BMOW title
Floppy Emu banner

Mail to Japan Hurts my Head


A good fraction of my product orders come from people in Japan. That’s great – I’m happy that the things I’ve designed appeal to people all over the world. What isn’t great is the way the US Post Office treats Japanese shipping addresses. It turns what should be a simple shipping process into a complicated mess.

When someone makes an order for BMOW items, I receive an email with the order details and the shipping address. For a buyer in Japan, the shipping address often looks something like this:

沖縄県 宜野湾市
森澤 政行

Except for the word “Japan”, I have no idea what that says. This example is a mash-up of pieces from several different Japanese orders, to avoid posting anyone’s real address publicly. If the pieces combine into something non-sensical, that’s my fault.

Ideally, I shouldn’t need to be able to read that address. The US Post Office should be able to take the address, send the package to a central post office in Japan, where the Japanese post office will read the rest of the address lines and forward the package on to its final destination.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. When purchasing electronic postage from the US Post Office, the address may only contain the 26 Roman alphabet letters A through Z, the 10 digits 0 through 9, and a handful of punctuation marks. No letters with accents (no way José), and certainly no kanji, kana, or other non-Roman characters. So the entire address must be translated to romaji, a way of writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet that looks something like this:

Momochi-hama Sawara-ku
Hijirimaru, Nomuki

I don’t understand exactly how this process works, but I think the Japanese is spelled out phonetically using a standard set of Roman alphabet syllables like “ka”, “no”, and “ma”. I can attempt to convert to romaji myself, by typing the address into Google translate, but that risks a translation error sending an expensive package off to the wrong destination. Or I can email the buyer and request a romaji version of their address – if they speak English and can understand my request. When I’ve tried requesting a romaji address in the past, I only got a reply about half the time.

Eventually through some method, I’ll end up with a complete romaji address that looks something like this:

Tokyo Nerima
Hattori Ito

The US Post office still won’t accept this. It’s got that 〒 character, which indicates a postal code. That’s not a Roman alphabetic letter, so I have to delete it. Then there’s some text on the last line, after the country name. USPS won’t accept this either, because the country name must appear alone on the last line. In this example I can infer that “Hattori Ito” is the recipient’s name, but sometimes it’s not obvious to me what’s a name and what’s part of the address.

Finally, the individual address lines must be reordered. To purchase electronic postage from the USPS, the address must be formatted line by line, with each line identified as the recipient’s name, street address, city name, postal code, etc. Japanese addresses appear to be formatted “backwards” from the method I’m accustomed to, with the postal code first, then city, then prefecture and/or street address. At least I think that’s right. You can imagine how somebody who knows little of Japanese geography might be uncertain about the meaning of each address line.

Ultimately I end up with a shippable address like:

Hattori Ito
Tokyo Nerima

I’ve never yet lost a package shipped to Japan, but I wonder just how mangled and confused this address looks to the Japanese. I also don’t know how widespread the reading of romaji is in Japan. Can most people read that address without trouble? If I imagine a similarly jumbled address shipped to me in the United States, with half the English words spelled out phonetically in the Cyrillic alphabet or something, and all the lines shuffled about seemingly at random, I doubt the package would be delivered:

Хиллман проспект 1930
Красивые горы
Steve Chamberlin
United States

Read 7 comments and join the conversation 

7 Comments so far

  1. Bill - May 6th, 2015 10:43 am

    The postal code number gets you to a building and then the rest aids in finding the recipient or catching typos. Postal carriers can read romaji though. You could always add a second label with the properly formatted address in case it’s needed 🙂

  2. Steve Chamberlin - May 6th, 2015 11:26 am

    That’s a good point that the post code provides redundancy and error checking, so it’s not necessarily fatal if there are errors elsewhere in the address. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of using Google translate for shipping addresses though, if I don’t know the language well enough to do my own sanity checking. I live in the town of “Belmont”, which could be translated literally as “beautiful mountain”, but for a mailing address translation that would be a disaster.

  3. Chris M. - May 6th, 2015 12:37 pm

    Don’t know if you have seen it, but the UPU has a fact sheet on mailing addresses in various counties. Here is Japan’s:

    USPS is just following the above guidelines. Putting the address in the original format looks like a good idea as sorting machines there can actually read it. Including both formats appears to be acceptable:

  4. Steve Chamberlin - May 6th, 2015 1:27 pm

    Interesting documents! According to the first doc, “Automatic sorting equipment used by the Japanese Post is only able to sort items on which the address is in kanji, hiragana or katakana characters. Items whose address is in Roman script are sorted manually. Addresses may therefore also be laid out as they are in the West, from the smallest geographical area at the top to the largest at the bottom.”

    So it looks like I’m doing it more-or-less correctly, except that I lack a reliable way of converting an address to romaji script.

  5. Bryan - May 6th, 2015 9:31 pm

    Any possible way of configuring the web site so that it only accepts single-byte characters (vs double-byte like Kanji?) The Japanese should know better that Kanji/kana are not allowed on international shipments to/from Japan.

  6. aaa - March 9th, 2016 6:30 am

    “I’ve never yet lost a package shipped to Japan, but I wonder just how mangled and confused this address looks to the Japanese.”

    The Japanese postal system is extremely efficient, and Japan makes extensive use of the roman alphabet in everyday use/signage (“romaji”) so it won’t look alien to them. The rule of thumb when shipping to Japan and writing in alphabetical characters is to do the same as when shipping in the USA – smallest to largest. Street, City, Prefecture.

    In your sample address, it should be Nerima, Tokyo, as Nerima is a town within Tokyo prefecture (this is where it can be confusing as a number of cities and prefectures share the same name). Even if you make a mistake your package will likely make it there as the postal system in Japan is very good about error-correction and figuring out the destination.

  7. Joe - March 24th, 2023 8:41 am

    Gotta thank you, while your addressing might not be perfect (according to Japan) It did make some logic out of the mess of sending via with a Japan Address. thanks.

Leave a reply. For customer support issues, please use the Customer Support link instead of writing comments.