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Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006


Number plates

Dear Alice,

News photo

As you may know, the automobile license plates issued in Japan to American military personnel look just like those issued to Japanese nationals except that instead of a hiragana character, they all start with the letter Y. I have been given two explanations for this. One is that the Y stands for "Yankee." The other, which I find a bit more disturbing, is that the Y stands for yosomono, a somewhat derogatory term for foreigner. Can you find out what the heck the Y actually means?

Peter H., Okinawa City, Okinawa

Under the terms of an agreement between the governments of Japan and the United States, U.S. military personnel and their families get a tax break when registering an automobile in Japan. Part of the deal, which currently covers about 58,000 vehicles, is that the cars carry a special license plate.

Y-number plates are the most common, but delve a little deeper and you hit alphabet soup. Vehicles purchased in Japan get Y-plates, but cars brought in from overseas get E-number plates. There are H- and M-plates out there too but despite having it explained to me several times, I still can't figure out what they are for.

So let's return to your question: why Y? I was willing to assume, for argument's sake, that some pencil pusher had a grudge against the Americans and expressed it by assigning a Y ("those damn Yankees!") for their license plates. But how do we explain E? ("Evil empire," perhaps?) And what about H and M? The "Y is for Yankee" argument just isn't convincing without catchy explanations for the rest of the letters.

I called the U.S. Forces in Japan to see if they knew anything. I was referred to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, the agency with jurisdiction over automobile registration. But before I got the official pass-off, some of the staffers admitted they had heard the Yankee theory, among others, but felt the explanation that made the most sense was that Y stands for Yokohama because an early licensing office was located there. I was unable to confirm that, so I moved on to the transportation ministry and was bounced all over until I reached the guy with the rule books. He searched valiantly (I could hear the pages turning while I remained on the line) but concluded there is no record within the ministry as to why the letter Y was assigned.

He did, however, have the best theory I've heard yet. After the war, until the current system was adopted in 1958, U.S. Occupation forces in Japan got A-number license plates while United Nations personnel received B-numbers. If a soldier left the service but stayed in Japan, he was issued a plate beginning with the katakana character "yo." "Why yo?" I queried, thinking to myself that yo would work for yosomono but not for Yankee. "I think it was simply that it wasn't being used yet," my source suggested. "And when we switched to letters, Y was a logical replacement for yo."

In Okinawa, home to more U.S. military personnel than any other part of Japan, there's a common expression: Y nanba ni ki o tsukero! ("Watch out for Y numbers"). This, as my friend Nana in Naha put it rather delicately, is because the young men behind the wheel of most Y-mobiles are "somewhat lacking in road manners." If you get into an accident with one, you can expect double the paperwork because both the military and the prefecture police come to the scene, Nana said. And there have been problems with underinsured military drivers.

But there are bigger beefs in Okinawa. When registering a car, U.S. military personnel don't have to submit the shako shomeisho (proof of a parking spot). And they pay only a third as much tax, which means less revenue for public spending. "It's citizens like you and me who have to make it up by paying higher taxes," one Okinawa-based Web site complained. Local newspapers have picked up the issue, and a few years ago, the legality of the preferential system was contested in the Diet.

Come to think of it, that Okinawan Web site was the only place I saw Y-numbers referred to as "Y(ankee) plates." If I had to choose a theory, I'd bet that the Y on license plates was chosen for some mundane reason, and that the derogatory associations were made only after the fact.

Puzzled by something you've seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, with the address where you saw it to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.

* * * * * *

Several readers responded to the topic of this particular column and here are a few of their e-mailed comments:

I've been living in Japan since late 1988 when the military assigned me to Misawa Air Base in Aomori-ken. My introduction to life in Japan those many years ago included a briefing about motor vehicles and driving in Japan. A GI also explained/theorized that a "Y" plate indicated "Yankee."

Here are my unofficial definitions and explanations of usage:

1) "A" = "American" This plate is usually yellow and is put on vehicles with small-sized engines and, as I recall, things like motorcycles.

2) "E" = "European" This plate is most often found on cars GIs purchased and shipped when assigned in Europe. But it can also be found on American vehicles from the 1960s and earlier. But you obviously did the research and are undoubtedly correct about this plate being used for non-domestic vehicles since I have seen it on much newer American imports as well.

3) "Y" = "Yankee" Same as you discussed in your article.

As you pointed out, the true meaning behind all these designations are lost in the annals of time. The above works for me!

Bren Shuler

* * * * * *

My opinion on "What the heck is that?"

For one alphabet, there can be 10,000 kinds of number plates (from 0000 to 9999). When the Japanese government decided to use the letter "Y" for the U.S. Army personnel in Okinawa, it must have estimated that the whole U.S. personnel in Okinawa would use not more than 20,000 automobiles. If so, the letter "Y" and "Z" are enough for the number plates of the cars which the U.S. personnel use.

I guess that the Japanese government is always estimating the number of cars used by certain group of people. And I think that the Japanese government was expecting so many kinds of categories would be needed for the number plates classification that it applied "Y" (and "Z" hopefully) to the U.S. personnel whose number the Japanese government could easily estimate.

I do not think that there was any derogatory intent to the U.S. personnel.

Mitsuharu Kan

* * * * * *

I have read your article with great attention and noticed a (maybe) interesting fact: The number plates for military vehicles in Germany also start with "Y." The explanation I have found in wikipedia.org is that this is due to the near nonexistence of major cities in Germany that start with "y."

There is also a saying regarding the plate in bundeswehr (army) circles:

Warum hat die Bundeswehr das Y auf dem Nummernschild bei den Fahrzeugen? Y ist der letzte Buchstabe vom Wort Germany, somit das letzte von Deutschland.

Why does the Bundeswehr have Y on the number plates of their vehicles? Because Y is the last letter in the word "Germany" and therefore the last of Germany.


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