Kanji Clinic #45, The Japan Times, October 30, 2003
gKanji road signs spell out traffic dangerh
During my first six years in Japan, I simply refused to drive a car. Just the thought of it made me queasy. Unlike in the United States--where I had been zooming around since the age of fifteen--driving in Japan is done on the left-hand side of the road. Groups of high school students recklessly pedal bicycles down narrow roads; motor bike riders create their own helter-skelter lane to the left of automobile traffic; frighteningly tiny first-graders dash across busy roads en route to school; and mothers perch a pair of helmet-less toddlers, along with the dayfs shopping, on their bicycles.
During my Japanese bus-riding years, about the time I was first beginning to become serious about kanji learning, I used to have bad dreams: Monster road signs flashed in front of me with kanji I was unable to decipher, causing me to hit defenseless pedestrians and bicyclists with my car. Anyone planning to sit in the driverfs seat in Japan should be prepared to encounter kanji on road signs. True, some signs--such as gNo passing,h gOne way,h gNo U-turn,h and speed limits--are kanji-less. These advisories convey meaning through arrows, slash marks and numbers.
One ubiquitous road sign in Japan, gNo Parking,h also lacks kanji, but be forewarned: Learning to spot this circular blue and red sign is not enough to keep expensive parking fine stickers from being attached to the side window of your car. You must also know the kanji version, ÔÖ~ (park-car-prohibit-stop), which pops up on white signboards in neighborhoods and back roads. Ö~ means gprohibited,h and can also be seen on signs like EÜÖ~ (right-turn-prohibit, gNo right turnh) and iüÖ~ (progress-enter-prohibit, gDo not enterh).
Some two-kanji road signs you will need to understand in order to be a seefutii doraibaa (gsafe driverh) in Japan are: s (gradual-go, gSlowh), ¬ (meet-flow, gMergeh), Dæ (dominant-precede, gpriorityh-- as in goXDæ Bus priority laneh), _ (ignite-lamp, gTurn on lightsh), and i· (grade-difference, gBumph). Ôü (vehicle-track) means glane,h and appears in warnings such as Ôü¸ (gLane narrowsh).
¹H (path-road) indicates a groadh and is a building block in kanji compounds every driver who braves Japanfs expressways (¬¹H high-fast-roads) can expect to see. Expressway entrances are marked with L¿¹H (exist-fee-roads, gtoll roadh) signs, warning that you are about to become a victim of state-sponsored highway robbery. (e.g., Nagoya to Tokyo, 325 kilometers on the Tomei Expressway, will set you back 7,100 yen/$65).
¬x (fast-degree) means gspeedh--if you see this compound followed by the hiragana command ¨Æ¹I(gDrop it!h) you have been duly reminded not to put the pedal to the metal. If you persist, you may fall into a speed trap: Offenders are pulled over by a police officer waving a red g~Üêh (Stop!) flag in the middle of the road, and then herded into a police bus parked conveniently nearby to be ticketed (a foreign language experience you might prefer to avoid).
Another two-character compound kanji novices with Japanese driverfs licenses learn to decipher quickly is the schedule-wrecking aØ (not go smoothly-stagnate, gtraffic jamh). aØ is frequently accompanied by the equally dreaded H (construct-thing- in progress, gRoad constructionh).
Knowing the four-kanji compound ¡fÓ may help you avoid a disastrous mid-road encounter with a pedestrian: The first two characters (sideways-cut off) indicate gcrossing,h and the last two (pour-mind) mean gBeware.h You will also notice Ó at the end of warnings like JsÓ (rain-run-go-beware, gRain, drive slowlyh) and º¨LÓ (fall-down-objects-exist-beware, gWatch for falling objectsh). gPouring your mindh into maneuvering Japanfs hazard-filled roads is critically important.
Since I stopped being a peepaa doraibaa (gpaper driver,h someone who has a license but never drives), my life has become immeasurably easier. As I taxi my children around town, I try to keep that most sobering of Japanese road signs, a bright yellow and red one, in mind: ðÊSÌ»ê (traffic-death-accident-site) is an all-too-common message to be found alongside the roads I travel every day. Improve your own odds of arriving safely at your destination--learn to read all of Japanfs road signs properly.
Please share your kanji driving experiences in Japan (and China) at mailto:email@example.com.