Japan’s expressways are famously difficult to navigate. Most are named for the far-away places they head to and are difficult for non-native Japanese speakers to remember. That may all change, the Ministry of Transport is proposes an alphanumeric system to help us gaijin not get lost.
In 2003, before the days in which GPS was common in cars, we at JNC foolishly decided to drive from Tokyo to Twin Ring Motegi to visit the Honda Collection Hall. What should have been a quick 90-minute jaunt ended up taking us five and a half hours due to a mixed exit and a comedy of successive errors. You have no idea how stressful it is to attempt to decipher kanji at speed as the sun rapidly descends, taking away the only marker of which cardinal direction you’re heading in — not that Japan’s famously curvy country roads offer any guarantee that you’ll be traveling in any particular direction for long.
That’s because most of Japan’s roads and expressways are named for cities that are thousands of years old. For example, the Tomei Expressway, one of the main route connecting Tokyo and Nagoya, follows a path that dates back to the 1600s. In addition, the name comes from the “To” in “Tokyo” and “Mei,” an alternate pronunciation of the first kanji character in “Nagoya” that is not actually even in the word as it’s read today. This may be common knowledge for a Japanese person, but there’s the casual tourist wouldn’t know it.
According to the Asahi Shimbun, the proposed system would add a letter and number to every one of Japan’s 108 expressways. Expressways will be designated with the letter “E” while circular routes that loop cities would be designated with the letter “C”, following the convention of Tokyo’s famed Shuto, which is already denoted with C1.
Under the new system, The Tomei Expressway would become the E1. while the newly built Shin-Tomei Expressway paralleling it would be called E1A, with the letter “A” to denote their relationship. The Japanese government will review the proposal starting in mid-September and make a decision by the end of the year.
While this is just one of the many changes that Japan is making ahead of the 2020 Olympics, there’s something to be said for the romance of names like Tomei. Race part companies named E1 just won’t have the same ring.