"Gerpanese" and addresses

« previous post | next post »

Hiroshi Kumamoto received this envelope, where someone tried to translate "Herr" into Japanese and went wrong:

A neutral translation of shujin 主人 would be "master". Although personal relationships involving master-servant status have disappeared from Japanese society, in polite speech a wife may still refer to her husband as shujin 主人 to someone else. This practice is naturally disliked among younger generations, but it's safer to do so when older people are around.

In German the word Herrn (in the dative) is used before the name. In Japanese sama 様 is added AFTER the name. It is an honorific, probably equivalent to xiānshēng 先生 ("Mr.") or xiǎojiě 小姐 ("Miss") in Chinese, and not to shōu 収 ("receive"), which comes after the person's name in Chinese addresses.

Hiroshi explains some interesting features of addresses in Japan:

The order of the address parts must be the other way around [VHM: from what it is in English and German]. We usually start from the Prefecture, then City, then District, and number, followed by the name of the addressee. Our numbering system is two-dimensional; a district is sub-divided into smaller units, each level is represented by a hyphen. So we don't have a one-dimensional street address.

One of the first things I learned when I started to live in Philadelphia was that every street, even a very narrow / short one, has a name, and that where you live is shown by the street name plus number.

In Japan we also have names for large / important streets, but the residential addresses are not determined by the street name. In Tokyo, for example, the metropolitan area has 23 区 (ku) (boroughs), each of which is divided into a number of districts with a distinct name. This district may further be divided into 一丁目, 二丁目etc., and in 一丁目 usually each block is called 一番地, 二番地, etc., and finally each house in the same block is numbered from 一号 on. Thus the house of the 一丁目一番一号 in the official registry is usually written as 1 – 1 – 1 on the envelope.

[VHM note: chōme 丁目 (sub-district); banchi 番地 (block); gō 号 (number); for more information, see here.]

In Kyoto (at least in the old city) the system is totally different. There the address is indicated by the street name and number, but not in the American way. The system is very complicated for outsiders, and I can only tell that it involves the intersection of two [VHM: major] streets as well as "up" and "down" from there. [VHM: I lived in Kyoto for a year and must confess that I was much confused by the ordering of streets in the city. Although it seemed natural for the local people to find their way around, it was almost always difficult for me to find a particular address in the city.]

I recall that George Cardona [VHM: UPenn Sanskritist] once told me that the addresses in India are not like those in the US, but I can't remember how exactly.

I only know that the Philadelphia (or US) way of numbering by odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other is not universal.

In "258 FAKE" and the comments thereto, we discussed some of the vagaries of street addresses in one part of Beijing. Trying to find a residence or business in Beijing and other Chinese cities, even when one has the "official" address in hand, can be very frustrating, such that one is often better off relying on a known landmark than on the name and number of the street address.

I wonder how GPS is faring in China, Japan, India, England, and other countries which have different street naming and numbering systems.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

    To preserve the author's anonymity, we had to blacken two lines of the address on the envelope. Here is a sample Japanese address taken from this source:


    Tōkyō-to Chūō-ku Yaesu 1-Chōme 5-ban 3-gō
    Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku



    Tōkyō-to Chūō-ku Yaesu 1-5-3
    Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    "Must" is too strong – as of 40 years ago (and I expect still today) the Japanese post office was perfectly capable of delivering mail in Tokyo addressed in Romaji in generally "Western" smaller-to-larger order. The apartment building my family lived in when I was a boy was at 11-12 Akasaka 1-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107 (1-11-12 Akasaka also worked – although in both cases the block number proceeds the building number, so the larger-to-smaller order prevailed at that level).

    In the U.S., we tend to use a similar system (dividing a given district into numbered blocks and then numbering individual buildings on that block regardless of which street they front onto) for purposes of property-tax and title records, but don't expect anyone who isn't a tax collector or title insurer to necessarily be able to use that information to give directions.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    Alas, google suggests that the old building (opened 1970 just a few years before we arrived) may be no more, with the address now corresponding to a taller and fancier residential structure that opened in 2010.

  4. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

    The “Herrn” before the name is in the accusative case, not the dative case, because that’s the cased required by the preposition “an.”

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    I'm with you about Kyoto addresses. I never understood "agaru" "sagaru"
    I don't even remember whether 上る,下る were read "agaru" "sagaru" or "noboru" "kudaru."
    But without knowing these at all, I've enjoyed Kyoto whenever I was there.

    For those who read Japanese, Google says the following:
    東西に進む場合は東入ル(ひがしいる)、西入ル(にしいる)、南北に進む場合は下ル(さがる)、上ル(あ がる)を使います。
    「上」に「る」は普通「のぼる」と読み、「 …… そういう合理性だけでは説明できない歴史的な重みというか 慣習のようなものも京都では住所表記に表れているように思います。

  6. TheStrawMan said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

    GPS seems to be doing fine in Japan

  7. Matt said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

    The thing that surprised me most about addressing Japanese mail was the issue of honorifics. If someone has supplied you with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that you can send them a reply, you might expect to be able to use the envelope as-is. Not so! Since politeness rules bar them from supplying their own honorific, the envelope they have prepared will have 行 after their name instead (here meaning basically "to"). But sending out that envelope as you received it would be rude — so you have to cross out the 行 and put 様 (mentioned in the post) or 御中 (for organizations, etc.) instead.

    Oh, and if you're RSVPing to a wedding it would be a nice touch to overwrite the 行 with the fortuitous character 寿 instead of just crossing it out. Same goes for when you eliminate all the instances of the honorific 御 referring to you on the other side: before 出席 (attending) or 欠席 (not attending), before your name and address, etc.

  8. Patrick B. said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

    As a side note: The classic "[An] Herrn" is apparently dying out in German, at least here in Switzerland, and being replaced by "Herr". When I look at the letters addressed to me by companies, organizations etc., they all say "Herr Patrick B." now – it used to irk me a lot, being convinced that it should be "Herrn" (because, well, the address is expected to be in the accusative case indeed), but "Herr" quickly seems to have become the norm in postal addressing. I'd say that it *is* a rather new and quick development; it's just my recollection, but I think that 20 years ago "Herrn" was still prevalent.

  9. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

    Re. addresses in India:

    I'm not personally familiar with US addresses, so I can't be sure what Cardona was referring to. But he might have been talking about the fact that a lot Indian streets aren't named (or nobody knows their official names) and we don't have blocks, so the postal address includes basically anything that might help the postman/courier figure out where you live. Addresses run in "Western" smaller-to-larger order.

    A typical urban address might run: <recipient's name>. <flat number>, <building>, near/opposite/behind <minor neighborhood landmark>, <nearby major street or neighborhood>, <city name> – <PIN code>, <state name>.

    (A PIN code is the equivalent of the American ZIP code, and "minor neighborhood landmark" can be anything from the neighborhood branch of a chain store or bank to a relatively-well-known building or gated community.)

    Local governments also seem to have a system for numbering plots of land. You can see these numbers on real estate contracts, but I've never seen them used in postal addresses.

  10. Nick Z said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 1:52 am

    The reference to a 'different' system in England in your last paragraph is a bit perplexing, assuming this means 'different from American conventions', because the system is exactly the same as in America: addresses are by house number, street, city and postcode (= American ZIP code, although more specific). Consequently, GPS is just fine in England (and indeed in the UK as a whole – no differences when you cross into Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, as far as I'm aware).

    Occasionally houses have names as well as/instead of a number. Normally the houses are odd on one side of the road and even on the other, although very infrequently they are in ascending/descending order up one side and down the other.

  11. Lugubert said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    I wouldn't refer to "a" system in Britain, except for the postcode, which seems like it identifies down to separate houses. But for the rest of the address, you're pretty free as to what you specify. For example, house names work instead of – or together with – house numbers. A colleague of mine regularly gets invoices from a major company, featuring a county name that was discontinued in 1996. One afternoon, we identified some eight address versions that had worked.

    Not a feature of the British system, but mailing from Sweden, "Wales" only for country works as unproblematic as "U.K." or both.

  12. George said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 6:28 am

    We don't have postcodes in Ireland (other than in Northern Ireland), although there has been talk of introducing them for years. Otherwise we follow the usual Western 'smaller to larger' convention. We probably haven't felt any pressing need to introduce postcodes, as post manages to get where it's meant to get without them. My father once received a letter (this was in the 1960s; I doubt if it would reach him today) addressed as follows:

    The bank under the big clock,

    It took some time to arrive (it had been sent from the U.S.) but arrive it did.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 6:31 am

    @Lugubert: The UK Postcode rarely identifies down to separate houses. On average there is one Postcode for about every 30 addresses.

  14. meesher said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 8:23 am

    @Lugubert: A group of houses in Britain will all have the same postcode – only office blocks or large stores get their own unique postcode.

    All you need to post a letter is a house number and postcode. The other "official" parts of the address are the street name and "postal town," which can be anything from a large village to London. Districts and boroughs can also be included before the postcode, especially in London where the town covers such a large area.

    Royal Mail discourage the use of counties and countries (eg. England, Scotland), although they're widely used. Their sorters are also instructed to completely ignore any "by" or "near" description, because people's idea of how "near" they live to somewhere can be highly subjective (I've seen a letter directed to Manchester, near London).

    The biggest difference from America is probably the length of streets. In American grid systems, The streets in Philadelphia maintain their names across the Schuykill, with house numbers going into the thousands, while British streets, having developed from footpaths between tiny settlements, change name every few hundred feet. If a Briton tells you "I'm in X Street," you know where they are; If an American says "I'm on X Street," it's not enough information.

  15. meesher said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    Sorry, disfluency. I started with "in American grid systems" and didn't finish the sentence.

  16. languagehat said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 9:58 am

    Like J. W. Brewer, I still remember my family's address from when I was a boy; I remember it as 39 Imai-cho, Azabu, Minato-ku, which would seem to be in the wrong order — whether because my memory is wrong or I was taught it that way, I have no way of knowing.

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    @ Tom S. Fox: Nothing is ever straightforward with German prepositions. An takes the dative case when the object is at rest, the accusative case when directed motion is involved. Herr takes the -n ending for both dative and accusative, so it's no help in distinguishing. You're correct that it's accusative in this instance; delivering the mail is the definitive example of directed motion.

  18. dw said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    British addresses often seem to fetishize unnecessary detail in the interest of prestige. A typical "prestigious" British address might be something like this, which I just found randomly online (it's a hotel with its own website, so I doubt anyone will mind me publicizing it):

    The Old Rectory
    Campsea Ashe
    IP13 0PU

    Note that it has 5 lines, and also the absence of a street number.

    In the US, I have yet to come across any address with more than 3 lines (street with number, city, state + zip).

  19. Richard Gadsden said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    In the British system
    Buildings can have either names, numbers, or both.

    The theory is that if the building was there before the road, it has a name; if the road was there first, it has a number. Because older buildings are more prestigious, buildings without numbers have become so.

    For this reason, new buildings often are named rather than numbered.

    The second problem is that part of a street gets rebuilt and there are now more or fewer addresses than there used to be. Because British numbering is continuous, if you rebuild a block, you're still stuck with (for example) "even numbers between 58 and 72" for your addresses along that block. If you now have more than eight addresses, then you generally either get 58, 58A, 60, 60A, etc. or you get "1 Lancaster House, 58-72 York Street" – which means that the building called Lancaster House comprises the block on York Street.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 1:06 pm


    That's the kind of British address I was thinking of!

    Before the days of e-mail, I had many postal correspondents in England and, indeed, all over the world. I had one British friend whom I wrote to for years, and her address was something like this (not an exact replica; I wouldn't want anyone running off to try to find her place!):

    Dr. Jane Moffett
    The Old Cottage
    Manor House
    Fox Chase
    Framingham Pigot
    Cambridgeshire CB14 7PZ

    How does GPS guide you to a place like that?

    And I'm still wondering about GPS in India and other places where not all the streets have names and numbers.

    One of the things that always makes it difficult for me to get around a city like Beijing is that the streets change their names. As you go along on a street, all of a sudden, the same street will have a different name, and that can happen many times in the same city, often after not too great a distance.

  21. AndrewD said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    @ Victor,
    I cannot speak for Beijing, but many British Cities and large towns grew by coalescence whereby a series of villages or small towns grew togeather. The roads in each village would have differnt names which were retained for local convenience in the city-which is why they change so often. It is also why roads have numbers e.g. London Road in my city is part of the A6, which runs from London to Holyhead. The road near were I live is the B6416 also known as East Park Road/St Barnabus Road.

  22. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: Thank you for explaining my own language to me.

  23. Frank L Chance said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Note that the system described above for Kyoto is informal and not official. For example the official address to Kyoto Tower is:
    Higashi-Shiokōji 721-1, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 600-8216

    However, the informal address to Kyoto Tower, is:
    Karasuma-Shichijō-sagaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu

    Either one will in fact get your letter delivered.

  24. lukas said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    How does GPS guide you to a place like that?

    By disregarding (almost) everything but the post code.

  25. AG said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    I feel like I saw a lot of inter-village streets that changed names in Germany, of the following type (this is real example from what I remember):

    If you went from Munich towards Dachau you would set out down Dachauerstr., but at some point as you neared Dachau you'd (understandably) find yourself on Muenchnerstr.

  26. Mark Mandel said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    @AG: This is also very true in Massachusetts, at least in and around Boston and the MetroWest area, where I lived for 20 years. I have proposed, only half in jest, a theorem that "Every town and city in Massachusetts has a street named for each of the others."

  27. dainichi said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 4:51 am

    I still have nightmares about German grammar…

    As if there weren't already enough, another hard thing about German prepositions is when to use which one. If my memory doesn't fail me, you send letters "nach" a place and "an" a person. "Zu" would be too easy. Unless you send the letter "zum Geburtstag", of course…

    But I'm probably not fair to German here… I think all the Germanic languages agree to disagree about how their cognate prepositions are used. It would be interesting (yet probably confusing) to learn about semantic shifts in prepositions in Germanic.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 8:38 am


    "GPS seems to be doing fine in Japan"

    How so? How does it guide you to a specific address in Japan?

    Cf. lukas' precise answer for England: "By disregarding (almost) everything but the post code."

  29. AG said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 1:00 am

    I get the sense that every single building and market stall in Japan has been carefully accounted for since the Meiji period.

    When you look at old Japanese maps they're extremely accurate about boundaries and labels on lots and buildings.

    Google Maps for Japan (at least for the Tokyo area) can find pretty much anything, including crepe carts in the park, small roadside shrines and certain stairway exits in train stations. I don't know how the programming / address parsing side of that works, but they definitely have _everything_ in their GPS databases.

  30. Mr Punch said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    U.S. addresses are not entirely consistent, even locally. In Boston, the numbering systems on the one-sided streets around the Boston Common vary – some have both odd and even numbers, some don't. Some office buildings have addresses that represent names rather than streets – "1 Boston Place," "1 Financial Center." Assessor's records work by lot number instead of (in addition to?) street address.

  31. Sreekar Saha said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    The last panel of this comic is *so* true.I was really confused and spent quite some time looking up what JBS Haldane Road was,until I learned that it was the official name of the road we called the 'Park Circus Connector'.


  32. Karl S. said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

    @Patrick B.

    In German there is a general trend to move away from interpreting structured textual information as formatted prose. People are less likely to view an address on an envelope as a stylized prepositional phrase than in the past and more likely to view it as an abstract "record". The same can be seen in modern official forms. I think computers have a lot to do with that.

  33. JC Dill said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    There are cities in the US with unusual addressing, such as Carmel By The Sea which has no house numbers and no mail delivery. Some of the houses are named, but not all. However, each house is in the database and if you are given GPS coordinates you can drive right to it. I don't know if FedEx and UPS have standardized how they ask addressees to provide addresses for delivery in Carmel, but residents tend to give out the address by directions from the nearest intersection, such as "White cottage with picket fence and sign on gate saying 'Ocean Breeze' on the west side of Delores, 4 houses south of 12th" which works perfectly even if it's a bit of a mouthful.

    For other countries like Japan, I'm pretty sure the GPS database simply maps addresses to GPS coordinates – it doesn't care how the address is formed, just where that address is located, and it would find the address easily no matter the order of the terms. Here in the US the order is a bigger problem because we have cities with streets named after other cities but (to my limited knowledge) they don't name streets and districts in Japan after other districts or cities) It's a data entry problem in volume (all the data they have to manually input or scan and organize), but not really a retrieval problem, AFAIK.

  34. SusanC said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

    I know some people in Wales who are still refuseniks on the county reorganization, and use (e.g.) Montgomeryshire rather than Powys in their postal address. Mail gets delivered. (If you include the postcode, the post office will ignore the rest; even without a postcode, a post town such as Newtown is sufficient to route the mail without a county). And the post office probably still knows where Montgomeryshire is.

    The example address for "The Old Rectory" looks completely normal to me. Not sure about the ficitious example: is "Fox Chase" meant to be the street name or the "locality" (i.e. the name of a small village near Framingham Pigot)?

    Using a GPS goes something like this:
    – The postcode is sufficient if you have it
    – If you don't, and "Fox Chase" is the road, something like town="Framingham Pigot", street="Fox Chase", house="Anywhere" will get you in nearly the right place, and the assumption is that Fox Chase doesn't have many houses so you won't have to do much looking before you find it.
    – Otherwise, town="Fox Chase" (mail is routed via Framingham Pigot, but your satnav wants Fox Chase) and the assumption is that Fox Chase is pretty small. If your sat nav tells you there are several Fox Chases, you want the one near Framingham Pigot. The GPS in my car will do something like putting up a menu of "Fox Chase (Framingham PIgot), Fox Chase (Milton Keynes)" etc.

  35. SusanC said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    Further to the "Framingham Pigot" example, it has definite echos of the British naming scheme being very old: before grid plans, before motor vehicles (one imagines it is a fairly long walk down Fox Chase from Framingham Pigot to the Manor House, and so it doesn't count as being part of Framingham Pigot), and with relics of the feudal system (when manors were a significant legal and political unit; possibly this semi-fictional manor did not extend as far as Framingham Pigot).

  36. Colin Fine said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:56 am

    A friend of mine got told off when registering for a World Science Fiction Convention in the early eighties -I think it was for the 1981 con in Denver – for having too many lines in his address.

  37. Jonathan Wallace said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    @VictorMair, RE:
    >>One of the things that always makes it difficult for me to get around a city like Beijing is that the streets change their names. As you go along on a street, all of a sudden, the same street will have a different name, and that can happen many times in the same city, often after not too great a distance.

    This actually happens not infrequently in many suburban and rural areas of the East Coast of the United States, including several suburban communities in Philadelphia. This occurance (sudden change of street names, but still seemingly the same straight road, usually occurs because the road system was built in several distinct stages, and when a new extension was built, they gave it a different name. Sometimes, to make matters worse, the older road makes a sharp turn, so by driving literally straight ahead, the GPS tells you you are making a turn!

RSS feed for comments on this post