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Take the first step to writing home in kanji

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

A friend in North Carolina recently showed me a yellowing nengajō (年賀状, New Year’s card) I had sent her soon after first arriving in Japan back in the early 1980s. The return address, penciled in my best effort at the time — a childlike, uneven scrawl of kanji — reminded me of the intense determination I felt then to become proficient in Japanese.

Despite the wizardry of today’s Japanese word-processing software, I regularly write my address by hand. Many foreign residents of Japan from a non-kanji background always use rōmaji (ローマ字, the Roman alphabet) to write their address. If writing your address in nihongo (日本語) is intimidating, here’s some advice on getting started.

Before going public, practice at home on lined paper. Don’t be overly concerned with aesthetics: Aim for legibility at first. Take advantage of every opportunity to write your address: on forms from your child’s school and at your workplace; on envelopes and takkyūbin (宅急便, home-delivery service) labels; at doctors’ offices, the bank, city hall or video-rental shops; when you apply for a driver’s license, cell-phone service, a train pass or cable TV. If necessary, carry a cheat sheet in your wallet. If you find a multi-stroke kanji particularly difficult to produce, write that character in hiragana.

When writing your return address on the back of an envelope, do so horizontally, since the traditional vertical format is more challenging to space properly. Don’t let an inability to address the envelope in Japanese derail your intensive practice plan. Simply write the address on the front in rōmaji and yours on the back in Japanese.

If you are a city dweller, you can usually omit the name of your prefecture (ken, 県). After writing your seven-digit post code, begin with the name of your city, including its proper suffix: 都 (-to, metropolis, used only for Tokyo, 東京都); 府 (-fu, urban prefecture, only for Osaka, 大阪府, and Kyoto, 京都府); or 市 (-shi, city, for all other Japanese cities, e.g., 広島市 Hiroshima-shi).

There are no spaces between characters in Japanese addresses. The city is followed by the name of the ward with its suffix 区 (-ku, e.g., 中区, Naka-ku, Central Ward). The remainder of the address — comprised of area names instead of streets — is next, with the apartment building and number (when appropriate) falling at the end. Numbers in addresses are commonly written with Arabic numerals, but kanji may also be used. Here’s a typical city address: 732-0026 広島市東区中山3-6サンハイツ103 (Hiroshima-shi Higashi-ku Nakayama 3-6, Sun Heights 103).

Addresses outside of cities begin with the prefecture, followed by names of rural localities with their proper suffixes: 郡 (-gun, county), then 町 (-machi or -cho, town) or 村 (-mura or ?son, village). For example: 470-0162 愛知県愛知郡東郷町春木46 (Aichi-ken Aichi-gun Togo-cho Haruki 46).

While rōmaji renderings of addresses may be written in English order (with apartment number first) or in Japanese order (with prefecture or city first), thus inviting confusion among Japanese people, addresses written in Japanese are always written in the same order.

Japanese place names deserve their reputation for being hard to pronounce. Since many pronunciations deviate from the standard on (音, Chinese-derived) and kun (訓, native-Japanese) readings, even Japanese people struggle with them. The good news is that while use of Japanese word-processing software requires knowing kanji pronunciations, copying them by hand does not. Once you have mastered your own address and are ready to hand write others, you can access any address in Japan by typing in its postal code at http://postcode.goo.ne.jp

Learning to write your own address in Japanese — instead of depending on a spouse/friend/coworker/shop clerk to do the job for you — is a symbolic first step toward becoming an independent, literate adult in your adopted land.

Quiz: Many place-name kanji fall outside the 1,945 general-use kanji, but a surprising number are learned by Japanese first-through-third-graders, including those comprising the following Tokyo place names. Try to write the places in kanji, and then match romaji with kanji versions.

1. Me-guro (eye-black) 2. Oo-ta (big-rice paddy) 3. Ro-ppon-gi (six-counter for trees-trees) 4. Bun-kyō (writing-capital) 5. Shina-gawa (goods-river) 6. A-dachi (leg-stand) 7. Aki-ha-bara (autumn-leaves-plain) 8. Ue-no

a. 六本木; b. 足立; c. 上野; d. 文京; e. 目黒; f. 秋葉原; g. 品川; h. 大田

Answers:

1=e
2=h
3=a
4=d
5=g
6=b
7=f
8=c

All previous Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com.