Down, Down, Down ...

Now what do you think this week's story is about, after seeing a title like that? Relax, there'll be nothing depressing here ... I'm not going to 'bring you down'!

For any foreigner coming to this country, one of the first puzzles he must learn to solve is that of Japanese street addresses. The way that addresses are written in this country is so different from the system in place in many other places in the world, that it is a source of endless confusion to the visitor. In most European and North American towns and cities, it is the street that is the basis of most addresses. Every single thoroughfare - whether wide carriageway or small lane - has its own name, and each building along it has its own number.

In addition to this basically sensible method, further refinements make it easier to find an address when necessary. In many towns, numbers always increase or decrease in logical directions from natural landmarks, or according to the points of the compass. The idea is that - once you know the general layout - you can tell which way you need to travel to arrive at your destination.

When somebody who grew up with this sort of system arrives in a Japanese city, it at first seems completely devoid of any logic whatsoever. It is a great shock to the visitor to find that most streets have no names, and he no sooner starts to get over this anomaly than he finds that the numbers on the buildings are not ordered in sequence! How on earth can anybody find anything?

But do you know, after living in Japan now for many years, I have to say that I have come to the conclusion that the Japanese system is far more logical than that in use overseas! For a start, look at the way that an address is typically written on an envelope. The western system starts with the person's name, then lists the building number, the street, the town, the state, and then the country.

This is completely backwards from the way that the information is needed! When a piece of mail is being inspected by the post office what do they need to know first? The country, of course; the rest is irrelevant. Then, when the letter arrives in the destination country, it is the state or province that decides where it is to be sent next. And so on and so on ... down, down, down ... until the letter arrives in the hands of the local postman. So the Japanese system, with the address written from the largest item down to the smallest - from country down to building - is far more sensible!

But for the final step, finding the actual building, I have to admit that the Japanese system - with the buildings in each block numbered in order of construction, not position - is difficult for the outsider to fathom. There is no escaping it; you must simply search all around the block until you spot the tiny plate that carries the building number. At this stage of the hunt, the foreign system, with buildings numbered in sequence, and usually with quite large and readable numbers, is definitely superior.

So I propose a mix of the two systems be implemented. Keep the Japanese method of writing addresses from large down to small, but combine it with the western practice of sequential building numbering. I can't promise that nobody would ever get lost again, but I think we would all save some time!

 


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Japanese readers can click here to view the story on a page with a link to vocabulary assistance.