you with further information you need to find your destination, but they are not entirely reliable. Proceed with caution.

3) If you are really lost, do not hesitate to stop at one of the many neighborhood police stations you will see along your travels. The police are more than willing to help and they know their districts very well.

4) Perhaps the most important advice of all — when in Tokyo wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll need them. Nothing beats Doc Marten.
Confusing or Just Different ?

The Japanese system of addresses is fundamentally more complex. Locals need a map to find anything. Virtually every business in the country from restaurants to office buildings have detailed maps and directions on their website.

There are 3 fundamental reasons the system is confusing:

1. Blocks are irregular shapes 

They can't be followed like a street.

2. Blocks aren't a physical thing.

One numbered block many contain dozens of physical blocks. At some point in history, someone drew a line around a bunch of blocks and gave them a number.

3. House numbers aren't sequential.

House #1 in a block is the first house to be built in that block. House #1 may be beside house #35.

Japanese Addresses Explained

There are 8 components of a Japanese address:

1. Prefecture

Japan has 43 prefectures (県, ken). Just to make things complex there are a few exceptions. Tokyo isn't a prefecture it's a metropolis (都, to). Osaka and Kyoto are urban prefectures (府, fu). Hokkaido is a circuit (道, do).

2. Municipality

Like prefectures, municipalities have different types. A large municipality is a city (市, shi). Tokyo has it's own system of wards (区, ku) but also has cites (市, shi).

Towns must include a district (郡, gun) followed by the town (町, machi). Small towns are referred to as villages (村, mura).

3. Subdivision

Each municipality is divided into subdivisions. These are called machi (町), cho (町), oaza (大字) or aza (字) depending on the municipality.

4. District (chome)

Each subdivision is further divided into numbered districts called chome (丁目).

5. Block (ban)

Each chome is divided into numbered blocks called ban (丁目).

6. House Number (go)

House numbers are called go (号). As previously mentioned, they're not sequential.

7. Building Name

Every building (small and large) in Japan has a name. Building name is almost always included in Japanese addresses. Due to the confusing nature of Japanese addresses postal employees often memorize building names and deliver on this alone.

8. Postal Code

As with postal codes in other countries these identify an area. They're primarily used by Japan Post.

Addressing Envelopes 
Envelopes are addressed in the opposite order of western addresses. The conventional order is

postal code, 

district number, 
block number, 
house number, 
building name, 
suite number, 
persons name followed by the polite prefix sama (様).


Tokyo-to Shinjuku-ku 
Nishi Shinjuku 2-8-1 
Tokyo City Hall Building Suite 2201 
Yamaguchi Kenta Sama

Streets without name

Not having street names makes writing directions much shorter; for example the directions to find a restaurant could be “Sushi Tanaka, Tokio, Yoyogi 4-3-1”. If you are in Tokyo it could even be shortened more, like “Yoyogi 4-3-1 (If you click the link you can see how Google Maps finds the exact desired spot)”, and still contains the precise information to find the exact location of the restaurant. Using directions in a cellphone or a car navigating system using the Japanese street name system is much easier than introducing the whole street name.

In the direction “Yoyogi, 4-3-1”, the first word is the name of the neighborhood, the first number is the chome (丁目), the second number is the block ban (番) and the last number is the building number inside the block go (号). 

Depending on the city and the region the system varies slightly but the fundamental concept of not using streets names is commonplace (only some important avenues and highways have names). The organization of maps follows a top down perspective, first the more general area is named and then smaller areas are named: chome (丁目) is the unit in which neighborhoods are divided, then every chome is divided into several ban and finally each ban is divided into numbered buildings.

In this Google Maps capture you can see the neighborhood name, the chomes and the different bans, but the different go are not specified. If you are very interested in this topic, you can find a very good explanation on Wikipedia about the addressing systems used in different Japanese cities.

This easiness to write directions and to use them in computers helped a lot to the number of geolocalized places by Internet users, even before cellphones were equipped with GPS systems. If at the same time we take into account that cellphones with GPS arrived to the Japanese market in 2003, the geolocalized information in Japan has been growing exponentially in the last years. Nowadays, Japan is the country in the world with the most geolocalized information available; the second one is South Korea, but it doesn’t even have half of the information that Japan has.

To have a lot of geolocalized information available on the net helps to easily create new services without having to introduce the information manually. For example, one of the most innovative start-ups in Tokyo is Sekai Camera, one of the first commercial applications that uses augmented reality. The more geolocalized information available on the area you live, the more useful Sekai Camera is. Since the beginning of the year, an American service that bases its business model on geolocalization called Foursquare, is having more success in Tokyo than in any other city in United States because its usefulness is much higher if users have geolocalized a lot of information beforehand.

Thanks in part to how easy it is to type Japanese directions and most of all thanks to the huge amount of mobile devices with GPS in hands of Japanese people has made the expansion of applications and businesses based in geolocalization much faster in Japan than anywhere else in the world; however with or without street names, during the next few years the boom of applications using geolocalized information is going to be huge everywhere in the world.