Monday, March 6, 2017

North, West, South, East - Cardinal Directions in Japanese

In case you ever need to read a "map" in Japanese, or chizu 地図, I mean, who am I kidding? You'll never have trouble with that. In case you ever play a game in Japanese that has a map without labels and someone tells you there is a place you gotta go that's either north, west, south or east, but you have no idea which, here is how you say those words in Japanese.

The first big ones are easy.
  • kita 北
  • nishi 西
  • minami
  • higashi

(do not confuse kita 北, "north," with kita 来た, "[it] came," or kita 着た, "wore (clothing)")

Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast

Easy, right? Now to say the other four ones, the inter cardinal directions, which mix the cardinal directions together, you just literally mix them like you'd do in English.
  • hokusei 北西
  • hokutou 北東
  • nansei 南西
  • nantou 南東

Now you might have noticed that even though the kanji characters were mixed together, the readings are completely off. Why is North-West in Japanese hokusei 北西 and not kita-nishi 北西? It's just that these kanji have on'yomi and kun'yomi readings.

In the words with a single kanji, they use the kun'yomi reading: kita 北, nishi 西, minami 南, higashi 東. But in words with more kanji, they use on'yomi reading: hoku 北, sei 西, nan 南, tou 東.

North-Northwest, East-Northwest, etc.

Further divisions in directions are made by repeating one kanji, for example, "south-south-west" would be nan-nan-sei 南南西, like "south-south-west" while sei-nan-sei 西南西 would be "west-south-west."

In the case nan'nansei 南南西, nan'nantou 南南東, hokuhokusei 北北西 and hokuhokutou 北北東 sometimes the repetition kanji 々 is used. Example: hokuhokutou 北々東.

East-West, North-South

The words for things that are across directions, such "east-west" and "north-south," work the same way: they are touzai 東西 and nanboku 南北 respectively.

"Cardinal Directions" in Japanese

There are two names the four cardinal directions in Japanese.

The first one is touzainanboku 東西南北, which is literally "east-west south-north." This one is very explicit about the cardinal directions so there's no mistaking it.

The second one is shihou 四方, literally "four directions." This one is a bit tricky since it can mean other four directions too, or things that are in all four directions (around you).

Lastly, this isn't strictly about cardinal directions, there's jippou 十方, which is not four, but "ten directions." Yeah, that's right, ten directions. Which directions are those? North, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southwest, southeast and... there's only 8 there.... uh... up and down. Yeah. Up an down. That's how you get 10 directions total.

Japanese Compass Rose

Now I know some of you reading this may be asking: this is great and all but which side is east? (I'm not joking, I mix them up sometimes.) So here's a diagram for you so you don't lose your way.

A compass rose with the cardinal directions in Japanese: North, South, East, West, kita 北, nishi 西, minami 南, higashi 東. Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest. hokusei 北西, hokutou 北東, nantou 南東, nansei 南西. North-Northwest, North-Northeast, East-Northeast, East-Southeast, South-Southeast, South-Southwest, West-Southwest, West-Northwest. hokuhokusei 北北西, hokuhokutou 北北東, touhokutou 東北東, tounantou 東南東, nan'nantou 南南東, nan'nansei 南南西, seinansei 西南西, seihokusei 西北西.

By the way, a single "cardinal point" or "cardinal direction" in Japanese is called houi 方位. A "compass," like a pirate's one, which shows the direction, is called houi-jishaku 方位磁石. The jishaku 磁石 part alone means "magnet," which is how compasses work, with "magnetism," jiki 磁気.

NSEW in Japanese

Now, if you have ever actually seen a compass, even the simple rose of winds on a map, you might recall that nobody actually writes out north, south, east and west. They use acronyms, only the first letter: N, S, E and W.

So what would be the equivalent in Japanese? That'd be nothing, because a single kanji (北) is already equivalent to the entire word (N). You don't need to abbreviate the Japanese word for north in writing because it's already short enough.

Related Words and Mnemonics

Now, I know all these words might seem a little hard to remember, so here are some mnemonics to help you memorize them.

First of all, remember anime:
  • hokuto no ken 北斗の拳
    Fist of the North Star
  • higashi no eden 東のエデン
    Eden of the East

If that doesn't work, try to remember the geography of Japan.
  • toukyou 東京
    Capital of the east. (aka Tokyo)
  • kansai 関西
    Western region
  • kantou 関東
    Eastern region.

Okay, fine, this doesn't help. Most people don't even know where kansai and kantou is or what they are. Maybe it's better to just pray you don't have to use these words. Ever.

But in case you need to, remember that north and south come before east west in inter-cardinal directions. (nantou 南東 / hokusei 北西). That ought to be enough.


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  1. >hokuto no ken 北斗の拳
    >First of the North Star

    First or fist?