I'm not sure how useful this will be, but with the growing popularity of anime and Japanese culture, I figured I'd contribute some information on Japanese naming and placenames.
Vasha's Guide to Feudal Japan - Language is one of my favorite resources. While it's primarily aimed at naming characters, the 'initial' and 'final characters for family names' sections are extremely useful. They include a lot of great placename elements like 'valley', 'base of a hill', 'town', 'island', 'field', etc. It also includes more specific placename elements like 'shrine', 'cellar', 'pavilion', 'district', 'iron forge', etc.
If you're looking for specifics, or you want some pretty Japanese characters to make your map look even flashier, a great site for kanji is the dictionary at Animelab.com. You can search by English meaning, romaji (Japanese word written in roman characters), kanji (logographs), or kana (Japanese alphabets). It gives you a lot of flexibility, especially by letting you find out the kanji that a word is written with, and then searching each individual kanji that makes up the word to better understand its full meaning.
Delving deeper into kanji, Wiktionary is excellent, especially for giving variation in the sound of a word. If you have a lot of northern villages, then you may find the kanji for 'snow' particularly useful (yuki). By looking up this Kanji on the English version of Wiktionary, you can find multiple readings of the same kanji. The same symbol can be pronounced 'setsu' or 'sechi' by following original Chinese pronunciation (On reading), or 'susugu' is another Japanese variant (Kun reading).
Wiktionary also gives 'nanori' readings. Nanori are readings of a kanji that are used only for the names of people and places. For example, using the 'mizu' kanji for 'water', you have the On reading of 'sui', the Kun reading of 'mizu', but the Nanori readings 'uzu', 'zumi', 'tsu', 'do', 'mi', 'misa', 'mitsu', 'mina', and 'min'.
My last two favorite resources are great for creativity. The Japanese Names section at Sengoku Daimyo has some very helpful stuff under the "surnames" section, though the kanji are images that can't be copied and pasted to the AnimeLab dictionary or Wiktionary. Lastly, the Monthly Kukai Report was designed as an aide for writing haiku but the 'Terrestrial Phenomenon', 'Celestial Phenomenon', and 'Plants' sections can be useful for placenames when used sparingly.
I'm no Japanese language expert, I really only speak it well enough to say "I don't understand Japanese", but these five websites have made it considerably easier for me to look like I know what I'm doing. I hope they'll be helpful!
@scriptkitty - The number of links caused this to be autoflagged as spam. I've approvd the post, thanks for the contribution!
Oops! Thanks for passing it through!
Thanks, Scriptkitty! Even though I speak some Japanese, and I am half-Japanese, if you haven't looked around the site to see, but I am working on my own Japanese setting intended for publication next month. Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story setting.
For place names I know things like island (shima) or mountain (yama) so I've simply taken existing names of things and places I know like Hiroshima, and came up with somethings like Hiroyama, to twist things up a bit, sounding very Japanese and having moderate accuracy.
Your links above will prove an incredible boon, however, as I've been pretty much winging it as I went along. I didn't want to replicate actual Japanese cities and towns (much), since my Japanese like islands are completely ficitional.
So thank you. Look around the site, I've got several threads dealing with Kaidan, my setting. I've also got a Genpei War map (a map of an actual war in its last year of 1185 AD) as my February Map Challenge entry as well as my Ukiyo-e style map objects in the Mapping Elements page. So I could really use those links in my work.
I'm also glad you finally posted someplace. I did see your votes in this month's challenge, so I know you want to participate here. Glad you finally did!
PS: have some REP!
I noticed some of your work on the board, GP! I look forward to seeing more. I'm glad that these resources can be of some assistance.
I've been working on a book as well, in a fictional Japan-inspired setting of my own creation named Asajima (instead of the land of the rising sun, 'dawn island'! Ha ha! Ha... haaa.... *crickets*). I'm hoping to publish it later on this year, though my worldmap was created before I had any real idea of scale, travel times and distances, natural geological features, etc. Now that I've learned so much from this site, I want to redesign the map before I send the book off to the printers, since it's the map I plan to base all of my future works in. Once I rebuild the map, I'm hoping to be able to post it here on Cartographer's Guild.
In the meantime, I've been working on a map for a Japan-modified D&D game, and I'm hoping to post the map and some accompanying material on the forum some time in the next few days. I'm shooting for a setting with a lot of classical D&D elements (all of the major 3.5 races represented), but in a cultural setting similar to the one I've cobbled together for Asajima (the courts and nobility have a very Heian period feel, the world in general has a lot of sengoku jidai influences from before the arrival of foreigners, a few post-Meiji elements like the modern image of geisha as entertainers, etc).
More place-naming goodness! I learned some neat stuff while naming my map for my T&T project (Tsuchirou to Tatsu, trans: Dungeons and Dragons :P)
Directional names are incredibly useful.
Central = Chuuou or Naka-
East = Higashi, Tou
West = Nishi
North = Kita, Hoku
South = Minami
Now here's where things get really fun. The emperor supposedly sits facing south, so the terms "u" (right) and "sa" (left) can be used for placenames. In my map, there are two capes extending south on either side of the bay where my capitol city is. I've named them respectively Sasaki (left cape) for the eastern cape, and Usaki (right cape) for the western cape. Mind you, the kanji are what give them these great meanings... Sasaki could also be written with different kanji to be the word for a type of tree.
Another favorite of place-naming has always been 'New'. 'New York', 'New Jersey', 'New Mexico', it's a great way to name a place without having to be, y'know, creative. Well, Japan has a couple of its own... Shin can mean new, while Hon or Moto can mean original. For example, I have two provinces, and one holds the current royal palace (miya), one is where the old palace was. I named them, respectively, Shinmiya and Honmiya.
Hopefully this helps, I'm planning on putting something together for character naming soon too.
Another great site for kanji (you can search by english meaning, japanese pronunciation, or radical) is jisho .org which also has a people and place name dictionary.
I'm currently living in Japan and can tell you that besides the names of places, there are plenty of different terms for different administrative divisions. First off, japan is split into the "to-do-fu-ken". There are 43 ken, or prefectures with the -ken used as a suffix (aomori-ken, shizuoka-ken), 2 fu or urban prefectures (osaka-fu and kyoto-fu), one do or "circuit" (hokkaido), and one to or metropolis (tokyo-to). Within these larger divisions fall designated cities or shi (sapporo-shi, fukuoka-shi, nagoya-shi) and districts or gun (in aomori-ken we have kamikita-gun, higashi-tsugaru-gun etc.). Larger cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Sendai, etc.) are divided into wards or ku (Tokyo has Oota-ku, minato-gu, setagaya-ku etc.) while gun/districts are divided into towns (machi or cho) or villages (mura). The difference between machi and cho usually depends on whether the town is historically free-standing, or whether it is a conglomeration of older, smaller divisions. For example, next to my town, rokunohe-machi, is oirase-cho which used to be split into shimoda-machi and momoishi-machi.
Scriptkitty, whether you use higashi or tou for east depends on whether the word is part of a compound, or an adjective describing an existing place name. For example, Tokyo (a better transcription would be Toukyou) literally means Eastern Capital, so, being part of a compound the onyomi or "chinese" pronunciation of tou is used. In the example of higashi-tsugaru-gun, however, higashi is used to distinguish the eastern portion of the tsugaru region. To supplement what youve already posted, the onyomi for west is sei and for south is nan (or nam before p, b, n, or m). These onyomi can also be combined into quarter directions-- tohoku for northeast, seinan for southwest etc. but notice that e/w comes before n/s. As for "central" Chuuou means the center of something, so cities might have a chuuou-ku (central ward) or chuuou-dori (central avenue), but its not really found in place names. Naka is the kunyomi of the chuu portion of chuuou (中) and simply carries the meaning "middle". Kami (上) and Shimo (下) can also be used to mean upper and lower respectively. In Aomori-ken we have the kamikita (upper north) and shimokita (lower north) regions.
Many place names in japan are made out of the few geographic words (ishi-stone, yama- mountain, kawa or sawa- river etc.) but the region i live in also has a cirlcle of towns and cities named Xnohe. where X is a number 1-9 (except 4 which is homophonous with death) and he means door or gate (no is the possesive particle). Because the area used to be used for raising horses, the different paddocks/pastures through which the animals would rotate gave their name to a ring of towns. You could do the same thing with ports (ichinokou ninokou sannokou) or castles (ichinojou, ninojou, sannojou).
Another layer of Japanese naming are the many places in northern honshu and on hokkaido whose names come from the language of the native Ainu people. For example theres a city near me called towada, which is written with kanji (十和田) meaning "ten peaceful fields" but the actual Ainu meaning is lost-- the kanji only gloss the original pronunciation. You could transform foreign place names into Japanese though, as in Chicago becoming Shikagou (鹿郷) --Deer Township. This isnt how modern japanese deals with foreign place names, but is still kind of fun.
The best way to familiarize yourself with japanese place names and place name conventions is probably just to surf google earth or wikipedia-- pick a prefecture and go through the links to its constituent cities/districts/towns etc. The kanji are usually written right and the top, and you can look them up from there.