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Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006
SO, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?
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 email@example.com or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.
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Several readers responded to the topic of this particular column and here are a few of their e-mailed comments: