Travel | ON THE ROAD

Time that Japan's numbers came up

With roads full of traffic but license plates bearing just four legible numbers, and every driver wanting you to think they are from Shinagawa, it's time to rethink car identification

by Peter Lyon

Given that much less than 1 percent of Japan’s population are native English speakers, you can understand my surprise when the word “POLICE” suddenly appeared in bold reflective lettering on the nation’s patrol cars last year.

Put there, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, to help foreign visitors and residents recognize patrol cars (while making them look a whole lot cooler, too), these English letters sparked a minor debate in motoring circles. Could this mean that Japan’s parochial number-plate system might also get a visit from the English alphabet?

Inquiries to the transport ministry were met with blank looks, the customary sucking-air-through-the-teeth routine and the odd sa — which generally means something like “well . . .”

A quick look at any local number plate will reveal three or four large, legible numbers flanked by a much smaller region name and number that are not only difficult to see at a distance but are also often unreadable. Even university- educated Japanese cannot read many kanji characters appearing on local plates. On a recent drive around Tokyo , I spotted a rare number plate and asked a Japanese friend how it was pronounced. When my learned colleague could not read the characters, which turned out to be for the city of Sodegaura in Chiba Prefecture, I decided to look into this peculiarly Japanese phenomenon.

“All that domestic plates tell you is which office of transport bureaucrats issued them. And that’s boring,” commented Chiba Gov. Akiko Domoto last October in her opening remarks at the Tokyo Motor Show. “They have no variety in shape or color. And they say nothing at all about our individual identities or where we come from.”

Anyone who has visited Japan’s countryside and brought back popular local produce, known as meibutsu, in which a great deal of local pride is invested, knows that Japan’s regions are fiercely individualistic. Yet, strangely, there are no personalized number plates in Japan. In fact, car owners get very little choice of license plates at all. About the best result any car owner here can hope for is to buy a plate with numbers that refer to their vehicle’s model, say “911” for a Porsche 911, “500” for a Fiat 500 or “86” for the sporty Toyota Corolla AE86 of the 1980s.

In making her case for change, Domoto highlighted the well-known fact that the only cool number plate in Japan is one that reads, in kanji, “Shinagawa” — the plate for vehicles registered in central Tokyo. It is by far the most sought-after plate in Japan, and some people will go to great lengths to get one. A transport ministry source who wished to remain anonymous recounted how a Kanagawa- based entrepreneur desperate for the status afforded by Shinagawa plates used a colleague’s Tokyo address to sidestep the rules and realize his lofty ambition.

In contrast, some plates draw disdain by merely bearing the name of a rural area outside Tokyo. And that is what Domoto aims to change, by turning misguided elitism into a genuine pride in one’s area.

Changing the number plates on Japanese cars could also bring an added bonus. Many domestic car designers complain that the squarish shape of Japanese plates — compared to the long, narrow European kind — makes it harder to design stylish front and rear ends.

What could Japanese motorists look forward to should the authorities rethink plate design? Such plates would offer motorists considerable scope to customize their set of wheels, although restrictions would definitely apply on the combination of letters and numbers. For example, in the United States, where up to 17 percent of cars in states such as Virginia have so-called vanity plates, drivers are not allowed to use combinations including NYPD, GOD or MASTRB8R for obvious reasons. Last year a South Dakota woman nearly lost her vanity plates, which read MPEACHW (meaning impeach President George W. Bush), but the initial decision to confiscate them was later reversed.

Prestige plates can generate huge sums of money, sometimes equaling or even exceeding the cost of the vehicle itself. Currently, the owner of plates that read GENKI, which appear on a Mazda2 in Australia, hopes to sell them for $20,000, while a driver with GUCCI wants $30,000. But such prices sound insignificant when compared with the most expensive private plate ever sold in the United Kingdom. Back in 2006, one reading “M 1” was sold at auction for £331,000.

What Domoto would like to see, however, are plates modeled on those in Florida that say “Sunshine State,” or in Idaho that declare “World Famous Potatoes.” In her home of Chiba, she would push for “World Famous Sweet Potatoes,” although as she says, “Young people might prefer ‘Japan’s Surfing Capital.’ ” Aomori Prefecture might use “Apple State,” while Yamanashi Prefecture may be inclined to employ “Yamanashi for Premium Wines.”

The motor industry is the driving force of Japan’s economy. Toyota, for example, generates more revenue and profit than any other single company here. But Japan’s motoring culture is declining — at least in terms of sales volume — while young Japanese in their 20s and 30s are more interested in computers, mobile phones, iPods, game consoles and manga than cars. Many of these Generation Xers and Yers regard a car as either a luxury item or merely a means of everyday transport, especially in rural areas. They don’t see it as a fun thing to have.

Incorporating a new, narrower-shaped number-plate system using numbers and strategic phrases capturing the essence of an area’s local meibutsu highlights would, potentially not only generate more local pride but also inject significantly more interest into car ownership and motoring culture in Japan. And it would allow the country’s car stylists to pen sleeker designs that would appeal more to the global market.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motoring journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.