Why You Shouldn’t Drive with a “Tempura License Plate” in Japan

Why You Shouldn’t Drive with a “Tempura License Plate” in Japan

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Tempura on a license plate
Picture: yamahide / PIXTA(ピクスタ); Canva
Why some license plates in Japan are named after a delicious food (and no, it doesn't mean your car's been boiled in oil).

Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. That’s the case with a certain class of cars in Japan whose license plates don’t match the vehicle to which they’re attached. And while it may be a recent phenomenon, the metaphor used to describe them dates back to the Meiji era.

All license plates in Japan follow a similar pattern, originally instituted in 1964. The top displays the local jurisdiction that issued the plate, followed by a three-digit number identifying the type and intended use of the vehicle. The vehicle-specific identifier includes a single hiragana character followed by a number up to four digits long.

As in other countries, however, all vehicles in Japan must have a vehicle identification number (車台番号; shadai bangou). These are issued by the manufacturer and registered with Japan’s Ministry of Transportation.

By law, the license plate and the VIN must match so that authorities can ascertain a vehicle’s inspection status. It also enables authorities to identify the driver. However, as Ruma News reports, some unscrupulous drivers are driving around with plates not tied to their VIN.

A delicious (and long-used) metaphor

These are “tempura plates” – so called because, like a piece of tempura cooked in thick breading, you can’t tell what’s inside.

Tempura, of course, is known and loved not just in Japan, but the world over. Japanese-style tempura originally came to the islands via Portugal in the 16th century. The fried food took on its current form during the Edo era (which also saw the birth of nigiri sushi). However, it didn’t gain mass popularity outside of Nagasaki and the Kansai region until after World War II.

“Tempura” has served as a metaphor for “hiding something’s original contents” since around the Meiji era. In the 1970s, people who dressed up as students in order to attend courses at a university where they weren’t registered were called “tempura students” (天ぷら学生; tenpura gakusei).


The long arm of the law

Unless you’re pulled over by the cops, it’s hard to get busted for using a tempura plate. Unless someone’s physically altered the plate or the data is inconsistent, it’s impossible for police to tell a plate’s been switched just from a glance.

However, that doesn’t mean you should attempt to get away with it. Creating a fake plate or using an altered plate is a serious crime. According to Section 98, Article 1 of the Motor Vehicle Law, courts can sentence offenders for to up to three years in jail and order them to pay a one million yen (around USD $7,770) fine.

According to Ruma News, criminals use most of the tempura plates in Japan. So be a law-abiding citizen and save the tempura for your dinner plate.

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怪しいクルマ「天ぷらナンバー」の正体は? 日本代表料理が「偽物」表現として用いられる背景とは. Ruma News

天ぷら. Wikipedia JP

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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