The four cardinal directions are the directions north, east, south, and west. The intermediate directions are northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. In English it would be incorrect to say eastnorth, for example. But in Japanese 東北 (literally eastnorth) and 西北 (literally westnorth) are quite right (BUT 南東 and 南西!)

Which directions are considered primary and intermediate in Japan? If everything is just the same as in the West, why do we say 東北, not 北東, and 西北 instead of 北西?

Thank you!

  • 3
    I'll leave it to someone else to answer the question, but I'm not sure I agree with the premise of the question. 東北 is the name of a region, but if they wanted to talk about the direction, I'm more used to hearing 北東 or 北西.
    – Leebo
    Oct 26, 2018 at 6:54
  • @Leebo I'm just confused by this jisho.org/search/touhoku. They say, first of all it's north-east, and the second meaning is Touhoku region.
    – Enguroo
    Oct 26, 2018 at 6:57
  • 2
    Yes, those definitions exist in the dictionary, but I'm just saying that not only is 北東 not incorrect, it's normal to hear it (in my experience).
    – Leebo
    Oct 26, 2018 at 7:20

2 Answers 2


Sometimes confusion arises because there are two different systems of classifying cardinal directions in Japanese. There is a system which uses the Western style of emphasizing North/South as the first part of the word. This is the dominant system in Japan now. But there is also a system which apparently originated in China which emphasizes East/West in the first part of the word. This is disappearing and some of the cardinal points are not used much (if ever) now. Here is how the two systems differ.

Western System

NE 北東
SE 南東
SW 南西
W 西
NW 北西


'Chinese' System

NE 東北
SE 東南
SW 西南
W 西
NW 西北

As mentioned, the Western system is dominant but there are cases where the Chinese system is still used. For example, you get names like 東北 and 東南アジア whereas the term 西南 isn’t in everyday use. I think you will still find all the 'Chinese style' directions listed in a dictionary, but they have been superseded by the Western system for the most part.

  • 1
    I recall reading that Chinese cartography oriented maps with the vertical along the east-west axis, such as the 大明混一圖{Dà Míng Hùnyī Tú} (Great Ming Composite Map). I wonder if this influenced, or was influenced by, the ordering of directional words such as 東北 and 西南? Oct 26, 2018 at 19:04

it appears that the directional variation you've noticed is simply, as Leebo pointed out in the comments, a matter of regional names vs. directions.


technically, the region name 東北 does in fact indicate a direction, as you would not expect to find such a region anywhere but to the east and north of the country. But the "reverse order" of the kanji in its name allows instant clarity as to the fact that what is being discussed is that entire specific region, and not simply something to your personal north east, or just "somewhere in the north east" area of Japan.

A search for information on compass directions in Japanese yields many pages, some simple, and some more helpful. One example of a simple page with a nice graphic:


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