NIHON LIFE: Japan proposes changes for easier expressway navigation by foreigners

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.

Skorj is co-founder of Filmwasters and you can find more of his work at Cars on Film and here on JNC

This post is filed under: Nihon Life and
tagged: , , .

9 Responses to NIHON LIFE: Japan proposes changes for easier expressway navigation by foreigners

  1. Sam says:

    I did successfully navigate from Tokyo to Twin Ring without too much hassle earlier this year, but of course completely relied on GPS, however GPS also led us astray on the way to Fuji Speedway taking us to a dead end road in what appeared to be farmland, but we managed to find a path (manually with map) over a wicked mountain pass with clear evidence of illegal street activities, and an awesome view of Mt Fuji, so it wasn’t all bad.
    GPS help, but still has its flaws. Alphanumeric would be a massive help.

    • Censport says:

      Traveling between Sports 800 events in May of last year, we used Watanabe-san’s old GPS. We drove the Shin-Tomei (sorry, the E1A), which wasn’t in the GPS unit as it hadn’t been updated in years. But we were in a 50-year-old Yotahachi, so it seemed appropriate. Still, it was funny that he kept having to reset the GPS, as it thought were were driving straight through solid mountains.

  2. SHC says:

    While I can appreciate how much this will help “tourists” get around Japan, I cannot help but think the general populace will see this as unwelcome change. Besides, I’ve had some of my best traveling experiences on the “wrong” road.

  3. Mark Newton-John says:

    Well, on the other hand, they’re doing the same thing in SoCal, it’s not the Golden State, it’s the 5. Harbor, Pasadena, San Diego Freeways? Now it’s simply the 11, 134, and 405…
    And it’s because of CalTrans, for probably the same reasons.

  4. Mark Newton-John says:

    Oops, they changed the 11 to I-110. See how old skool I am?

    • Randy says:

      They could have a sign that has BOTH designations, and be done with it, but somebody needs to make busy-work for the departments, and justify their far-too-big paycheck.

      Makes far more sense than putting the money toward fixing the roads…

  5. Negishi no Keibajo says:

    Mankind… It’s a sad universal fact that no matter where you go, signage is bad at best, fatal at worst. Engineers & politicians make terrible signs. (In the U.S., the “new” font for highway signs has been deemed a fail)

    How do you explain to someone in Tokyo on the difference between a street sign and a intersection/placename sign in Tokyo? Geezzzz….

    OK, I’ll get off my soapbox.

  6. John Moran says:

    I kinda like the history behind the names. Changing to an emotionless code feels a little like the Boston Garden changing to a fleeting (yes, intended) corporate name.

    However, the real issue that needs to be addressed (yes, intended) is the local streets. They may appeal to Bono, but even for locals, the challenge was real. I am sure it is infinitely easier now with GPS and smart phones, but that was not the case when I was there in the aughts.

    Upon arrival, I hopped into a cab and showed the taxi driver my new address. The driver took off slamming through the gears on his column shifter and I figured I would be settling into my new digs in no time. However, I noticed the driver’s conversation on the CB seemed to be filled with intonation befitting uncertainty. My confidence slowly began to wane as he increasingly leaned over the steering wheel to look down side streets. Finally, he stopped at an alley and vaguely pointed. I got out of the car and he summarily closed the automatic door.

    I headed down the alley and found a local wiping down his car – surely he could point out my new abode. Well, within a few minutes, the requisite group had formed, each with varying opinions, including one that said I would need a ride because of the distance. Finally, one person unlocked the mystery of the address and gave me the key information for my new residence. This scenario of a group forming for directions would repeat itself countless times throughout my stay.

    Even those who seemed most likely to understand the system were not impervious to the depths of the anonymous labyrinth. I swear I saw a postal delivery person repeatedly drag his knee on his red scooter as he zigged and zagged erratically looking for an elusive mailbox. If we had this system here, I could only imagine a soccer mom being reported missing after she enduringly scoured a housing tract in Orange County looking for the home of her son’s scheduled play date.

  7. Wayne Thomas says:

    All you need is a GPS that speaks in English, which I do. The other, is to be like the US – place the number of kilometers away a place is on the road sign. That alone would help a lot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *