Dear Alice,
I’ve noticed something that no one has ever been able to explain to me: It seems that absolutely every bridge in Japan has a name! Size, length and location don’t seem to have anything to do with it: I once saw two tiny bridges out in the middle of nowhere, one after the other, and each had its own name on a sign nearby. Even bridges that span highways almost always have a name. If living in Japan has taught me anything, it’s that there’s probably a reason for this. The problem is that no one knows what the heck it is! Would you be able to help?
Rosalind C., Hokkaido

Dear Rosalind,
The fundamental answer to your question is that bridges have names because it’s more convenient that way. Imagine for a moment that you’re passionately in love with someone and want them to run away with you. You whisper, “Meet me at midnight at the So-and-So Bridge!” Chances are good that your sweetie will know just where to go.

Now imagine if bridges didn’t have names:

“Steal away tonight, my love, and meet me at the second of the six bridges over the river as you face east!”

“You mean the old bridge near the temple?”

“No, that’s if you’re facing west. I’m talking about the black bridge beyond the big stone.”

“The bridge by the rock? That’s not black, it’s red!”

We all know where that would end: No one would feel like running away with anyone.

The more complete answer to your question, and probably the one you were looking for, is that bridges in Japan have names because Japanese law says they should. I suspect this has been true for a very long time, but I was able to confirm that bridge naming has been standard practice since at least 1952, when the current version of the Road Act went into force. That law recommends that public facilities such as roads, tunnels and bridges be given names, according to Yusuke Seto, an official with the Road Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

“The rationale is that a facility with a name is easier to manage because you have a clear way of identifying it, whether to users, maintenance workers or emergency crews,” Seto explained. A name also helps the public get to know and feel good about the facility, he added.

The law doesn’t specify how names should be selected, but there are a few common patterns. Sometimes the organization responsible for the bridge just decides on a name itself. In other cases a committee is assembled and given that responsibility. But the latest trend is to solicit ideas from the general public. The town of Kikuyo in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, for example, recently held a public competition to name a new bridge. Local resident Takayuki Shimazu provided the winning name, which was Suginamiki Rikkyo. (“Rikkyō” is a word for a bridge over a railway.)

“It’s becoming more common to involve citizens in name selections because it’s an excellent way to raise public awareness about new facilities and help citizens understand how their tax money is used,” Seto said.

I can’t help wondering if there is another reason: Is it possible the country was running out of bridge names? This theory came to me when I learned just how many bridges there are in Japan. According to official statistics, and counting only those that are at least 2 meters long, there are approximately 600,000 bridges in Japan. And they all need names! Supporting my theory was my discovery of a number of officially designated mumeikyō (no-name bridges), including one bearing a fine sign identifying it as No-name Bridge #5.

Admittedly, a lot of the bridge names you’re likely to come across couldn’t have required much thought, like the ones named for the rivers they span. A typical example is a bridge in Niigata Prefecture that crosses the Kurotaki River and is called the Kurotakibashi Bridge (The last two syllables are the word for bridge, “hashi,” with a sound change because it’s in a compound.) Others are named for personages of local importance, or take their name from the neighborhoods or municipalities they connect. But there are more imaginative and even whimsical bridges out there, if you look for them. My current favorite is the Hotarukoikoibashi in Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture, which translates roughly as the “Fireflies, Come Out! Come Out! Bridge.”

If you’re very observant, you might have noticed that there is even a standard way of posting bridge names. I’ve seen exceptions, but in principle if you stand at the start point of the bridge, facing into the bridge, the post on your left should bear a sign or plaque with the bridge name written in kanji. The post on your right should provide the name of the road or river the bridge is spanning. If you then walk across the bridge, and turn back the way you came, there should be a sign on your right with the bridge name written in hiragana and a sign on the left about when the bridge was completed. This of course raises the question of how it’s decided which side of the bridge is the starting point, so I looked into that as well. Whichever side of the bridge is closer to some place of importance, such as a major city, airport or seaport, is the starting point (kiten). The other side is the terminus (shūten).

As an aside, and I am not in any way trying to imply that you harbor criminal intent, your interest in bridge names is shared by a certain type of thief. These crooks make off with kyōmeiban (bridge-name signs) made of bronze and sell them to unscrupulous metal dealers for the copper content. The signs cost around ¥50,000 each, so this is not petty crime, particularly when the thieves hit a high number of bridges, as they did last year in Yamaguchi Prefecture when 200 signs were stolen in a 10-day period. A number of municipalities have taken steps to prevent theft, such as welding the sign bolts into place.

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