By Jordan Sand, revised by David Lurie
Updated Fall 2002 by Federico Marcon


I.     How to Read Place Names
II.   Atlases: How to Find a Place 
III.  Encyclopedias of Place Names
IV.  Places in History
V.   Places in Literature
VI.  Etymologies of Place Names
VII. Guidebooks


Place names (chimei 地名), like personal names, present one of the most common and difficult problems of reading characters in Japanese. The task is much easier if you have some idea of where the place is, since the same characters can be read in wildly different ways depending on which particular place it is (for example, 上野 can be either "Ueno" if in Tokyo, or "Kôzuke" if the former province name for Gunma Prefecture). The following diversity of dictionaries help to solve these problems.

Gendai Nihon chimei yomikata daijiten 現代日本地名よみかた大辞典. 7 vols. Nichigai Associates, 1985.
Call no.: REF DS 805 .G39 1985

This multi-volume dictionary gives the official pronunciation and location of all present city, town, village, and ward names in Japan. Names are listed by stroke number. A separate index volume lists names by the on readings of the first two characters. This is the place to go to find or confirm readings of contemporary place names.

** Kanai Hiroo 金井弘夫. Shin Nihon chimei sakuin 新日本地名索引: 1993 New Index Gazetteer of Japan. 3 vols. Kamakura: Abokkusha, 1993.
Call no.: REF DS 805 .K34 1993

With a total of 1,074,323 place names, this is probably the most comprehensive dictionary for reading place names. Beside official city, town, village, ward names, it also contains names of topographical spots, so it invaluable to search for names of hills, mountains, plains, and so forth.  Vol. 1 lists all the place names in gojûon order, and vols. 2-3 in kanji arranged by stroke numbers.  For each entry, the dictionary describes the type of place (city, ward, mountain, etc.), its location, and the longitude-latitude coordinates.

Zenkoku chimei ekimei yomikata jiten 全国地名駅名読み方辞典. Tokyo : Nichigai Asoshietsu, 2000.
Call no.: REF DS805 .Z463 2000

125,233 place names in Japan in 1253 pages, it is probably one of the best desktop-size place name dictionaries. It is extremely user-friendly, with a variety of different indexes.

Kusuhara Yusuke 楠原 佑介, ed. Nandoku idoku chimei jiten 難読・異読地名辞典. Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1999. \ 5,700.
Call no.: REF DS805 .K876 1999

This focuses only on "hard to read" place names. However, it is not as comprehensive as the previous dictionaries. Note also that there are similar lists of "hard to read" places in each volume of the Heibonsha Nihon rekishi chimei taikei (see below), but you must first know the prefecture in which the place is located.

Saishin Chûgoku chimei jiten 最新中国地名辞典. Tokyo: Nichigai Asoshieetsu, 1994.
Call no.: REF DS 705 .S25 1994

This dictionary of Chinese place names may be useful for the Japanese reading of Chinese places. It has an index in piyin to facilitate the search, and short descriptions of each place.


Nihon daichizuchô. 日本大地図帳 Heibonsha, 1985.
Call no.: REF G2355.H44 1985 F (in map case)

Nihon rettô daichizukan "Techno Atlas" 日本列島大地図館. Shôgakkan, 1990.
Call no.: REF G2355.S63 1990 F (in map case)

These are two standard atlases. The Nihon daichizuchô is the basic version: A few Landsat images are about as fancy as it gets, but it has the full run of regional, prefectural, and city maps, with information on railways, parks, shrines and temples, etc., and a gojûon index of places. If you're simply looking for a map, its the place to go, but if you want an experience, reach for the bells and whistles of the "Techno Atlas," a volume that includes all of the above and adds: exciting three-dimensional representations of topography; full color sections of the earth's core; statistical maps revealing what parts of Japan consume the most coffee, buy the most cars, have the most divorces, etc.; listings of important museums; and much, much more.

Shinpan Nihon kokusei chizu 新版日本国政地図. Nihon Chizu Center, 1990.
Call no.: REF G2355.S54 1990 F (in map case)

A massive volume published by the Geography Division of the Ministry of Construction. Divided into 14 sections (including Industry, Education, Transportation and communication, Culture, Society, Nature, Climate, etc.) with 52 subsections, it visually represents national statistics broken down by prefecture. Each section includes an interpretive essay, which sometimes contains graphs and charts. This coffee table of a book colorfully presents a wealth of not-yet-outdated information.

Nihon bunken chizu chimei sôran 日本文献地図地名総 覧. Jinbunsha, 1992.
Call no.: G2355.J55 1992 F (in Starr map case)
M/S: mention p. 102

Comprehensive set of maps of present-day Japan. Principle organization is by prefecture. Each section includes maps depicting the prefecture, principle towns and cities, and road distances. Also includes lists of administrative divisions with furigana, and of government offices and major institutions. Population charts in back; a national index at the front.

Kokusai Kyôiku Jôhô Sentaa 国際教育情報センター. Atlas of Japan: Physical, Economic and Social. Tokyo: International Society for Educational Information, 1974.
Call no.: G2355 .K65 1974 (located in Starr Library map case, and in Lehman Library map room)

Written in English. Maps provide cartographic representation of statistical information and natural features: industrial data, population information, land use, etc. Explanatory notes in English, French and Spanish follow the maps. Data is from early 1970's, and therefore quite out of date.

* Teikoku's Complete Atlas of Japan. 11th ed. Teikoku shoin, 1991. (¥1340)
Call no.: (1968 edition in Starr map case: G2355 .T45 1968)

A handy little atlas in English, with nice topgraphical features and easy to read. An excellent basic atlas to have on your desk, still in print. If you can't find it at a bookstore, you can order it online from the publisher.


Kadokawa Nihon chimei daijiten 角川日本地名大辞典. Kadokawa shoten, 1978-90. 47 v.
Call no.: DS805. K27
M/S: VIII-5; IHJ: 1631

Nihon rekishi chimei taikei 日本歴史地名大系. Heibonsha, 1979-. 50 vols.
Call no.: DS805. N5367
M/S: VIII-4; IHJ: 1569

These are the two great encyclopedic works for geographic reference, both of them recent productions. Both are organized similarly, with one volume per prefecture.

The bulk of each Kadokawa volume lists place names in gojûon order, with detailed descriptions divided by historical period. Irritatingly, Japanese dates are given without Gregorian calendar equivalents. The chishihen, which constitutes the latter half of the volume, breaks down the region by administrative unit, outlining the geography, history and current administration of each. This is useful for background. The cities, towns etc. given sections of their own in the chishihen are not covered in the gojuon section. There is no comprehensive index to both halves of the volume, so that a thorough investigation of any place requires some hunting in both. Names of institutions, such as temples and shrines are often not listed, although they may receive treatment within other entries. Nevertheless, the gojûon section alone provides such extensive information for place names, both present and past, that almost all basic needs can be answered there.

Entries in the Heibonsha encyclopedia read somewhat more as scholarly articles in history. Quotations from classical sources are given in the original language, for example. Kadokawa tends to paraphrase. In general, Heibonsha seems to offer more historical detail, but may provide less on the modern period, particularly such information as population figures or changes in administrative status. Although the organization of each entry in the Kadokawa is better designed for quick reference, Heibonsha has the advantage of a multiple reference index which includes places without entries of their own.

Because of the differences in approach and emphasis between these two encyclopedias, it is best to look at both for a complete historic summary on any given location.

Konpakutoban Nihon chimei hyakka jiten コ ンパクト版日本地名百科事典. Compact land Japonica. Tokyo: Shôgakukan, 1998. (¥4,600)
Call no.: REF DS805 .K86 1998

Konsaisu Nihon chimei jiten
コンサイス日本地名事典. Sanseidô, 1998. (¥5000)
Call no.: REF DS805. K66 1998
IHJ: 1632

Nihon chizu chimei jiten 日本地図地名事典. Sanseidô, 1991. (¥5200)
Call no.: REF DS805.N516 1991

These are three leading contenders for desktop chimei jiten status, one from Shôgakukan and the other two from Sanseidô. The Shôgakukan version includes 14 pages of plates, with excellent color maps, and an index for "hard to read" place names. The Sanseidô offerings both contain roughly 20,000 place names in gojûon order. The "Konsaisu" version includes important historical place names, is smaller, and has a stroke-order index for hard-to-read names. The Nihon chizu chimei jiten, while it does not have historical names or a character index, does have 90 pages of excellent color maps linked to the entries by a simple system of grid coordinates.

Nihon chiri fuzoku taikei 日本 地理 風俗 大系. Shinkôsha, 1929-32. 18 vols.
Call no.: 291 .N14 (OFFSITE)

A geographical encyclopedia, with copious photographs, covering Japanese archipelago and Japanese possessions overseas in 18 volumes. A rich source of facts and images of Japan and the territories under Japanese occupation in the 1930s.

Nihon chishi. Ninomiya shoten, 1967-78. 21 vols.
Call no.: 291 .Ao7 (in Lehman as of 12/94)

This is the largest and most postwar geographical encyclopedia, designed for professional geographer more than the general reader. Divided by region. Each hefty volume contains text and extensive amounts of statistical and graphic information on the politics, culture, and economy of the region, as well as the expected geography. A good place to go for statistics and the official word of this time on any part of the country in the 1970s.


Nihon rekishi chizu 日本歴史地図. Zenkoku kyôiku tosho, 1956.
Call no.: REF G2356.S1 N5 1956
IHJ: 1565

75 maps arranged by historical period from prehistoric to modern. Political, economic, industrial, trade, education and military information. Explanatory notes follow each map. Three indices: one for place names mentioned in the Manyoshu, another general index by stroke number, and last an index of foreign place names in katakana, giving romanization or kanji as appropriate.

Dai Nihon dokushi chizu 大日本読史地図. Fuzambô, 1939.
Call no.: REF G2356.S1 Y672 1939

Color plates and fold-out maps depicting historically significant locations, battle sites, major cities and castles, and national political divisions. Early Showa place names and boundaries marked in relatively unobtrusive red, with the contemporaneous matter in black. The volume provides a sense of historical changes in political geography, especially during the Sengoku period.

Nihon rekishi daijiten bekkan: Nihon rekishi chizu 日本歴史大辞典別巻-日本歴史地図. Kawade shobô, 1969.
Call no.: 210.03 K171 supplement
IHJ: 1566

Sixty sets of maps arranged by period, from prehistoric through modern. Although some of these overlap with the previous entry, emphasis differs somewhat, e.g. more attention is given to religion. No explanatory notes accompany the maps. One general index in gojuon order without furigana.

Chizu de miru Meiji Taishô Showa no hensen 地図でみる明治・大正・昭和の変遷. Chizu Kyôkai, 1974.
Call no.: G2356.S1 C44 1974 F (in Starr map case)

For the map-obsessed and those with a particular interest in one of the eight areas covered (including Nagano and Okayama), this volume will be a joy to behold. Using military geographical surveys begun in 1878, it documents changes by including a map for each period; in addition there is uneven supplementary material which includes references to other maps.

Edo-Tôkyô shigai chizu shûsei (Historical Maps of Edo-Tokyo) 江戸・東京市街地図集成 . Kashiwa Shobô, 1988.
Call no.: REF G 2359 .T7 E32 1988 F v.1, v.2 (in dictionary stand on reference room south wall)

These are astonishingly beautiful books. Three centuries of Edo-Tokyo geography are displayed in these two massive, well-organized tomes. Volume one covers 1657-1895 and includes maps from seven collections, while volume two covers 1887-1957 with maps six more. They use a clever visual table of contents which allows the reader to closely follow the development of a particular area: a grid divides a modern city map into 24 areas, each of which corresponds to a section of the book. The grid is the same for each volume, so it is possible to examine an area's changes at intervals over the entire three hundred year period. The transformation of map-making techniques is as fascinating as the dramatic alterations in the city's geography.

Old Maps in Japan. Sogensha, 1973.
Call no.: REF G2355 .O43 F (in Starr map case)

An English-language volume of color plates of pre-Meiji maps, many of them from a single private collection. There are detailed notes on each map, and two general essays. Several large fold-out city maps are included. Though there is an index which helps in the location of a map of a particular location, the plates are organized by category (world, province, city, etc.); this is more of an introduction to premodern Japanese cartography than a reference work.

Nihon rekishi chiri yôgo jiten 日本歴史地理用語辞典. Kashiwa Shobô, 1991.
Call no.: REF DS806.4 N54 1991

A dictionary of vocabulary relevant to historical geography (in gojûon order). It contains many small maps and diagrams, and some of the articles are signed and/or give references.

Edogaku jiten 江戸学辞典. Kôbundô, 1984.
Call no.: REF DS 897 .T6 E26

Edo-Tôkyôgaku jiten 江戸・東京学辞典. Sanseidô, 1987.
Call no.: REF DS 896.1 .E368 1987

These are both critical reference works for the history of the city of Edo-Tokyo, and include a great deal of information on specific places within the cityas well as topics related to the life and culture of the city. They are well illustrated, and conclude with basic bibliographies. Name and general indices in the back. The Edogaku jiten is now available in a reduced-size version that is very good for desktop reference in Edo studies.

Kyôto daijiten 京都大辞典. Tankôsha, 1984.
Call no.: REF DS897 .K84 K9264 1984

Kyôto daijiten: Fu-iki hen 京都大辞典-府域編. Tankôsha, 1994.
Call no.: REF DS897 .K84 K9265 1994

A two-volume encyclopedia of the city and culture of Kyoto, comparable in style to the Edogaku jiten and Edo-Tôkyôgaku jiten, but unlike these works, lacking references for further research. Most of the information in it would appear to be readily available in such general reference works as the Kokugo daijiten or the Kadokawa chimei daijiten. The entry on Ôharame provides little more information than a guidebook, and there is no entry for the modern "famous place" Eigamura, which the guidebooks do treat. The Fu-iki ("fu area") hen is a 1200-year (ie, 1994) anniversary addition which extends coverage to the rest of Kyôto-fu.


The Japanese seem to have a special affection for the places that appear in literature. In addition to the following basic "literary place-name dictionaries" (bungaku chimei jiten), there is also a prolific genre known as "walking tours of historical and literary sites" (rekishi bungaku sanpo), available for almost every city and region of Japan.

Edo bungaku chimei jiten. Tôkyôdô, 1973.
Call no.: PL726.35 .E36 1973

A dictionary of place names in the vicinity of the city of Edo that appear in literature. The vicinity of Edo is defined here as including areas that are now part of residential Tokyo and/or within about two days walk from the center of the city. In gojuon order, gives reading, description of the place and quotations from Edo works. Quotations often comprise the majority of the entry. Only titles are cited, without reference to modern editions or collections in which the works may be found.

Tsuchida Mitsufumi 槌田満文. Tôkyô bungaku chimei jiten 東京文学地名辞典. Tôkyôdô shuppan, 1978.
Call no.: REF PL721.T6 T78 1978

A gojûon listing of Tokyo place names that appear in literature, including prominent institutions like temples, theaters and major shops. Historical sketches with literary quotations, lots of good Meiji and Taisho period maps. Useful as a cultural guide to the city's modern history.

Ikeda Suenori 池田末則. Chimei denshôron: Yamato kodai chimei jiten 地名伝承論-大和古代地名辞典. Tokyo: Meicho Shuppan, 1990. \3,107.
Call no.: DS894.69 .N362 I33 1990


Caution is necessary in consulting these books. The larger and more reliable general place name dictionaries should be checked first. Since place name etymology is often undocumentable and speculative, the etymological dictionaries are better treated as interesting compendia of lore.

Nihon chimei gogen jiten 日本地名語源辞典. Shinjinbutsu ôraisha, 1981.
Call no.: REF DS 805 .Y593

A modest but reliable etymological dictionary of place names. It attempts to incorporate current scholarship in linguistics, geography and folklore studies. Cites Yanagida Kunio's Chimei no kenkyû. Relatively cautious about dubious etymologies. The present work is described as an interim report, until scholarship on the subject can be synthesized in a more comprehensive way. Does not include Ainu place names.

Chimei gogen jiten 地名語源辞典. Azekura shobô, 1968.
Call no.: DS 805 .Y84

The scholarship in this work is outdated, but it does contain a useful list of ateji for Ainu place names, as well as a bibliography.

Zoku chimei gogen jiten 続地名語源辞典. Azekura shobô, 1979.
Call no.: DS 805 .Y337

Useful for legend and lore of place names, but full of far- fetched etymologies. About one third is devoted to non-Japanese geography.


There are now countless guidebooks of Japan available, both in English and Japanese, and the array is constantly changing. Out of this huge diversity, we recommend the following for their value as sources of reference.

Japan National Tourist Organization, comp. Japan: New Official Guide Book.  (Multiple postwar editions through the 1960s.)
Butler Reference: R952.J27 (1964 edition).
East Asian OFFSITE: DS805 .J27 (1942, 1952, 1966 eds).

This dense and compact volume is now out of print, having been replaced by more light-weight versions, but it is still very valuable as an English-language reference for Japanese places. It can be particularly useful if you want to know the English translations for various local sights and customs. It is remarkably complete, and is not cluttered with information about places to stay and eat, purely data about places. No pictures either. There are, incidentally, many prewar guidebooks, produced both by the national tourist agency and by private guidebook publishers like Terry's. These can be easily tracked down, and are very valuable for giving a sense of the prewar period, and what tourists were encouraged to see, especially in the colonies.

Shin Nihon gaido. JTB, 21 vols. Updated and reprinted annually.
Call no.: Not in East Asian Library.

These guidebooks, published by the Japan Travel Bureau, are generally the most thorough, and may be useful sources of information on historic sites and famous places for the scholarly armchair traveler.

UPDATE: This fine series as of mid-1995 now appears to be out of print, replaced by a variety of much more thin and trendy guides that cover only popular sites.

FURTHER UPDATE, 2005:  The trend to the trendy in guidebooks continues unabated, but one encouraging exception has emerged in a new series from JTB called "Hitori Aruki." Fourteen volumes appeared from 1999-2003, and all are still in print, covering much of Japan.  They do not offer coverage that is quite as comprehensive as the old Shin Nihon gaido, but they come close.  They are no-frills, serious guidebooks: no color photos, no places to eat or stay, just solid descriptions of the site.  They also have a Guide Michelin-like system of rating the sites with 1-3 stars. You can easily check titles and prices at Amazon.co.jp; just search for " ひとり歩きシリーズ".    (HS) 

Gateway to Japan. 2nd ed. Kodansha International, 1992.
Call no.:  Not in East Asian, but a copy is in Barnard reference: REF DS805.2 K56 1990

This is simply the best guidebook in English. It is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, and the introductory sections are a good way of forestalling some questions if friends or family come to visit. The coverage of stores and restaurants is excellent, especially for Kyoto. Nice maps, too.

UPDATE 2005: The current edition is 1998, a bit out of date, but still in print, for $33 new on Amazon.

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