What the Different Colored License Plates Mean: Explaining Cars in Japan

Everything about Japan fascinates me – vehicles are no exception. A couple months ago, when a friend was driving me to the train station, I noticed his car’s license plate was yellow, instead of the typical white (car) or dark green (bus or taxi).

kei car kijidosha Japanese compact car yellow license plate Japan

I nudged Ryosuke. “Hey. Why is the license plate yellow?”

“Oh, that’s because it’s a kei car. A compact car.”


“And that means there are only four seats. This car is tiny.”

After that, I started noticing there were specific parking spots for kei cars (K-cars, kejidosha, or 軽自動車). I also started noticing differences between the license plate colors. Here are my findings.

Regular car: White medium sized license plate with green letters.

Keicar / compact car: Yellow medium sized license plate with black letters.

Commercial vehicle (like a bus or taxi): Dark green medium sized license plate with white letters.

Japanese bus license plate color green Motor bike or other two-wheeled motorized vehicle: White small license plate with dark green boarders and lettering.

Regular bicycle: No license plate (of course), but a yellow registration sticker that carries your personal information. Police will occasionally stop you, run the number, check you ID to make sure they match, and let you go (unless you stole the bike, then you’re in trouble).

In any case, that is what the different color license plates in Japan mean. Pretty cool, right?

Japanese cars have different license plates

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

15 Comments on What the Different Colored License Plates Mean: Explaining Cars in Japan

  1. There’s also pink license plates for scooters.

  2. your blogs is very nice i like it.

  3. Interesting! In South Africa the colors vary by province and are unrelated to the vehicle type.

    Question, are you aware of the colors used for a small (two seater) pickup truck?

    • Interesting! I had no idea about the South Africa license plate colors. What kind of colored license plates are there?

      I’m not sure about those colors for a small pickup truck. I assume it would be the normal yellow plate for small vehicles.

      • Ah, okay. I just wasn’t sure whether a small pickup would count as a compact (yellow), or as a truck (green). Makes sense though :)

        In South Africa, the provincial number plates (and Diplomatic plates) are one color on a white background. (E.g. Gauteng Province is blue-on-white, the Western Cape is black-on-white.) Fonts may vary, but provincial insignia (if present) are standardized. Depending on the province, the white background may contain a low-contrast graphic, such as a landscape. But it is kept unobtrusive, so as not to interfere with the automatic character recognition of speed cameras and similar law enforcement devices.

        Beyond colors and provincial insignia, provincial plates are distinguished by province-specific suffixes; except Kwa-Zulu and the Western Cape, which use two-letter town/city codes for larger settlements, and provincial suffixes for towns/villages too small to have their own code.

        All Government (G) and Military (M) vehicles have plain black-on-yellow plates. Police no longer have their own plates, so they use a normal provincial registration number instead.

        • Wow, that’s a complex system. I think the South Africa system might be one of the most standardized systems I’ve ever seen. I do sort of like how the provincial plates have a province-specific suffix. I can see the value in that. I wonder why more countries don’t adopt that system….

          • Hehe, from what I’m seeing in further research the Japanese system seems more complicated to me! :P

            As for why we have province specific suffixes, I’m not sure what the original reason was, but we do have an … interesting … and divided history, so it might be related to that. The original 4 provinces used to be different countries altogether and were unified by force. We even have three different capital cities because of that (one for each branch of government).

            Also, thanks for the info, I got to use it in a story I’m writing. I’ll credit you if you want :)

          • Thanks :)
            Sounds like an interesting story (I mean, if it is this well researched)

          • I hope so… all this research is killing me… -.-;

            The number plates issue is interesting though, I just always assumed that all number plates in the world were more or less like ours.

          • Yeah, until I came to Japan I kind of assumed the same thing about American license plates…

          • Well, travel broadens the mind… even vicarious travel via blog entries :P

  4. that is very interesting! i thought that it would be similar to hong kong (and i believe UK) in that the front number plate is white and the back number plate is yellow (both with black writing). i’m not sure why though – better contrast? better light refraction during bad whether? to tell the front from the back? i guess it will be something that i’ll ponder on.

    • I’m glad you liked it!

      I’m mostly used to the American system where the license plates are a different color/style/font color depending on the state. I had the hardest time figuring out Japanese license plates when I first got here!

  5. Now that is really interesting. Wish they would have that here.

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